1659 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Ben Jonson

Anonymous, "An Elegie upon Ben. Johnson" J. Cleaveland Revived (1659) 20-25.



As when the Vestal hearth went out, no fire
Lesse holy then that flame that did expire
Could kindle it again: so at thy fall
Our wits, great Ben, are too Apocryphall
To celebrate thy losse, since 'tis too much
To write thy Epitaph, and not be such.
What thou wert, like th' hard oracles of old,
Without an extasie cannot be told.
We must be ravisht first, thou must infuse
Thy self into us both the Theam and Muse:
Else, (though we all conspir'd to make thy herse
Our works) so that 't had been but one great Verse,
Though the Priest had translated for that time
The Liturgy, and buried thee in Rhime,
So that in Meeter we had heard it said
Poetick dust is to Poetick laid:
And though that dust being Shake-spears thou might'st have
Not his room, but the Poet for thy grave,
So that as thou didst Prince of numbers die
And live, so thou mightest in numbers lie,
'Twere frail solemnity; Verses on thee
And not like thine, would but kind Libels be.
And we (not speaking thy whole worth) should raise
Worse blot then they that envied thy praise.
Indeed thou need'st us not, since above all
Invention, thou wert thine own funeral.
Hereafter, when time hath fed on thy Tombe,
Th' inscription worn out, and the Marble dumb
So that 'twould pose a Critick to restore
Half words, and words expir'd so long before;
When thy maym'd statue hath a sentenc'd face
And looks that are the horror of the place;
That 't will be learnings and Antiquity,
And ask a Selden to say, this was thee
Thou'lt have a whole name still, nor need'st thou fear
That will be ruin'd, or loose nose, or hair.
Let others write so thin, that they can't be then,
Authors till rotten, no posterity
Can add to thy works; th' had their full growth,
When first born, and came aged from thy pen,
Whil'st living thou enjoy'dst the fame and sence
Of all that time gives but the reverence:
When th' art of Homers years, no man will say
Thy Poems are lesse worthy, but more gray.
Tis bastard poetry and oth' false bloud
Which cann't without succession be good,
Things that will alwayes last do thus agree
With things eternal; th' at once perfect be.
Scorn then their censures, who gave out, thy wit
As long upon a Comoedie dit sit
As Elephants bring forth; and that by blots
And mendings, took more time then fortune plots,
That such thy drought was, and so great thy thirst
That all thy plays were drawn at th' Mearmaid first,
That the Kings yearly but wore, and his wine
Hath more right then thou to thy Catiline,
Let such men keep a diet, let their wit
Be rackt, and while they write, suffer a fit;
When th' have felt tortures without pain the Gout,
Such, as with less, the state draws treason out;
Though they should the length of Consumptions lie
Sick of their Verse, and of their Poem die,
'Twould not be thy worst scene, but would at last
Confirm their boastings, and shew made in hast,
He that writes well writes quick, since the rule's true,
Nothing is slowly done that's alwayes new;
So when thy Fox had ten times acted been,
Each day was first, but that 't was cheaper seen,
And so thy Alchymist plaid ore and ore,
Was new o'th stage, when 't was not at the dore;
We like the Actors did repeat, the pit
The first time saw, the next conceiv'd thy wit,
Which was cast in those forms, such rules, such Arts,
That but to some not half thy acts were parts,
Since of some silken judgements we may say
They fild a box two hours, but saw no play:
So that th' unlearned lost their money, and
Scholars say'd onely, that could understand:
Thy scene was free from monsters, no hard plot
Cal'd down a god t' untyth' unlikely knot.
The stage was still a stage, two entrances
Were not two parts, oth' world disjoyn'd by th' Seas;
Thine were Land-Tragedies, no Prince was found
To swim a whole scene out, then oth' stage drown'd
Pitcht fields, as Red bull wars, still felt thy doom.
Thou laid'st no siedges to the Musick room,
Nor wouldst alow to thy best Comedies
Humours that should above the people rise;
Yet was thy language and thy stile so high
Thy sock to th' ancle, buskin reach't to th' thigh;
And both so chast, so 'bove Dramatick clean
That we both safely saw, and liv'd thy scene;
No foul loose line did prostitute thy wit,
Thou wrot'st thy Comoedies, didst not commit,
We did the vice araign'd, not tempting hear,
And were made Judges, not bad parts by th' ear,
For thou even sin did'st in such words array,
That some, who came bad parts, went out good play,
Which ended not with th' Epilogue, the age
Still acted, which grew innocent from th' stage.
Tis true thou hadst some sharpnesse, but thy salt
Serv'd but with pleasure to reform the fault,
Men were laugh'd into vertue, and none more
Hated fool acted, then were such before,
So did thy sting not bloud but humours draw,
So much did Satyre more correct then Law,
Which was not nature in thee, as some call
Thy teeth, who say thy wit lay in thy Gall,
That thou did'st quarrel first, and then inspight
Did'st 'gainst a person of such vices write
That 'twas revenge, not truth, that on the stage
Carlo was not presented, but thy rage;
And that when thou in Company wert met
Thy meat took notes, and thy discourse was net,
We know thy free vein had this innocence
To spare the party, and to brand th' offence,
And the just indignation thou wert in
Did not expose shift but his tricks and gin,
Thou might'st have us'd th' old Comick freedom, these
Might have seen themselves plaid, like Socrates,
Like Cleon Mammon might the Knight have been,
If as Greek Authors, thou had'st turn'd Greek spleen.
And had'st not chosen rather to translate
Their learning into English, not their rate,
Indeed this last if thou had'st been bereft
Of thy humanity, might be call'd theft,
The other was not, whatsoe'r was strange,
Or borrowed in thee did grow thine by th' change,
Who without Lattin helps hadst been as rare
As Beaumont, Fletcher, or as Shak-spear were,
And like them, from thy Native stock could'st say
Poets and Kings are not born every day.