Came across this passage from Ben Jonson's Discoveries(17th century):

I cannot think Nature is so spent and decayed that she can bring forth nothing worth her former years. She is always the same, like herself; and when she collects her strength is abler still. Men are decayed, and studies: she is not.

Basically I struggle with the word studies here, both with respect to it's meaning in this context, but also to its role in the sentence (i.e adj/verb)

  • 1
    This kind of reminds me of a very delightful editorial correction in the second folio (1632) of Macbeth--In the first folio Macbeth's final soliloquy famously reads: "have lighted Fools the way to dusty death"--but in the second folio, the editor(s), whoever they were, corrected it to: "have lighted Fools the way to study death"-- Also, have you checked to see if this play has multiple variants? I know Johnson had his work published in 1616 with his folio, but I wonder if this play had any quarto/octave edition and if the text varies. Oct 5, 2020 at 22:28
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    (I am unable to look into this more deeply right now) however, should one consider 'men and their studies are decayed; she is not'?
    – Anya
    Oct 6, 2020 at 0:03
  • Or studied is sullied or some such
    – Xanne
    Oct 6, 2020 at 8:06
  • @Anya That's close, but not identical, to the way I read it which could be expressed as "Men are decayed, and studies are decayed but she is not."
    – BoldBen
    Oct 6, 2020 at 8:17
  • @BoldBen, indeed a number of variations come to mind, however this is the direction/meaning to look into: men and studies are decayed, or men are decayed, studies are decayed, but nature is not decayed. I have not had the time to read into the original, but it may be it is his notes on a thought process; so, the original is not 'wrong', but it is written a certain style. It may be that it will not be possible to infer anything further into the indended meaning (did he have in mind ur version or mine? he may not have known himself...) This would need looking into to discuss further...
    – Anya
    Oct 6, 2020 at 8:29

1 Answer 1


Read it like this:

Men are decayed, and studies [are decayed]; she is not [decayed].

It is unlikely that "studies" is a misprint, as it appears consistently in the original published edition of 1641 (Google Books):

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Men are decay'd, and studies : Shee is not.

This is an example of syllepsis, which in turn is a kind of ellipsis. In syllepsis, one word or phrase is understood differently in relation to two or more other words that it modifies or governs (ThoughtCo, Sylva Rhetoricae).

So here, decayed is understood in multiple ways in relation to men, studies, and (via the pronoun "She") Nature:

  • men are decayed, maybe literally (their bodies decay) or figuratively (the idea of generational or societal decline, or of the Fall)
  • studies are decayed in a distinct sense. For example, pages may become illegible, books may be lost, and libraries may be looted. Figuratively, scholarship may not be as lustrous as in Ancient Greece or Rome.
  • Nature is not decayed.

Why the unusual syntax? Emphasis. Jonas A. Barish, in "Baroque Prose in the Theater: Ben Jonson" (PMLA 73.3, 1958) provides a concise explanation for Jonson's rhetorical choice here:

One of Jonson's customary techniques is to disturb, by one means or another, what we would ordinarily regard as logical word order. The frequent result of such tactics is to promote oddness of emphasis, to undermine expectations of "normal" arrangement; words will fail to appear in looked-for places, and then emerge bizarrely where we least expect them. Jonson's simplest transposition of this sort is to add some element - subject, object, or modifier - postgrammatically, and thus to isolate it. In the statement "Men are decay'd, and studies (Disc. 127), "Men are decay'd" forms a self-contained grammatical unit onto which Jonson has tacked an extra subject. The delayed subject comes as a kind of afterthought, and lends an improvisatory flourish to the remark. At the same time, paradoxically, it completes a rhythmic curve. If we put it back into its "normal" place in the sentence ("Men and studies are decay'd"), we make a more orderly period, and a hopelessly flat one. The same detail that roughens the syntax in one way, by separating elements that grammatically go together, smooths it out in another way by producing a cadence. (p. 192)

Barish then provides several examples from Jonson's plays. For each of these, understand the element that follows to be interchangeable with the subject of the preceding sentence:

A Trumpet should fright him terribly, or the Hau'boyes? (Epicoene, or the Silent Woman I.i.160-161)

when some groome of his has got him an heir, or this barber ... (Epicoene, I.ii.54-55)

Some Divine must resolve you in that, sir, or canon-Lawyer (Epicoene, IV.iv.148-9)

So the unusual syntax modifies the cadence or rhythm of the line. It imitates an afterthought. It emphasizes studies as a thing that also decays.


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