1619
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Heads of a Conversation betwixt the famous Poet Ben Johnson and William Drummond, January, 1619.

The Works of William Drummond, of Hawthornden. Consisting of those which were formerly Printed, and those which were design'd for the Press. Now published from the Author's original Copies.

William Drummond


Published in 1711, Ben Jonson's remarks to Drummond of Hawthornden bore great weight with later critics, though in some cases he was plainly jesting with his host. The gossip about Spenser's last days aroused great interest from later biographers and poets because it contributed to the idea that Spenser was a neglected and suffering genius. It should be kept in mind that Jonson was much less an admirer of modern, romantic poetry than was Drummond, whose views on contemporary writers are appended to the end of the essay by the 1711 editors.

James Granger: "William Drummond was a man of a fine natural genius, which he assiduously improved with all the advantages of arts, languages, and travel. He was universally esteemed one of the best poets of his age, and stands in the first rank of modern historians. He, for his excellence in telling a story, and interesting his reader in what he relates, is thought to be comparable to Livy. His poems consist chiefly of love-verses, epigrams, and epitaphs: his history is of five kings in Scotland of the the name of James. Ben Jonson went, on purpose to visit him, to Hawthornden, where he spent several months, which he esteemed the happiest part of his life. In Drummond's works, the best edition of which was printed at Edinburgh, in 1711, fol. are some very curious particulars that passed in conversation betwixt him and Jonson. The news of the beheading of Charles I. so shocked him, that it quickly hastened his death. Ob. 1649" Biographical History (1769, 1824) 3:141-42.

William Gifford: "I have no doubt that Drummond, a valetudinarian and 'minor poet,' was thoroughly borne down by the superior powers, physical and mental, of Jonson, and heartily glad when he saw the last of his somewhat boisterous and somewhat arrogant guest. The picture drawn by one who thus felt himself 'sat upon' at every turn was not likely to be a flattering one, and yet there is nothing in the Conversations to lead us to expect that the portrait given at the end of them would be composed almost entirely of shadows" Works of Ben Jonson (1816) 9:416.

George Saintsbury: "William Drummond was probably born at the beautiful seat whence he derived his designation, on 13th December 1585. His father was Sir John Drummond, and he was educated in Edinburgh and in France, betaking himself, like almost all young Scotsmen of family, to the study of the law. He came back to Scotland from France in 1610, and resided there for the greater part of his life, though he left it on at least two occasions for long periods, once travelling on the continent for eight years to recover from the grief of losing a lady to whom he was betrothed, and once retiring to avoid the inconvenience of the Civil War. Though a Royalist, Drummond submitted to be requisitioned against the Crown, but as an atonement he is said to have died of grief at Charles I.'s execution in 1649. The most famous incidents of his life are the visit that Ben Jonson paid to him, and the much discussed notes of that visit which Drummond left in manuscript. It would appear, on the whole, that Drummond was an example of a well-known type of cultivated dilettante, rather effeminate, equally unable to appreciate Jonson's boisterous ways and to show open offence at them, and in the same way equally disinclined to take the popular side and to endure risk and loss in defending his principles. He shows better in his verse" History of Elizabethan Literature (1887; 1909) 306-07.

W. J. Courthope: "In 1617 Drummond wrote his Forth Feasting, in honour of the King's visit to Scotland, after twelve years' absence. This poem earned the warm admiration of Ben Jonson, and was perhaps the cause of the visit paid by him to Hawthornden, when he made his journey to Scotland in 1618. On that occasion Drummond made notes of the conversation that passed between them, and recorded his impressions of Jonson's character. These being afterwards found among his papers, have served as the groundwork, on the one hand, for the unfavourable portraits so often painted of Ben Jonson, and on the other, for the retaliatory invective with which Gifford, Jonson's ablest editor, has sought to blacken the fame of Drummond. Neither judgment seems to be warranted by the facts. The criticisms of men and things which Jonson let fall, in the gaiety of his heart, and to give pungency to private conversation, were not meant to be taken seriously: the jottings of Drummond, private records for his own memory, were not intended for publication. To treat such things as a matter for biography is to destroy all sense of proportion" History of English Poetry (1895-1910) 3:188-89.

The Conversations are preserved in National LIbrary of Scotland Adv. MS. 33.3.19 fol. 25v-27.




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.

He used to say, That many Epigrams were ill, because they expressed in the End what should have been understood, by what was said before; as that of Sir John Davies, That he had a Pastoral initled, The May-Lord, his own name is Alkin, Ethra the Countess of Bedford, Mogbel Overbury, the old Countess of Suffolk, an Enchantress; other Names are given to Somerset, his Lady, Pembroke, the Countess of Rutland, Lady Wroth. In his first Scene, Alkin comes in mending his broken Pipe. He bringeth in, says our Author, Clowns making Mirth and foolish Sports, contrary to all other Pastorals. He hath also a Design to write a Fisher or Pastoral Play, and make the Stage of it the Lomond Lake; and also to write his Foot-Pilgrimage hither, and to call it a Discovery, in a Poem he calleth Edinburgh;

The Heart of Scotland, Britain's other Eye.

That he had an Intention to have made a Play like Plautus's Amphytruo, but left it off, for that he could never find Two so like one to the other, that he could perswade the Spectators that they were one.

That he had a Design to write an Epick Poem, and was to call it Chorologia, of the Worthies of his Country ratified by Fame, and was to dedicate it to his Country: It is all in Couplets, for he detested all other Rhimes. He said, he had written a Discourse of Poetry both against Campion and Daniel, especially the last, where he proves Couplets to be the best sort of Verse, especially when they are broke like Hexameters, and that cross Rimes and Stanza's, because the Purpose would lead beyond 8 Lines, were all forc'd.

His Censure of the English Poets was this: That Sidney did not keep a Decorum in making every one speak as well as himself. Spencer's Stanza's pleased him not, nor his Matter; the Meaning of the Allegory of his Fairy Queen he had delivered in Writing to Sir Walter Rawleigh, which was, That by the bleating Beast he understood the Puritans, and by the false Duessa the Queen of Scots. He told, That Spencer's Goods were robbed by the Irish, and his House and a little Child burnt, he and his Wife escaped, and after died for want of Bread in Kingstreet; he refused 20 Pieces sent him by my Lord Essex, and said he was sure he had no Time to spend them. Samuel Daniel was a good honest Man, had no Children, and was no Poet; and that he had wrote the Civil Wars, and yet hath not one Battle in all his Book. That Michael Drayton's Polyolbion, if he had performed what he promised, to write the Deeds of all the Worthies, had been excellent. That he was challenged for intituling one Book Mortimariades. That Sir John Davis play'd on Drayton an Epigram, who in his Sonnet concluded his Mistress might have been the Ninth Worthy, and said, he used a Phrase like Dametas in Arcadia, who said, his Mistriss, for Wit, might be a Giant. That Silvesters Translation of Du Bartas was not well done, and that he wrote his Verses before he understood to confer; and these of Fairfax were not good. That the Translations of Homer and Virgil in long Alexandrines were but Prose. That when Sir John Harrington desired him to tell the Truth of his Epigrams, he answered him, That he loved not the Truth, for they were Narrations, not Epigrams. He said, Donne was originally a Poet, his Grandfather on his Mother Side was Heywood the Epigrammatist. That Donne for not being understood would perish. He esteemed him the first Poet of the World for some Things; his Verses on the lost Ochadine he had by Heart, and that Passage of the Calm, That Dust and Feathers did not stir, all was so quiet. He affirmed that Donne wrote all his best pieces before he was Twenty five Years of Age. That Conceit of Donne's Transformation or [Greek: Metempsychosis], was, that he sought the Soul of that Apple which Eva pulled, and thereafter made it the Soul of a Bitch, then of a She-wolf, and so of a Woman: His general Purpose was to have brought it into all the Bodies of the Hereticks from the Soul of Cain; and at last left it in the Body of Calvin. He only wrote one Sheet of this, and since he was made Doctor; repented hugely, and resolved to destroy all his Poems. He told Donne, That his Anniversary was prophane and full of Blasphemies, that if it had been written of the Virgin Mary, it had been tolerable. To which Donne answered, That he described the Idea of a Woman, and not as she was. He said, Shakespear wanted Art and sometimes Sense; for in one of his Plays he brought in a Number of Men, saying they had suffered Ship-wrack in Bohemia, where is no Sea near by 100 Miles. That Sir Walter Rawleigh esteemed more Fame than Conscience: The best Wits in England were imployed in making his History. Ben himself had written a Piece Ground for an Heroick Poem, as King Arthur's Fiction; and that Sir P. Sidney had an Intention to have transformed all his Arcadia to the Stories of King Arthur. He said, Owen was a poor Pedantick Schoolmaster, sweeping his Living from the Posteriors of little Children, and has nothing good in him, his Epigrams being bare Narrations. Francis Beaumont died before he was 30 Years of Age, who, he said, was a good Poet, as were Fletcher and Chapman, whom he loved. That Sir William Alexander was not half kind to him, and neglected him, because a friend to Drayton. That Sir R. Ayton loved him dearly. He fought several Times with Marston, and says, That Marston wrote his Father-in-Law's Preachings, and his Father-in-law his Comedies. His Judgment of stranger Poets was, That he thought not Bartas a Poet, but a Verser, because he wrote not Fiction: He cursed Petrarch for redacting Verses into Sonnets, which he said was like that Tyrant's Bed, where some who were too short were racked, others too long cut short. That Guarini in his Pastor fido kept no Decorum in making Shepherds speak as well as himself. That he told Cardinal Du Peron, (when he was in France, Anno 1613) who shewed him his Translation of Virgil, that it was naught; that the best Pieces of Ronsard were his Odes. But all this was to no purpose (says our Author) for he never understood the French or Italian Languages. He said, Petronius, Plinius Secundus, and Plautus spoke best Latine, and that Tacitus wrote the Secrets of the Council and Senate, as Suetonius did those of the Cabinet and Court. That Lucan, taken in Parts, was excellent, but altogether naught. That Quintillian's 6, 7, and 8 Books were not only to be read, but altogether digested. That Juvenal, Horace and Martial, were to be read for Delight, and so was Pindar; but Hippocrates for Health. Of the English Nation he said, That Hooker's Ecclesiastical Polity was best for Church-Matters, and Selden's Titles of Honour for Antiquities. Here our Author relates, that the Censure of his Verses was, That they were all good, especially his Epitaph on Prince Henry, save that they smelled too much of the Schools, and were not the fancy of the Times: For a Child (says he) may write after the Fashion of the Greek and Latin Verses in running; yet, that he wished for pleasing the King, that Piece of Forth Feasting had been his own.

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.

Mr. Drummond gave the following Character of several Authors.

The Authors I have seen (saith he) on the Subject of Love, are the Earl of Surrey, Sir Thomas Wyat, (whom, because of their Antiquity, I will not match with our better Times) Sidney, Daniel, Drayton and Spencer. He who writeth the Art of English Poesy praiseth much Rawleigh and Dyer; but their Works are so few that are come to my Hands, I cannot well say any thing of them.

The last we have are Sir William Alexander and Shakespear, who have lately published their Works. Constable saith, some have written excellently, and Murray with others, I know, hath done well, if they could be brought to publish their Works: But of Secrets who can soundly judge?

The best and most exquisite Poet of this Subject, by Consent of the whole Senate of Poets, is Petrarch. S. W. R. in a Epitaph on Sidney, calleth him our English Petrarch; and Daniel regrets he was not a Petrarch, though his Delia be a Laura: So Sidney, in his Ast. and Stell. telleth of Petrarch, You that pure Petrarch long deceast Wooes with new-born Sighs.

The French have also set him before them, as a Paragon; whereof we still find, that those of our English Poets who have approach'd nearest to him are the most exquisite on this Subject. When I say, approach him, I mean not in following his Invention, but in forging as good; and when one Matter commeth to them all at once, who quintessenceth it in the finest Substance.

Among our English Poets, Petrarch is imitated, nay surpast in some Things, in Matter and Manner. In Matter, the nearest I find to him, is W. Alexander; who, insisting in these same Steps, hath Sextains, Madrigals and Songs, Echoes and Equivoques, which he hath not; whereby, as the one hath surpast him in Matter, so the other in Manner of Writing, or Form. This one Thing which is followed by the Italians, as of Sanazarrius and others, is, That none celebrateth their Mistress after her Death, which Ronsard hath imitated: After which Two, next (methinks) followeth Daniel, for Sweetness in Ryming Second to none. Drayton seemeth rather to have loved his Muse than his Mistress; by, I know not what artificial Similes, this sheweth well his Mind, but not the Passion. As to that which Spencer calleth his Amorelli, I am not of their Opinion, who think them his; for they are so childish, that it were not well to give them so honourable a Father.

Donne among the Anacreontick Lyricks, is Second to none, and far from all Second; But as Anacreon doth not approach Callimachus, tho' he excels in his own kind, nor Horace to Virgil; nor can I be brought to think him to excel either Alexander's or Sidney's Verses. They can hardly be compared together, trading diverse Paths; the one flying swift, but low; the other, like the Eagle, surpassing the Clouds. I think, if he would, he might easily be the best Epigrammatist we have found in English; of which I have not yet seen any come near the Ancients.

Compare Song, Marry and Love, &c. with Tasso's Stanzas against Beauty; one shall hardly know who hath the best.

Drayton's Polyolbion, is one of the smoothest Poems I have seen in English, Poetical and well prosecuted; there are some Pieces in him, I dare compare with the best Transmarine Poems.

The 7th Song pleaseth me much.

The 12th is excellent.

The 13th also: The Discourse of Hunting, passeth with any Poet. And

The 18th, which is his Last in this Edition, 1614.

I find in him, which is the most part of my Compatriots, too great an Admiration of their Country; on the History of which, whilst they muse, as wondering, they forget sometimes to be good Poets.

Silvester's Translation of Judith, and the Battle of Yvory, are Excellent. He is not happy in his Inventions, as may be seen in his Tabacco batter'd, and Epitaphes: Who likes to know whether he or Hudson hath the Advantage of Judith, let them compare the Beginning of the 4th Book, O Silver brow'd Diana, &c. And the End of the 4th Book, Her waved Locks, &c. The midst of the 8th Book, In Ragau's ample Plain one Morning met, &c. The 6th Book, after the Beginning, Each being set anon, fulfilled out, &c. And after, Judas, said she, thy Jacob to deliver, now is the Time, &c. His Pains are much to be praised, and happy Translations, in sundry parts equalling the Original.


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