Ben Jonson

Anonymous, in Cibber-Shiels, Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland (1753) 1:235-43.

BEN JOHNSON, one of the best dramatic poets of the 17th century, was descended from a Scots family, his grandfather, who was a gentleman, being originally of Annandale in that kingdom, whence he removed to Carline, and afterwards was employed in the service of King Henry VIII. His father lost his estate under Queen Mary, in whose reign he suffered imprisonment, and at last entered into holy orders, and died about a month before our poet's birth, who was born at Westminster, says Wood, in the year 1574. He was first educated at a private school in the church of St. Martin's in the Fields, afterwards removed to Westminster school, where the famous Camden was master. His mother, who married a bricklayer to her second husband, took him from school, and obliged him to work at his father-in-law's trade, but being extremely averse to that employment, he went into the low countries, where he distinguished himself by his bravery, having in the view of the army killed an enemy, and taken the optima spolia from him.

Upon his return to England, he applied himself again to his former studies, and Wood says he was admitted into St. John's College in the university of Cambridge, though his continuance there seems to have been but short. He had some time after this the misfortune to fight a duel, and kill his adversary, who only slightly wounded him in the arm; for this he was Imprisoned, and being cast for his life, was near execution; his antagonist, he said, had a sword ten inches longer than his own. While he lay in prison, a popish priest visited him, who found his inclination quite disengaged as to religion, and therefore took the opportunity to impress him with a belief of the popish tenets. His mind then naturally melancholy, clouded with apprehensions, and the dread of execution, was the more easily imposed upon. However, such was the force of that impression, that for twelve years after he had gained his liberty, he continued in the catholic faith, and at last turned Protestant, whether from conviction or fashion cannot be determined; but when the character of Ben is considered, probability will be upon the side of the latter, for he took every occasion to ridicule religion in his plays, and make it his sport in conversation. In his leaving the university he entered himself into an obscure playhouse, called the Green Curtain, somewhere about Shoreditch or Clerkenwell. He was first an actor, and probably only a strolling one; for Decker in his Satyromastix, a play published in 1602, and designed as a reply to Johnson's Poetaster, "reproaches him with having left the occupation of a mortar trader to turn actor, and with having put up a supplication to be a poor journeyman player, in which he would have continued, but that he could not set a good face upon it, and so was cashiered. Besides, if we admit that satire to be built on facts, we learn further, that he performed the part of Zuliman at the Paris Garden in Southwark, and ambled by a play-waggon on the highway, and took mad Jeronymo's part to get service amongst the mimicks." Shakespear is said to have first introduced him to the world, by recommending a play of his to the stage, at the time when one of the players had rejected his performance, and told him it would be of no service to their company. His first printed dramatic performance was a Comedy, entitled Every Man in his Humour, acted in the year 1598, which being soon followed by several others, as his Sejanus, his Volpone, his Silent Woman, and his Alchymist, gained him so high a reputation, that in October 1619, upon the death of Mr. Samuel Daniel he was made Poet Laureat to King James I. and on the 19th of July, the same year, he was created (says Wood) Master of Arts at Oxford, having resided for some time at Christ Church in that university. He once incurred his Majesty's displeasure for being concerned with Chapman and Marston in writing a play called Eastward-Hoe, wherein they were accused of having reflected upon the Scotch nation. Sir James Murray represented it to the King, who ordered them immediately to be imprisoned, and they were in great danger of losing their ears and noses, as a correction of their wantonness; nor could the most partial have blamed his Majesty, if the punishment had been inflicted for surety to ridicule a country from which their Sovereign had just come, the place of his nativity, and the kingdom of his illustrious forefathers, was a most daring insult. Upon their releasement from prison, our poet gave an entertainment to his friends, among whom were Camden and Selden; when his aged mother drank to him and shewed him a paper of poison which she had designed, if the sentence of punishment had been inflicted, to have mixed with his drink after she had first taken a potion of it herself.

Upon the accession of Charles I. to the crown, he wrote a petition to that Prince, craving, that as his royal father had allowed him an annual pension of a hundred marks, he would make them pounds. In the year 1629 Ben fell sick, and was then poor, and lodged in an obscure alley; his Majesty was supplicated in his favour, who sent him ten guineas. When the messenger delivered the sum, Ben took it in his hand, and said, "His Majesty has sent me ten guineas because I am poor and live in an alley, go and tell him that his soul lives in an alley."

He had a pension from the city of London, from several of the nobility and gentry, and particularly from Mr. Sutton the founder of the Charter-house. In his last sickness he often repented of the profanation of scripture in his plays. He died the 16th of August 1637, in the 63d year of his age, and was interred three days after in Westminster Abbey; he had several children who survived him.

Ben Johnson conceived so high an opinion of Mr. Drummond of Hawthornden by the letters which passed between them, that he undertook a journey into Scotland, and resided some time at Mr. Drummond's seat there, who has printed the heads of their conversation, and as it is a curious circumstance to know the opinion of so great a man as Johnson of his cotemporary writers, these heads are here inserted.

"Ben, says Mr. Drummond, was eat up with fancies; he told me, that about the time the Plague raged in London, being in the country at Sir Robert Cotton's house with old Camden, he saw in a vision his eldest son, then a young child, and at London, appear unto him, with the mark of a bloody cross on his forehead, as if it had been cut with a sword; at which amazed, he prayed unto God, and in the morning he came to Mr. Camden's chamber to tell him who persuaded him, it was but an apprehension, at which he should not be dejected. In the mean time, there came letters from his wife of the death of that boy in the plague. He appeared to him, he said, of a manly shape, and of that growth he thinks he shall be at the resurrection. He said, he spent many a night in looking at his great toe, about which he had seen Tartars, and Turks, Romans and Carthaginians fight in his imagination."

"That he had a design to write an epic poem, and was to call it Chrologia; or the Worthies of his Country, all in couplets, for he detested all other rhime. He said he had written a discourse on poetry, both against Campion and Daniel, especially the last, where he proves couplets to be the best sort of verses,"

His censure of the English poets was as follows: "That Sidney did not keep a decorum, in making every one speak as well as himself. Spenser's stanza pleased him not, nor his matter; the meaning of the allegory of the Fairy Queen he delivered in writing to Sir Walter Raleigh, which was, that by the bleating beast he understood the Puritans; and by the false Duessa, the Queen of Scots. Samuel Daniel was a good honest man, had no children, and was no poet, and that he had wrote the civil wars without having one battle in all his book. That Drayton's Poly-olbion, if he had performed what he promised to write, the Deeds of all the Worthies, had been excellent. That Sylvester's translation of Du Bartas was not well done, and that he wrote his verses before he understood to confer; and those of Fairfax were not good. That the translations of Homer and Virgil in long Alexandrines were but prose. That Sir John Harrington's Ariosto of all translations was the worst. He said Donne was originally a poet; his grandfather on the mother's side, was Heywood the epigrammatist. That Donne for not being understood would perish. He affirmed, that Donne wrote all his best pieces before he was twenty years of age. He told Donne, that his Anniversary was Prophane, and full of blasphemies, that if it had been written on the virgin Mary it had been tolerable. To which Donne answered, that he described the idea of a woman but not as she was. That Sir Walter Raleigh esteemed fame more than conscience; the best wits in England were employed in making his history. Ben himself had written a piece to him on the Punic war, which be altered and put in his book. He said there was no such ground for an heroic poem, as King Arthur's fiction, and Sir Philip Sidney had an intention of turning all his Arcadia to the stories of King Arthur. He said Owen was a poor pedantic school-master sucking his living from the posteriors of little children, and has nothing good in him, his epigrams being bare narrations. He loved Fletcher, Beaumont and Chapman. That Sir William Alexander was not half kind to him, and neglected him because a friend to Drayton. That Sir R. Ayton loved him dearly; he fought several times with Marston, and says that Marston wrote his father in Law's preachings, and his father in law his comedies."

Mr. Drummond has represented the character of our author in a very disadvantageous, though perhaps not in a very unjust light. "That he was a great lover and praiser of himself; a contemner and scorner of others, rather chusing to lose a friend than a jest; jealous of every word and action of those about him, especially after drink, which was one of the elements in which he lived; a dissembler of the parts which reigned in him; a bragger of some good that he wanted: he thought nothing right, but what either himself or some of his friends had said or done. He was passionately kind and angry; careless either to gain or to keep, vindictive, but if he was well answered, greatly chagrined; interpreting the sayings and deeds often to the worst. He was for any religion, being versed in all; his inventions were smooth and easy, but above all he excelled in translation. In short, he was in his personal character the very reverse of Shakespear, as surly, ill-natured, proud and disagreeable, as Shakespear with ten times his merit was gentle, good-natured, easy and amiable." He had a very strong memory; for he tells himself in his discoveries, that he could in his youth have repeated all that he had ever written, and so continued till he was past forty; and even after that he could have repeated whole books that he had read, and poems of some select friends, which he thought worth remembering. Mr. Pope remarks, that when Ben got possession of the stage, he brought critical learning into vogue and that this was not done without difficult; which appears from those frequent lessons (and indeed almost declamations) which he was forced to prefix to his first plays, and put into the mouth of his actors, the Grex, Chorus, &c. to remove the prejudices and inform the judgement of his hearers. Till then the English authors had no thoughts of writing upon the model of the ancients: their tragedies were only histories in dialogue, and their comedies followed the thread of any novel, as they found it, no less implicitly than if it had been true history. Mr. Selden is his Preface to his titles of honour, stiles Johnson, his beloved friend and a singular poet, and extols his special worth in literature, and his accurate judgment. Mr. Dryden gives him the title of the greatest man of the last age, and observes, that if we look upon him, when he was himself, (for his last plays were but his dotages) he was the most learned and judicious writer any theatre ever had; that he was a most severe judge of himself as well as others; that we cannot say he wanted wit, but rather that he was frugal of it; that in his works there is little to be retrenched or altered; but that humour was his chief province.

Ben had certainly no great talent for versification, nor does he seem to have had an extraordinary ear; his verses are often wanting in syllables, and sometimes have too many.

I shall quote some lines of his poem to the memory of Shakespear, before I give a detail of his pieces [omitted]. Ben has wrote above fifty several pieces which we may rank under the species of dramatic poetry; of which I shall give an account in order [omitted].