1820 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Ben Jonson

John Aikin, in Select Works of the British Poets (1820) 1.



BENJAMIN JONSON, (or Johnson,) a poet, who, during life, attained a distinguished character, was the posthumous son of a clergyman in Westminster, where he was born in 1574, about a month after his father's decease. His family was originally from Scotland, whence his grandfather removed to Carlisle, in the reign of Henry VIII.

Benjamin received his education under the learned Camden, at Westminster school; and had made extraordinary progress in his studies, when his mother, who had married a bricklayer for her second husband, took him away to work under his stepfather. From this humble employment he escaped, by enlisting as a soldier in the army, then serving in the Netherlands against the Spaniards. An exploit which he here performed, of killing an enemy in single combat, gave him room to boast ever after of a degree of courage which has not often been found in alliance with poetical distinction.

On his return, Jonson entered himself at St. John's College, Cambridge, which he was shortly obliged to quit from the scanty state of his finances. He then turned his thoughts to the stage, and applied for employment at the theatres; but his talents, as an actor, could only procure for him admission at an obscure playhouse in the suburbs. Here he had the misfortune to kill a fellow-actor in a duel, for which he was thrown into prison. The state of mind to which he was here brought, gave the advantage to a Popish priest in converting him to the Catholic faith, under which religion he continued for twelve years.

After his liberation from prison, he married, and applied in earnest to writing for the stage, in which he appears to have already made several attempts. His comedy of Every Man in his Humour, the first of his acknowledged pieces, was performed with applause in 1596; and henceforth he continued to furnish a play yearly, till his time was occupied by the composition of the masques and other entertainments, by which the accession of James was celebrated. Dryden, in his Essay on Dramatic Poetry, speaks of him as the "most learned and judicious writer which any theatre ever had," and gives a particular examination of his Silent Woman, as a model of perfection. He afterwards, however, seems to make large deductions from this commendation. "You seldom (says Dryden) 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. Humour was his proper sphere; and in that he delighted most to represent mechanics." Besides his comedies, Jonson composed two tragedies, Sejanus and Catiline, both formed upon ancient models, and full of translations; and neither of them successful. His dramatic compositions, however, do not come within the scope of the present publication.

In 1616, he published a folio volume of his works, which procured for him a grant from his majesty of the salary of poet-laureat for life, though he did not take possession of the post till three years after. With high intellectual endowments, he had many unamiable traits in his character, having a high degree of pride and self-conceit, with a disposition to abuse and disparage every one who incurred his jealousy or displeasure. Jonson was reduced to necessitous circumstances in the latter part of his life, though he obtained from Charles I. an advance of his salary as laureat. He died in 1637, at the age of 63, being at that time considered as at the head of English poetry. He was interred in Westminster Abbey, where an inscription was placed over his grave, familiarly expressive of the reputation he had acquired among his countrymen: it was, "O rare Ben Jonson." Six months after his death, a collection of poems to his honour, by a number of the most eminent writers and scholars in the nation, was published, with the title of Jonsonius Virbius; or the memory of Ben Jonson, revived by the Friends of the Muses.

Although, as a general poet, Jonson for the most part merits the character of harsh, frigid, and tedious; there are, however, some strains in which he appears with singular elegance, and may be placed in competition with some of the most favoured writers of that class.