1842 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Ben Jonson

C. H. Timperley, in Encyclopaedia of Literary and Typographical Anecdote (1842) 2:491.



1637, Aug. 6. Died, BENJAMIN JONSON, a distinguished comic poet. He was born at Westminster, July 31, 1574. His father was a clergyman, and died about a month before the birth of our poet, who received his education at Westminster school; but his mother marrying again, his father-in-law, who was a bricklayer, compelled him to work at his business. On this he listed for a soldier, and went to the Netherlands, where he distinguished himself by his courage. After his return he went to St. John's college, Cambridge, but did not remain there long, owing to his extreme poverty. He then turned his attention to the stage, and became a player and dramatic writer, with indifferent success, till Shakspeare gave him his assistance. His first printed play was his comedy of Every Man in his Humour, produced at the Rose Theatre, Nov. 25, 1596, after which he produced a new piece annually for several years. He engaged with Chapman and Marston in writing a comedy called Eastward Hoe, which being deemed a satire on the Scotch nation, had nearly brought the authors to the pillory. On the death of Samuel Daniel, in 1619, he was made laureate; and the university of Oxford conferred on him the degree of M.A.

All the dramatic writings of Jonson are deficient in passion and sentiment, and his genius seems to have been upon the whole best fitted for the production of those classic idealities which constituted the masque. For these reasons, though the great reputation attained by Ben Jonson in his own time still affects our consideration of him, he is not now much read, and Every Man in his Humour is the only one which now continues to he occasionally performed.

The following Song is taken from the Queen'; Masque, performed in 1605:

SONG.
So beauty on the waters stood,
When love had severed earth from flood;
So when he parted ayre from fire,
He did with concord all inspire;
And there a matter he then taught,
That elder then himself was thought;
Which thought was yet the child of earth,
For love is older than his birth.

On the death of Jonson, the king, who was a competent judge of poetry, wished to confer the vacant wreath on Thomas May, afterwards the historian of the Long Parliament; but the queen obtained it for her favourite bard William Davenant, author of Gondibert, a heroic poem, and of a great number of plays. The office and pension were given to Davenant in December, 1638, sixteen months after the death of Jonson; the delay having probably been occasioned by the dispute which had broken out in the interval, between the king and his Scottish subjects.

The character given of him by Drummond is worth copying, if not for its justice, at least for its force: he was "a great lover and praiser of himself; a contemner and scoffer of others; rather given to lose a friend than a jest; jealous of every word and action of those about him, especially after drink, which was one of the elements in which he lived; a dissembler of the parts which reign in him; a bragger of some others that he wanted — thinking nothing well done but what he himself, or some of his friends, had said or done."

Tradition has sent down to us several tavern tales of "Rare Ben." A good humoured one has been preserved of the first interview between bishop Corbet, when a young man, and our great bard. It occurred at a tavern where Corbet was sitting alone. Ben, who had probably just drank up to the pitch of good fellowship, desired the waiter to take to the gentleman "a quart of raw wine; and tell him," he added, "I sacrifice my service to him." — "Friend," replied Corbet, "I thank him for his love; but tell him from me that he is mistaken; for sacrifices are always burnt." This pleasant allusion to the mulled wine of the time, by the young wit, could not fail to win the affection of the master wit himself. — Harleian manuscripts, 6395.

It is related, that when Jonson was on his death-bed the king sent him ten pieces. Ben remarked, "he sends me this trifle because I am poor and live in an alley: but go back and tell him that his soul lives in an alley." He was buried in Westminster abbey.