1619 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Ben Jonson

William Drummond, in "Heads of a Conversation [with] Ben Jonson" (1619); Works (1711) 224, 226.



He (Ben Johnson) said, That his Grandfather came from Castile, to which he had come from Annandale in Scotland; That he served King Henry VIII. and was a Gentleman. His Father lost his Estate under Queen Mary, having been cast in a Prison and forfeited, and at last he turn'd Minister. He was Posthumous, being born a Month after his Father's Death, and was put to School by a Friend. His Master was Camden. Afterwards he was taken from it, and put to another Craft, viz. to be a Brick-layer, which he could not endure, but went to the Low-Countries, and returning home again, he betook himself to his wonted Studies. In his Service in the Low-Countries he had, in the View of both the Armies, killed an Enemy, and taken the optima spolia from him; and since coming into England, being appealed to a Duel, he had killed his Adversary, who had hurt him in the Arm, and whose Sword was Ten Inches longer than his. For this Crime he was imprisoned and almost at the Gallows. Then he took his Religion on Trust of a Priest, who visited him in Prison: He was 12 Years a Papist; but after this he was reconciled to the Church of England, and left off to be a Recusant. (At his first Communion, in Token of his true Reconciliation, he drunk out the full Cup of Wine.) He was Master of Arts in both Universities. In the Time of his close Imprisonment under Queen Elizabeth there were Spies to catch him, but he was advertised of them by the Keeper. He has an Epigram on the Spies. He married a Wife, who was a Shrew, yet honest to him. When the King came to England, about the Time that the Plague was in London, he [Ben Johnson] being in the Country at Sir. Rob. Cotton's House with old Camden, he saw in a Vision his Eldest Son, then a young Child and London, appeared unto him with the Mark of a bloody Cross on his Forehead, as if it had been cut with a Sword; at which, amaz'd, he pray'd unto God, and in the Morning he came to Mr. Camden's Chamber to tell him, who perswaded him it was but an Apprehension, at which he should not be dejected: In the mean time there come Letters from his Wife of the Death of that Boy in the Plague. He appear'd to him, he said, of a Manly Shape, and of that Growth he thinks shall be at the Resurrection.

He was accused by Sir James Murray to the King, for writing something against the Scots in a Play called Eastward Hoe, and voluntarily imprisoned himself with Chapman and Marston, who had written it amongst them: It was reported, that they should have their Ears and Noses cut. After their Delivery he entertained all his Friends, there were present Camden, Selden, and others. In the Middle of the Feast his old Mother drank to him, and shewed him a Paper, which she designed (if the Sentence had past) to have mixed among his Drink, and it was strong and lusty Poison, and, that she was no Churl, she told she designed first to have drunk it her self.

He said, he had spent a whole Night in lying looking to his great Toe, about which he hath seen Tartars and Turks, Romans and Carthaginians fight in his Imagination.

He wrote all his Verses first in Prose, as his Master Camden taught him, and said, That Verses stood by Sense, without either Colours or Accent....

As Ben Johnson has been very liberal of his Censures on all his Co-temporaries, so our Author does not spare him: For (he says) Ben Johnson was a great Lover and Praiser of himself, a Contemner of those about him, especially after Drink, which is one of the Elements in which he lived; a Dissembler of the Parts which reign in him; a Bragger of some Good that he wanted, thinketh nothing well done, but what either he himself or some of his Friends have said or done; He is passionately kind and angry, careless either to gain or keep; vindictive, but if he be well answered, at himself; interprets best Sayings and Deeds often to the worst. He was for any Religion, as being versed in both; oppressed with Fancy, which hath over-mastered his Reason, a general Disease in many Poets. His Inventions are smooth and easy, but above all he excelleth in a Translation. When his Play of the Silent Woman was first acted, there were found Verses after on the Stage against him, concluding, That the Play was well named the Silent Woman, because there was never one Man to say Plaudite to it.