The Lives of the Poets-Laureate/Ben Jonson
The life of Jonson has never been given to the public in the form in which it is now presented. A short, popular biography of this great dramatist, making accuracy and candour its especial aim, is a novelty in our literature. And none can sufficiently estimate the difficulty of the task save those who have looked into the diverse and scattered materials from which this personal history must be drawn.
Our labours indeed are much lightened by the work of Mr. Gifford, to whom a warm tribute is due from us for the patience with which he has investigated the subject, and the courage with which he has defended the character of the poet. His edition of Jonson's works forms an epoch in dramatic criticism, and the volume containing the memoir is such an introduction to them as, we venture to predict, will never be superseded. All former sketches of the poet's life had more or less repeated the idle and mischievous calumnies which the envy and malice of some inferior contemporary writers had invented. To sift and expose these was the arduous duty Mr. Gifford imposed on himself, and manfully has he performed his task. But those very qualities which, in one point of view, make his work so valuable, seen in another, detract from its merits. It is as full and exhaustive an account as can be gleaned from multifarious sources—it is throughout the eloquent defence of an able advocate determined to rescue from unjust imputation a noble character; but the continuity of the narrative is broken by frequent quotations, lengthened notes, much sifting of evidence, and unsparing sarcasm on slanderers living or dead. The object of our less ambitious history is to give to the general reader, as simply and briefly as we can, such incidents in the poet's career as seem to us authentic, and such criticism on his character and writings as our knowledge of both may suggest.
Benjamin, or (as he himself abbreviated it) Ben Jonson, was born A.D. 1573. There exists some doubt about the exact place of his nativity. Fuller tells us that, "with all his industry he could not find him in his cradle, but that he could fetch him from his long coats: when a little child, he lived in Hartshorn Lane, near Charing Cross." Whether in this street or not, we cannot ascertain, but there is little doubt that he was born in Westminster, a month after the death of his father. He was of good ancestry, his grandfather having been a man of family and fortune, who resided first at Anandale in Scotland, afterwards at Carlisle, and who was in the service of Henry VIII. His son, the father of the poet, suffered in the reign of Mary, persecution for his religious opinions. His estates were confiscated, and he underwent a long imprisonment, but was liberated at the decease of the Papist Queen. As was not unlikely, his zeal was warmed by the sufferings it had provoked; for, upon his quitting prison, he at once entered holy orders, and became, as Antony Wood assures us, "a grave minister of the Gospel."
To school in the Church of St. Martin's in the Fields, Master Benjamin was sent, when his years were ripe enough to fit him for instruction in the first rudiments of knowledge. We know little or nothing of his boyhood and school career. If "the boy is father to the man"—we have no doubt that young Jonson learned his lessons with rapidity, entered into his games with zest, provoked occasional chastisement for insubordination, fought his battles with courage, and was a leader among his peers. What promise he gave of his future greatness, we know not; but his aptitude for learning, and a consideration for his good ancestry, raised him up a friend who generously sent him to Westminster School. The great Camden was then second master there, and although Ben Jonson reached the sixth form, over which the head master, Grant, presided, we have no mention of him in Jonson's writings; while Camden, who seems to have befriended the schoolboy, is always spoken of with affection. In an epigram, written many years after, the poet thus speaks of him:
"Than thee the age sees not that thing more grave,
More high, more holy, that she more would crave.
What name, what skill, what faith hast thou in things,
What sight in searching the most antique springs!
What weight and what authority in thy speech!
Men scarce can make that doubt but thou canst teach.
Pardon free truth, and let thy modesty,
Which conquers all, be once o'ercome by thee.
Many of thine this better could than I,
But for their powers, accept my piety."
In "The King's Entertainment," Jonson calls him "the glory and light of the kingdom," and mentions him eulogistically in "The Masque of Queens." But his most graceful tribute of gratitude to his revered teacher is the dedication of "Every Man in his Humour" to Camden, thus for ever associating with the most lasting monument of his own fame, the name of the man who had been in the morning of life his "guide, philosopher, and friend." It was first printed when he collected his works in 1616, and runs, as follows:
"To the most learned, and my most honoured friend, Master Camden, Clarencieux—
"Sir—There are no doubt a supercilious race in the world who will esteem all office done you in this kind, an injury; so solemn a vice it is with them to use the authority of their ignorance to the crying down of poetry or the professors. But my gratitude must not leave to correct their error; since I am none of those that can suffer the benefits conferred upon my youth to perish with my age. It is a frail memory that remembers but present things; and had the favour of the times so conspired with my disposition, as it could have brought forth other or better, you had had the same proportion and number of the fruits, the first. Now I pray you to accept this: such wherein neither the confession of my manners shall make you blush, nor of my studies repent you to have been the instructor; and for the profession of my thankfulness, I am sure it will, with good men, find either praise or excuse.
"Your true lover,
The friend who had so kindly sent him to Westminster School procured for him an exhibition at St. John's College, Cambridge, whither Jonson went in his sixteenth year. We do not know its value, but it was inadequate to his support even in an age of fewer wants and simpler habits than the present, when billiards and Newmarket were as yet no part of the University course.
He returned to his home after a stay of some months, though Fuller limits its duration to a few weeks? Numerous apocryphal stories, some of them injurious to Jonson's character, have been handed down on the subject of this interval spent at home between his leaving the University and volunteering in the army in Flanders. He appears for some time to have toiled at an humble and laborious trade, and at last to have given it up in disgust, because, as he tells us, "he could not endure the occupation of a bricklayer." We next find the scholar-artisan in arms, and daring heroic deeds. He went through one campaign in the Low Countries, and performed an exploit better fitted for description in the pages of Livy than in those of a literary biography. In the sight of both armies, he engaged in single combat with one of the enemy, slew him, stripped off his arms, and carried them away in triumph. This, at the age of eighteen, was a warlike achievement of no mean kind, and is enough to show, that whatever other faults his slanderers have attributed to him, he did not, at any rate, lack chivalrous courage.
A poet militant is not without precedent. Æschylus fought at Salamis, Horace ran away at Philippi, Jonson's immediate successor, Davenant, was knighted for his valour at the siege of Gloucester, and a later laureat, Colley Cibber, bore arms in the Revolution of 1688. If "silent leges inter arma" be true, the same remark will apply to letters. Though more congenial to his nature than the toils of the hod and trowel, the profession he had adopted left Jonson no leisure for the enjoyment of the "calm air of delightful studies." Like Coleridge, in our own day, he soon laid aside the sword for the pen. Both felt that with this weaker instrument their mission was to be worked out.
Jonson crossed the Channel for his home, bringing with him little money, and a not much larger stock of Dutch than that with which Goldsmith contemplated teaching English at Amsterdam, and leaving behind him among his comrades in arms, a reputation for valour. He always looked back upon his military career with satisfaction, and boasted "that while he was in the profession, he did not shame it by his actions." It has been said that he now returned to Cambridge, but there is no evidence whatever of the fact. After having thrown aside the bricks and mortar in disgust, and then abandoned the army, he appears to at once have turned his attention to the stage.
The English drama, at that time, if not in its infancy, had not advanced many steps beyond the Thespian condition. Only a few good plays of Shakespeare and others had succeeded the moralities, interludes, and translations which had as yet been presented at Court, in the Inns of Law, and in the Globe Theatre, Southwark. Jonson, like Shakespeare, embraced the profession of an actor, and with as little or less success. That he totally failed, as has been asserted, seems highly improbable, for we agree with Mr. Gifford "that with the advantages of youth, person, voice, and somewhat more of literature then fell to the share of every obscure actor in a strolling company, Jonson could scarcely fail to get a service among the mimics;" and we have the testimony of the Duchess of Newcastle, whose husband was the Mæcenas of his day: "I have never heard any man read well but my husband; and I have heard him say that he never heard any man read well but Ben Jonson." Whatever our poet's histrionic success may have been, his inventive faculties soon began to show themselves, for he was employed as an anonymous assistant to other dramatists, to help them in writing and altering plays.
His career, whether theatrical or literary, was soon interrupted by an unfortunate event. Our poet now stained himself with the blood, not of a public enemy, but of a brother actor. This man was Gabriel Spencer; but he has been absurdly stated to have been Marlow, who was killed two years before by another hand, and in a disreputable quarrel. A dispute arose, and a challenge was received by Jonson, which he was not loath to accept. They met: Spencer using a sword ten inches longer than Jonson's, nevertheless fell by his hand. It was a painful and melancholy triumph for the victor. He had been severely wounded, and was cast into prison on a charge of murder, and, as he himself tells us, "brought near to the gallows." How long the incarceration lasted, we cannot exactly ascertain. It was very little more or less than a year; but this must have seemed a long passage in his life, to a man immured in a dungeon (and we know what prisons then were), with the blood of a fellow-creature on his conscience, and in constant expectation of public trial, and perhaps summary punishment. He has told us nothing of this gloomy period, but it is connected with an incident not unimportant. We have reason to suspect that in his solitude and suffering he received no spiritual aid or consolation from the teachers of his own Church. But that restless activity which compasses sea and land to make one proselyte, did not hesitate to avail itself of so favourable an opportunity, and he was visited by a Popish priest.
In times when we have witnessed so many perversions, especially among the class of the young and the highly educated to which our poet belonged, we can feel little surprise at his embracing a creed, whose professors had at least been guiltless of grossly neglecting him. That a youth of nineteen, who had most probably only a general knowledge of the points of difference between the rival Churches, should fall a victim to the sophistries of a skilled disputant, need not be matter of marvel: and especially when we call to mind that he was of a morbid and gloomy temperament, and lying in chains neglected and forgotten, and also remember that in those days such perversions were as common as they have been during our Tractarian movement. Jonson's own account of the matter is "that he took the priest's word for it."
Another such change of creed must be chronicled in the Lives of the Poets-Laureate: but one which, however palliated or defended, is, to speak of it in the gentlest terms, far less excusable than this. Dryden was converted, not in youth, but in mature age; not unversed in the controversy, but so skilled in it, that he wrote on both sides; not as a prisoner, when a Protestant Queen was on the throne, but free and unfettered, and to win the favour and patronage of a Papist King. And Dryden never made the atonement, which Jonson did for quitting the faith of his childhood. For he some years after gave the question a serious consideration, and returned from the bosom of that Church, by whose professors his father had been plundered and persecuted, to that one whose scriptural doctrines that father had zealously preached. No one that knows the religious pieces of our poet, can hesitate to pronounce them to be the outpourings of devotion and penitence. However confident or haughty his hearing among his fellow-men, in the presence of his Maker he is contrite, and humbles himself in the dust. They show, if we can read an author in his works, as plainly as words can speak, that he had sincerely repented his early sins and follies, and had fully realized those simple and sublime truths, which have been in all ages the stay and comfort of the wise and the good. We make one extract, which will prove our assertion, and more than compensate our reader for the interruption of the narrative.
TO THE HOLY TRINITY.
O holy, blessed, and glorious Trinity
Of persons, still one God in Unity,
The faithful man's believed mystery,
Help, help to lift
Myself up to Thee, harrow'd, torn, and bruised
By sin and Satan; and my flesh misused,
As my heart lies in pieces, all confused,
O, take my gift.
All-gracious God, the sinner's sacrifice,
A broken heart, Thou wert not wont despise,
But 'bove the fat of rams or bulls to prize
An offering meet
For Thy acceptance: O, behold me right,
And take compassion on my grievous plight!
What odour can be than a heart contrite
To Thee more sweet?
Eternal Father, God, who didst create
This all of nothing, gav'st it form and fate,
And breath'st into it life and light with state
To worship Thee.
Eternal God, the Son, who not denied'st
To take our nature, becam'st man and died'st
To pay our debts upon Thy cross, and cried'st
All's done in Me.
Eternal Spirit, God from both proceeding,
Father and Son; the Comforter in breeding
Pure thoughts in man; with fiery zeal them feeding
For acts of grace.
Increase those acts, glorious Trinity
Of persons, still one God in Unity,
Till I attain the long'd-for mystery
Of seeing your face,
Beholding one in three, and three in one,
A Trinity to shine in union;
The gladdest light dark man can think upon,
O, grant it me!
Father, and Son, and Holy Ghost, you three,
All co-eternal in your majesty,
Distinct in persons, yet in unity
One God to see.
My Maker, Saviour, and my Sanctifier!
To hear, to meditate, sweeten my desire
With grace, with love, with cherishing entire
O, then how blest!
Among Thy saints elected to abide,
And with Thy angels placed side by side,
But in Thy presence, truly glorified,
Shall I then rest.
In an age when shallow and short-sighted men are seeking to import and popularize the mystic subtleties of foreign scepticism, it is refreshing to find that we can add to the names of Milton and Newton, and others of the Kings of Thought, one whose noble intellect, strengthened by learning, and matured by time, accepted with a reasonable faith and a wise humility the mysteries of our revealed religion.
Jonson's release from prison was in all probability owing to the fact of his enemies dropping the prosecution. He immediately betook himself to his former avocations; and now only in his twentieth year, with small means and dark prospects, was so bold as to enter the holy estate of matrimony. The fair object of his choice was young, and of the religion which he had adopted. If any faith can be put in the report of his conversation with Drummond, her husband described her as somewhat shrewish, but in the more correct and classical sense in which the word was then used, an honest woman, of domestic habits, and courageous in struggling with the poverty and privations of their early married life. Their first child was a daughter, who lived only six months, and whose death called forth from the poet and father these pathetic lines:
"Here lies, to each her parents' ruth,
Mary, the daughter of our youth,
Yet all Heaven's gifts being Heaven's due,
It makes the father less to rue.
At six months' end she parted hence,
With safety of her innocence;
Whose soul, Heaven's Queen, whose name she bears,
In comfort of her mother's tears,
Hath placed amongst her virgin train,
Where, while that severed doth remain,
This grave partakes the fleshly birth
Which cover lightly gentle earth."
In the following year his wife bore him a son, to whom some of the players stood as sponsors, and it is said, Shakespeare among them. This was a year of pinching want and incessant toil. What his necessities at this time, were, we may to some extent judge from a memorandum of Mr. Henslowe, which records "an advance of five shillings" to him; and those who know his works, will remember that he never stooped to any of the small artifices, by which inferior writers gained a contemporary applause to be followed swiftly by an eternal oblivion; that he looked on a poet's mission as something high and holy, and has taught that we should look on poetry as a "sacred invention," and
"View her in her glorious ornaments
Attired in the majesty of art,
Set high in spirit with the precious taste
Of sweet philosophy, and, which is most,
Crown'd with the rich traditions of a soul,
That hates to have her dignity profaned
With any relish of an earthly thought."
At what precise period he produced "Every Man in his Humour," it is impossible to decide, for there is an inextricable confusion about the dates of the earlier events of his life. We have seen that in 1598, his duel with Gabriel Spencer occurred, and there is an uncontradicted tradition, that his marriage took place after the imprisonment which he suffered for killing Spencer. Many of his biographers assert that it was first played in 1596, when the Author was only in his two and twentieth year; that the characters were Italian, and the scene laid near Florence. Whether this be true or not, (arid there is no authority but tradition,) it was without doubt originally acted in the form in which it has been handed down to us, by the Lord Chamberlain's servants in the year 1598. And, notwithstanding Mr. Gifford's statements to the contrary, it is highly probable that through Shakespeare's interposition this famous drama was accepted.
The fame which this comedy won for him brought with it that envy which ever pursues greatness as its shadow. He tells us that they began "to provoke him on every stage with their petulant styles, and as if they wished to single him out for their adversary." His career now becomes what that of too many of the genus irritabile has been—a strife with many of his contemporaries. He appears not only to have felt his superiority, but to have somewhat too confidently asserted it. It required even less than this to provoke a herd of assailants; and so through the remainder of his life we find him constantly lampooned, and occasionally replying to his vituperative enemies.
"He who surpasses or subdues mankind
Must look down on the hate of those below."
And would you struggle to be ranked among the great, you should be patient under the attacks of the small. We shall find that the master spirits of each age have mostly lived in friendship, and held sweet counsel together. It is among the lesser aspirants for fame that petty passions and little jealousies have broken out. The giants know their intellectual strength and stature, and reign each in his own kingdom supreme, but on terms of amity with foreign powers, while the dwarfs and pigmies, whose territories in the world of letters are small, whose boundaries uncertain and undefined, wage with each other an unceasing warfare, and only band together to attack their common superior, and therefore common foe. So, while all attempts to prove that any feud existed between the gentle Shakespeare and the learned Ben Jonson fall to the ground, there is no doubt whatever that with Dekker, Marston, Gill and others, our poet carried on endless hostilities.
It is sad that a profession which might rank so high, should enjoy so unenviable a notoriety; but true it is, that in the republic of letters the Temple of Janus is never shut. One need not indulge in visionary hopes of the perfectibility of human nature to believe that, although this state of things cannot be entirely got rid of, it will undergo and is undergoing great and rapid change for the better. Literature has escaped the degrading influences of patronage. For a book to be now successful it is no longer deemed necessary that it should have attached to it the name of an aristocrat, or be cumbered with a dedication teeming with servile if not blasphemous adulation. An author now at once addresses himself to his audience. If he can instruct or interest or amuse his fellow-men, he will not lack reward for his labours without stooping to fawn and flatter. Under such a system, there is between writers a loftier rivalry, a diviner emulation. It is not an ignoble jostling of one another in the ante-chamber of a patrician. There are no pangs of jealousy, because Mæcenas smiled on one and passed another by unnoticed. Write what the public can read to its benefit or its pleasure, and by the sweat and labour of your brain you will earn your bread as independently as man can amid the mutual relations, "nice connections and strong dependencies" of the economy in which we live. The best will, for the most part, be the best rewarded; and though we cannot weed hate and envy from the human heart, there is an instinct in men which prompts them to acquiesce in what is fair and reasonable; and there will be less of railing and bickering when ability and exertion meet with their proportionate recompense, when success no longer depends on circumstance and accident, when a letter of introduction can no more clothe mediocrity in purple and fine linen, or the want of it leave genius in squalor and rags. Jonson's literary strifes must be again alluded to, though the quarrels of authors be neither a flattering or pleasing aspect of literary history.
He next produced "Every Man out of his Humour," which met with a favourable reception. This and all of his earliest and best productions were part of
"Those melodious bursts which fill
The spacious times of great Elizabeth
With sounds that echo still."
And the Virgin Queen's honouring the performance with her presence called forth from the grateful poet the following tribute to her in the epilogue. It was spoken by Macilente, who kneels and prays:
"Yet humble as the earth do I implore,
O Heaven, that she, whose presence hath effected
This change in me, may suffer most late change
In her admired and happy government:
May still this island be called Fortunate,
And ragged treason tremble at the sound
When fame shall speak it with an emphasis.
Let foreign polity be dull as lead,
And pale Invasion come with half a heart,
When he but looks upon her blessed soil.
The throat of war be stopt within her land,
And turtle-footed peace dance fairy rings
About her court; when never may there come,
Suspect or danger, but all trust and safety.
Let flattery be dumb, and envy blind
In her dread presence; Death himself admire her,
And may her virtues make him to forget
The use of his inevitable hand.
Fly from her, Age; sleep, Time, before her throne;
Our strongest wall falls down when she is gone."
The play is dedicated to "the noblest nurseries of humanity and liberty in the kingdom, the Inns of Court." It was played at the Globe Theatre, of which Shakespeare was then manager. He had acted in "Every Man in his Humour," but took no part in this. Jonson, with his characteristic confidence, and inability to conceal his strong self-esteem, added when he published it, this motto from Horace,
"Non aliena meo pressi pede—si propius stes
Te capient magis, et decies repitita placebunt."
His slender means do not appear to have been much bettered by his successful dramatic compositions, for in Henslowe's Memorandum Book, Mr. Gifford finds forty shillings advanced to Dekker and Johnson for a play they were together writing, twenty to Chettle and himself for another, and twenty on a tragedy upon which he was solely employed. His next production was "Cynthia's Revels." This was aimed at some fashionable follies. It is dedicated to "the special fountain of manners, the Court." This quaint but beautiful piece of English, however, contains what we would fain construe as anything rather than a reflection on the memory of the monarch whom in our last quotation he had so enthusiastically eulogized; but the reader may judge for himself. "Such shalt thou find some here, even in the reign of Cynthia, a Crites and an Arete. Now under thy Phœbus (James I.) it will be thy province to make more." It was played by the children of the Queen's Chapel at first—a private representation—but afterwards brought before the town, and it was revived after the Restoration. It was directed against the fantastic fopperies of the courtiers, and the tiresome pedantry of the Euphuists. It is strange that while it did not incense the parties attacked, it stirred up a swarm of small poets and critics, and Marston and Dekker thought themselves represented under the names of Hedon and Anaides. Jonson replied to their caballings in "The Poetaster," where he introduces them plainly enough as Crispinus and Demetrius. It is dedicated to Mr. Richard Martin, then Recorder of London, an eloquent man, and one of the most convival of the wits who drank at the same board with Shakespeare, Beaumont, Fletcher, and Jonson. "The Poetaster" was written in fifteen weeks, which fact invalidates the oft-repeated averment that our poet was slow in composition. He appended to it a translation of Horace's, Sat. I., lib. II., dialogue between himself and Trebatius, and added one in which Polyposus and Nasutus are the chief speakers, in which he vindicates his character against his accusers. "It concludes with a fine burst of indignant sarcasm.
"Once I'll say,
To strike the ear of time in those proud strains,
As shall beside the cunning of their ground
Give cause to some of wonder, some despite,
And more despair to imitate their sound.
I that spend half my nights and all my days
Here in a cell to get a dark pale face,
To come forth worth the ivy and the bays,
And in this age can hope no other grace.
Leave me! There's something come into my thought
That must and shall be sung high and aloof
Safe from the wolf's black jaw and the dull ass's hoof."
The higher effect of his muse to which Jonson evidently here alludes was tragedy. Accordingly in 1603, he produced "Sejanus," of which play we must make some special mention hereafter. It met with much opposition, was withdrawn, and afterwards remodelled. During the next few years, little is known of his literary labours, but he seems to have written for the stage in conjunction with some of his contemporaries, and his worldly affairs wore a sunnier aspect. Whatever his occasional inability to suit the tastes of theatrical audiences, he was winning golden opinions from the most eminent men of the day, and enjoying their love and friendship. His just reputation for great learning which frequently induced the spectators and critics to receive with apathy, if not displeasure, the works of one who they imagined was more bent on instructing than entertaining them, gained for him among the judicious a high esteem.
At the "Mermaid Tavern," in Friday Street, a club had been founded by no less a man than Sir Walter Raleigh, and here were wont to meet together the master spirits of the age. Here Shakespeare, Beaumont, Fletcher, Selden, Cotton, Martin and Donne, indulged convivial wit, and joined in intellectual discourse. Like the Roman Senate it was an assembly of kings. And with his knowledge and humour, and critical acumen, not the least star in that resplendent galaxy was the learned Ben Jonson.
It was at this time, too, that he paid several visits to the country-houses of the aristocracy. If we may trust Drummond, as early as 1603 our poet was on a visit to Sir Robert Cotton, and Camden, his old master, was his fellow-guest.
At this time the plague was raging in London. Jonson had left his family behind him. His thoughts were doubtless much occupied on them. One night he dreamed that his eldest boy, then seven years of age, appeared to him with a bloody cross (the plague spot) on his forehead, "that he appeared of a manly stature, and of such growth as he thought he would be at the resurrection." This alarmed Jonson. He communicated his fears to Camden, and it is strange that on the very next day came from his wife the sad tidings that his little son was dead. He has dedicated some lines to his memory, which though as good as many such elegies are, do not deserve such a rank in the Poetry of Sorrow as those on his daughter already quoted.
His talents also in the new reign gained for him the favour of the Court. Elizabeth, though she had not failed to appreciate his abilities, doled out but a niggard patronage to the professors of the humane arts. James himself an author, and desirous of a reputation for even more learning than he really possessed, readily and freely encouraged men of intellect. Jonson was so unfortunate as soon to provoke the displeasure of the monarch. The act, however indiscreet, redounds to his credit in more than one particular. He wrote in conjunction with Chapman and Marston, a comedy called "Eastward Hoe." In this play some sarcasms were aimed at the Scotch, who were enjoying in this reign a larger share of office and privileges than seemed fit in the eyes of Englishmen, even when a Scot was on the throne. However popular this comedy was, as might be expected, among his own countrymen, it incensed some Scotch courtiers, and on a representation being made to James, he issued an order for the immediate arrest of the offending authors. Chapman and Marston were apprehended, while Jonson remained unmolested. With a magnanimity which has been seldom mentioned with eulogy, he voluntarily accompanied his brother poets to prison, where he remained until the kind offices of Camden and Selden secured the release of all. A report had been circulated that the comic triumvirate were to suffer a degrading punishment not uncommon in those ruder and fiercer times. It was merely this: Their ears were to be cropped and their noses slit. Escape from the threatened mutilation was fitting cause of ovation.
Jonson gave an entertainment to celebrate their deliverance, and to receive the congratulations of friends on the unscathed integrity of their features. Camden and Selden, who had saved the faces of Jonson and his brother bards, graced the banquet with their presence. An anecdote in connection with this, told of his mother, shows that that lady had in her character a tinge of romance, and something of Spartan heroism. She sat at the table with her son's guests, pledged him in a goblet of wine, and showed him a paper "of strong and lusty poison," which, had the expected sentence been pronounced, she designed to have mingled with his drink, and to have partaken of herself.
After his release from this second incarceration, he produced "The Masque of Blackness," written for some court festivities, but not as has been wilfully asserted, full of fulsome adulation to the King. He was also at this time employed upon his translation of Horace, and his version of Aristotle's "Poetics." The latter perished in the fire, which destroyed so many of his manuscripts, and which he has commemorated by his poem "The Execration of Vulcan."
In 1605, he gave to the world the comedy which ranks next in merit to "Every Man in his Humour." "Volpone; or, The Fox" was received with great applause. It is dedicated to the Universities in a long and eloquent defence of his character and literary career. He added a smart and amusing prologue. It was at this time that Jonson gave that serious consideration to the controversy between the rival churches, which induced him to return to the faith of his childhood. We need not pause to eulogize the wisdom of the act; and the sincerity no one who knows anything of his life and writings will be so bold as to impugn. It is said that when he first, after his return to the bosom of the Anglican Church, attended the Holy Communion, he drank off the whole cup of sacramental wine. If this be true, it might seem to us an act of daring irreverence. It would perhaps be more philosophical to consider it as displaying a strange exuberance of religious zeal and rude sincerity, for in those days, as Mr. Gifford remarks, the consecrated elements were more largely partaken of than they are now, and not without scriptural and apostolical authority.
Jonson was now rising fast in public estimation. He again basked in the sunshine of Court favour, had won the applause of the universities, and fixed by the strong spell of his genius the admiration of the fickle and fastidious votaries of the drama. No festival was deemed complete if his Muse omitted to aid by her grace and ornament the ceremony or the banquet. The King was about to dine with the Worshipful Company of Merchant Tailors. Mr. Gifford quotes from Stow the following: "Whereas the company are informed that the King's most excellent majestie, with our gratious Queene, and the noble Prince and divers honorable lords and others, determyne to dyne on the day of the eleccion of M. and Wardens, therefore the meeting was appointed to advise and consult how everie thinge may be performed for the reputacion and credit of the company, to his Majestie's best lyking and contentment. And Sir John Swynnerton (afterward Lord Mayor) is entreated to confer with Master Benjamin Jonson, the poet, about a speech to be made to welcome his Majesty, and about music and other invencions which may give liking and delight; by reason that the company doubt that their schoolmaster and scholleres be not acquainted with such kinde of entertainment." For this and other labours of the kind, Jonson received a pecuniary remuneration.
In 1609, he produced "The Silent Woman," and "The Masque of Queens." In the next year his brain was equally prolific, for that is the date of "The Masque of Barriers," and also "The Alchymist."
"Catiline" followed in 1611. This play, though not at first very successful, retained its place as a stock piece, until the Puritan, in the day of his power, banished the drama from the "kingdom of the saints," and closed the theatres where the lofty teachings of Shakespeare and Jonson had humanized and exalted their fellow-men. Next year an event occurred which threw a gloom over the Court and the nation. Prince Henry, eldest son of James I., died suddenly at the tender age of eighteen. His personal beauty, unblameable life, and engaging manners had won for him the admiration and affection of all. Men who hated the father, looked forward with pride and pleasure to the accession of the son. The sorrow which his death occasioned was not disproportionate to the popularity he had enjoyed through life.
"Hark! forth from the abyss a voice proceeds,
A long, low, distant murmur of dread sound
Such as arises when a nation bleeds
With some deep and immedicable wound."
It is perhaps a trite observation here to remark by how slender a thread does the sword of destiny seem to be suspended. On some casualty—how seemingly insignificant, on one life—alas! how uncertain! hang eventful consequences, whose momentous importance it were impossible to exaggerate. And, albeit it should provoke the sneer of the optimist and the fatalist, to consider that the current of events might have run in another channel than that in which it shaped its way, it is difficult to escape the reflection how different might have been the history of the last two centuries, how different too the present condition of this country and the phases of its civilization, had Henry and not Charles Stuart ascended the throne of England. Then might the page that proudly records our progress have been unstained by the blood of an erring but unfortunate monarch; civil war, and restoration, and revolution might never have added their strange and swift vicissitudes to the catalogue of our crimes and follies; and our literature and our drama had perhaps retained something more of the noble grandeur of the Elizabethan age, and escaped the debasing pollution of the licence which followed unnatural and hypocritical restraint. And now, perchance, our national church—her cathedrals undesecrated by the sacrilegious hand of the Iconoclast, and her sacred spires studding at intervals more frequent our beautiful landscapes—might feed with spiritual and intellectual food the hungering millions of our dense population, neither needing the aid or experiencing the opposition of those sects and "subdichotomies of schisms," whose strifes and passions cannot but remind us of the too fiery zeal and too intemperate hate with which their stern forefathers rose up to defend, against kingcraft and priestcraft, the cause of conscience and of freedom.
But so it seemed not good to Him whose will it ofttimes is that nations, as well as individuals, should learn in the school of suffering.
With the exception of the case of the beloved Princess Charlotte, a royal death has seldom wrung so sincere a sorrow from the heart of a people as did the premature fate of this best scion of the doomed House of Stuart.
Much as the Court might need such pastime to dissipate the cloud of gloom which hung over it, they would not insult the memory of so lamented a Prince by even the innocent recreation of masque or revelry.
Jonson, doubtless, very deeply felt a loss, which he has commemorated in his poems. He had frequented the Court much of late, and in one of his masques, had paid a loyal tribute of admiration to Prince Henry. He now embraced this opportunity, when there would naturally be but little demand on his time and talents, for European travel. Slow as communication was in those days, and great as the obstacles in the way of travelling then were, Jonson was too well known in his own country not to have gained something like a continental reputation. Ambassadors who visited our Court may have met him there, and carried back some record of the national entertainments, adorned if not created by the genius of the Laureate. Whether he was actuated by a desire to pay homage to, and receive it from, the great men of other countries, or whether he was anxious to visit the scenes of his early campaign, we know not. None of the interest that attaches itself to the travels of other poets, belongs to those of the subject of our memoir. We have no record that, like Milton, he visited Galileo in a dungeon for thinking as Franciscan licensers did not think, or that like Byron, he was wont, in the soft and sunny south—
"To sport with Amaryllis in the shade,
Or with the tangles of Neæra's hair."
He was in Paris in 1613, and in the next year we find him again in England, as diligent as ever with his pen. He now wrote "Bartholomew Fair," and not long after a play, with the singular title of "The Devil's an Ass." He next revised and commenced a regular publication of his works in folio. The first volume contained his Epigrams and several poems, called "The Forest," with some of his Masques and his early Plays. He was not, however, sufficiently encouraged by his contemporaries to proceed with his task, for had he done so, we should have now possessed many valuable productions of his, of which only fragments have been preserved from the fire, to which we have before alluded.
Just about this time died William Shakespeare. It is not for us to venture a tribute of weak and insufficient praise to that myriad-minded, God-like man, whose genius has enriched the thought of the world, and whom, in the words of Hallam, we may call "the greatest being Nature ever produced in the human shape;" but we rejoice to be able to record, in spite of malicious assertions to the contrary, that Jonson admired him and loved him while he lived, and loved and praised him when he died. His lines "To the Memory of my beloved William Shakespeare," are too well known to be quoted.
Daniel, as has been elsewhere said, had been, up to this time, the Court poet. There was no salary attached to the office, and its rewards were merely such favours and gratuities as the poet might be so fortunate as to gain by his writings, or by ingratiating himself with royalty or noble courtiers. James, however, now gave to Jonson the letters patent, from which we date the commencement of the present laureate dynasty, with an annual pension of one hundred marks for life. Daniel grew jealous at this, and at once quitted the Court in disgust. He lived about three years longer; and although self-exiled from the Court, died generally beloved and lamented. Though Jonson was the fortunate occupant of a post which Daniel thought he had a prior right to, no breach occurred in the friendship which had long existed between them.
Jonson's continental wanderings had increased his love of travel. In 1618, he started on a tour to Scotland. In these days, when we are whirled from London to Edinburgh between the morning and evening meal, it is strange to think of our poet's walking the whole way from the one capital to the other. Jonson wrote an account of this pedestrian excursion and stay in the north, but unfortunately it perished in the fire at his house. In its absence, little more is known than that he spent several months at the seats of the nobility and gentry in the vicinage of the modern Athens. At Leith, he encountered Taylor, the water poet, who alludes to the meeting, and makes grateful mention of the generosity of Jonson, who gave him, at parting, "a piece of gold, two-and-twenty shillings value, to drink his health in England." In the spring he proceeded to Hawthornden, where he passed the greater part of April with another brother bard, Drummond.
To Jonson's reputation, this visit was fraught with injury, perhaps never wholly to be erased. His host had a tendency to what has been well called "Boswellism;" but it unfortunately lacked two important features in that amiable weakness, accuracy and kind feeling. He had some appreciation of the great capacities of his guest, but was not devoid of jealousy and envy. From the brief, blundering account which he gives of Jonson's conversations with him, a candid critic would gather, had he no other proofs to aid him in the conclusion, that the Laureate possessed varied and profound information on most subjects, was a severe censor of books and men, had wit to overflowing, but with a self-esteem and self-confidence almost arrogant. But these notes of the fireside dialogues of the two poets have been made the foundation of the innumerable calumnies which, with the notorious vitality of error, have been copied, page after page, into our literary and dramatic annals.
Those who are curious on a matter which would be to the general reader wearisome should consult Mr. Gifford's memoir, the pages of which, though we have praised their candour and courage, sometimes degenerate into something less like a biography than the speech of a counsel for the defence in a criminal court, whose duties to his client may demand of him that he shall assail unsparingly the testimony and characters of witnesses for the prosecution.
Jonson appears to have been as free from suspicion as he was superior to many other evil tempers which have been laid at his door. On his return, he wrote to Drummond the following letter:—
"To my worthy, honoured, and beloved friend, W. Drummond.
"Most loving and beloved Sir, against which titles I should most knowingly offend if I made you not some account of myself, to come even with your friendship. I am arrived safely, with a most Catholic welcome, and my reports not unacceptable to his Majesty. He professed, thank God! some joy to see me, and is pleased to hear the purpose of my book, to which I most earnestly solicit you for your promise of the inscription at Pinky, some things concerning the Loch of Lomond, touching the government of Edinburgh, to urge Mr. James Scot, and what else you can procure for me, with all speed. Though these requests be full of trouble, I hope they shall neither burthen nor weary such a friendship, whose commands to me I will ever interpret a pleasure. News we have none here, but what is making against the Queen's funeral, whereof I have something in hand which shall look upon you with the next. Salute the beloved Fentons, the Nisbets, the Scots, the Levingtons, and all the honest and honoured names with you, especially Mr. James Wroth, his wife, your sister, &c.; and if you forget yourself, you believe not in
"Your most true friend and lover,
Jonson was now in the zenith of his fame. The Universities, however slow sometimes to discover abilities in their own alumni, are never tardy in offering a tribute to parts which have already commanded the admiration of the world. Oxford now delighted to honour him, and he received from that learned body the honorary degree of Master of Arts. The King was also desirous of giving him an honour which, whatever its conventional value in other reigns, had been so lavished by James as to fall in public estimation, and Jonson respectfully declined knighthood which the monarch had conferred on only two hundred and thirty-seven persons within six weeks after his entrance into the kingdom.
The noontide of Jonson's career was as brief as it was bright. From the moment his sun of life had reached its meridian, it hastened in cloud to its setting. From 1616 to 1625, he had never written for the stage. His annual pension, his constant remuneration from the Court, and some of the civic companies had kept him from want, and had tempted him to an expenditure which utterly precluded all providence for the future. He indulged in a lavish hospitality, assembled at his table the first men of the day; and on every occasion his genuine love of conviviality led him, whether at the "Mermaid" or in his own house, to warm his naturally sluggish and saturnine temperament with wine.
He soon suffered from a severe attack of palsy, which shook his constitution to its centre. Disease was aggravated by the want which soon followed with swift retribution on his former profuseness. He now was again compelled by his necessities to betake himself to the stage. He produced "The New Inn," a play which, albeit some passages of great merit, scarcely deserved a better fate than it met with. There is little doubt that it was "completely damned." "The just indignation the author took at the vulgar censure of his play, by some malicious spectators, begat the following ode to himself." This is Jonson's heading to it. We quote it almost entire.
"Come, leave the loathed stage,
And the more loathsome age,
Where pride and impudence, in faction knit,
Usurp the chair of wit,
Indicting and arraigning every day
Something they call a play.
Let their fastidious, vain
Commission of the brain
Run on, and rage, sweat, censure and condemn,
They were not made for thee, less thou for them.
"Say that thou pour'st them wheat,
And they will acorns eat;
'Twere simple fury still thyself to waste
On such as have no taste!
To offer them a surfeit of pure bread
Whose appetites are dead!
No, give them grains their fill,
Husks, draff to drink and swill:
If they love lees, and leave the lusty wine,
Envy them not; their palate's with the swine.
"Leave things so prostitute,
And take the Alcaic lute,
Or thine own Horace, or Anacreon's lyre,
And though thy nerves be shrunk, and blood be cold,
Ere years have made thee old.
Strike that disdainful heat
Throughout to their defeat,
As curious fools, and envious of thy strain,
May blushing swear no palsy's in thy brain."
It was very cleverly parodied by Owen Feltham, and there is a spirited answer in imitation of it as eulogistic as the parody is severe. The play was, it is said, hissed off the stage before it had reached the last act; but Jonson immediately published it as an appeal from the audience of the theatre to his readers and patrons. An allusion in the epilogue to his want and illness, called forth from Charles I. a present of one hundred pounds. Jonson was truly obliged by so munificent a succour, and poured forth his gratitude in three poems. He also made it an occasion for petitioning the King to increase the annual pension granted him by James I. Such a begging letter in rhyme is perhaps a literary curiosity. The merit of the verse would not induce us to quote it.
"The humble petition of poor Ben
To the best of monarchs, masters, men,
Doth most humbly show it
To your Majesty, your poet;
That whereas your royal father
James the blessed, pleased the rather
Of his special grace to letters
To make all the Muses debtors
To his bounty, by extension
Of a free poetic pension,
A large hundred marks annuity
To be given me in gratuity.
Please, your Majesty, to make,
Of your grace, for goodness sake,
Those your father's marks your pounds."
Charles immediately granted the request, and added to it a tierce of Jonson's favourite wine. The letters patent were made out. They gave to the Poet-Laureate the annual pension of one hundred pounds and "a terse of Canary Spanish wine," "in consideration of the good and acceptable service done unto us and our said father by the said Benjamin Jonson, and especially to encourage him to proceede in these services of his wit and his penn which we have enjoined unto him, and which we expect from him."
In 1627 he had written "The Fortunate Isles." For the next three years no masque had been represented at Court. The date of the letters patent is 1630, and Charles immediately on the augmentation of his pension called on him to prepare one. Jonson wrote "Love's Triumph through Callipolis." It was highly esteemed and well received. He shortly after produced, with the assistance of Inigo Jones, "Chloridia." This was printed, and in the title-page Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones were said to be the inventors. According to a quotation of I. D'Israeli's, again quoted by Mr. Gifford, it appeared that the architect was incensed at the poet's name appearing first in the title-page. He seems to have had great influence at Court, and to have been so malevolent as to have used it to injure Jonson; for the next year the Court Masque was penned, not by our poet, but by Aurelian Townsend. Just at this time also he suffered neglect from the city authorities, from whom he had for some time received an annual bounty, and who now deprived him of what he calls their "chanderley pension." He was reduced to great want, and wrote to the Earl of Newcastle the first of what have been termed his "mendicant letters:"
"My noblest Lord and Patron,
"I send no borrowing epistle to provoke your Lordship, for I have neither fortune to repay, nor security to engage that will be taken; but I make a most humble petition to your Lordship's bounty to succour my present necessities this good time of Easter, and it shall conclude all begging requests hereafter, on behalf of your truest beadsman and most thankful servant,
This appeal was liberally responded to.
We know now but little more of him and that little is sad. The latter portion of his life is as free from incident as it was full of suffering. His whole career, save the few points in his earlier days, which we have attempted to seize on, is much like the toilsome and monotonous existence of the workers of the pen. They do not attract applause on the high places of the world. Their pains and troubles are in the smaller sphere of the library and the study. It is there that, unseen by their fellow-men, they are torn by the intellectual agony in the struggle for subsistence or the pursuit of fame. We must read them in their works, and think of the thousands of hours of careful study and patient thought in which those stately volumes were elaborated which have outlived envy and anger, and taken their place in the literature of England. And viewed in this light, even if it lack event and excitement, Jonson's life is not devoid of noble moral, and heroic example. For it was one long, honest, patient labour, to earn the bread of independence by the sweat of his brain, and to win the applause of the good and great of his own and of all time.
In his career, undiversified though it be, he was ever toiling; he came frequently before the public, had his brilliant successes and signal failures, encountered fierce assaults from envious enemies, and was cheered by warm tributes of admiration from friends, was driven by a too lavish expenditure and a too munificent hospitality into dependence upon the rich and great, and ended his days in that gloom which has so often darkened the sun of genius in its setting. Had he died much younger, he had lived long enough for fame; and we may apply to him some of his own beautiful lines to the memory of Sir H. Morrison:
"It is not growing like a tree
In bulke, doth make man better be,
Or standing like an oake three thousand yeare,
To fall a logge at last, dry, bald and seare;
A lilie of a day
Is fairer far in May,
Although it fall and die that night,
It was the plant and flowre of light.
In small proportions we just beauties see
And in short measure life may perfect be."
Dryden has called his last plays his dotages, and the sarcasm is perhaps as true as it is severe. Among them were "The Magnetic Lady," and "The Tale of a Tub," the last work that he submitted to the stage. It should be remembered, however, that, in contrast to these, he in his later days penned "Love's Welcome at Welbeck," which was represented when his friend and patron, the Earl of Newcastle, entertained Charles I.
In "The Sad Shepherd," too, all his pristine powers seemed for a time to have revived. In this beautiful swan-song there is a classic elegance, and a sweet pastoral simplicity which is entrancing. The verse is music itself. There are lines which combine the stately majesty of Keats' "Hyperion" with the faultless melody of the "Ænone" of Tennyson. This was Jonson's last effort, except a fragment of a tragedy entitled "The Fall of Mortimer." He was employed, too, even when the pen shook in his palsied hand, on the "Discoveries" and "Grammar," of which only fragments have reached us.
On the 6th of August, 1637, he closed his eyes on this world. He had outlived by many years his wife and all his children. No tender offices of family affection soothed the lone old man upon his dying pillow. He was constantly visited by Dr. Duppa, Bishop of Winchester; and as we have before expressed our belief in the sincerity of his religious convictions, we may add as a farther proof of it, that he expressed on his death-bed deep penitence for the oaths and irreverent expressions which, according to the manners of his times, he had introduced into his dramatic writings.
Three days after his decease, he was buried in Westminster Abbey. Near the scene of his boyish sports, hard by the school-room where so many years ago he had listened to the words of Camden, he came home to his last long rest. In those holy aisles where sleep so many of the wits and the worthies of England, lie the ashes of one who was both. There may we read the simple epitaph that marks the spot—"O rare Ben Jonson!"
Malicious dulness has arraigned this short epiphonema as blasphemous. Such a charge is little worthy of remembrance except to show the malignity with which our poet, whether living or dead, was assailed. An anecdote is told of the origin of the laconic inscription. Sir J. Young, of Great Milton, Oxfordshire, was passing through the Abbey, and stopped and gave one of the workmen eighteen-pence to carve the words on the stone. A subscription for a monument was immediately set on foot, and was very successful; but the dark days of civil discord were close at hand, and the tomb of a poet who had adorned the courts of three English Sovereigns by his genius, was forgotten amid the gathering murmurs of the storm which shook down throne and temple.
Jonson's personal appearances were singular, and in youth prepossessing. His intense application, sedentary habits, and convivial tastes, afterwards impaired his good looks. His "dark pale face" was affected by a scorbutic humour, and he became large and corpulent. Dekker has represented him as a monster in "Satiro-mastix;" but taking Jonson's own account of himself, we know that he had a "mountain-belly and ungracious gait." Mr. D'Israeli has called him an elephant Cupid. His love of the wine of the name gained for him the facetious nickname of the Canary Bird. His character we have so endeavoured to shadow forth in our narrative, that we have but little more to say. No man has perhaps ever provoked so much acrimonious attack and malevolent calumny as did Jonson. Now this arose from two faults not very uncommon in men of his splendid abilities. He had an overweening self-confidence, and was yet morbidly sensitive to attack from the meanest assailant. He was not content with taking that high place to which his abilities entitled him, but assumed an air of superiority which did not fail to give offence. His too great readiness to exaggerate the malice of his enemies, and meet their opprobrious assaults, perpetuated controversies which had otherwise been long forgotten. The quarrels have been handed down, and the Lilliputians of later days have come to the aid of the pigmies of Jonson's time, and done their little all to bespatter the character of the Giant. Hence have been repeated, until we are wearied and disgusted by them, those false and ill-natured scandals which disgrace well-nigh all our literary and dramatic records.
It may be objected, "Can a man be good or worthy of our love who thus continually provokes assault?" Let us remember the orator who trembled lest he had said something wrong when the crowd applauded. To win golden opinions from all sorts of men is rather the proof of successful talent than of moral worth. "Ye shall be hated of all men for my name's sake," were the words of Him who "spake as never man spake" to His chosen band of followers.
Without attempting to show that Jonson was a martyr in so holy a cause as this, it may be said of him that he was one of a small class which we find sometimes in history, and which we occasionally see among contemporaries, who, while they merit and enjoy the strong love of friends and family, are, if not generally unpopular, frequently involved in controversy and quarrel. They are not good, easy men—they have no hypocritical reticence, no diplomatic dissembling, no tender compassion for vices and follies. When anything that is wrong or mean offends their moral sense, they use hard names unsparingly; and when themselves assailed, they are not content to diminish or destroy opposition by the silent eloquence of an honourable career, but they strive to write it down and talk it down as well. Such was Ben Jonson. It may be enough to say of him that, whatever his faults and weaknesses, he lived on terms of intimacy and affection with the best and greatest men of his day; that there are numerous testimonies to his worth as a man, and his ability and wit as a conversationalist; that his letters breathe a spirit of good feeling and kindness; that, to sum up his character, he was, in the highest sense of the words, laborious, brave, and noble.
He has been compared to many great men—to Shakespeare, to Milton, and others. As no two cases are exactly alike, and no two faces possess the same expression, so such comparisons are usually unsatisfactory, if not false and fruitless. But we cannot pass by a parallel not suggested, but yet rendered stranger by the identity of name between the Poet-Laureate and our great Lexicographer. Both were hard-working, strong-minded men, who, by dint of incessant exertion, merited an immortal fame. Both, in parts of their life, endured neglect and want; both died, and left no children to perpetuate a name they had made honourable; both found a home in clubs and coffee-houses in the society of intellectual friends; both were self-confident and self-opinionated, full of strong prejudices, supporters of the existing order of things, stern censors, critics candid to a fault, great conversationalists and brilliant wits; in their religious views sincere, but gloomy, if not superstitious; both devoted heart and soul to literature; and whatever shape their writings assumed—the moral satirists of the eras which they severally adorned.
It now remains for us to attempt an estimate of Ben Jonson's literary efforts. Let us look at him first as the writer of tragedies. We cannot say of him as, with Hazlitt, we may of Shakespeare, that he was "greatest in the greatest."
The author of "Every Man in his Humour," "The Fox," and "The Alchymist," must rank above the author of "Sejanus" and "Catiline." Jonson had all the keen observation and abundant wit which can descry and picture the weakness of human follies and fashions. He was deficient in that sublimer inspiration which is the voice of passion. In his selection of subjects also he was not happy. The regal history of our own country which Shakespeare has made his own, Jonson eschewed. His knowledge of ancient authors tempted him to draw from Roman annals the sources of tragic interest. In this, his learning became his snare. If we compare "Julius Cæsar" with either of Jonson's dramas drawn from the history of the same nation, our preference to Shakespeare's play must be yielded without a reservation. Shakespeare has avoided the prolix speeches, the literal translations from Latin writers, the too faithful adherence to minute incidents historical, but not, therefore, necessarily interesting; and he has seized, with the same instinct, on Roman character, exhibiting, as he always does, a profound knowledge of men's feelings, and the power of clothing mere abstract humanity in palpable flesh and blood.
"Sejanus" was the first of our poet's two tragedies. It is an attempt to portray a state of things such as few pens, save those of Tacitus and Gibbon, are able to depict. The once great and free republic, whose internal history had been the vehement and protracted struggle of powerful classes, whose external history the record of valiantly won victories and extended territory, was now groaning under its own bulk, and had exchanged its ancient liberties for the despotism of the sword. Society was in a state so corrupt that barbarism, because purer, would have been preferable to it. It was an age of plots, intrigues, open assassinations and secret poisonings, adulteries and lewd abominations which insult all natural instinct. No vice was too abject to be indulged, no passion too morbid, no desire too impure to reap its unholy gratification. Those senators whose fathers had seen Catiline tremble at the thunders of Cicero, and Cæsar fall by the steel of Brutus, wore the fetters of servitude without a blush, and stooped to be panders and procurers, while slaves enjoyed a prouder criminality as the ministers of murder. There was no crime which the ingenuity of wickedness can invent which did not blacken the gown of the conscript and the purple of his imperial master.
Such an epoch would seem to possess some elements of dramatic interest and tragic grandeur. Contemporary writers, in such times, would stand in strong contrast, and may easily be classified. They must prostitute genius to be the slave of lust and folly, or take their rank among the stern satirists of vice. But when such an age becomes historical, one might think the dark landscape would present wonders and warnings which might fitly be exhibited on the stage. On a closer view, however, it would appear that there is a want of that rude healthy life and genuine feeling, without which the pomp and circumstance of the drama, however grand and gaudy, would seem weak and sickly, and its utterance faltering and faint. The principle of decay is at work, and the empire tottering to its fall. There are none of those nobler strifes and passions which are the symptoms of vigorous existence. And we see this in the "Sejanus" of Ben Jonson. There are only two characters with whom the spectator can feel any sympathy, and they are not sufficiently prominent. They are two senators who are noble exceptions to the general depravity of their order, who blush at the degradation into which the once great assembly had sunk.
The amour—for it is a story, not of love, but of lust—that is woven into the plot has nothing of depth or tenderness in it. It may be a faithful picture of the sensual passion of such an age, but excites no sympathetic interest in the reader, and is therefore one among many reasons we might enumerate why this portion of history is not well adapted to dramatic action. But the play has faults which do not belong immediately to the subject. It is too long; and though it does not lack incident, it is incident of an undramatic kind. There is a lack of plot, the speeches are far too lengthy even for orations in the senate, and there are many long passages of rhyming heroics which none but the admirers of French tragedy and Dryden's uncongenial imitation of them will be so hazardous as to praise.
The characters are very numerous, and the most important are men whose crimes have nothing in them to dazzle or cheat us into a temporary admiration. Livia is an abandoned woman; Sejanus himself an unprincipled, ambitious man; and Tiberius a more bestial slave to sense, a murderer, a coward, and yet the despot of the degraded senate. The main interest is centred in these two bad men. The Emperor is a deeper dissembler, and more than equal to the reckless plot-making and versatile cunning of Sejanus. There is a fault too in the moral. Wickedness in the highest place escapes unpunished, and the greatest criminal is unscathed. It is true that a bad man who is the instrument of another bad man's crimes should meet with fitting punishment, and it is also true that among the worst men united for any object, there must be a semi-romantic counterfeit honesty, and that he who first violates it should suffer the quickest fall. But there is a higher truth still, that the chief agent in the plot of crime should not escape the bolts of justice; and the fault in the moral lesson conveyed by this drama is, that it is less the fall of Sejanus than the triumph of Tiberius; and with the success of such a man who could sympathize?
"Catiline" was written after an interval of eight years, and bears evident marks of improvement, though a few faults are exaggerated.
In the former play, Jonson had kept with servile fidelity to the description he drew from ancient authors; but in this he goes a step farther in the wrong direction, and translates verbatim page upon page of Cicero and Sallust. For example, the well-known commencement of the first oration against Catiline, is thus rendered:
"Quousque tandem abutêre Catilina, patientia nostrâ? quamdiu furor iste tuus nos eludet? Quern ad finem sese effrenata jactabit audacia? Nihilne te nocturnum præsidium Palatii, nihil urbis vigiliæ, nihil timor populi, nihil concursus bonorum omnium, nihil hic munitissimus habendi senatûs locus, nihil horum ora vultusque moverunt?"
"Whither at length wilt thou abuse our patience,
Still shall thy fury mock us? To what license
Dares thy unbridled boldness run itself?
Do all the nightly guards kept on the palace,
The city's watches, with the people's fears,
The concourse of all good men—this so strong
And fortified seat here of the Senate
And present looks upon thee, strike thee nothing?"
"O tempora! O mores! Senatus hæc intelligit, consul videt: hic tamen vivit. Vivit? immo vero in senatum venit, fit publici consilii particeps; notat et designat oculis unumquemque nostrûm. Nos autem, viri fortes, satisfacere reipublicæ videmur, si istius furorem ac tela vitemus."
"O, age and manners! this the Consul sees,
The Senate understands, yet this man lives.
Lives? Ay, and comes here into council with us,
Partakes the public cares, and with his eye
Marks and points each man of us, to slaughter.
And we good men do satisfy the state
If we can shun but this man's sword and madness."
Jonson's admiration of the ancients was so unbounded, that he is tempted into long imitations and literal translations. When thrown on his own resources he is infinitely superior. The reader shall judge for himself. The following extracts will prove this assertion, and will also show the marked improvement of Catiline on Sejanus. They are the best passages of the respective plays. The first is Sejanus' soliloquy on fear.
"How vain and vile a passion is this fear,
What base, uncomely things it makes men do!
Suspect their noblest friends, as I did this,
Flatter poor enemies, entreat their servants,
Stoop, court, and catch at the benevolence
Of creatures unto whom, within this hour,
I would not have vouchsafed a quarter look,
Or piece of face! By you that fools call gods,
Hang all the sky with your prodigious signs,
Fill earth with monsters, drop the Scorpion down
Out of the zodiak, or the fiercer lion;
Shake off the loosen'd globe from her long hinge,
Roll all the world in darkness, and let loose
The enraged winds, to turn up groves and towns!
When I do fear again, let me be struck
With forked fire and unpitied die—
Who fears, is worthy of calamity."
This degenerates into rant, but is better than the translation of Cicero.
In the following extract from "Catiline," there is a Shakespearean strength and terseness.
"It is, methinks, a morning full of fate,
It riseth slowly, as her sullen car
Had all the weights of sleep and death hung at it!
She is not rosy fingered, but swollen black,
Her face is like a water turn'd to blood,
And her sick head is bound about with clouds,
As if she threatened night ere noon of day!
It does not look as it would have a hail,
Or health wish'd in it, as on other morns."
In this play he had added a chorus, of which one can scarcely say anything more severe than that it abounds in the common-places of the Greek chorus, unrelieved by its occasional sublimity and beauty. This was not merely in imitation of the Greek and Roman tragedy, but was the custom in old English plays. There are choruses in the "Cleopatra and Philotas" of Jonson's predecessor, Daniel.
The play of "Catiline," like that of "Sejanus," displays great learning. But we are here wearied, as before, by the endless prolixity of the speeches. Cicero is as rhetorical in his conversations with Curtius and Fulvia, as he is when haranguing the Senate. It commences strangely. The Ghost of Sylla rises and makes a very long speech, in the midst of which the curtain is drawn and Catiline discovered in his study. The Ghost advises Catiline to perpetrate all kinds of enormities, and then disappears. Catiline soliloquizes. Then ensues a scene between Aurelia, Orestilla, and himself. Next enter Lentulus and Cethegus. The scene between Fulvia and Curtius is only one part of a grossly licentious amour, very similar to the one in the former play, and it would be blasphemy to compare this illicit intrigue with the warm, true passion of Romeo and Juliet.
There is a more than stage exaggeration in his portrayal of the guilt of Catiline and his fellow-conspirators. Men, however the appetite for blood and lust may become palled and morbid from satiety, scarcely destroy and ruin from the mere love of mischief and injury; and here they speak as if they did so from a keen enjoyment of crime for crime's sake, without the further incentives of pleasure, ambition, or revenge.
The fault in Jonson's two tragedies is that there is not enough to interest flesh and blood in them, and to stir the sympathies, the hopes and fears of humanity. There is a cold, historic sublimity, which, however it may command the homage of the intellect, awakes no responsive echo in the heart. The characters are true to history; true, therefore, to human nature; and they move on in the plot with stern and terrible decision. But the harsh outline lacks those lighter pencillings, those softer colourings, in which poetry surpasses history, and without which the picture, though bold and masterly, will not chain the loving gaze of the spectator to the painter's canvas.
The subject of his two tragedies, from its very nature, compelled Jonson to depict men, not as they should be, but as they are in a state of society corrupt and abominable.
Much better had he chosen some portions of our national history; but there was something deep and gloomy in his own mind that caused him to dwell on these dark scenes of guilt and ruin.
Had he introduced the comic element, it might have created a graceful contrast, and at any rate pleased the less educated portion of his audiences. His tragedies are better fitted for the student in the closet, than the theatrical audience; and this is but a meagre praise of them as plays. But his greatest fault, and specially patent in these higher efforts of his muse, is that he cannot borrow and make what he borrows his own. He cannot assimilate. He is learned, his information vast and varied, but he cannot stamp with his own genius the thoughts of others, and impart any fresh beauty or lustre to them. On this ground he stands in exact contrast to his greatest contemporary. Shakespeare made his little learning go so far, that we think his powers encyclopædiacal. And he used his information with the utmost discretion, and coloured everything with his own originality. Jonson, who was infinitely more learned than Shakespeare, thrusts his reading so palpably before us, that we are sometimes tempted to suspect that he is a pedagogue and a pedant. With him much, and not a little learning, was a dangerous thing. As a tragic writer he has little of the majestic grandeur of Æschylus, the tempered softness and sweetness of Sophocles, the proverbial philosophy and eloquent declamation of Euripides; and if we compare him with the myriad-minded Shakespeare, he will weigh yet lighter in the balance. Those who know "Sejanus" and "Catiline," will not dare to class them with "The Agamemnon," "The Antigone" or "The Medea," and still less with "Hamlet" and "Macbeth." They will occupy no mean place in literature, when they are ranked more fairly with "Cato" and "Ion."
His best comedies are so generally known, that a lengthy critique on them would be tedious. Those that are less read are scarcely deserving of any notice, beyond the interest that must attach itself to any production from the pen of such a man. "Every Man in his Humour," "The Alchymist," "Volpone, or the Fox," and "The Silent Woman," are the best of the numerous comedies he has left us. They have provoked unsparing censure from Bishop Kurd. He condemns the first as "an unnatural and as the painters say, hard delineation of a group of simply existing passions, wholly chimerical, and unlike to anything we may observe in the commerce of real life." He terms "The Alchymist" "a farcical comedy," asserts that "Volpone" is "not a complete model of comedy," and complains generally that Jonson's wit is too frequently caustic, his raillery coarse, and his humour excessive. We need not pause to express our utter disregard for such censure. When we know that Voltaire said that "Hamlet" seemed the work of a drunken savage, we can feel no surprise when we are thus dashed against the shallows of criticism. We live too in an age when tenth-rate men review the writings of their superiors with cheerful confidence and fatal facility. Mr. Gifford declares that Hurd knew little or nothing of Jonson's works, and while we tremble in charging dishonesty on a writer on Prophecy and a Bishop, we think Mr. Gifford is not far wrong. But we will favour our reader with one or two counter opinions from no less a man than Mr. Hallam. Speaking of "Every Man in his Humour," Mr. H. calls it "an extraordinary monument of early genius in what is seldom the possession of youth, a clear and unerring description of human character, various and not extravagant beyond the necessities of the stage." He adds, "It is, perhaps, the earliest of European domestic comedies, that deserves to be mentioned." Of "The Alchymist," he remarks that "The plot with great simplicity is continually animated and interesting, the characters are conceived and delineated with admirable boldness, truth, spirit and variety; the humour, especially in the two Puritans—a sect who now began to do penance on the stage—is amusing; the language, when it does not smell too much of book learning, is forcible and clear." Mr. Gifford is more enthusiastic and unmeasured in his panegyric. He writes, "If a model be sought of all that is regular in design and perfect in execution in the English Drama, it will be found (if found at all) in 'The Alchymist.'" It is certainly a comedy of first-rate merit. A particular subject is singled out for attack, and learning, wit and sarcasm are brought combinedly to bear on it. It is equally to be admired, whether looked on as a play or a satire. By it Jonson destroyed the pretenders to the counterfeit science of Alchemy, and effected by his ridicule what legislative enactments had failed to do. There is a very clever though too lavish use of the jargon of the sham science; but Jonson puts an apology for this into the mouth of one of the characters. Sir Pertinax Surly is ridiculing Alchemy, and more particularly its nomenclature. Subtle replies:
"Was not all the knowledge
Of the Egyptians writ in mystic symbols?
Speak not the Scriptures oft in parables?
Are not the choicest fables of the poets,
That were the fountains and the spring of wisdom,
Wrapp'd in perplexed allegories?"
Sir Epicure Mammon's gluttony is pedantic in the extreme, but such minor faults are fully compensated for by its general merit. No one who has once read the play will forget the matchless portraiture of Tribulation Wholesome and Ananias. Abel Dragger was one of Garrick's famous characters. "The Fox" we rank with Hallam, as second to "The Alchymist" in merit. Dryden has praised "The Silent Woman," Hallam places it below the plays we have spoken of, but observes, "It is written with a great deal of spirit, and has a value as the representation of London life in the higher ranks at that time." He also remarks that both the story and passages are taken from Liberius, a writer not familiar to many readers, except such as Jonson or Mr. Hallam.
It has been well remarked that to give specimens of a play by extracts, is like showing a brick as a sample of the edifice of which it is but a small constituent part. The force and beauty of passages in a drama depend on their relative fitness to the character by whom, and the situation in which they are uttered. This would prevent our making quotations from the comedies; but to one passage in "Every Man in his Humour," we must call the reader's attention. It is the description of jealousy. Kitely speaks.
"A new disease! I know not new or old,
But it may well be called poor mortal's plague;
For like a pestilence it doth infect
The houses of the brain. First it begins
Solely to work upon the phantasy,
Filling her seat with such pestiferous air
As soon corrupts the judgment; and from thence
Sends like contagion to the memory;
Still each to other giving the infection,
Which as a subtle vapour spreads itself
Confusedly through every sensitive part,
Till not a thought or motion in the mind
Be free from the black poison of suspect."
Now, such passages, as well as Jonson's great reputation for learning, have misled many, and among them, no less a man than Sir W. Scott, who, in his life of Dryden, says, that "Jonson gave an early example of metaphysical poetry." This word metaphysical is a talisman in the hands of some, a very sorcerer's wand, and magical in its powers of confusion. It has been well observed, that when a man is saying that which his audience does not comprehend, and which he does not himself comprehend, he is talking "metaphysics." Like a weapon clumsily handled, or a lantern not dexterously used, it will only wound or discover its possessor. Sir W. Scott's remark fully illustrates this. In using that word he shows either an ignorance of its meaning or an ignorance of the writings to which he applies it. Jonson is not a whit more metaphysical than Shakespeare. Are there not frequent passages in Shakespeare where almost every line would form a text for a treatise on Psychology? It were hard to classify the poetry of any age as metaphysical and not metaphysical; but to say of Jonson, in contradistinction to Shakespeare, that he was so, is simply incorrect. What we suspect is here meant by the word is, that Shakespeare read men, and Jonson books; that one drew his characters from the study of human nature, and the other from the pages of philosophy. If the word is thus used in the wrong sense, the statement is only partially, if in the right one, it is wholly erroneous.
Jonson's masques are beautiful. Though with occasional extravagant fancies and strained conceits, they are full of learning and taste. They were many of them written for great festive occasions. There may seem to us something grotesque and cumbrous in their scenic splendour; and our Lord Mayor's show, the only relic we have of such an entertainment as Jonson's on James I.'s coronation, does not fill us with rapture at its grandeur or dignity. Some beautiful songs are introduced into them. The genius of the architect and the painter came in to aid the poet. The art of stage decoration was not, however, far advanced, and the scenery must have then been inferior to the language, as the latter is now below the former in
"Those gew-gaws men-children love to see,"
now exhibited, much to the expulsion of tragedy and comedy, on the boards of our theatres. "The Sad Shepherd" we have already criticised. The following are the opening lines, which, beautiful as they are, are not better than the greater portion of the masque:
"Here she was wont to go! and here! and here!
Just where those daisies, pinks, and violets grow
The world may find the spring in following her,
For other print her airy steps ne'er left.
Her treading would not bend a blade of grass,
Or shake the downy blow-ball from his stalk!
But like the soft west wind she shot along,
And where she went the flowers took thickest root,
As she had sowed them with her odorous foot."
Milton was a great admirer of Jonson: his "Comus" is written very much in imitation of our poet's masques; but is not so fitted as they are for dramatic action. Some will remember in "Penseroso" these lines:
"Entice the dewy-feathered sleep,
And let some strange mysterious dream
Wave at his wings in airy stream
Of lively portraiture displayed
Softly on my eyelids laid."
Hurd has remarked that it is an imitation of the following passage in Jonson's "Vision of Delight," and Milton has not, we think, improved on the original:
"Break, Phant'sie, from thy cave of cloud,
And spread thy purple wings;
Now all thy figures are allowed,
And various shapes of things,
Create of airy forms a stream,
It must have blood, and nought of phlegm,
And tho' it be a waking dream,
Yet let it like an odour rise
To all the senses here,
And fall like sleep upon their eyes
Or musick in their ear."
As a translator he must not be forgotten. He has left a version of Horace's "Ars Poetica," and a few of the odes. The former is marvellously literal, and not so tame as might therefore be supposed. In the latter there is little to praise; but he has excelled these regular translations in passages of the masques and elsewhere, which he has borrowed from ancient authors and literally rendered. It is strange that Hurd, in his letter to Mason on "the marks of imitation," has singled out the following instance. The original lines are from "Catullus," and are the following:
"Ut flos in septis secretus nascitur hortis
Ignotus pecori, nullo convulsus aratro,
Quem mulcent auræ, firmat sol, educit imber
Multi ilium pueri, multæ optavere puellæ
Idem quum tenui carptus defloruit ungue
Nulli ilium pueri, nullæ optavere puellæ."
In one of his masques, Jonson translates this:
"Look how a flower that close in closes grows,
Hid from rude cattle, bruised with no ploughs,
Which th' air doth stroke, sun strengthen, show'rs shoot higher,
It many youths and many maids desire;
The same when cropt by cruel hand 'tis withered,
No youths at all, no maidens have desired."
Hurd here calls Jonson "a servile imitator, and a painful translator." Now, what the true theory of translation is, is a matter on which the learned are as yet undecided. But the lines just quoted have far more force and beauty, than much smooth paraphrase, which is accepted as translation; and are more literal and infinitely superior to certain versions of Horace and Virgil lately published in a great University. There is at any rate this defence for them; they were written at a time when translation was in its infancy, and when great stress was laid upon verbal rendering. This was a false view of translation; but certainly more excusable than when now attempted in open violation of the fact, that such literal interpretations of the idioms of other languages compel the translator to violate those of his own, and in doing so, to commit a greater fault even than paraphrasing. There are two methods of translation, if, indeed, one deserves the name at all. The first is to give word for word as a mere guide to those learning the language by such aid, a rendering which sacrifices to literal interpretation, the propriety and beauty of our own language; the next is, to give the spirit and meaning of a writer, in our own language, violating none of its laws and introducing no foreign idiom. The former of these theories was the earlier, and as in the lines we have quoted, was occasionally carried out with success. With the usual vitality of error, an attempt has been made to revive it; but fortunately this retrograde movement numbers as yet but few supporters. The true theory was next discovered; but after some time degenerated in many cases into paraphrase. Sir J. Denham, in his Preface to his translation of Book II. of "Æneid," has made a few remarks on this subject which we cannot help quoting. "I conceive it," he writes, "a vulgar error in translating poets to affect being fidus interpres. Let that care be with those who deal in matters of fact and matters of faith; but whosoever aims at it in poetry, as he attempts what is not required, so shall he never perform what he attempts; for it is not his business alone to translate language into language, but poesie into poesie, and poesie is of so subtle a spirit, that in pouring out of one language into another it will all evaporate; and if a new spirit is not added in the transfusion, there will remain nothing but a caput mortuum." Those who abet the attempt to revive the old system of translation should consider these remarks, and remember that on a very different theory, one of the best lengthy translations in the English language was produced—the "Georgics" of Virgil, by Mr. Sotheby.
Jonson is no exception to the rule that clear and strong utterance is one of the chief characteristics of genius, and that great poets have been good prose writers. The fragment entitled "Lumber, or Discoveries," sufficiently shows, without appealing to his letters, dedications and prefaces, that English literature lost much by the destruction of his prose manuscripts. The small remnant that is left is full of erudite criticism, profound reflection, and great severity of judgment. There are notes on books and on life, arranged in a strange and arbitrary manner, written in a concise and pregnant style; and though they do not contain so much sententious wisdom, remind us forcibly of the "Essays" of Bacon. Two extracts we must give. The first shows us what laws of composition he laid down for himself; the second is interesting as a criticism on his great rival.
"For a man to write well, there are required three necessaries: to reade the best authors, observe the best speakers, and much exercise of his own style. In style to consider what ought to be written, and after what manner; he must first think and excogitate his matter; then choose his words and examine the weight of either; then take care in placing and ranking both matter and words, that the composition be comely, and to do this with diligence and often. No matter how slow the style be at first, so it be laboured and accurate; seeke the best and be not glad of the forward conceits, or first words that offer themselves to us, but judge of what we invent, and order what we approve. Repeat often what you have formerly written; which beside that it helps the consequence and makes the juncture better, it quickens the heate of imagination, that often cooles in the time of setting downe, and gives it new strength, as if it grew lustier by the going back, as we see in the contention of leaping, they jump farthest that fetch their race longest, or as in throwing a dart or javelin we force back our arms to make our tosse the stronger. Yet if we have a faire gale of wind I forbid not the steering out of our angle (?) or the favour of the gale deceive us not. For all that we invent doth please us in the conception or birth, else we should never set it downe. But the safest is to returne to our judgement, and hand over again those things, the easinesse of which might make them justly suspected. So did the best writers in their beginnings. They imposed upon themselves care and industry. They did nothing rashly. They obtained first to write well, and then custome made it easie and a habit. By little and little, their matter showed itself to them more plentifully, their words answered, their composition followed; and all as in a well-ordered family, presented itselfe in the place. So that the summe of all is, ready writing makes not good writing; but good writing brings on ready writing: yet when wee thinke wee have got the faculty, it were then good to resist it, as to give a horse a check sometimes with a bit which doth not so much stop his course as stirre his metal."
Of Shakespeare he says: "I remember the players have often mentioned it as an honour to Shakespeare that in writing (whatsoever he penned) he never blotted out a line. My answer had been, 'Would he had blotted a thousand!' which they thought a malevolent speech. I had not told posterity this, but for their ignorance, who chose that circumstance to commend their friend by, wherein he most faulted; and to justify mine own candour; for I loved the man, and do honour his memory on this side idolatry, as much as any. Ha was indeed honest, and of an open and free nature; had an excellent fancy, brave notions, and gentle expressions; wherein he flowed with that facility, that sometimes it was necessary he should be stopped. 'Sufflaminandus erat,' as Augustus said of Haterius. His wit was in his own power. Would the rule of it had been so too! Many times he fell into those things which could not escape laughter; as when he said in the person of Cæsar, one speaking to him, 'Cæsar, thou dost me wrong.' He replied, 'Cæsar did never wrong, but with just cause;' and such like, which were ridiculous. But he redeemed his vices with his virtues. There was even more in him to be praised, than to be pardoned." This criticism, full as it is of candour, has been made the basis of charges of malignity against Shakespeare.
We have spoken of Jonson as the author of tragedy, of comedy, of masque, as a translator, and prose writer. But it is as a lyric poet also that we claim for him a homage and admiration which has hitherto been sparingly given, if yielded at all. In the aspects in which we have already viewed him, he is a great rather than a pleasing writer. He is not one of those whose works we make fireside friends, and the constant companions of our leisure and solitude. It is a duty more perhaps than a pleasure to read him. This is not a high praise of a writer of tragedy and comedy; but we must admit when we rise from the study, it is with a profound conviction of the vast powers of the writer. There is something grand, massive, colossal in his intellect. There is in him the profound erudition, and sustained dignity which we admire in Milton, and which cause us to gaze at reverent distance and muse in sacred silence, on his genius. And although we may not make either the one or the other familiar friends, as we do Homer and Shakespeare, with their more genial strains, yet they are not all gloom and grandeur. They have their lighter moods, and livelier utterances. Do not let us forget "Lycidas and l'Allegro," and the lyrics of Jonson. Than these nothing can be more exquisite, and their beauty is heightened by the contrast in which they stand to the other works. The smile of a countenance usually grave, has more charms than all the dimples and laughter of Lalage. It is not only by their depth and their vigour that we must judge of poets.
With these remarks we proceed to give some of the Nugæ Canoræ of our Laureate.
O, do not wanton with those eyes,
Lest I be sick with seeing;
Nor cast them down, but let them rise,
Lest shame destroy their being.
O, be not angry with those fires,
For then their threats will kill me;
Nor look too kind on my desires,
For then my hopes will spill me.
O, do not steep them in thy tears,
For so will sorrow slay me;
Nor spread them as distract with fears,
Mine own enough betray me.
Mr. Gifford is as extravagant in his praise as the world has been cold in its appreciation. He speaks of this song thus: "If it be not the most beautiful song in the language, I freely confess, for my own part, that I know not where it is to be found." Now, it is pretty enough, but from Waller to Moore we could quote many that would equal, and some that would surpass it. Much better known, and far more beautiful, is Jonson's "Epitaph on the Countess of Pembroke."
"Underneath this sable hearse
Lies the subject of all verse,
Sidney's sister, Pembroke's mother.
Death! ere thou hast slain another,
Learn'd and fair and good as she,
Time shall throw a dart at thee."
And so are the three following verses, selected from some prefixed by Jonson to "The Touchstone of Truth," by J. Warre, published 1630:
"Truth is the trial of itself,
And needs no other touch,
And purer than the purest gold
Refine it ne'er so much.
"It is the life and light of love,
The sun that ever shineth,
And spirit of that special grace,
That faith and love defineth.
"It is the warrant of the word,
That yields a scent so sweet,
As gives a power to faith to tread
All falsehood under feet."
The following elegy, though some verses stand in weak contrast to others, which are beautiful, seems too much like the model of "In Memoriam" not to be quoted entire. Mr. Tennyson, the music of whose poetry is almost faultless, has improved on the metre and rhythm of the elder Laureate, but the similitude of some of the verses is very striking:
Though beauty be the mark of praise,
And yours of whom I sing be such
As not the world can praise too much,
Yet 'tis your virtue now I raise.
A virtue like alloy, so gone
Throughout your form; as though that move
And draw and conquer all men's love,
This subjects you to love of one,
Wherein you triumph yet, because
'Tis of yourself, and that you use
The noblest freedom, not to choose
Against, or faith or honour's laws.
But who could less expect from you,
In whom alone love lives again,
By whom he is restored to men,
And kept, and bred, and brought up true?
His falling temples you have rear'd,
The withered garlands ta'en away,
His altars kept from the decay
That envy wished and nature fear'd;
And on them burn so chaste a flame,
With so much loyalty's expense,
As love to acquit such excellence
Is gone himself into your name.
And you are he, the Deity
To whom all lovers are design'd
That would their better objects find,
Among which faithful troop am I,
Who as an offering at your shrine
Have sung this hymn, and here entreat
One spark of your diviner heat,
To light upon a love of mine,
Which if it kindle not, but scant
Appear, and that to shortest view,
Yet give me leave t' adore in you
What I in her am grieved to want.
Our last quotation is well known, but many, we fear, while they listen to the beautiful strain, forget that it is one of the lighter efforts of the learned Jonson.
SONG TO CLELIA.
Drink to me only with thine eyes,
And I will pledge with mine;
Or leave a kiss but in the cup,
And I'll not look for wine.
The thirst that from the soul doth rise
Doth ask a drink divine;
But might I of Jove's nectar sip
I would not change for thine.
I sent thee late a rosy wreath,
Not so much honouring thee,
As giving it in hope that there
It could not withered be;
But thou thereon dids't only breathe,
And sent'st it back to me,
Since when it grows, it smells, I swear,
Not of itself, but thee.
We have spoken frequently in our life of the poet, of the rancour with which his character has been assailed. Posterity have scarcely been more merciful to his fame as a writer. Dibdin has slandered him and sought to depreciate his merits. Hume has penned a shallow, flippant notice of him, as well as of Shakespeare. Schlegel, with too great severity, but with more depth and truth, has called him "a younger contemporary and rival of Shakespeare, who laboured in the sweat of his brow, and with no great success, to expel the romantic drama from the English stage, and to form it on the model of the ancients." Hazlitt confesses that he cannot much relish Ben Jonson, and remarks that his genius "resembles the grub more than the butterfly, and plods and grovels on, and wants wings to wanton in the idle summer's air, and catch the golden light of poetry." It should be remembered that it is in contrasting him with Shakespeare that Hazlitt is thus depreciatory. In attempting the same anti-parallel, Sir W. Scott falls into more exaggerated error. "The one," he says, "is like an ancient statue, the beauty of which, springing from the exactness of proportion, does not always strike at first sight, but rises upon us as we bestow time in considering it; the other is the representation of a monster, which is at first only surprising, and ludicrous and disgusting ever after."
How unfortunate for the fame of Jonson that he had not lived a generation before or after his immortal rival! In such a time he had reigned supreme. In dividing the kingdom of literature, though the dominions of one are wider than the other, the colleagues in the empire are scarce ever mentioned without an invidious comparison being instituted. In literature, as in religion, there is a strong tendency to party spirit—a wish to make a faction and appoint a leader—a setting up of Paul and Apollos, instead of a catholic admiration of genius apart from personal feelings and prejudices.
To counter-balance the severe remarks, which we have quoted, we must remember that Jonson received the warmest eulogies from his greatest contemporaries; and we therefore give two quotations from Fuller and Dryden, where the comparison is handled with temper and judgment. Fuller, in speaking of the "Wit Combats" between Shakespeare and Jonson at the "Mermaid Tavern," adds: "Which two, I behold like a Spanish great galleon and an English man-of-war. Master Jonson, like the former, was built far higher in learning, solid, but slow in his performances: Shakespeare, with the English man-of-war, lesser in bulk, but lighter in sailing, could turn with all tides, tack about, and take advantage of all winds by the quickness of his wit and invention."
Dryden writes: "As for Jonson, to whose character I am now arrived, if we look upon him while he was himself (for his last plays were but his dotages), I think him the most learned and judicious writer which any theatre ever had. He was a most severe judge of himself as well as others. One cannot say he wanted wit, but rather that he was frugal of it. In his works you find little to retrench or alter. Wit, and language, and humour also in some measure we had before him, but something of art was wanting to the drama before he came. He managed his strength to more advantage than any who preceded him. You seldom find him making love in any of his scenes, or endeavouring to move the passions; his genius was too sullen and saturnine to do it gracefully, especially when he knew he came after those who had performed both to such a height. Humour was his proper sphere, and in that he delighted most to present mechanical people. He was deeply conversant in the ancients, both Greek and Latin, and he borrowed boldly from them. There is scarce a poet or historian among the Roman authors of those times whom he has not translated in 'Sejanus' or 'Catiline.' But he has done his robberies so openly, that one may see he fears not to be taxed by any law. He invades authors like a monarch, and what would be theft in other poets is only victory in him. With the spoils of these writers, he so represents old Rome to us, in its rites, ceremonies, and customs, that if one of their poets had written either of his tragedies, we had seen less of it than in him. If there was any fault in his language, it was that he weaved it too closely and laboriously, in his comedies especially; perhaps, too, he did a little too much Romanize our language, leaving the words he translated almost as much Latin as he found them, wherein, though he learnedly followed their language, he did not enough comply with the idioms of ours. If I would compare him with Shakespeare, I must acknowledge him the most correct poet, but Shakespeare the greater wit. Shakespeare was the Homer or father of dramatic poets, Jonson was the Virgil, the pattern of elaborate writing. I admire him; but I love Shakespeare."
Clarendon says of him: "Ben Jonson's name can never be forgotten, having by his very good learning, and the severity of his nature and manners, very much reformed the stage, and, indeed the English poetry itself. His natural advantages were judgment to order and govern fancy rather than success of fancy, his production being slow and upon deliberation, yet then abounding with great wit and fancy, and will live accordingly; and surely as he did exceedingly exalt the English language in eloquence, propriety, and masculine expression, so he was the best judge and fittest to prescribe rules to poetry and poets of any man who had lived with or before him."
We conclude with an extract from Churchill's "Rosciad:"
"Next, Jonson sat, in ancient learning train'd;
His rigid judgment Fancy's flights restrain'd,
Correctly prun'd each wild luxuriant thought,
Mark'd out her course, nor spar'd a glorious fault.
The book of Man he read with nicest art,
And ransack'd all the secrets of the heart;
Excited Penetration's utmost force,
And trac'd each passion to its proper source;
Then, strongly marked, in liveliest colours drew,
And brought each foible forth to public view.
The coxcomb felt a lash in every word,
And fools hung out, their brother fools deterr'd;
His comic humour kept the world in awe
And laughter frighten'd folly more than law."
- Mr. Malone, Mr. Gifford, Barry Cornwall and many others have stated that Jonson's mother married Mr. Thomas Fowler, a master-bricklayer. They have all blundered more or less. Mr. Payne Collier has shown in a note, the materials of which were supplied by Mr. Peter Cunningham, that Mrs. Margaret Fowler was dead in 1595, whereas Jonson's mother was living after the production of "Eastward Hoe,"—and we agree with Mr. Collier, that "if Ben Jonson's mother married a second time we have yet to ascertain who was her second husband."
- Mr. Payne Collier, in his "Life of Shakespeare," gives the following extract from a letter of Henslowe's to Alleyne, dated Sept. 26th, 1598:—"Since you were with me, I have lost one of my company, which hurteth me greatly; that is Gabriel, for he is slain in Hoxton Fields by the hand of Benjamin Jonson, bricklayer."
- Harl. MSS.
- History of England.
- Lectures on Dramatic Literature.
- Lectures on English Comic Writers.
- Life of Dryden.