Ben Jonson

Mary Russell Mitford, "Old Authors. Ben Jonson" Recollections of a Literary Life; or Books, Places, and People (1852) 240-46.

"O rare Ben Jonson!" so said his cotemporaries, and those cotemporaries the greatest dramatic poets, the greatest poets of any age or clime, "O rare Ben Jonson!" says his tomb in Westminster Abbey; O rare Ben Jonson," echo we. But I doubt much whether our praises be not founded on very different qualities from those which were hailed with such acclaim by the marvelous assembly of wits who congregated at the "Mermaid." Hear what Beaumont, in his celebrated epistle to Jonson, says of that fair company. He writes to him from the country:

Methinks the little wit I had is lost
Since I saw you; for wit is like a rest
Held up at Tennis, which men do the best
With the best gamesters. What things have we seen
Done at the "Mermaid!" heard words that have been
So nimble, and so full of subtile flame,
As if that every one, from whom they came,
Had meant to put his whole wit in a jest,
And had resolved to live a fool the rest
Of his dull life; then, when there hath been shown
Wit able enough to justify the town
For three days past; wit that might warrant be
For the whole city to talk foolishly
Till that were canceled; and when that was gone,
We left an air behind us, which alone
Was able to make the two next companies
Right witty; though but downright fools, mere wise.

These men, admirable judges although they were, seem to have regarded with what we can not but think an over-admiration the art which wanted the crowning triumph of looking like nature, and the learning, which displayed rather than pervading, overlays and encumbers his finely-constructed but heavy and unwieldy plays. We of this age, a little too careless perhaps of learned labor, would give a whole wilderness of Catilines and Poetasters, and even of Alchemists and Volpones, for another score of the exquisite lyrics which are scattered carelessly through the plays and masques which — strange contrast with the rugged verse in which they are imbedded — seem to have burst into being at a stroke, just as the evening primrose flings open her fair petals at the close of the day. Lovelier songs were never written than these wild and irregular ditties. Here are some of them.

Queen and huntress, chaste and fair,
Now the sun is laid to sleep,
Seated in thy silver car,
State in wonted manner keep.
Hesperus entreats thy light,
Goddess excellently bright!

Earth, let not thy envious shade
Dare itself to interpose;
Cynthia's shining orb was made
Heaven to clear, when day did close.
Bless us then with wished sight,
Goddess excellently bright!

Lay thy bow of pearl apart,
And thy crystal shining quiver;
Give unto the flying hart
Space to breathe, how short soever.
Thou that mak'st a day of night,
Goddess excellently bright!

Slow, slow fresh fount, keep time with my salt tears,
Yet slower, yet, O faintly, gentle springs
List to the heavy part the music bears,
Woe weeps out her division when she sings.
Droop herbs and flowers,
Fall grief in showers,
Our beauties are not ours.
O I could still
(Like melting snow upon some craggy hill)
Drop, drop, drop, drop,
Since summer's pride is now a withered daffodil.

Break, Phantasie, from thy cave of cloud,
And spread thy purple wings;
Now all thy figures are allowed,
And various shapes of things.
Create of airy forms a stream,
It must have blood, and naught of phlegm;
And though it be a waking dream,
CHORUS. Yet let it like an odor rise
To all the senses here,
And fall like sleep upon their eyes,
Or music in their ear.

In curious knots and mazes so,
The spring at first was taught to go;
And Zephyr, when he came to woo
His Flora, had their motions too:
And thus did Venus learn to lead
The Idalian brawls, and so to tread
As if the wind, not she, did walk,
Nor pressed a flower, nor bowed a stalk.

So Beauty on the waters stood
When Love had severed Earth from Flood!
So, when he parted Air from Fire,
He did with concord all inspire!
And then a motion he them taught
That elder than himself was thought;
Which thought was yet the child of earth,
For Love is elder than his birth.

(A lesson, dear ladies.)
Still to be neat, still to be drest
As you were going to a feast;
Still to be powdered, still perfumed:
Lady, it is to be presumed,
Though art's hid causes are not found,
All is not sweet, all is not sound.
Give me a look, give me a face
That makes simplicity a grace;
Robes loosely flowing, hair as free:
Such sweet neglect more taketh me,
Than all the adulteries of art;
They strike mine eyes, but not my heart.

See the chariot at hand here of Love,
Wherein my lady rideth;
Each that draws is a swan or a dove,
And well the car Love guideth.
As she goes all hearts do duty
Unto her beauty,
And enamored do wish that they might
But enjoy such a sight,
That they still were to run by her side
Thorough swords, thorough seas wheresoever she would ride.

Do but look on her eyes, they do light
All that love's world compriseth!
Do but look on her hair, it is bright
As love's star, when it riseth!
Do but mark, her forehead's smoother
Than words that soothe her!
And from her arched brows such a grace
Sheds itself through the face,
As alone there triumphs to the life
All the gain, all the good, of the elements' strife!

Have you seen but a bright lily grow
Before rude hands have touched it?
Have you marked but the fall o' the snow
Before the soil hath smutched it?
Ha' you felt the wool of the beaver,
Or swan's down ever?
Or have smelt o' the bud o' the brier
Or the hand in the fire?
Or have tasted the bag of the bee?
O so white! O so soft! O so sweet is she!

Oh! do not worship with those eyes,
Lest I be sick with seeing!
Nor cast them down, but let them rise,
Lest shame destroy their being.
Oh! be not angry with those fires,
For then their threats will kill me;
Nor look too kind on my desires,
For then my hopes will spill me.
Oh! do not steep them in thy tears,
Far so will sorrow slay me;
Nor spread them, as distract with fears,
Mine own enough betray me.


I should hardly perhaps have thought of inserting a song so familiar to every ear as the following, had I not, in turning over Jonson's huge volume, been reminded of a circumstance connected with it which greatly startled me at the moment. Milton talks of airs "married to immortal verse;" but it should seem that there is no marriage without an occasional divorce; for the last time I heard the well-known melody which belongs to this fine Anacreontic, as indissolubly as its own peculiar perfume to a flower, was in an Independent chapel, where widely different words — the words of a hymn — were adapted to the air. It was John Wesley, I believe, who said that he saw no reason why Satan should have all the best tunes; and I should not lightly impugn the wisdom of any axiom of John Wesley, who understood human nature as well as most men. But in this instance, such is the force of association, that I can scarcely say how strongly I felt the discrepancy, all the more for the impressive plainness and simplicity of the Presbyterian mode of worship, and the earnest eloquence of the white-haired preacher. The sermon was half over before I had recovered the tone of feeling proper to the place and the occasion.

Drink to me only with thine eyes,
And I will pledge with mine;
Or leave a kiss but in the cup,
And I'll not look for wine.
The thirst that from the soul doth rise
Must surely be divine;
But might I of Love's nectar sup
I would not change for wine.

I sent thee late a rosy wreath,
Not so much honoring thee,
As giving it a hope, that there
It could not withered be.
But thou thereon didst only breathe
And sent'st it back to me.
Since when it grows and smells, I swear,
Not of itself, but thee.

Oegla. Here she was wont to go! and here! and here
Just where those daisies, pinks, and violets grow:
The world may find the spring by following her,
For other print her airy steps ne'er left.
Her treading would not bend a blade of grass,
Or shake the downy blowball from his stalk
But like the soft west wind she shot along,
And where she went the flowers took thickest root,
As she had sowed them with her odorous foot.

This delightful pastoral on the story of Robin Hood and Maid Marian is unhappily unfinished. Scarcely half is written, and even that wants the author's last touches.

If every pleasure were distilled
Of every flower in every field,
And all that Hybla's hives do yield,
Were into one broad mazer filled;
If thereto added all the gums
And spice that from Panchaia comes,
The odor that Hydasper lends,
Or Phoenix proves before she ends;
If all the air my Flora drew,
Or spirit that Zephyr ever blew,
Were put therein; and all the dew
That every rosy morning knew;
Yet all diffused upon this bower,
To make one sweet detaining hour,
Were much too little for the grace
And honor you vouchsafe the place.
But if you please to come again,
We vow we will not then with vain
And empty pastimes entertain
Your so desired, though grieved, pain.
For we will have the wanton Fawns,
That frisking skip about the lawns,
The Panisks, and the Sylvans rude,
Satyrs, and all that multitude,
To dance their wilder rounds about,
And cleave the air with many a shout,
As they would hunt poor Echo out
Of yonder valley, who doth flout
Their rustic noise. To visit whom
You shall behold whole bevies come
Of gaudy nymphs, whose tender calls
Well tuned unto the many falls
Of sweet and several sliding rills,
That stream from tops of those less hills,
Sound like so many silver quills,
When Zephyr them with music fills.
For them Favorius here shall blow
New flowers, that you shall see to grow,
Of which each hand a part shall take,
And, for your heads, fresh garlands make
Wherewith, while they your temples round,
An air of several birds shall sound
An Io Paean, that shall drown
The acclamations at your crown.
All this, and more than I have gift of saying,
May vows, so you will oft come here a Maying.

Underneath this sable hearse
Lies the subject of all verse,
Sidney's sister, Pembroke's mother;
Death, ere thou hast slain another
Learn'd and fair, and good as she,
Time shall throw a dart at thee.

After all we take leave of him, transcribing yet another exquisite song, and echoing our first words, O rare Ben Jonson!

To the old, long life and treasure;
To the young, all health and pleasure;
To the fair, their face
With eternal grace,
And the soul to be loved at leisure.

To the witty, all clear mirrors;
To the foolish, their dark errors;
To the loving sprite
A secure delight;
To the jealous his own false terrors.