BENJAMIN JONSON, or JOHNSON, for so he, as well as some of his friends, wrote his name, was born in Hartshorn-lane Dear Charing-cross, Westminster, June 11, 1574, about a month after the death of his father. Dr. Bathurst, whose life was written by Mr. Warton, informed Aubrey that Jonson was born in Warwickshire, but all other accounts fix his birth in Westminster. Fuller says, that "with all his industry he could not find him in his cradle, but that he could fetch him from his long coats: when a little child, he lived in Hartshorne-lane near Charing-cross." Mr. Malone examined the register of St. Margaret's Westminster, and St. Martin's in the Fields, but without being able to discover the time of his baptism. His family was originally of Annandale in Scotland, whence his grandfather removed to Carlisle in the time of Henry VIII. under whom he held some office. But his son being deprived both of his estate and liberty in the reign of queen Mary, went afterwards in holy orders, and, leaving Carlisle, settled in Westminster.
Our poet was first sent to a private school in the church of St. Martin's in the Fields, and was afterwards removed to Westminster-school. Here he had for his preceptor the illustrious Camden, for whom he ever preserved the highest respect, and, besides dedicating one of his best plays to him, commemorates him in one of his epigrams, as the person to whom he owed all he knew. He was making very extraordinary progress at this school, when his mother, who, soon after her husband's death, had married a bricklayer, took him home to learn his step-father's business. How long he continued in this degrading occupation is uncertain: according to Fuller he soon left it, and went to Cambridge, but necessity obliged him to return to his father, who, among other works, employed him on the new building at Lincoln's-inn, and here he was to be seen with a trowel in one hand and a book in the other. This, Mr. Malone thinks, must have been either in 1588 or 1593, in each of which years, Dugdale informs us, some new buildings were erected by the society. Wood varies the story, by stating that he was taken from the trowel to attend Sir Walter Raleigh's son abroad, and afterwards went to Cambridge; but young Raleigh was not born till 1594, nor ever went abroad, except with his father in 1617 to Guiana, where he lost his life. So many of Jonson's contemporaries, however, have mentioned his connection with the Raleigh family, that it is probable he was in some shape befriended by them, although not while he worked at his father's business, for from that he ran away, enlisted as a common soldier, and served in the English army then engaged against the Spaniards in the Netherlands. "Here," says the author of his life in the Biographia Britannica, "he acquired a degree of military glory which rarely falls to the lot of a common man in that profession. In an encounter with a single man of the enemy, he slew his opponent, and stripping him, carried off the spoils in the view of both armies." As our author's fame does not rest on his military exploits, it can be no detraction to hint, that one man killing and stripping another is a degree of military prowess of no very extraordinary kind. His biographer, however, is unwilling to quit the subject until he has informed us, that "the glory of this action receives a particular heightening from the reflection, that he thereby stands singularly distinguished above the rest of his brethren of the poetical race, very few of whom have ever acquired any reputation in arms."
On his return he is said to have resumed his studies, and to have gone to St. John's college, Cambridge. This fact rests chiefly upon a tradition in that college, supported by the gift of several books now in the library with his name in them. As to the question why his name does not appear in any of the lists, it is answered that he was only a sizar, who made a short stay, and his name could not appear among the admissions, where no notice was usually taken of any young men that had not scholarships; and as to matriculation, there was at that time no register. If he went to St. John's, it seems probable enough that the shortness of his stay was occasioned by his necessities; and this would be the case whether he went to Cambridge in 1588, as Mr. Malone conjectures, or after his return from the army, perhaps in 1594. In either case he was poor, and received no encouragement from his family in his education. His persevering love of literature, however, amidst so many difficulties, ought to be mentioned to his honour.
Having failed in these more creditable attempts to gain a subsistence, he began his theatrical career, at first among the strolling companies, and was afterwards admitted into an obscure theatre called the Green Curtain, in the neighbourhood of Shoreditch, from which the present Curtain-road seems to derive its name. He had not been there long, before he attempted to write for the stage, but was not at first very successful either as an author or actor. Meres enumerates him among the writers of tragedy; but no tragedy of his writing exists, prior to 1598, when his comedy of "Every Man in his Humour" procured him a name. Dexter, in his "Satyromastix," censures his acting as awkward and mean, and his temper as rough and untractable.
During his early engagements on the stage, he had the misfortune to kill one of the players in a duel, for which he was thrown into prison, "brought near the gallows," but afterwards pardoned. While in confinement, a popish priest prevailed on him to embrace the Roman catholic faith, in which he continued about twelve years. As soon as he was released, which appears to have been about 1595, he married, to use his own expression, "a wife who was a shrew, yet honest to him," and endeavoured to provide for his family by his pen. Having produced a play which was accidentally seen by Shakspeare, he resolved to bring it on the stage, of which he was a manager, and acted a part in it himself. What play this was, we are not told, but its success encouraged him to produce his excellent comedy of "Every Man in his Humour," which was performed on the same stage in 1598. Oldys, in his manuscript notes on Langbaine, says that Jonson was himself the master of a play-house in Barbican, which was at a distant period converted into a dissenting meeting-house. He adds that Ben lived in Bartholomew-close, in the house which was inhabited, in Oldys's time, by Mr. James, a letter-founder. Mention is made in his writings, of his theatre, of the Sun and Moon tavern, in Aldersgate-street, and of the Mermaid. But the want of dates renders much of this information useless.
In the following year he produced the counterpart of his former comedy, entitled "Every Man out of his Humour," and continued to furnish a new play every year until he was called to assist in the masks and entertainments given in honour of the accession of king James to the throne of England, and afterwards on occasions of particular festivity at the courts of James and Charles I. But from these barbarous productions, he occasionally retired to the cultivation of his comic genius, and on one occasion gave an extraordinary proof of natural and prompt excellence in his "Volpone," which was finished within the space of five weeks.
His next production indicated somewhat of that rough and independent spirit which neither the smiles nor terrors of a court could repress. It was, indeed, a foolish ebullition for a man in his circumstances to ridicule the Scotch nation in the court of a Scotch king, yet this he attempted in a comedy entitled "Eastward-Hoe," which he wrote in conjunction with Chapman and Marston, although, as Mr. Warton has remarked, he was in general "too proud to assist or be assisted." The affront, however, was too gross to be overlooked, and the three authors were sent to prison, and not released without much interest. Camden and Selden are supposed to have supplicated the throne in favour of Jonson on this occasion. At an entertainment which he gave to these and other friends on his release, his mother, "more like an antique Roman than a Briton, drank to him, and showed him a paper of poison, which she intended to have given him in his liquor, after having taken a portion of it herself, if sentence upon him (of pillory, &c.) had been carried into execution." The history of the times shews the probable inducement Jonson had to ridicule the Scotch. The court was filled with them, and it became the humour of the English to be jealous of their encroachments. Jonson, however, having obtained a pardon, endeavoured to conciliate his offended sovereign by taxing his genius to produce a double portion of that adulation in which James delighted.
His connexion with Shakspeare, noticed above, has lately become the subject of a controversy. Pope, in the preface to his edition of Shakspeare, says, "I cannot help thinking that these two poets were good friends, and lived on amicable terms, and in offices of society with each other. It is an acknowledged fact that Ben Jonson was introduced upon the stage, and his first works encouraged by Shakspeare. And after his death, that author writes 'To the Memory of his beloved Mr. William Shakspeare,' which shows as if the friendship had continued through life." Mr. Malone, the accuracy of whose researches are entitled to the highest respect, has produced many proofs of their mutual dislike, amounting, as he thinks on the part of Jonson, to malignity. Mr. Steevens and Mr. George Chalmers are inclined likewise to blame Jonson; but Dr. Farmer considered the reports of Jonson's pride and malignity as absolutely groundless. Mr. O. Gilchrist, in a pamphlet lately published, has vindicated Jonson with much acuteness, although without wholly effacing the impression which Mr. Malone's proofs and extracts are calculated to make. That Jonson was at times the antagonist of Shakspeare, and that they engaged in what Fuller calls "Wit-combats," may be allowed, for such occurrences are not uncommon among contemporary poets; but it is inconsistent with all we know of human passions and tempers that a man capable of writing the high encomiastic lines alluded to by Pope, could have at any time harboured malignity in his heart against Shakspeare. Malignity rarely dies with its object, and more rarely turns to esteem and veneration.
Jonson's next play, "Epicaene, or the Silent Woman," did not appear until 1609, and amply atoned for his seeming neglect of the dramatic muse. It is perhaps the first regular comedy in the language, and did not lose much of this superiority by the appearance of his "Alchemist," in 1610. His tragedy, however, of " Cataline," in 1611, as well as his "Sejanus," of both which he entertained a high opinion, serve only to confirm the maxim that few authors know where their excellence lies. The "Cataline," says Dr. Hurd, is a specimen of all the errors of tragedy.
In 1613 he went to Paris, where he was admitted to an interview with cardinal Perron, and with his usual frankness told the cardinal that his translation of Virgil was "nought." About this time he commenced a quarrel with Inigo Jones, and made him the subject of his ridicule in a comedy called "Bartholomew-Fair," acted in 1614. Jones was architect or machinist to the masques and entertainments for which Jonson furnished the poetry, but the particular cause of their quarrel does not appear. "Whoever," says lord Orford, "was the aggressor, the turbulent temper of Jonson took care to be most in the wrong. Nothing exceeds the grossness of the language that he poured out, except the badness of the verses that were the vehicle. There he fully exerted all that brutal abuse which his contemporaries were willing to think wit, because they were afraid of it; and which only serves to show the arrogance of the man who presumed to satirize Jones and rival Shakspeare. With the latter, indeed, he had not the smallest pretensions to be compared, except in having sometimes written absolute nonsense. Jonson translated the ancients, Shakspeare transfused their very soul into his writings." If Jonson was the rival of Shakspeare, he deserves all this; but with no other claims than his "Cataline," and "Sejanus," how could he for a moment fancy himself the rival of Shakspeare?
"Bartholomew Fair" was succeeded by the "Devil's an Ass," in 1616, and by an edition of his Works in folio, in which his "Epigrams" were first printed, although they appear to have been written at various times, and some long before this period. He was now in the zenith of his fame and prosperity. Among other marks of respect, he was presented with the honorary degree of M.A. by the university of Oxford. He had been invited to this place by Dr. Corbet, senior student, and afterwards dean of Christchurch and bishop of Norwich. According to the account he gave of himself to Drummond, he was M.A. of both universities.
Wood informs us that he succeeded Daniel as poet-laureat, in Oct. 1619, as Daniel did Spenser. Mr. Malone, however, has very clearly proved that neither Spenser nor Daniel enjoyed the office now known by that name. King James, by letters patent dated February 3, 1615-16, granted Jonson an annuity or yearly pension of one hundred marks during his life, "in consideration of the good and acceptable service heretofore done, and hereafter to be done, by the said B. J." On the 23d of April, 1630, king Charles by letters patent, reciting the former grant, and that it had been surrendered, was pleased "in consideration (says the patent) of the good and acceptable service done unto us and our father by the said B. J. and especially to encourage him to proceed in those services of his wit and pen, which we have enjoined unto him, and which we expect from him," to augment his annuity of one hundred marks to one hundred pounds per annum during his life, payable from Christmas 1629. Charles at the same time granted him a tierce of Canary Spanish wine yearly during his life, out of his majesty's cellars at Whitehall; of which there is no mention in the former grant. Soon after this pension was settled on him, he went to Scotland to visit his intimate friend and correspondent, Drummond of Hawthornden, to whom he imparted many particulars of his life and his opinions on the poets of his age. After his return from this visit, which appears to have afforded hint much pleasure, he wrote a poem on the subject; but this, with several more of his productions, was destroyed by an accidental fire, and he commemorated his loss in a poem entitled "An Execration upon Vulcan."
Although it is not our purpose to notice all his dramatic pieces, it is necessary to mention, that in 1629 he produced a comedy called the "New Inn, or the light heart," which was o roughly handled by the audience, that he was provoked to write an "Ode to Himself," in which he threatened to abandon the stage. Threats of this kind are generally impotent, and Jonson gained nothing but the character of a man who was so far spoiled by public favour as to overrate his talents. Feltham and Suckling reflected on him with some asperity on this occasion, while Randolph endeavoured to reconcile him to his profession. His temper, usually rough, might perhaps at this time have been exasperated by disease, for we find that his health was declining from 1625 to 1629, when his play was condemned. He was also suffering about this time the usual vexations which attend a want of oeconomy; in one case of pecuniary embarrassment, king Charles relieved him by the handsome present of an hundred pounds. This contradicts a story related by Cibber and Smollett, that when the king heard of his illness, he sent him ten pounds, and that Jonson said to the messenger, "His Majesty has sent me ten pounds, because I am old and poor, and live in an alley; go and tell him that his soul lives in an alley." Jonson's blunt manners and ready wit make the reply sufficiently credible, had the former part of the story been true, but the lines of gratitude which he addressed to his majesty are a satisfactory refutation. Jonson, however, continued to be thoughtlessly lavish and poor, although in addition to the royal bounty he is said to have enjoyed a pension from the city, and received occasional assistance from his friends. The pension from the city appears to have been withdrawn in 1631, if it be to it he alludes in the postscript of a letter in the British Museum, dated that year,
"Yesterday the barbarous court of aldermen have withdrawn their chandler-ly pension for verjuice and mustard £33 6s 8d." Sutton, the founder of the Charter-house, is said to have been one of his benefactors, which renders it improbable that Jonson could have intended to ridicule so excellent a character on the stage: yet, according to Mr. Oldys, "Volpone" was intended for him. But although it is supposed that Jonson sometimes laid the rich under contributions by the dread of his satire, it is not very likely that he would attack such a man as Sutton.
The "Tale of a Tub," and the "Magnetic Lady," were his last dramatic pieces, and bear very few marks of his original powers. He penned another masque in 1634, and we have a "New Year's Ode" dated in 1635, but the remainder of his life appears to have been wasted in sickness of the paralytic kind, which at length carried him off, Aug. 16, 1637, in the sixty-third year of his age. Three days afterwards he was interred in Westminster-abbey, at the north-west end near the belfrey, with a common pavement stone laid over his grave, with a short and irreverend inscription of "O rare Ben Jonson," cut at the expence of sir John Young of Great Milton in Oxfordshire. His death was lamented as a public loss to the poetical world. About six months after this event, his contemporaries joined in a collection of elegies and encomiastic poems, which was published under the title of "Jonsonius Virbius; or the Memory of Ben Jonson revived by the friends of the Muses." Dr. Duppa, bishop of Chichester, was the editor of this volume, which contained verses by lords Falkland and Buckhurst, sir John Beaumont, sir Francis Wortley, sir Thomas Hawkins, Messrs. Henry King, Henry Coventry, Thomas May, Dudley Diggs, George Fortescue, William Habington, Edmund Waller, J. Vernon, J. Cl. (probably Cleveland) Jasper Mayne, Will. Cartwright, John Rutter, Owen Feltham, George Donne, Shakerley Marmion, John Ford, R. Brideoak, Rich. West, R. Meade, H. Ramsay, T. Terrent, Rob. Wasing, Will. Bew, and Sam. Evans. A subscription also was entered into for a monument in the Abbey, but prevented by the rebellion. The second earl of Oxford contributed the bust in bas-relievo which is now in Poet's-corner. Jonson had several children, but survived them all. One of them was a poet, and, as Mr. Malone has discovered, the author of a Drama written in conjunction with Brome. It should seem that he was not on good terms with his father. Fuller says that "Ben was not happy in his children."
As many points of his character are obscure or disputed, it may not be unnecessary in this place to exhibit the evidence of his contemporaries, or of those who lived at no great distance of time. The following particulars Aubrey collected from Dr. Bathurst, sir Bennet Hoskyns, Lacy the player, and others.
"I remember when I was a scholar at Trin. Coll. Oxon. 1646, I heard Mr. Ralph Bathurst (now dean of Welles) say, that Ben: Johnson was a Warwyckshire man. 'Tis agreed that his father was a minister; and by his epistle D. D. of Every Man — to Mr. W. Camden, that he was a Westminster scholar, and that Mr. W. Camden was his schoolmaster. His mother, after his father's death, married a bricklayer, and 'tis generally said that he wrought for some time with his father-in-lawe, and particularly on the garden wall of Lincoln's inne next to Chancery Jane; and that a knight, a bencher, walking thro', and hearing him repeat some Greeke verses out of Homer, discoursing with him and finding him to have a witt extraordinary, gave him some exhibition to maintain him at Trinity college in Cambridge, where he was—: then he went into the Lowe Countryes, and spent some time, not very long, in the armie; not to the disgrace of [it], as you may find in his Epigrames. Then he came into England, and acted and wrote at the Greene Curtaine, but both ill; a kind of nursery or obscure playhouse somewhere in the suburbs (I think towards Shoreditch or Clerkenwell). Then he undertook again to write a play, and did hitt it admirably well, viz. Every Man — which was his first good one. Sergeant Jo. Hoskins of Herefordshire was his Father. I remember his sonne (sir Bennet Hoskins, baronet, who was something poetical in his youth) told me, that when he desired to be adopted his sonne, No, sayd he, 'tis honour enough for me to be your brother: I am your father's sonne: 'twas he that polished me: I do acknowledge it. He was (or rather had been) of a clear and faire skin. His habit was very plain. I have heard Mr. Lacy the player say, that he was wont to weare a coate like a coachman's coate, with slitts under the arm-pitts. He would many times exceede in drinke: Canarie was his beloved liquour: then he would tumble home to bed; and when he had thoroughly perspired, then to studie. I have seen his studyeing chaire, which was of strawe, such as old women used: and as Aulus Gellius is drawn in. When I was in Oxon: Bishop Skinner (Bp. of Oxford) who lay at our college was wont to say, that he understood an author as well as any man in England. He mentions in his Epigrames, a son that he had, and his epitaph. Long since in king James time, I have heard my uncle Davers (Danvers) say, who knew him, that he lived without Temple Barre at a combe-maker's shop about the Elephant's castle. In his later time he lived in Westminster, in the house under which you passe as you go out of the church-yard into the old palace; where he dyed. He lyes buried in the north-aisle, the path square of stones, the rest is lozenge, opposite to the scutcheon of Robert de Ros, with this inscription only on him, in a pavement square of blue marble, 14 inches square, O RARE BEN: JONSON: which was done at the charge of Jack Young, afterwards knighted, who walking there when the grave was covering, gave the fellow eighteen pence to cutt it."
Mr. Zouch, in his Life of Walton, has furnished the following information from a MS. of Walton's in the Ashmolean Museum.
"I only knew Ben Jonson: But my Lord of Winton (Dr. Morley, bishop of Winchester) knew him very well; and says, he was in the 6th, that is, the upermost fforme in Westminster scole, at which time his father dyed, and his mother married a brickelayer, who made him (much against his will) help him in his trade; but in a short time, his scolemaister, Mr. Camden, got him a better employment, which was to atend or acompany a son of sir Walter Rauley's in his travills. Within a short time after their return, they parted (I think not in cole bloud) and with a love sutable to what they had in their travilles (not to be comended). And then Ben began to set up for himselfe in the trade by which he got his subsistance and fame, of which I need not give any account. He got in time to have £100 a yeare from the king, also a pension from the cittie, and the like from many of the nobilitie and some of the gentry, which was well pay'd, for love or fere of his railing in verse, or prose, or boeth. My lord told me, he told him he was (in his long retyrement and sickness, when he saw him, which was often) much afflickted, that hee had profained the scripture in his playes, and lamented it with horror: yet that, at that time of his long retyrement, his pension (so much as came it)) was given to a woman that govern'd him (with whome he liv'd & dyed nere the Abie in Westminster;) and that nether he nor she tooke much care for next weike: and wood be sure not to want wine; of which he usually took too much before he went to bed, if not oftener and soner. My lord tells me, he knowes not, but thinks he was born in Westminster. The question may be put to Mr. Wood very easily upon what grounds he is positive as to his being born their; he is a friendly man, and will resolve it. So much for brave Ben. — Nov. 22 (16) 80."
Fuller, in addition to what has been already quoted, says that ''he was statutably admitted into Saint John's-college in Cambridge, where he continued but few weeks for want of further maintenance, being fain to return to the trade of his father-in-law. And let not them blush that have, but those that have not a lawful calling. He helped in the building of the new structure of Lincoln's-Inn, when having a trowell in his hand, he had a book in his pocket. Some gentlemen pitying that his parts should be buried under the rubbish of so mean a calling, did by their bounty manumise him freely to follow his own ingenuous inclinations. Indeed his parts were not so ready to run of themselves as able to answer the spur, so that it may be truly said of him, that he had an elaborate wit wrought out by his own industry. He would sit silent in learned company, and suck in (besides wine) their several humours into his observation. What was ore in others, be was able to refine to himself. He was paramount in the dramatique part of poetry, and taught the stage an exact conformity to the laws of comedians. His comedies were above the Volge (which are only tickled with downright obscenity), and took not so well at the first stroke as at the rebound, when beheld the second time; yea, they will endure reading, and that with due commendation, so long as either ingenuity or learning are fashionable in our nation. If his later be not so spriteful and vigorous as his first pieces, all that are old will, and all that desire to be old should, excuse him therein." To his article of Shakspeare, Fuller subjoins, "Many were the wit-combates betwixt (Shakspeare) and Ben Johnson, which two I behold like a Spanish great gallion, and an English man of war; master Johnson (like the former) was built far higher in learning; solid, but slow in his performances. Shakspeare, with the English man of war, lesser in bulk, but lighter in sailing, could turn with all tides, tack about and take ad, vantage of all winds, by the quickness of his wit and invention."
The following particulars are transcribed from Oldys' MS additions to Langbaine. Oldys, like Spence, picked up the traditions of his day, and left them to be examined and authenticated by his readers. Such contributions to biography are, no doubt, useful, but not to be received with implicit credit.
"Mr. Camden recommended (Jonson) to sir Walter Raleigh, who trusted him with the care and instruction of his eldest son Walter, a gay spark, who could not brook Ben's rigorous treatment, but, perceiving one foible in his disposition, made use of that to throw off the yoke of his government. And this was an unlucky habit Ben had contracted, through his love of jovial company, of being overtaken with liquor, which sir Walter did of all vices most abominate, and hath most exclaimed against. One day, when Ben had taken a plentiful dose, and was fallen into a sound sleep, young Raleigh got a great basket, and a couple of men, who laid Ben in it, and then with a pole carried him between their shoulders to sir Walter, telling him their young master had sent home his tutor. This I had from a MS memorandum-book written in the time of the civil wars by Mr. Oldisworth, who was secretary, I think, to Philip earl of Pembroke. Yet in 1614, when sir Walter published his History of the World, there was a good understanding between him and Ben Jonson; for the verses, which explain the grave frontispiece before that history, were written by Jonson, and are reprinted in his 'Underwoods,' where the poem is called "The Mind of the frontispiece to a book;" but he names not this book."
"About the year 1622 some lewd, perjured, woman deceived and jilted him; and he writes a sharp poem on the occasion. And in another poem, called his picture, left in Scotland, he seems to think she slighted him for his mountain belly and his rocky face." We have already seen by bishop Morley's account that he lived with a woman in his latter days, who assisted him in spending his money.
"Ben Jonson," says Oldys, "was charged in his "Poetaster," 1601, with having libelled or ridiculed the lawyers, soldiers, and players; so he afterwards joined an apologetical dialogue at the end of it, wherein he says he had been provoked for three years on every stage by slanderers, as to his self-conceit, arrogance, insolence, railing, and plagiarism by translations. As to law, he says he only brought in Ovid chid by his father for preferring poetry to it. As to the soldiers, he swears by his Muse they are friends; he loved the profession, and once proved or exercised it, as I take it, and did not shame it more then with his actions, than he dare now with his writings. And as to the players, he had taxed some sparingly, but they thought each man's vice belonged to the whole tribe. That he was not moved with what they had done against him, but was sorry for some better natures, who were drawn in by the rest to concur in the exposure or derision of him. And concludes, that since his comic muse had been so ominous to him, he will try if tragedy has a kinder aspect.
"A full show of those he has exposed in this play is not now easily discernible. Besides Decker, and some touches on some play that has a Moor in it (perhaps Titus Andronicus; I should hope he did not dare to mean Othello) some speeches of such a character being recited in Act III. Scene IV. though not reflected on, he makes Tucca call Histrio the player, 'a lousy slave, proud rascal, you grow rich, do you? and purchase your twopenny tear-mouth; and copper-laced scoundrels,' &c. which language should not come very natural from him, if he ever had been a player himself; and such it seems he was before or after."—
Howel in one of his letters delineates what the late Mr. Seward considered as the leading feature of Jonson's character.
"I was invited yesterday to a solemn supper by B. J. where you were deeply remembered. There was good company, excellent cheer, choice wines, and jovial welcome. One thing intervened which almost spoiled the relish of the rest, that B. began to engross all the discourse; to vapour extremely of himself; and by vilifying others to magnify his own muse. T. Ca. buzzed me in the ear, that though Ben had barrelled up a great deal of knowledge, yet it seems he had not read the ethics, which, amongst other precepts of morality, forbid self-commendation, declaring it to be an ill-favoured solecism in good manners."
The account Jonson gave of himself to Drummond is not uninteresting. It was first published in the folio edition of Drummond's Works, 1711. "He," Ben Jonson, "said that his grandfather came from Carlisle, to which he had come from Annandale in Scotland; that he served king Henry VIII. and was a gentleman. His father lost his estate under queen Mary, having been cast in prison arid forfeited; and at last he turned minister. He was posthumous, being born a month after his father's death, and was put to school by a friend. His waster was Camden. Afterwards he was taken from it, and put to another craft, viz. to be a bricklayer, which he could not endure, but went into the Low Countries, and returning home he again betook himself to his wonted studies. In his service in the Low Countries, he had, in the view of both the armies, killed an enemy, and taken the 'opima spolia' from him; and since coming to England, being appealed to in a duel, he had killed his adversary, who had hurt him in the arm, and whose sword was ten inches longer than his. For this crime he was imprisoned, and almost at the gallows. Then he took his religion on trust of a priest, who visited him in prison. He was twelve years a papist; but after this he was reconciled to the church of England, and left off to be a recusant. At his first communion, in token of his true reconciliation, he drank out the full cup of wine. He was master of arts in both universities. In the time of his close imprisonment under queen Elizabeth, there were spies to catch him, but he was advertised of them by the keeper. He had an epigram on the spies. He married a wife, who was a shrew, yet honest to him. When the king came to England, about the time that the plague was in London, he (Ben Jonson) being in the country at sir Robert Cotton's house, with old Camden, saw in a vision his eldest son, then a young child, and at London, appear onto 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 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 was accused by sir James Murray to the king, for writing something against the Scots in a play called "Eastward Hoe,'' and voluntarily imprisoned himself with Chapman and Marston, who had written it amongst them, and it was reported should have their ears and noses cut. After their delivery, he entertained all his friends; there were present Camden, Selden, and others. In the middle of the feast, his old mother drank to him, and showed him a paper which she designed (if the sentence had past) to have mixed among his drink, and it was strong and lusty poison; and to show that she was no churl, she told that she designed first to have drank of it herself.
"He said he had spent a whole night in lying looking to his great toe, about which he had seen Tartars and Turks, Romans and Carthaginians, fight, in his imagination.
"He wrote all his verses first in prose, as his master Camden taught him; and said that verses stood by sense, without either colours or accent.
"He used to say, that many epigrams were ill because they expressed in the end what should have been understood by what was said before, as that of sir John Davies; that he had a pastoral entitled 'The May-lord;' his own name is Alkin; Ethra, the countess of Bedford; Mogbel Overberry, the old countess of Suffolk; an enchantress; other names are given to Somerset, his lady, Pembroke, the countess of Rutland, lady Worth. In his first scene Alkin comes in mending his broken pipe. He bringeth in, says our author, clowns making mirth and foolish sports, contrary to all other pastorals. He had also a design to write a fisher or pastoral play, and make the stage of it in the Lomond Lake; and also to write his foot-pilgrimage thither, and to call it a discovery. In a poem he calleth Edinburgh,
The heart of Scotland, Britain's other eye.
"That he had an intention to have made a play like Plautus's Amphitryo, but left it off; for that he could never find two so like one to the other, that he could persuade the spectators that they were one.
"That he had a design to write an epic poem, and was to call it Chorologia, of the worthies of his country raised by Fame, and was to dedicate it to his country. It is all in couplets, for he detested all other rhimes. He said he had written a discourse of poetry both against Campion and Daniel, especially the last, where he proves couplets to be the best sort of verses, especially when they are broke like hexameters, and that cross rhimes and stanzas, because the purpose would lead beyond eight lines, were all forced."
Ben Jonson, continues Drummond, "was 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 lived; a dissembler of the parts which reign in him; a bragger of some good that he wanted, thinking nothing well done, but what either he himself or some of his friends have said or done. He is passionately kind and angry, careless either to gain or keep; vindictive, but if he be well answered at himself, interprets best sayings and deeds often to the worst. He was for any religion, as being versed in both; oppressed with fancy, which hath over-mastered his reason, a general disease in many poets. His inventions are smooth and easy, but above all he excelleth in a translation. When his play of the Silent Woman was first acted, there were found verses after on the stage against him, concluding, that that play was well named the Silent Woman, because there was never one man to say plaudite to it." Drummond adds, "In short, he was in his personal character the very reverse of Shakspeare, as surly, ill-natured, proud, and disagreeable, as Shakspeare with ten times his merit was gentle, good-natured, easy, and amiable."
Lord Clarendon's character of our author is more favourable, and from so accurate a judge of human nature, perhaps more valuable. "His name," lord Clarendon says, "can never be forgotten, having by his very good learning, and the severity of his nature and manners, very much reformed the stage; and indeed the English poetry itself. His natural advantages were, judgment to order and govern fancy, rather than excess of fancy, his productions being slow and upon deliberation, yet then abounding with great wit and fancy, and will live accordingly; and surely as he did exceedingly exalt the English language in eloquence, propriety, and masculine expressions, so he was the best judge of, and fittest to prescribe rules to poetry and poets, of any man who had lived with, or before him, or since: if Mr. Cowley had not made a flight beyond all men, with that modesty yet, as to ascribe much of this to the example and learning of Ben Jonson. His conversation was very good, and with the men of most note; and he had for many years an extraordinary kindness for Mr. Hyde (lord Clarendon), till he found he betook himself to business, which he believed ought never to be preferred before his company. He lived to be very old, and till the palsy made a deep impression upon his body and his mind."
From these accounts it may surely he inferred that Jonson in his life-time occupied a high station in the literary world. So many memorials of character, and so many eulogiums on his talents, have not fallen to the lot of many writers of that age. His failings, however, appear to have been so conspicuous as to obscure his virtues. Addicted to intemperance, with the unequal temper which habitual intemperance creates, and disappointed in the hopes of wealth and independence, which his high opinion of his talents led him to form, degenerating even to the resources of a libeller who extorts from fear what is denied to genius, he became arrogant, and careless of pleasing even those with whom he associated. Of the coarseness of his manners there can be no doubt, but it appears at the same time that his talents were such as made his temper be tolerated for the sake of his conversation. As to his high opinion of himself, he did not probably differ from his contemporaries, who hailed him as the reformer of the stage, and as the most learned of critics; and it is no great diminution of his merit, that an age of more refinement cannot find enough to justify the superior light in which he was contemplated. It is sufficient that he did what had not been done before, that he displayed a judgment to which the stage had been a stranger, and furnished it with examples of regular comedy which have not been surpassed. His memory was uncommonly tenacious, and his learning certainly superior to that of most of his contemporaries. Pope gives him the praise of having "brought critical learning into vogue," and having instructed both the actors and spectators in what was the proper province of the dramatic muse. His "English Grammar," and his "Discoveries," both written in his advanced years, display an attachment to the interests of literature, and a habit of reflection, which place his character as a scholar in a very favourable point of view. The editor of a recent edition of his Discoveries, justly attributes to them "a closeness and precision of style, weight of sentiment, and accuracy of classical learning."
Yet whatever may be thought of his learning, it is greatly over-rated, when opposed or preferred to the genius of his contemporary Shakspeare. Jonson's learning contributed very little to his reputation as a dramatic poet. Where he seems to have employed it most, as in his "Cataline," it only enables him to encumber the tragedy with servile versifications of Sallust, when he should have been studying nature and the passions. Dryden, whose opinions are often inconsistent, considers Jonson as the greatest man of his 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." In another place (preface to the "Mock Astrologer"), he says "that almost all Jonson's pieces were but "crambe bis cocta," the same humour a little ''varied and written worse."
It is certain that his high character as a dramatic writer has not descended to us undiminished. Of his fifty dramas there are not above three which preserve his name on the stage, but these indeed are excellent. It was his misfortune to be obliged to dissipate on court masks and pageants those talents which concentrated might have furnished dramas equal to his "Volpone," "Alchemist," and the "Silent Woman." Contrasted with the boundless and commanding genius of Shakspeare, Dr. Johnson has hit his character with success in his celebrated prologue.
Then Jonson came, instructed from the school,
To please by method, and invent by rule.
His studious patience, and laborious art,
With regular approach assay'd the heart:
Cold approbation gave the ling'ring bays,
For they who durst not censure, scarce could praise.
Among his poems there are few which can be specified as models of excellence. The "Hymn" from "Cynthia's Revels," the "Ode to the Memory of sir Lucius Cary," and "Sir H. Morison," one of the first examples of the Pindaric, or irregular ode, and some of his songs, and "Underwoods," are brightened by occasional rays of genius, and dignified simplicity, but in general he was led into glittering and fanciful thoughts, and is so frequently captivated with these as to neglect his versification. Although he had long studied poetry, it does not appear that he could pursue a train of poetical sentiment or imagery so far as to produce any great work. His best efforts were such as he could execute almost in the moment of conception, and frequently with an epigrammatic turn which is very striking. He once meditated an epic poem, but his habitual irregularities and love of company denied the necessary perseverance.
His works were printed thrice in folio in the seventeenth century, and thrice in the eighteenth. The last edition in seven volumes, 8vo, with notes and additions by Mr. Whalley, appeared in 1756, and is esteemed the most valuable, but will probably be superseded by an edition which is said to be preparing by the acute editor of Massinger's works.