Ben Jonson

John Oldham, "Upon the Works of Ben. Johnson. Written in 1678. Ode" Oldham, Poems, and Translations (1683) 69-86.

Great Thou! whom 'tis a Crime almost to dare to praise,
Whose firm establish'd, and unshaken Glories stand,
And proudly their own Fame command,
Above our pow'r to lessen or to raise,
And all, but the few Heirs of thy brave Genius, and thy Bays;
Hail mighty Founder of our Stage! for so I dare
Entitle thee, nor any modern Censures fear,
Nor care what thy unjust Detractors say;
They'l say perhaps, that others did Materials bring,
That others did the first Foundations lay,
And glorious 'twas (we grant) but to begin,
But thou alone couldst finish the design,
All the fair Model, and the Workmanship was thine:
Some bold Advent'rers might have been before,
Who durst the unknown world explore,
By them it was survey'd at distant view,
And here and there a Cape, and Line they drew,
Which only serv'd as hints, and marks to thee,
Who wast reserv'd to make the full Discovery:
Art's Compass to thy painful search we owe,
Whereby thou went'st so far, and we may after go,
By that we may Wit's vast, and trackless Ocean try,
Content no longer, as before,
Dully to coast along the shore,
But steer a course more unconfin'd, and free,
Beyond the narrow bounds, that pent Antiquity,

Never till thee the Theater possest
A Prince with equal Pow'r, and Greatness blest,
No Government, or Laws it had
To strengthen, and establish it,
Till thy great hand the Scepter sway'd,
But groan'd under a wretched Anarchy of Wit:
Unform'd, and void was then its Poesie,
Only some pre-existing Matter we
Perhaps could see,
That might foretell what was to be;
A rude, and undigested Lump it lay,
Like the old Chaos, e're the birth of Light, and Day,
Till thy brave Genius like a new Creator came,
And undertook the mighty Frame;
No shuffled Atoms did the well-built work compose,
If from no lucky hit of blund'ring Chance arose
(As some of this great Fabrick idly dream)
But wise, all-seeing Judgment did contrive,
And knowing Art its Graces give:
No sooner did thy Soul with active Force and Fire
The dull and heavy Mass inspire,
But strait throughout it let us see
Proportion, Order, Harmony,
And every part did to the whole agree,
And strait appear'd a beauteous new-made world of Poetry.

Let dull, and ignorant Pretenders Art condemn
(Those only Foes to Art, and Art to them)
The meer Fanaticks, and Enthusiasts in Poetry
(For Schismaticks in that, as in Religion be)
Who make't all Revelation, Trance, and Dream,
Let them despise her Laws, and think
That Rules and Forms the Spirit stint:
Thine was no mad, unruly Frenzy of the brain,
Which justly might deserve the Chain,
'Twas brisk, and mettled, but a manag'd Rage,
Sprightly as vig'rous Youth, and cool as temp'rate Age:
Free, like thy Will, it did all Force disdain,
But suffer'd Reason's loose, and easie rein,
By that it suffer'd to be led,
Which did not curb Poetick liberty, but guide:
Fancy, that wild and haggard Faculty,
Untam'd in most, and let at random fly,
Was wisely govern'd, and reclaim'd by thee,
Restraint, and Discipline was made endure,
And by thy calm, and milder Judgment brought to lure;
Yet when 'twas at some nobler Quarry sent,
With bold, and tow'ring wings it upward went,
Not lessen'd at the greatest height,
Not turn'd by the most giddy flights of dazling Wit.

Nature, and Art together met, and joyn'd,
Made up the Character of thy great Mind.
That like a bright and glorious Sphere,
Appear'd with numerous Stars embellish'd o're,
And much of Light to thee, and much of Influence bore,
This was the strong Intelligence, whose pow'r
Turn'd it about, and did th' unerring motions steer:
Concurring both like vital Seed, and Heat,
The noble Births they joyntly did beget,
And hard 'twas to be thought,
Which most of force to the great Generation brought:
So mingling Elements compose our Bodies frame,
Fire, Water, Earth, and Air
Alike their just Proportions share,
Each undistinguish'd still remains the same,
Yet can't we say that either's here, or there,
But all, we know not how, are scatter'd every where.

Sober, and grave was still the Garb thy Muse put on,
No tawdry careless slattern Dress,
Nor starch'd, and formal with Affectedness,
Nor the cast Mode, and Fashion of the Court, and Town;
But neat, agreeable, and janty 'twas,
Well-fitted, it sate close in every place,
And all became with an uncommon Air, and Grace:
Rich, costly and substantial was the stuff,
Not barely smooth, nor yet too coarsly rough:
No refuse, ill-patch'd Shreds o'th Schools,
The motly wear of read, and learned Fools,
No French Commodity which now so much does take,
And our own better Manufacture spoil,
Nor was it ought of forein Soil;
But Staple all, and all of English Growth, and Make:
What Flow'rs soe're of Art it had, were found
No tinsel'd slight Embroideries,
But all appear'd either the native Ground,
Or twisted, wrought, and interwoven with the Piece.

Plain Humor, shewn with her whole various Face,
Not mask'd with any antick Dress,
Nor screw'd in forc'd, ridiculous Grimace
(The gaping Rabbles dull delight,
And more the Actor's than the Poet's Wit)
Such did she enter on thy Stage,
And such was represented to the wond'ring Age:
Well wast thou skill'd, and read in human kind,
In every wild fantastick Passion of his mind,
Didst into all his hidden Inclinations dive,
What each from Nature does receive,
Or Age, or Sex, or Quality, or Country give;
What Custom too, that mighty Sorceress,
Whose pow'rful Witchcraft does transform
Enchanted Man to several monstrous Images,
Makes this an odd, and freakish Monky turn,
And that a grave and solemn Ass appear,
And all a thousand beastly shapes of Folly wear:
Whate're Caprice or Whimsie leads awry
Perverted, and seduc'd Mortality,
Or does incline, and byass it
From what's Discreet, and Wise, and Right, and Good, and Fit;
All in thy faithful Glass were so express'd,
As if they were Reflections of thy Breast,
As if they had been stamp'd on thy own mind,
And thou the universal vast Idea of Mankind.

Never didst thou with the same Dish repeated cloy,
Tho every Dish, well-cook'd by thee,
Contain'd a plentiful Variety
To all that could sound relishing Palats be,
Each Regale with new Delicacies did invite,
Courted the Tast, and rais'd the Appetite:
Whate're fresh dainty Fops in season were
To garnish, and set out thy Bill of fare
(Those never found to fail throughout the year,
For seldom that ill-natur'd Planet rules,
That plagues a Poet with a dearth of Fools)
What thy strict Observation e're survey'd,
From the fine, luscious Spark of high, and courtly Breed,
Down to the dull, insipid Cit,
Made thy pleas'd Audience entertainment fit,
Serv'd up with all the grateful Poignancies of Wit.

Most Plays are writ like Almanacks of late,
And serve one only year, one only State;
Another makes them useless, stale, and out of date;
But thine were wisely calculated fit
For each Meridian, every Clime of Wit,
For all succeeding Time, and after-age,
And all Mankind might thy vast Audience sit,
And the whole world be justly made thy Stage:
Still they shall taking be, and ever new,
Still keep in vogue in spite of all the damning Crew;
Till the last Scene of this great Theatre,
Clos'd, and shut down,
The numerous Actors all retire,
And the grand Play of human Life be done.

Beshrew those envious Tongues, who seek to blast thy Bays,
Who Spots in thy bright Fame would find, or raise,
And say, it only shines with borrow'd Rays;
Rich in thy self, to whose unbounded store
Exhausted Nature could vouchsafe no more,
Thou could'st alone the Empire of the Stage maintain,
Couldst all its Grandeur, and its Port sustain,
Nor neededst others Subsidies to pay,
Neededst no Tax on forein, or thy native Country lay,
To bear the charges of thy purchas'd Fame,
But thy own Stock could raise the same,
Thy sole Revenue all the vast Expence defray:
Yet like some mighty Conqueror in Poetry,
Design'd by Fate of choice to be
Founder of its new universal Monarchy,
Boldly thou didst the learned World invade,
Whilst all around thy pow'rful Genius sway'd,
Soon vanquish'd Rome, and Greece were made submit,
Both were thy humble Tributaries made,
And thou return'dst in Triumph with her captive Wit.

Unjust, and more ill-natur'd those,
Thy spiteful, and malicious Foes,
Who on thy happiest Talent fix a lye,
And call that Slowness, which was Care, and Industry.
Let me (with Pride so to be guilty thought)
Share all thy wish'd Reproach, and share thy shame,
If Diligence be deem'd a fault,
If to be faultless must deserve their Blame:
Judg of thy self alone (for none there were·
Could be so just, or could be so severe)
Thou thy own Works didst strictly try
By known and uncontested Rules of Poetry·
And gav'st thy Sentence still impartially:
With rigor thou arraign'dst each guilty Line,
And spar'dst no criminal Sense, because 'twas thine:
Unbrib'd with Favour, Love, or Self-conceit,
(For never, or too seldom we,
Objects too near us, our own Blemishes can see)
Thou didst no small'st Delinquencies acquit,
But saw'st them to Correction all submit,
Saw'st execution done on all convicted Crimes of Wit.

Some curious Painter, taught by Art to dare
(For they with Poets in that Title share)
When he would undertake a glorious Frame
Of lasting Worth, and fadeless as his Fame;
Long he contrives, and weighs the bold Design,
Long holds his doubting hand e're he begin,
And justly then proportions every stroke, and line,
And oft he brings it to review,
And oft he does deface, and dashes oft anew,
And mixes Oyls to make the slitting Colours dure,
To keep 'em from the tarnish of injurious Time secure;
Finish'd at length in all that Care, and Skill can do
The matchless Piece is set to publick View,
And all surpriz'd about it wond'ring stand,
And tho no name be found below,
Yet strait discern th' unimitable hand,
And strait they cry 'tis Titian, or 'tis Angelo:
So thy brave Soul, that scorn'd all cheap, and easie ways,
And trod no common road to Praise,
Would not with rash, and speedy Negligence proceed,
(For who e're saw Perfection grow in haste?
Or that soon done, which must for ever last?)
But gently did advance with wary heed,
And shew'd that mastery is most in justness read:
Nought ever issued from thy seeming Breast,
But what had gone full time, could write exactly best,
And stand the sharpest Censure, and defie the rigid'st Test.

'Twas thus th' Almighty Poet (if we dare
Our weak, and meaner Acts with his compare)
When he the Worlds fair Poem did of old design,
That Work, which now must boast no longer date than thine;
Tho 'twas in him alike to will, and do,
Tho the same Word that spoke, could make it too,
Yet would he not such quick, and hasty methods use,
Nor did an instant (which it might) the great effect produce,
But when th' All-wise himself in Council sate,
Vouchsaf'd to think and be deliberate,
When Heaven consider'd and th' Eternal Wit, and Sense,
Seem'd to take time, and care, and pains,
It shew'd that some uncommon Birth,
That something worthy of a God was coming forth;
Nought uncorrect there was, nought faulty there,
No point amiss did in the large voluminous Piece appear,
And when the glorious Author all survey'd,
Survey'd whate're his mighty Labours made,
Well-pleas'd he was to find
All answer'd the great Model, and Idea of his Mind
Pleas'd at himself He in high wonder stood,
And much his Power, and much his Wisdom did applaud,
To see how all was Perfect, all transcendent Good.

Let meaner spirits stoop to low precarious Fame,
Content on gross and coarse Applause to live,
And what the dull, and sensless Rabble give,
Thou didst it still with noble scorn contemn,
Nor would'st that wretched Alms receive,
The poor subsistence of some bankrupt, sordid name:
Thine was no empty Vapor, rais'd beneath,
And form'd of common Breath,
The false, and foolish Fire, that's whisk'd about
By popular Air, and glares a while, and then goes out;
But 'twas a solid, whole, and perfect Globe of light,
That shone all over, was all over bright,
And dar'd all sullying Clouds, and fear'd no darkning night;
Like the gay Monarch of the Stars and Sky,
Who wheresoe're he does display
His sovereign Lustre, and majestick Ray,
Strait all the less, and petty Glories nigh
Vanish, and shrink away.
O'rewhelm'd, and swallow'd by the greater blaze of Day;
With such a strong, an awful and victorious Beam
Appear'd, and ever shall appear, thy Fame,
View'd, and ador'd by all th' undoubted Race of Wit,
Who only can endure to look on it.
The rest o'recame with too much light,
With too much brightness dazled, or extinguish'd quite:
Restless, and uncontroul'd it now shall pass
As wide a course about the World as he,
And when his long-repeated Travels cease
Begin a new, and vaster Race,
And still tread round the endless Circle of Eternity.