1795 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Ben Jonson

Robert Anderson, in Works of the British Poets (1795) 4:527-28.



The character of Jonson, like that of most celebrated wits, has been drawn with great diversity of lights and shades, according as affection or envy guided the pencil. His person, as he has himself told us, was corpulent and large. His disposition seems to have been reserved and saturnine, and sometimes not a little oppressed with the gloom of a splenetic imagination. He has been often represented as of an envious, arrogant, and overbearing temper, and insolent and haughty in his converse; but what his enemies condemns as vanity or conceit, might be only the exertions of conscious and insulted merit. He was laborious and indefatigable in his studies; his reading was copious and extensive; his memory tenacious and strong; his judgment accurate and solid. In his friendships he was cautious and sincere, yet accused of levity and ingratitude; but his accusers were the criminals. With men of virtue and learning, he was connected by the ties of intimacy and affection. Randolph and Cartwright revered him as the great reformer, and as the father of the British stage, and gloried in the title of his adopted sons. He was frequently called the "learned" Ben, the "judicious" Ben, the "Great" Ben, the "immortal" Ben. Stern and rigid as his virtue was, he was easy and social in the convivial meetings of his friends; and the laws of his Symposia, inscribed over the chimney of the Apollo, a room in the Devil Tavern, near Temple-Bar, where he kept his club, show that he was neither averse to the pleasures of conversation, nor ignorant of what would render it agreeable and improving. From the attention shown to him by his contemporaries, it might be suspected that the charge of surliness and moroseness, imputed to him by the writers of the present time, was not well founded. The opinions of those who lived in or near the time when he flourished, merit observation. They sometimes elicit a ray of intelligence, which later opinions do not always give.