1690 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Ben Jonson

Anthony Wood, Athenae Oxonienses (1690-91; 1721) 1:108-10.



BENJAMIN JOHNSON, a Poet as soon as he was born, afterwards the Father of our Poetry, and most admirably well vers'd in classical Authors, and therefore belov'd of Cambden, Selden, Hoskins, Martin, &c. made his first Entry on the Stage of this vain World within the City of Westminster, (being the Son of a gave Minister) educated in the College School there, while Cambden was Master, which was the reason why Ben did afterwards acknowledge, that all that he had in Arts, and all that he knew he ow'd to him. Thence his silly Mother, who had married to her second Husband a Bricklayer, took him home, and made him, as 'tis said, work at her Husband's Trade. At length being pitied by some generous Gentlemen, Cambden got him a better employment, which was to attend or accompany a Son of Sir Walt. Raleigh in his Adventures, whereby gaining experience, made his Company acceptable among many. After their return they parted, I think not in cold bood, and thereupon Ben went to Cambridge, and was, as 'tis said, statutably elected into St. John's Coll. but what continuance he made there I find not. Sure 'tis, that his Geny being mostly Poetical, he did afterwards recede to a Nursery or obscure Play-house called The Green Curtain, about Shoreditch or Clerkenwell, but his first Action and Writing there were both ill. At length improving his fancy much by keeping Scholastical Company, he betook himself again to write Plays, which he did so admirably well, that he was esteemed Paramount in the Dramatic part of Poetry, and to teach the Stage an exact Conformity to the Laws of Comedians. Whereupon Sir Jo. Suckling bringing him into the Session of Poets, Ben broke silence, spoke to the Poets, and

Bid them remember how he had purg'd the Stage
Of Errors that had lasted many an Age.

His own proper industry and addiction to Books, especially to ancient Poets and Classical Authors, made him a Person of curious Learning and Judgment, and of singular Excellence in the Art of Poetry. Which, with his accurate Judgment and Performance, known only to those few, who are truly able to judge of his Works, have gain'd from the most eminent Scholars of his time (particularly from the learned Selden) an increasing admiration. Dr. Rich. Corbet of Ch. Ch. and other Poets of this University, did, in Reverence to his Parts, invite him to Oxon, where continuing for some time in Ch. Ch. in writing and composing Plays, he was, as a Member thereof, actually created M. of A. in 1619, and therefore upon that account I put him among the Oxford Writers, for at Cambridge his stay was but short, and whether he took a Degree in that University, I cannot yet learn of any. His works are these [list omitted].

At length B. Johnson, after he had arrived to the sixty third Year of Age, marched off from the Stage of this vain World on the 16th of August in sixteen hundred thirty and seven, and was buried three Days after in S. Peter's Church within the City of Westminster, commonly called the Abbey Church, not among the Poets, but at the West end near to the Belfry, under the Escutcheon of Rob. de Ros, or Roos, with this engraven on a common Pavement Stone lying over his Grave, at Eighteen Pence Charge, given by Jack Young of Great Milton in Oxfordshire, (afterwards a Knight by the favour of K. Ch. II.) O Rare Ben Jonson. There was a considerable Sum of Money gathered from among the Wits and Virtuosi of his time for the erection of a Monument and a Statua for him, but before they could be done, the Rebellion broke forth and hindred the Design; whereupon the Money was refunded. I have been informed by a worthy prelate several Years since deceased, that this Poet Ben had a Pension of 100 per an. from the King, a Pension also from the City of London, and the like from several of the Nobility, and from some of the Gentry, particularly from Sutton, Founder of the Hospital that now bears his Name, which were commonly well paid either out of pure love to him, or out of fear of his railing in Verse or Prose, or both. When he was in his last Sickness, the said Prelate, who was then M. of A. did, among other of his Acquaintance, often visit him, and as he often heard him repent of his prophaning the Scripture in his Plays, and that with horror, &c. Many Years after his Death did appear to the World another Poet of both his Names, who writes himself Ben Johnson Junior, but what Relation there was between him and the former I know not.