1860 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Ben Jonson

George Gilfillan, in Specimens with Memoirs of the less-known British Poets (1860) 1:253-54.



As "rare Ben" chiefly shone as a dramatist, we need not recount at length the events of his life. He was born in 1574; his father, who had been a clergyman in Westminster, and was sprung from a Scotch family in Annandale, having died before his birth. His mother marrying a bricklayer, Ben was brought up to the same employment. Disliking this, he enlisted in the army, and served with credit in the Low Countries. When he came home, he entered St. John's College, Cambridge; but his stay there must have been short, since he is found in London at the age of twenty, married, and acting on the stage. He began at the same time to write dramas. He was unlucky enough to quarrel with and kill another performer, for which lie was committed to prison, but released without a trial. He resumed his labours as a writer for the stage; but having failed in the acting department, he forsook it for ever. His first hit was, Every Man in his Humour, a play enacted in 1598, Shakspeare being one of the actors. His course afterwards was chequered. He quarrelled with Marston and Dekker, — he was imprisoned for some reflections on the Scottish nation in one of his comedies, — he was appointed in 1619 poet-laureate, with a pension of 100 marks, — he made the same year a journey to Scotland on foot, where he visited Drummond at Hawthornden, and they seem to have mutually loathed each other, — he fell into habits of intemperance, and acquired, as he said himself, "A mountain belly and a rocky face." His favourite haunts were the Mermaid, and the Falcon Tavern, Southwark. He was engaged in constant squabbles with his contemporaries, and died at last, in 1637, in miserably poor circumstances. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, under a square tablet, where one of his admirers afterwards inscribed the words, "O rare Ben Jonson!"

Of his powers as a dramatist we need not speak, but present our readers with some rough and racy specimens of his poetry.