1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Ben Jonson

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 1:112, 191-93.



In 1616, BEN JONSON collected the plays he had then written, and published them in one volume, folio, adding, at the same time, a book of epigrams, and a number of poems, which he entitled The Forest, and The Underwood. The whole were comprised in one folio volume, which Jonson dignified with the title of his Works, a circumstance which exposed him to the ridicule of some of his contemporaries. It is only with the minor poetry of Jonson that we have to deal at present, as the dramatic productions of this stern old master of the manly school of English comedy will be afterwards described. There is much delicacy of fancy, fine feeling, and sentiment, in some of Jonson's lyrical and descriptive effusions. He grafted a classic grace and musical expression on parts of his masques and interludes, which could hardly have been expected from his massive and ponderous band. In some of his songs he equals Carew and Herrick in picturesque images, and in portraying the fascinations of love. A taste for nature is strongly displayed in his fine lines on Penshurst, that ancient seat of the Sidneys. It has been justly remarked by one of his critics, that Jonson's dramas "do not lead us to value highly enough his admirable taste and feeling in poetry; and when we consider how many other intellectual excellences distinguished him — wit, observation, judgment, memory, learning — we must acknowledge that the inscription on his tomb, 'O rare Ben Jonson!' is not more pithy than it is true."...

The second name in the dramatic literature of this period has been generally assigned to BEN JONSON, though some may be disposed to claim it for the more Shakspearian genius of Beaumont and Fletcher. Jonson was born ten years after Shakspeare — in 1574 — and appeared as a writer for the stage in his twentieth year. His early life was full of hardship and vicissitude. His father, a clergyman in Westminster (a member of a Scottish family from Annandale), died before the poet's birth, and his mother marrying again to a bricklayer, Ben was brought from Westminster school and put to the same employment. Disliking the occupation of his father-in-law, he enlisted as a soldier, and served in the Low Countries. He is reported to have killed one of the enemy in single combat, in the view of both armies, and to have otherwise distinguished himself for his youthful bravery. As a poet, Jonson afterwards reverted with pride to his conduct as a soldier. On his return to England, he entered St John's college, Cambridge; but his stay there must have been short — probably on account of his straitened circumstances — for, about the age of twenty, he is found married, and an actor in London. Ben made his debut at a low theatre near Clerkenwell, and, as his opponents afterwards reminded him, failed completely as an actor. At the same time, he was engaged in writing for the stage, either by himself or conjointly with others. He quarrelled with another performer, and on their fighting a duel with swords, Jonson had the misfortune to kill his antagonist, and was severely wounded himself . He was committed to prison on a charge of murder, but was released without a trial. On regaining his liberty, he commenced writing for the stage, and produced, in 1596, his Every Man in his Humour. The scene was laid in Italy, but the characters and manners depicted in the piece were English, and Jonson afterwards recast the whole, and transferred the scene to England. In its revised form, "Every Man in his Humour" was brought out at the Globe Theatre in 1598, and Shakspeare was one of the performers in the play. He had himself produced some of his finest comedies by this time, but Jonson was no imitator of his great rival, who blended a spirit of poetical romance with his comic sketches, and made no attempt to delineate the domestic manners of his countrymen. Jonson opened a new walk in the drama: he felt his strength, and the public cheered him on with its plaudits. Queen Elizabeth patronised the new poet, and ever afterwards he was "a man of mark and likelihood." In 1599, appeared his Every Man out of his Humour, a less able performance than its predecessor. Cynthia's Revels and the Poetaster followed, and the fierce rivalry and contention which clouded Jonson's afterlife seem to have begun about this time. He had attacked Marston and Dekker, two of his brother dramatists, in the "Poetaster." Dekker replied with spirit in his "Satiromastix," and Ben was silent for two years, "living upon one Townsend, and scorning the world," as is recorded in the diary of a contemporary. In 1603, be tried "if tragedy had a more kind aspect," and produced his classic drama of Sejanus. Shortly after time accession of King James, a comedy called Eastward Hoe, was written conjointly by Jonson, Chapman, and Marston. Some passages in this piece reflected on the Scottish nation, and the matter was represented to the king by one of his courtiers (Sir James Murray) in so strong a light, that the authors were thrown into prison, and threatened with the loss of their ears and noses. They were not tried; and when Ben was set at liberty, he gave an entertainment to his friends (Selden and Camden being of the number): his mother was present on this joyous occasion, and she produced a paper of poison, which she said she intended to have given her son in his liquor, rather than he should submit to personal mutilation and disgrace, and another dose which she intended afterwards to have taken herself. The old lady must, as Whalley remarks, have been more of an antique Roman than a Briton. Jonson's own conduct in this affair was noble and spirited. He had no considerable share in the composition of the piece, and was, besides, in such favour, that he would not have been molested; "but this did not satisfy him," says Gifford; "and he, therefore, with a high sense of honour, voluntarily accompanied his two friends to prison, determined to share their fate." We cannot now ascertain what was the mighty satire that moved the patriotic indignation of James; it was doubtless softened before publication; but in some copies of "Eastward Hoe" (1605), there is a passage in which the Scots are said to be "dispersed over the face of the whole earth;" and the dramatist sarcastically adds, "But as for them, there are no greater friends to Englishmen and England, when they ore out on't, in the world, than they are; and for my part, I would a hundred thousand of them were there (in Virginia), for we are all one countrymen now, you know, and we should find ten times more comfort of them there than we do here." The offended nationality of James must have been laid to rest by the subsequent adulation of Jonson in his Court Masques, for he eulogised the vain and feeble monarch as one that would raise the glory of England more than Elizabeth. Jonson's three great comedies, Volpone, or the Fox. Epicene, or the Silent Woman, and the Alchemist, were his next serious labours; his second classical tragedy, Cataline, appeared in 1611. His fame had now reached its highest elevation; but he produced several other comedies, and a vast number of court entertainments, ere his star began sensibly to decline. In 1619, he received the appointment of poet laureate, with a pension of a hundred marks. The same year Jonson made a journey on foot to Scotland, where he had many friends. He was well received by the Scottish gentry, and was so pleased with the country, that he meditated a poem, or drama, on the beauties of Lochlomond. The last of his visits was made to Drummond of Hawthornden, with whom he lived three weeks, and Drummond kept notes of his conversation, which, in a subsequent age, were communicated to the world. In conclusion, Drummond entered on his journal the following character of Ben himself:—

"He is a great lover and praiser of himself; a contemner and scorner of others; given rather to lose a friend than a jest; jealous of every word and action of those about him, especially after drink, which is one of the elements in which he liveth; a dissembler of ill parts which reign in him; a bragger of some good that he wanteth; thinketh nothing well but what either he himself or some of his friends and countrymen hath said or done; he is passionately kind and angry; careless either to gain or keep; vindictive, but, if well answered, at himself; for any religion, as being versed in both; interpreteth best sayings and deeds often to the worst; oppressed with fantasy, which hath ever mastered his reason, a general disease in many poets."

This character, it must be confessed, is far from being a flattering one; and probably it was, unconsciously, overcharged, owing to. the recluse habits and staid demeanour of Drummond. We believe it, however, to be substantially correct. Inured to hardships and to a free boisterous life in his early days, Jonson seems to have contracted a roughness of manner, and habits of intemperance, which never wholly left him. Priding himself immoderately on his classical acquirements, he was apt to slight and condemn his less learned associates; while the conflict between his limited means and his love of social pleasures, rendered him too often severe and saturnine in his temper. Whatever he did was done with labour, and hence was highly prized. His contemporaries seemed fond of mortifying his pride, and he was often at war with actors and authors. With the celebrated Inigo Jones, who was joined with him in the preparation of the Court Masques, Jonson waged a long and bitter feud, in which both parties were to blame. When his better nature prevailed, and exorcised the demon of envy or spleen, Jonson was capable of a generous warmth of friendship, and of just discrimination of genius and character. His literary reputation, his love of conviviality, and his high colloquial powers, rendered his society much courted, and he became the centre of a band of wits and revellers. Sir Walter Raleigh founded a club, known to all posterity as the Mermaid Club, at which Jonson, Shakspeare, Beaumont and Fletcher, and other poets, exercised themselves with "wit-combats" more bright and genial than their wine. One of the favourite haunts of these bright-minded men was the Falcon Tavern, near the theatre in Bankside, Southwark, of which a sketch has been preserved. The latter days of Jonson were dark and painful. Attacks of palsy confined him to his house, and his necessities compelled him to write for the stage when his pen had lost its vigour, and wanted the charm of novelty. In 1630, he produced his comedy, the New Inn, which was unsuccessful on the stage. The king sent him a present of £100, and raised his laureate pension to the same sum per annum, adding a yearly tierce of canary wine. Next year, however, we find Jonson, in an Epistle Mendicant, soliciting assistance from the lord-treasurer. He continued writing to the last. Dryden has styled the latter works of Jonson his dotages; some are certainly unworthy of him, but the Sad Shepherd, which he left unfinished, exhibits the poetical fancy of a youthful composition. He died in 1637, and was buried in Westminster Abbey, where a square stone, marking time spot whore the poet's body was disposed vertically, was long afterwards shown, inscribed only with the words, "O RARE BEN JONSON!"

Jonson founded a style of regular English comedy, massive, well compacted, and fitted to endure, yet not very attractive in its materials. His works, altogether, consist of about fifty dramatic pieces, but by far the greater part are masques and interludes. His principal comedies are, "Every Man in his Humour," "Volpone," the "Silent Woman," and the "Alchemist." His Roman tragedies may be considered literal impersonations of classic antiquity, "robust and richly graced," yet stiff and unnatural in style and construction. They seem to bear about the same resemblance to Shakspeare's classic dramas that sculpture does to actual life. The strong delineation of character is the most striking feature in Jonson's comedies. The voluptuous Volpone is drawn with great breadth and freedom; and generally his portraits of eccentric characters — men in whom some peculiarity has grown to an egregious excess — are ludicrous and impressive. His scenes and characters show the labour of the artist, but still an artist possessing rich resources an acute and vigorous intellect; great knowledge of life, down to its lowest descents; wit, lofty declamation, and a power of dramatising his knowledge and observation, with singular skill and effect. His pedantry is often misplaced and ridiculous when he wishes to satirise his opponents of the drama, he lays the scene in the court of Augustus, and makes himself speak as Horace. In one of his Roman tragedies, he prescribes for the composition of a "mucus," or wash for the face! His comic theatre is a gallery of strange, clever, original portraits, powerfully drawn, and skilfully disposed, but many of them repulsive in expression, or so exaggerated, as to look like caricatures or libels on humanity. We have little deep passion or winning tenderness to link the beings of his drama with those we love or admire, or to make us sympathise with them as with existing mortals. The charm of reality is generally wanting, or when found, it is not a pleasing reality. When the great artist escapes entirely from his elaborate wit and personified humours into the region of fancy (as in the lyrical passages of "Cynthia," "Epicene," and the whole drama of the "Sad Shepherd," we are struck with the contrast it exhibits to his ordinary manner. He thus presents two natures one hard, rugged, gross, and sarcastic — "a mountain belly and a rocky face," as he described his own person — the other airy, fanciful, and graceful, as if its possessor had never combated with the world and its bad passions, but nursed his understanding and his fancy in poetical seclusion and contemplation.