Poetry occupies an important role in the play. Firstly, Old Knowell worries that his son, Edward Knowell, is too invested in “idle poetry.” Master Matthew, an urban fool, constantly tries to impress people with verses that he says he has “extemporized”—made up on the spot. Generally, though, he’s actually plagiarizing other, more legitimate Elizabethan poets. Poetry, then, foregrounds the play’s overall preoccupation with language, as set up in the Prologue’s promise that what follows will use “language such as men do use.” That is, Jonson promises to have his characters speak authentically, using the words, grammar, and syntax that were contemporary of Elizabethan London. Poetry thus comes to embody language more generally, with Jonson using it to show both the pretentions and the marvels that are possible. Poetry goes right to the heart of questions about identity and authenticity, with Jonson keen to stress, through the words of Justice Clement, that a good poet is a rare thing indeed—there are many imitators like Matthew. Poetry is a multi-functional symbol then, representing language both at its worst and its best.
Poetry Quotes in Every Man in His Humour
How happy yet should I esteem myself,
Could I, by any practice, wean the boy
From one vain course of study he affects.
He is a scholar, if a man may trust
The liberal voice of fame in her report,
Of good account in both our Universities,
Either of which hath favoured him with graces:
But their indulgence must not spring in me
A fond opinion that he cannot err.
Myself was once a student, and indeed,
Fed with the self-same humour he is now,
Dreaming on nought but idle poetry,
That fruitless and unprofitable art,
Good unto none, but least to the professors;
Which then I thought the mistress of all knowledge:
But since, time and the truth have waked my judgment.
And reason taught me better to distinguish
The vain from the useful learnings.
He useth every day to a merchant's house (where I serve water), one master Kitely's, i’ the Old Jewry; and here's the jest, he is in love with my master's sister, Mrs. Bridget, and calls her mistress; and there he will sit you a whole afternoon sometimes, reading o’ these same abominable, vile (a pox on 'em, I cannot abide them), rascally verses, poyetry, poyetry, and speaking of interludes; 'twill make a man burst to hear him. And the wenches, they do so jeer, and tee-hee at him.
STEPHEN: Ay, truly, sir, I am mightily given to melancholy.
MATTHEW: Oh, it's your only fine humour, sir: your true melancholy breeds your perfect fine wit, sir. I am melancholy myself, divers times, sir, and then do I no more but take pen and paper presently, and overflow you half a score, or a dozen of sonnets at a sitting.