1824 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Ben Jonson

Bryan Waller Procter, in Effigies Poeticae, or, the Portraits of the British Poets (1824) 27-29.



From a Picture by Cornelius Jansen, in the Collection of the Earl of Hardwicke.

This is the portrait of BEN JONSON — "Old Ben" — "Father Ben," (as Howell calls him,) the cotemporary of Shakspeare and Fletcher, and Beaumont's friend.

How I do love thee, Beaumont, and thy muse,
That onto me dost such religion use!

This is he who put such a life into learning, and gave wings to history; who dealt out lofty tragedy like an oracle, and added substance unto airy wit. Look on him, courteous reader, and you will see the elements of that humour from which sprang so many masterly fictions; — Kitely, and Bobadil, (fine Bobadil, who swore "by the foot of Pharaoh,") — Mosca and his Fox, (wiser than Esop's,) who could flatter even the fees from lawyers:

I oft have heard him say how he admired
Men of your large profession, that could speak
To every cause, and things mere contraries,
Till they were hoarse again, — yet all be law.

Face and Subtle, (twill children of Hermes,) who first pillaged the world and then quarrelled over the spoil, — and that rich idealist, Sir Epicure Mammon; the only man on record who ever went beyond his dramatic name. We should like, we confess, though we are not outrageous gourmands, to spend some short six weeks with that illustrious knight, in his retreat opposite to Barataria,—

—Where we might eat our mullets,
Soused in high country wines, sup pheasants' eggs,
And have our cockles boiled in silver shells,
Our shrimps to swim again, as when they lived,
In a rare butter, made of dolphin's milk,
Whose cream does look like opals;

and then to recline on the Persian silks, and "taste the air of palaces," and other the accumulated luxuries of him who, for one cloudless month, lived lapped in a golden dream, and enjoyed, more nearly than any one else, the virtues of the elixir vitae and the philosopher's stone.

Jonson was a man of rare power. His mind, indeed, was built up by study; and he attained his lofty eminence in the world by casting down his hoards of learning, and rising upon the collected thoughts of others. He did not spring up to the "heaven of heavens," like Shakspeare, on rainbow wings; nor did his genius run wild and untractable, and grow exhausted, like that of Fletcher. What he did, he did well and completely, after his fashion. His tragedies are heavy: he imbedded himself so entirely in historical facts and classical thoughts, that he could not extricate himself so as to have the full use of his strength, which was great: but his comedies, in their way, are matchless. There is a raciness in them, and a full vigorous body of humour, which no one has surpassed. Congreve has more brilliancy and more wit, but he has less substance and no character. Shakspeare's wit is certainly superior, and his humour equal; but whether it be that his wit is winged and carries us out of the ordinary path or not, we cannot say; but even his comedies seem to offer less solid fare than those of Ben Jonson. Shakspeare's comedies, in fact, are like the pleasure, and Jonson's like the business of life.

The countenance of our old poet, here given, is lustrous with rich expression. It is not openmouthed laughter, nor flippant wit; but there is a wealth of character about it, and a depth of humour in the eyes, which look like the fountains from which the current of comedy flowed.