1750 ca. ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Ben Jonson

William Oldys, "Ben Jonson" Censura Literaria 1 (1805) 1:94-99.



Oldys in his MSS. says, "what I have observed of Ben Jonson's being tutor to Sir Walter Raleigh's son Walter, in my life of Raleigh, should be somewhat corrected from Mr. Oldisworth's MS. as follows.

"Mr. Camden recommended him 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, (says Oldys) 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 the year 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."

Jonson was born 11th June 1574, and died 16th August, 1637, of a palsy. His father died about 1580, [Samuel Egerton Brydges: Query this date?] and his mother re-married a bricklayer.

He was very corpulent, and weighed within two pounds of twenty-two stone, as he says himself in his epistle to Mr. Arthur Squibb in his "Underwoods." [Samuel Egerton Brydges: Whalley's edit. Vol. VI. p. 418.]

"The first edition of his works was in 1616, one volume folio, pages 1015, imprinted by W. Stansby, entitled, 'The Workes of Ben Jonson.' Another volume in folio was added 1631. Again with additions, 1692, folio, with a copper-print of him laureated, his cloak over one shoulder, and gloves in his right hand, engraved by Wm. Elder, the writing-master, with Latin and English verses underneath. But the face is too smooth, not crabbed, but full enough. Mr. Vertue's print is much more like him. I have seen an original painting of him in the Cotton Library, but it is not done by a masterly hand. There is a painting of him in the picture-gallery at Oxford: and I have been told of a picture in Bricklayers' hail. A curious painting in miniature of his head in oil colours by Cornelius Jansen, and set in a gold frame or border, in possession of Mr. Collevous the painter, was sold by him for five guineas to Lord James Cavendish. There was an edition of Ben Jonson's works in 6 volumes, 8vo. with cuts.

"I do not perceive," adds Oldys, "that Langbaine had ever seen any of Ben Jonson's plays that were printed singly in his life-time, but two; and these are 'The New Inn' and 'Staple of News,' both printed in different sizes in the year 1631. So that others of his which were printed separately seem greater rarities than Shakspeare's. The single copies might die the sooner by his publishing a folio volume in 1616 of all he had written.

"In Ben's 'Execration upon Vulcan for suffering a fire to burn his MSS.' printed in his 'Underwoods' it appears, that among them was a history he had compiled of the reign of King Henry V. as far as eight of his nine years, in which he had the assistance of Sir Geo. Carew, Sir Robert Cotton, and Mr. Selden. He then lost also a poetical journal of his adventures in Scotland, and all his collections in poetry and humanity for twenty-four years, &c. I think the 'Execration on Vulcan' is not in the first edition of Ben's works in folio, 1616 and think that the fire was near or about the year 1629. He mentions in it the burning also of one or two of the play-houses; viz. the Globe on the Bankside, and the Fortune near Whitecross-street.

"Mr. Thomas Odell tells me that Ben Jonson was master of a play-house in Barbican, now the meeting-house of Mr. James Foster, the dissenting minister, and lived for some time in the house lately inhabited by Mr. Samuel Palmer, the painter in Bartholomew Close, and now by Mr. James, the letter-founder, whence he accounts for his rhime on the Sun and Moon taverns in Aldersgate-street. He mentions something of his theatre to the Earl of Pembroke, I think, before his Epigrams. He often mentions the Mermaid tavern, and commends the Canary there, where Sir Walter Raleigh had also a club, of which the ingenious Sir Francis Stuart, K.B. and son of the Earl of Murray, was one, to whom Ben Jonson dedicates his 'Silent Woman.' In the latter part of his Epigrams he mentions the Mermaid in Bread-street.

"See Drummond's Letter to his worthy friend, Master Benj. Jonson, at the end of his History of Scotland, 8vo.1618, p. 395, or in folio, 1655.

"I have somewhere read that Ben Jonson and Tom Brown died in Aldersgate-street. He was married in his younger years, and had a son who lived to be seven years old (see his epitaph on him); and also daughters, one of which, named Mary, dying young, he has also an epitaph on her (see the Life of Waller, 8vo. 174. of his son.) 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.

"Ben Jonson 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 clone 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 has been so ominous to him, he will try if Tragedy has a kinder aspect.

"A full shew of those he has exposed in this play is not now easily discernible. Besides Decker, and some ouches 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 you twopenny tear-mouth; and copper-laced scoundrels' &c. which language should not come very natural from him, if he had ever been a player himself; and such it seems he was before or after.

"See R. Herrick's poems on B. Jonson, in his Hesperides, 8vo. 1648, who has four or five little poems or epigrams on the same.

"See Oldham's Ode to the Memory of B. Jonson — Sam. Sheppard's Epigrams in 6 books, 8vo. 1651, p. 138. There are three poems, or epigrams, and an epitaph on Ben Jonson in a book called "Recreation for ingenious head-pieces, &c. 8vo. 1667. One is about his being robbed by a highwayman, in verse: another, his approbation of a copy of verses: another, a kind of epitaph, containing some very just praise, and a short epitaph."

[Samuel Egerton Brydges: Oldy's MS. notes to Langbaine.]