1719 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Ben Jonson

Giles Jacob, in Poetical Register: or the Lives and Characters of the English Dramatick Poets (1719) 146-52.



This celebrated Poet was born in the City of Westminster, at which School he received his first Rudiments of Learning under Mr. Cambden. He remov'd from thence to St. John's College in Cambridge, and afterwards to Christ-Church-College, Oxford; but his Circumstances not affording an expensive Education, he was oblig'd to quit the University, and follow the Trade of a Bricklayer with his Father-in-Law; tho' some Authors say, that he first took the Degree of Master of Arts. He assisted in the Building of Lincolns-Inn, where having a Trowel in his Hand, and a Horace in his Pocket, he found an honourable Mecaenas, that freed him from his servile Employment. Some Persons have endeavour'd to lessen this great Man on account of his Descent; but, as Mr. Langbain observes, it is no Diminution to him, that he was Son-in-Law to a Bricklayer, and work'd at that Trade, since the greatest Poets in all Ages have been generally of the meanest Birth and Fortune; witness, Homer who was a Beggar, Euripides an Herb-gatherer, Plautus a Baker's Servant, Terence a Slave, and Virgil was the Son of a Basket-maker. He was of an open free Temper, a jovial and pleasant Companion, blunt and haughty to his Antagonists, and impatient of Censure. His natural Genius was much improv'd by Study and Learning, no one making greater Advantages of his Reading than he, which is plain in all his Works. His Designs were great, noble, and various; and as there are few Men of Eminence but imitate the Antients, so Plautus chiefly seem'd to be his Model. He was poet Laureat to King James and King Charles I. His Dramatick Pieces are Fifty two in Number, but his Plays make not above Nineteen, viz. [catalogue of fifty-two dramatic works omitted.]

I know not when these Twenty Dramatick Pieces, last mention'd, were acted, but they were printed with the rest in Two Volumes Folio, 1640 and 1692; and his whole Works are largely reprinted in Six Volumes Octavo.

A noted Writer of the Age wherein this incomparable Poet liv'd, wrote this Epigram on his Plays in general.

Each like an Indian Ship or Hull appears,
That took a Voyage for some certain Years,
To plow the Sea, and furrow up the Main,
And brought rich Ingots from his loaden Brain:
His Art the Sun; his Labour were the Lines
Where solid Wit, the Treasure fully shines.

To shew that Ben was famous at Epigram, I need only transcribe the Epitaph he wrote on the Lady Elizabeth L. H.

Underneath this Stone doth lye
As much VIRTUE as could die;
Which, when alive, did Harbour give
To as much BEAUTY as could live.

He died Anno 1637, in the Sixty Third Year of his Age, and was buried in Westminster-Abbey, on the West Side near the Belfry, with only this Memorial,

O RARE BEN JOHNSON.

One of his Admirers wrote the following Inscription, design'd for his Monument:

Hic Johnsonus noster Lyricorum, Dramaticorumq; Coryphaeus, qui Pallade auspice laurum a Graecia ipsaq; Roma rapuit, & fausto omine in Britanniam transtulis nostram, nunc invidia major, fato, nec tamen aemulis cessit. Ann. Dom. 1637.