1812 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Ben Jonson

Stephen Jones, in Biographia Dramatica; or, A Companion to the Playhouse (1812) 1:413-14.



BENJAMIN JONSON, one of the most considerable dramatic poets of the seventeenth century, whether we consider the number or the merit of his productions, was born at Westminster June 11, 1574, and was educated at the public school there, under the great Camden. He was descended from a Scots family; and his father, who lost his estate under Queen Mary, dying before our poet was born, and his mother marrying a bricklayer for her second husband, Ben was taken from school to work at his father-in-law's trade. Not being captivated with this employment, he went into the Low Countries, and distinguished himself in a military capacity.

On his return to England he entered himself at St. John's College, Cambridge; but how long he continued there we are not informed. On his quitting the university he applied to the stage for a maintenance, and became a member of an obscure company, which performed at the Curtain in Shoreditch. At the same time he turned his thoughts to composition; but is generally supposed to have been unsuccessful in his first attempts. His performances as an actor met with little more applause; and, to complete his misery, he had the misfortune in a duel to kill his opponent, for which he was committed to prison; but how long he remained there, or by what methods he obtained his liberty, we have no account. It was, however, while in custody for this offence that he was made a convert to the church of Rome, in whose communion he steadily persisted for twelve years.

It is supposed that about this time he became acquainted with Shakespeare; who, according to tradition, assisted him in some of his dramatic attempts, and considerably promoted his interest, though he could not by means of it secure himself from the virulence of our author's pen. For many years from this period, Ben produced some piece annually, for the most part with applause, and established his reputation with the public as one of the supports of the English stage.

In 1613 he was in France; but the occasion of his going, and the stay he made, are alike uncertain. In 1619 he went to Oxford, resided some time at Christchurch College, and in July 1619 was created M.A. in a full house of convocation. On the death of Samuel Daniel, in October, the same year, he succeeded to the vacant laurel; the salary of which was then one hundred marks per annum; but on our author's application in 1630, it was augmented to the annual sum of one hundred pounds and a tierce of Spanish wine.

As we do not find Jonson's economical virtues any where recorded, it is the less to be wondered at, that quickly after we learn that he was very poor and sick, lodging in an obscure alley; on which occasion it was, that King Charles, being prevailed on in his favour, sent him ten guineas; which Ben receiving, 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."

In justice, however, to the memory of Charles, it should be observed, that this story was probably formed from the cynicalness of Ben Jonson's temper, rather than from any real fact; as it is certain that the King once bestowed a bounty of one hundred pounds on him, which is acknowledged in an epigram written on the occasion.

He died of the palsy Aug. 16, 1637, aged 63 years, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

His dramatic compositions are very numerous, and are here set down according to the times in which they were originally performed [list omitted].