Though the readers of Ben Jonson are relatively few, there is no securer fame in our literature than his. He lived long, and ended his days in a very different world of letters as well as of politics from that upon which, after his return from military service in the Netherlands, he had launched the earliest of his great comedies. In his old age, when he had survived both the heat of the quarrels in which he had exulted and the fulness of the popularity which he had contemned, — when his powers were declining and his troubles increasing — he was generally acknowledged as the chief of his art. His society was courted by grave seniors and by youthful aspirants to literary honours, while by an inner circle of devotees he was venerated as their "metropolitan in poetry," and honoured after death with a collection of tributes such as even in that age of panegyrics would have overweighted the remembrance of any other man. During the Restoration period his reputation as an English dramatist was still second to none, so far as critical opinion was concerned. But a poet's name is not kept green by critical opinion, and the name of a dramatic poet perhaps least of all to his old age, as Jonson informed King Charles I, the "less poetic boys" had judged "parts of him decayed"; to posterity he gradually came to seem over-full and over-difficult. And thus in the end his inability or unwillingness (often expressed with unnecessary frankness) to come to terms with the larger public has revenged itself by his writings having been long and unworthily neglected. To sink irresistibly into the souls of men, or lightly to move the mirth of the multitude, was and is beyond the power of his poetic genius. To dissolve its inspirations in wantonness, or to satisfy coarse appetites with the husks of its fruits, was incompatible with the character of his mind. No writer was ever at once so varied and so serious, so voluminous and so conscientious. Few have been so careful about what they wrote before publication, and so careless about it afterwards. He thought that he could trust his reputation to the judgment of those who can "understand and define what merit is"; and upon the whole it may be said that both the audience to which he appealed, and that whose opinion he professed neither to love nor to fear, have taken him at his word. His fame as a dramatist — on which his general fame will always essentially depend — must therefore remain within the keeping of those who are "sealed of the tribe of Ben"; but of these the succession is certain to remain unbroken.
One quite special cause has in the course of time not less unjustly than unfortunately interfered with the posthumous popularity of Ben Jonson. Not only has his poetic fame — as was inevitable — been overshadowed by that of Shakspere; but he was long believed to have entertained, and to have taken frequent opportunities of expressing, a malign jealousy of one both greater and more successful than himself. This rather musty charge was elaborately examined and refuted by Jonson's editor, Gifford, to whose efforts on this head nothing remains to be added, though perhaps here and there something may with advantage be taken away from them. With pen and with tongue Ben Jonson was always, consciously or unconsciously, exerting his critical faculty; and like his great namesake of the eighteenth century, who in many respects (not including creative gifts) so strangely resembles him, he loved to measure and qualify even the praise which came warmest from his heart. In order to judge of his feelings towards Shakspere, and his opinion of Shakspere's genius, it suffices to read with candour as well as care the famous lines included in the following selection. If the constitution of the writer's mind, and the circumstances of the writing be taken into account, it may be said with truth that few criticisms at once so generous and so discerning have ever been committed to posterity by one great poet concerning another. At all events it should not be overlooked that the praise which from Jonson weighs heaviest — the praise of Shakspere's art — was precisely that of which many generations delighting in the poet's "native woodnotes wild" failed so understand the meaning.
As a matter of course, Jonson is chiefly remembered as a dramatist, though his labours as such very far from exhausted his extraordinary powers of work, and though for ten years (beginning with that of Shakspere's death) he never wrote for the stage at all. Indeed, though he declared his profits as a playwright to have been extremely small, it seems to have been necessity rather than choice which turned his efforts in this direction. In the spirited Ode to Himself (of which the date is uncertain, but which probably belongs to some time near 1616), as well as in the lines to Shakspere, he makes no secret of his longing for what seemed to him nobler because freer forms of poetry. But though he not long afterwards (1619) told Drummond of Hawthornden in one of his famous Conversations, "that he had an intention to perfect an epic poem entitled Heroologia, of the Worthies of this Country roused by Fame, and to dedicate it to his country," nothing came of the project. Nor would it appear that the burning of his library, for which he execrated "the lame Lord of Fire" in a vivacious series of his favourite heroic couplets, consumed together with the MS. of his English Grammar and of his Aristotelian notes for his Translation of Horace's Art of Poetry, any original poem of special length or importance. Exclusively, therefore, of his dramas and masques, and of a few translations from the Latin Poets professing to be nothing more than such, Jonson's poetical remains consist only of the three collections mentioned at the head of this notice. How far the last of these, the Underwoods, which comprises epistles, epigrams, and lyrics of various kinds, was prepared or even designed for publication by Jonson, is unknown.
The lyrics in Jonson's dramas are extremely few, as becomes a dramatist who (as he rather too tersely expresses it) strove not only to set "words above action," but "matter above words." Indeed, with the exception of two or three pretty songs (of which one, exquisitely rendered from a Latin original, and another, afterwards reprinted in an enlarged form in the Underwoods, are cited to exemplify the light touch at the command of Jonson's not always laborious fingers) none of these often charming and always disturbing obstacles to dramatic interest interfere with the steady progress of his plays. The stately choruses in the tragedy of Catiline stand on a different footing from that of more or less desultory songs.
Even in Jonson's masques, — a form of poetry which owes to him not indeed its origin, but its establishment as a species in our literature — though the lyrical element necessarily forms an integral part of the composition, yet the importance attached to it by the author is unmistakably secondary. Nor is the reason of this far so seek. From one point of view, indeed, it is right and proper to insist upon the essential differences between a masque and a drama, and upon the consequent absurdity of applying the same standards of criticism to both. From another point of view it is equally true that it is the dramatic element, or the element of action, in the masque as treated by Jonson, which constitutes the difference between it and a mere "disguising" — a difference which in the case of earlier masques had no existence at all. According to his wont, Jonson was above all anxious to "furnish the inward parts" of the masques, barriers and other entertainments composed by him, and in an age when, by the caprice of fashion and according to the inevitable law of change, a taste for these "transitory devices" had largely superseded the love of the drama, to offer nothing that was not both "nourishing and sound." Hence whether it was a municipal "invention in the Strand," to the body of which he had to "adapt his soul," or a hint of the Queen's which he had so develope as ladies' hints sometimes require, his aim was chiefly so give something of dramatic life a well as of deeper meaning to his occasional pieces. Not only was he resolved that so far as in him lay "painting and carpentry" should not be (as he thought Inigo Jones strove to make them) "the soul of masque"; but even the songs and dances, indispensable though they were in one sense, were in another to be, so to speak, adventitious. This, while his masques contain more dramatic life than those of any of his contemporaries, and reveal more poetic purpose than those of any other English writer except Milton, the lyrical part of them, though always adequate, rarely challenges special admiration. The extract in heroic couplets from the Hymenai furnishes a typical instance of the thought expended by Johnson upon what in most other hands would have been a mere conventional personification; the short adagio from the Fortunate Isles shows how fully competent he was to marry words to the required movement of dance or song. A longer extract from Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue would have been necessary to bring into fullest relief what was owed to Jonson by the writer of the greatest — without rival or parallel — of all English masques. Is it inconceivable that our poets should recur, less tentatively than they have hitherto done, to a poetic form so peculiarly suitable for giving expression to the more varied intellectual life of these latter times as was that which Jonson virtually secured to our literature?
Among his detached pieces the Epigrams were the favourites of "honest" Ben Jonson himself, — "the ripest," as he called them, "of his studies." It is unnecessary to point out (though the poet had to do so in the admirable lines addressed to his "mere English" critic) that his conception of the forms and functions of an epigram was the wider one entertained by the Ancients; and that therefore his purpose in the large majority of these poems is not to work rapidly up to a point at the close. If this be borne in mind, the felicitous terseness of these Epigrams, and of those pieces in the Underwoods, which belong to the same class, will not be denied the admiration which it deserves. Some are witty, in the narrower sense of the term, — nearly all in the broader. Their sarcasm, where they contain such, directs itself against various types of men and women — among them, much to Jonson's credit, rather against chose whom he might have been expected to flatter than those whom he might have been expected so assail. But the Fastidious Brisks were as genuine an abomination to Ben Jonson as the Zeal-of-the-land Busies, and this though he to some extent depended for his bread as well as for his sack upon the good-will of the Court and courtiers. And it may be said in passing that though like all his brother-dramatists he was loyally devoted to the Crown, he was free-spoken even to the most august of his patrons, and constantly recurs to the commonplace but wholesome maxim that it is the love, not the fear, of his subjects upon which a monarch ought to rely. But Jonson's satirical epigrams are both less effective and less elaborate than those of a directly opposite tendency. Few of our Jacobean or Caroline poets have equalled him in pregnancy of panegyric — whether his theme was the praise of statesmen like the elder or the younger Cecil, or of men of letters varying in kind and degree from Selden, whom he salutes as "monarch of letters," to the poet's fellow-dramatists. Nor was he less happy when the object of his poetic homage was a gentle woman, like the Countess of Bedford celebrated in the lines cited below. And his Epitaphs, among which room could only be found here for two of the most pathetic, remain unsurpassed, not only for a condensed force which we are accustomed to find in Jonson, but also for a tender grace which he is not so usually supposed to have possessed.
In the collection called the Forest, small as it is, Jonson has done the greatest justice so the variety of poetic styles of which (in addition to the dramatic) he was capable. He here excuses himself for not writing of love, partly on the favourite poets' plea of growing age; and in truth his muse was comparatively a stranger to Eros. Yet the little chaplet of tributes so "Charis" put together by Jonson in 1624 and inserted in the Underwoods, and some charming original and translated pieces to be found elsewhere, show him not only to have written graceful love-poetry himself, but to have furnished examples of it to his younger contemporaries. Herrick was in his way almost as much indebted to Jonson as Milton was in his. As a translator or adapter of Classical originals, Jonson was in his element; his re-settings of favourite gems from Catullus and others were doubtless true labours of love. For the "bricklayer" (as his opponents delighted to be historically justified in calling him) had the early nurture of a scholar and through life he remained deeply grateful to the famous Camden, his master at Westminster. That among the Latin poets Horace should have specially attracted him, is easily to be accounted for; in some of his original Epistles he has all the brightness and all the urbanity of his Roman model — in the fine Epode included in the Forest he rises to a moral dignity beyond the reach either of Horace or of his later imitators.
For not even a slight summary like the present should exclude from mention among Jonson's characteristics the firm and steady tone of his morality. In his earlier manhood he twice changed his faith — without the faintest suspicion of interested motives attaching to his conversion — and in his later days he stems to have remained a close student of theology, inclining now to
those wiser guides
Whom fashion had not drawn to study sides.
But to a conscientious desire for truth he added a humility of soul towards things divine, which stands in strange and touching contrast to the high mettle and quick temper of his bearing in most other matters. Critics have been known to cry out against having to hear too much about the robustness of Ben Jonson; but his manliness is inseparable from him, and, as the lines To Heaven show, he was not ashamed even of his piety.