Ben Jonson

AUTHORS are apt to be popularly considered as physically a feeble folk, — as timid, nervous, dyspeptic rhymers or prosers, unfitted to grapple with the rough realities of life. We shall endeavor, in the following pages, to present our readers with the image of one calculated to reverse this impression, — the image of a stalwart man of letters, who lived two centuries and a half ago, in the greatest age of English literature, — who undeniably had brawny fists as well as forgetive faculties, — one who could handle a club as readily as a pen, hit his mark with a bullet as surely as with a word, and, a sort of cross between the bully and the bard, could shoulder his way through a crowd of prize-fighters to take his seat among the tuneful company of immortal poets. This man, Ben Jonson, commonly stands next to Shakespeare in a consideration of the dramatic literature of the age of Elizabeth ; and certainly, if the “ thousand-souled ” Shakespeare may be said to represent mankind, Ben as Unmistakably stands for English-kind. He is “ Saxon ” England in epitome, — John Bull passing from a name into a man, — a proud, strong, tough, solid, domineering individual, whose intellect and personality cannot be severed, even in thought, from his body and personal appearance. Ben’s mind, indeed, was rooted in Ben’s character; and his character took symbolic form in his physical frame. He seemed built up, mentally as well as bodily, out of beef and sack, mutton and Canary; or, to say the least, was a joint product of the English mind and the English larder, of the fat as well as the thought of the land, of the soil as well as the soul of England. The moment we attempt to estimate his eminence as a dramatist, he disturbs the equanimity of our judgment by tumbling head-foremost into the imagination as a big, bluff, burly, and quarrelsome man, with “a mountain belly and a rocky face.” He is a very pleasant boon companion as long as we make our idea of his importance agree with his own ; but the instant we attempt to dissect his intellectual pretensions, the living animal becomes a dangerous subject, — his countenance flames, his great hands double up, his thick lips begin to twitch with impending invective; and while the critic’s impression of him is thus all the more vivid, he is checked in its expression by a very natural fear of the consequences. There is no safety but in taking this rowdy leviathan of letters at his own valuation ; and the relation of critics towards him is as perilous as that of the juries towards the Irish advocate, who had an unpleasant habit of challenging them to personal combat whenever they brought in a verdict against any of his clients. There is, in fact, such a vast animal force in old Ben’s self-assertion, that he bullies posterity as he bullied his contemporaries ; and while we admit his claims to rank next to Shakespeare among the dramatists of his age, we beg our readers to understand that we do it under intimidation.

The qualities of this bold, racy, and brawny egotist can be best conveyed in a biographical form. He was born in 1574, the grandson of a gentleman who, for his religion, lost his estate, and for a time his liberty, in Queen Mary’s time, and the son of a clergyman in humble circumstances, who died about a month before his “rare” offspring was born. His mother, shortly after the death of her husband, married a master - bricklayer. Ben, who as a boy doubtless exhibited brightness of intellect and audacity of spirit, seems to have attracted the attention of Camden, who placed him in Westminster School, of which he was master. Ben there displayed so warm a love of learning, and so much capacity in rapidly acquiring it, that, at the age of sixteen, he is said to have been removed to the University of Cambridge, though he stated to Drummond, long afterwards, that he was “master of arts in both the Universities, by their favor, not his studie.” His ambition at this time, if we may believe some of his biographers, was to be a clergyman ; and had it been gratified, he would probably have blustered his way to a bishopric, and proved himself one of the most arrogant, learned, and pugnacious disputants of the English Church Militant,— perhaps have furnished the type of that peculiar religionist compounded of bully, pedant, and bigot which Warburton was afterwards, from the lack of models, compelled to originate. But after residing a few months at the University, Ben, deserted by his friends and destitute of money, found it impossible to carry out his design ; and he returned disappointed to his mother’s house. As she could not support him in idleness, the stout-hearted student adopted the most obvious means of earning his daily bread, and for a short time followed the occupation of his father-inlaw, going to the work of bricklaying, according to the tradition, with a trowel in one hand, but with a Horace in the other. His enemies among the dramatists did not forget this when he became famous, but meanly sneered at him as “ the lime-and-mortar poet.” When we reflect that in the aristocratic age of good Queen Bess, play-writing, even the writing of Hamlets and Alchymists, was, if we may trust Dr. Farmer, hardly considered “ a creditable employ,” we may form some judgment of the position of the working classes, when a mechanic was thus deemed to have no rights which a playwright “ was bound to respect.”

We have no means of deciding whether or not Ben was foolish enough to look upon his trade as degrading ; that it was distasteful we know from the fact that he soon exchanged the trowel for the sword ; and we hear no more of his dealing with bricks, if we may except his questionable habit of sometimes carrying too many of them in his hat. At the age of eighteen he ran away to the Continent, and enlisted as a volunteer in the English army in Flanders, fully intending, doubtless, that, as fate seemed against his being a Homer or an Aristotle, to try if fortune would not make him an Alexander or a Hannibal. As ill-luck would have it, however, his abundant vitality had little scope in martial exercise. He does not appear to have been in any general engagement, though he signalized his personal prowess in a manner which he was determined should not be forgotten through any diffidence of his own. Boastful as he was brave, he was never weary of bragging how he had encountered one of the enemy, fought with him in presence of both armies, killed him, and triumphantly “ taken opima spolia from him.”

After serving one campaign, our AjaxThersites returned, at the age of nineteen, to England, bringing with him, according to Gifford, “ the reputation of a brave man, a smattering of Dutch, and an empty purse.” To these accomplishments he probably added that of drinking ; for, as “ our army in Flanders ” ever drank terribly as well as “swore terribly,” it may be supposed that Ben there laid, deep and wide, the foundation of his bacchanalian habits. Arrived in London, and thrown on his own resources for support, he turned naturally to the stage, and became an actor in a minor play-house, called the Green Curtain. Though he was through life a good reader, and though at this time he was not afflicted with the scurvy, which eventually so punched his face as to make one of his satirists compare it, with witty malice, to the cover of a warming-pan, he still never rose to any eminence as an actor. He had not been long at the Green Curtain when a quarrel with one of his fellow performers led to a duel, in which Jonson killed his antagonist, was arrested on a charge of murder, and, in his own phrase, was brought “almost at the gallowes,” — an unpleasant proximity which he hastened to increase by relieving the weariness of imprisonment in discussions on religion with a Popish priest, also a prisoner, and by being converted to Romanism. As the zealous professors of the old faith had passed, in Elizabeth’s time, from persecutors into martyrs, Ben, the descendant of one of Queen Mary's victims, evinced more than his usual worldly prudence in seizing this occasion to join their company, as he could reasonably hope that, if he escaped hanging on the charge of homicide, he still might contrive to be beheaded on a charge of treason. In regard, however, to the original cause of his imprisonment, it would seem that, on investigation, it was found the duel had been forced upon him, that his antagonist had taken the precaution of bringing into the field a sword ten inches longer than his own, and thus, far from intending to be the victim of murder, had not unsagaciously counted on committing it. Jonson was released ; but, apparently vexed at this propitious turn to his fortunes, instead of casting about for some means of subsistence, he almost immediately married a woman as poor as himself, — a wife whom he afterwards curtly described as “ a shrew, yet honest.” A shrew, indeed ! As if Mrs. jonson must not often have had just occasion to use her tongue tartly ! — as if her redoubtable Ben did not often need its acrid admonitions ! They seem to have lived together until 1613, when they separated.

Absolute necessity now drove Jonson again to the stage, probably both as actor and writer. He began his dramatic career, as Shakespeare began his, by doing job-work for the managers ; that is, by altering, recasting, and making additions to old plays. At last, in 1596, in his twenty-second year, he placed himself at a bound among the famous dramatists of the time, by the production, at the Rose Theatre, of his comedy of “ Every Man in his Humor.” Two years afterwards, having in the mean time been altered and improved, it was, through the influence of Shakespeare, accepted by the players of the Blackfriars’ Theatre, Shakespeare himself acting the characterless part of the Elder Knowell.

Among the writers of the Elizabethan age, an age in which, for a wonder, there seemed to be a glut of genius, Ben is prominent more for racy originality of personal character, weight or understanding, and quickness of fancy, than for creativeness of imagination. His first play, “ Every Man in his Humor,” indicates to a great extent the quality and the kind of power with which he was endowed. His prominent characteristic was will, — will carried to self-will, and sometimes to selfexaggeration almost furious. His understanding was solid, strong, penetrating, even broad, and it was well furnished with matter derived both from experience and books ; but, dominated by a personality so fretful and fierce, it was impelled to look at men and things, not in their relations to each other, but in their relations to Ben. He had reached that ideal of stormy conceit in which, according to Emerson, the egotist declares, “ Difference from me is the measure of absurdity.” Even the imaginary characters he delineated as a dramatist were all bound, as by tough cords, to the will that gave them being, lacked that joyous freedom and careless grace of movement which rightfully belonged to them as denizens of an ideal world, and had to obey their master Ben, as puppets obey the showman. His power of external observation was pitilessly keen and searching, and it was accompanied by a rich, though somewhat coarse and insolent vein of humor ; but his egotism commonly directed his observation to what was below, rather than above himself, and gave to his humor a scornful, rather than a genial tone. He huffs even in his hilarity ; his fun is never infectious ; and his very laughter is an assertion of superior wisdom. He has none of that humanizing humor which, in Shakespeare, makes us like the vagabonds we laugh at, and which insures for Dogberry and Nick Bottom, Autolychus and Falstaff, warmer friends among readers than many great historic dignities of the state and the camp can command.

In regard to the materials of the dramatist, jonson, in his vagrant career, had seen human nature under many aspects ; but he had surveyed it neither with the eye of reason, nor the eye of imagination. His mind fastened on the hard actualities of observation, without passing to what they implied or suggested. Deficient thus in philosophic insight and poetic insight, his shrewd, contemptuous glance rarely penetrated beneath the manners and eccentricities of men. His attention was arrested, not by character, but by prominent peculiarities of character,— peculiarities which almost transformed character into caricature. To use his own phrase, he delineated humors rather than persons, that is, individuals under the influence of some dominant affectation, or whim, or conceit, or passion, that drew into itself, colored, and mastered the whole nature, — "an acorn,” as Sir Thomas Browne phrases it, “ in their young brows, which grew to an oak in their old heads.” He thus inverts the true process of characterization. Instead of seeing the trait as an offshoot of the individual, he individualizes the trait. Every man is in his humor, instead of every humor being in its man. In order that there should be no misconception of his purpose, he named his chief characters after their predominant qualities, as Morose, Surly, Sir Amorous La Fool, Sir Politic Would Be, Sir Epicure Mammon, and the like; and, apprehensive even then that his whole precious meaning would not be taken in, he appended to his dramatis personœ further explanations of their respective natures.

This distrust of the power of language to lodge a notion in another brain is especially English ; but Ben, of all writers, seems to have been most impressed with the necessity of pounding an idea into the perceptions of his countrymen. His mode resembles the attempt of that honest Briton, who thus delivered his judgment on the French nation: “I hate a Frenchman, sir. Every Frenchman is either a puppy or a rascal, sir.” And then, fearful that he had not been sufficiently explicit, he added, “ Do you take my idea ? ”

With all abatements, however, the comedy of “ Every Man in his Humor” is a remarkable effort, considered as the production of a young man of twentythree. The two most striking characters are Kitely and Captain Bobadil. Give Jonson, indeed, a peculiarity to start with, and he worked it out with logical exactness. So intense was his conception of it, that he clothed it in flesh and blood, gave it a substantial existence, and sometimes succeeded in forcing it into literature as a permanent character.

Bobadil, especially, is one of Ben’s masterpieces. He is the most colossal coward and braggart of the comic stage. He can swear by nothing less terrible than “by the body of Cæsar,” or “by the foot of Pharaoh,” when his oath is not something more terrific still, namely, “ by my valor ”! Every schoolboy knows the celebrated passage in which the boasting Captain offers to settle the affairs of Europe by associating with himself twenty other Bobadils, as cunning i’ the fence as himself, and challenging an army of forty thousand men, twenty at a time, and killing the whole in a certain number of days. Leaving out the cowardice, we may say there was something of Bobadil in Jonson himself; and it may be shrewdly suspected that his conceit of destroying an army in this fashion came into his head in the exultation of feeling which followed his own successful exploit, in the presence of both armies, when he was a soldier in Flanders. Old John Dennis described genius “as a furious joy and pride of school at the conception of an extraordinary hint.” Ben had this “furious joy and pride,” not only in the conception of extraordinary hints, but in the doing of extraordinary things.

Jonson followed up his success by producing the plays of “ Every Man out of his Humor,” and “ Cynthia’s Revels,” dramatic satires on the manners, follies, affectations, and vices of the city and the court One good result of Jonson’s egotism was, that it made him afraid of nothing. He openly appeared among the dramatists of his day as a reformer, and, poor as he was, refused to pander to popular tastes, whether those tastes took the direction of ribaldry, or blasphemy, or bombast. He had courage, morality, earnestness ; but then his courage was so blustering, his morality so irascible, and his devotion to his own ideas of art so exclusive, that he was constantly defying and insuiting the persons he proposed to teach. Other dramatists said to the audience, “ Please to applaud this ” ; but Ben said, “Now, you fools, we shall see if you have sense enough to applaud this ! ” The stage, to be sure, was to be exalted and improved, but it was to be done by his own works, and the glory of literature was to be associated with the glory of Master Benjamin. This conceit, by making him insensible to Shakespeare’s influence, made him next to Shakespeare perhaps the most original dramatist of the time. He differed from his brother dramatists not in degree, but in kind. He felt it was not for him to imitate, but to produce models for imitation; not for him to catch the spirit of the age, but to originate a better. In short, he felt and taught belief in Ben ; and, high as posterity rates the literature of the age of Elizabeth, it would be supposed from his prologues and epilogues that he conceived his fat person to have fallen on evil days.

In “ Every Man out of his Humor ” and “ Cynthia’s Revels,” he is in a raging passion throughout. His verse groans with the weight of his wrath. “ My soul,” he exclaims,

“ Was never ground into such oily colors
To flatter vice and daub iniquity.
But with an armed and resolved hand
I ’ll strip the ragged follies of the time
Naked as at their birth,
. . . . and with a whip of steel
Print wounding lashes on their iron ribs.”

But though he exhausts the whole rhetoric of railing, invective, contempt, and scorn, we yet find it difficult to feel any of the indignation he labors to excite. Admiration, however, cannot be reiused to Jonson’s prose style in these as in his other plays. It is terse, sharp, swift, biting, — every word a die that stamps its object in a second. Occasionally the author’s veins, to use his own apt expression, seem to “ run quicksilver,” and “ every phrase comes fortli steeped in the very brine of conceit, and sparkles like salt in fire.” Yet, though we have whole scenes in which there is brightness in every sentence, the result of the whole is something like dulness, as the object of the whole is to exalt himself and depress others. But in these plays, in strange contrast with their general character, we have a few specimens of that sweetness of sentiment, refinement of fancy, and indefinite beauty of imagination, which, occupying some secluded corner of his large brain, seemed to exist apart from his ordinary powers and passions. Among these, the most exquisite is this Hymn to Diana, which partakes of the serenity of the moonlight, whose goddess it invokes.

“ Queen and huntress chaste and fair,
Now the sun is laid to sleep,
Seated in thy silver chair,
State in wonted manner keep.
Hesperus entreats thy light,
Goddess excellently bright !
“Earth, let not thy envious shade
Dare itself to interpose ;
Cynthia’s shining orb was made
Heaven to clear when day did close.
Bless us, then, with wished sight,
Goddess excellently bright.
“ Lay thy bow of pearl apart,
And thy crystal-gleaming quiver ;
Give unto the flying hart
Space to breathe how short soever, —
Thou that mak’st a day of night,
Goddess excellently bright.”

If, as Jonson’s adversaries maliciously asserted, “every line of his poetry cost him a cup of sack,” we must, even in our more temperate days, pardon him the eighteen cups which, in this melodious lyric, went into his mouth as sack, but, by some precious chemistry, came out through his pen as pearls.

It was inevitable that the imperious attitude Jonson had assumed, and the insolent pungency of his satire, should rouse the wrath of the classes he lampooned. and the enmity of the poets he ridiculed and decried. Among those who conceived themselves assailed, or who felt insulted by his arrogant tone, were two dramatists, Thomas Dekkar and John Marston. They soon recriminated ; and as Ben was better fitted by nature to dispense than to endure scorn and derision, he in 1601 produced “The Poetaster,” the object of which was to silence forever, not only Dekkar and Marston, but all other impudent doubters of his infallibility. The humor of the thing is, that, in this elaborate attempt to convict his adversaries of calumny in taxing him with self-love and arrogance, he ostentatiously exhibits the very qualities he disclaims. He keeps no terms with those who profess disbelief in Ben. They are “ play-dressers and plagiaries,” “fools or jerking pedants,” “buffoon barking wits,” tickling “base vulgar ears with beggarly and barren trash,” while his are

“The high raptures of a happy Muse,
Borne on the wings of her immortal thought,
That kicks at earth with a disdainful heel,
And beats at heaven’s gate with her bright hoofs.”

Dekkar retorted in a play called “ Satiromastrix ; or, the Untrussing of the Humorous Poet ”; but, though the scurrility is brilliantly bitter, it is less efficient and hearted than Jonson’s. This literary controversy, conducted in acted plays, had to the public of that day a zest similar to that we should enjoy if the editors of two opposing political newspapers should meet in a hall filled with their subscribers, and fling their thundering editorials in person at each other’s heads. The theatre-goers seem to have declared for Dekkar and Marston ; and Ben, disgusted with such a proof of their incapacity of judgment, sulked and growled in his den, and for two years gave nothing to the stage. He had, however, found a patron, who enabled him to do this without undergoing the famine of insufficient meat, and the still more dreadful drought of insufficient drink ; for, in a gossiping diary of the period, covering these two years, we are informed, “ B. J. now lives with one Townsend, and scorns the world.” While, however, pleasantly engaged in this characteristic occupation, for which he had a natural genius, he was meditating a play which he thought would demonstrate to all judging spirits his possession equally of the acquirements of the scholar and the talents of the dramatist. In the conclusion of the Apologetic Dialogue which accompanies “ The Poetaster,” he had hinted his purpose in these energetic lines : —

“ Once I ’ll say, —
To strike the ears of Time in these fresh strains,
As shall, beside the cunning of their ground,
Give cause to some of wonder, some despite,
And more despair to imitate their sound.
I that spend half my nights and all my days
Here in a cell, to get a dark, pale face.
To come forth with the ivy and the bays,
And in this age can hope no better grace, —
Leave me ’ There 's something come into my thought,
That must and shall be sung high and aloof,
Safe from the wolf’s black jaw, and the dull ass’s hoof ! ”

Accordingly, in 1603, he produced his weighty tragedy of “ Sejanus,” at Shakespeare’s theatre, The Globe,— Shakespeare himself acting one ot the inferior parts. Think of Shakespeare laboriously committing to memory the blank verse of Jonson !

Though “ Sejanus ” failed of theatrical success, its wealth of classic knowledge and solid thought made it the best of all answers to his opponents. It was as if they had questioned his capacity to build a ship, and he had confuted them with a man-of-war. To be sure, they might reiterate their old charge of “ filching by translation,” for the text of “ Sejanus ” is a mosaic ; but it was one of Jonson's maxims that he deserved as much honor for what he made his own by Jonsonizing the classics as for what he originated. Indeed, in his dealings with the great poets and historians of Rome, whose language and whose spirit he had patiently mastered, he acted the part, not of the pickpocket, but of the conqueror. He did not meanly crib and pilfer in the territories of the ancients : he rather pillaged, or, in our American phrase, “ annexed ” them. “ He has done his robberies so openly,” says Dryden, “ that one sees he fears not to be taxed by any law. He invades authors like a monarch, and what would be theft in any other poet is only victory in him.”

One incident connected with the bringing out of “Sejanus” should not be omitted. Jonson told Drummond that the Earl of Northampton had a mortal enmity to him “ for beating, on a St. George’s day, one of his attenders ” ; and he adds, that Northampton had him “ called before the Councell for his Sejanus,” and accused him there both of “ Poperie and treason.”

Jonson’s relations with Shakespeare seem always to have been friendly ; and about this time we hear of them as associate members of the greatest of literary and the greatest of convivial clubs,—the club instituted by Sir Walter Raleigh, and known to all times as the “ Mermaid,” so called from the tavern in which the meetings were held. Various, however, as were the genius and accomplishments it included, it lacked one phase of ability which has deprived us of all participation in its wit and wisdom. It could boast of Shakespeare, and Jonson, and Raleigh, and Camden, and Beaumont, and Selden, but, alas! it had no Boswell to record its words,

“ So nimble, and so full of subtile flame."

There are traditions of “ wit-combats ” between Shakespeare and Jonson ; and doubtless there was many a discussion between them touching the different principles on which their dramas were composed ; and then Ben, astride his high horse of the classics, probably blustered and harangued, and graciously informed the world’s greatest poet that he sometimes wanted art and sometimes sense, and candidly advised him to check the fatal rapidity and perilous combinations of his imagination, — while Shakespeare smilingly listened, and occasionally put in an ironic word, deprecating such austere criticism of a playwright like himself, who accommodated his art to the humors of the mob that crowded the “ round O ” of The Globe. There can be no question that Shakespeare saw Ben through and through, but he was not a man to be intolerant of foibles, and probably enjoyed the hectoring egotism of his friend as much as he appreciated his real merits. As for Ben, the transcendent genius of his brother dramatist pierced through even the thick hide of his self-sufficiency. “ I did honor him,” he finely says, “ this side of idolatry, as much as any other man.”

On the accession of James of Scotland to the English throne, Jonson was employed by the court and city to design a splendid pageant for the monarch’s reception ; and, with that absence of vindictiveness which somewhat atoned for his arrogance, he gave his recent enemy, Dekkar, three fifths of the job. About the same time he was reconciled to Marston; and in 1605 assisted him and Chapman in a comedy called “ Eastward Hoe ! ” One passage in this, reflecting on the Scotch, gave mortal offence to James’s greedy countrymen, who invaded England in his train, and were ravenous and clamorous for the spoils of office. Captain Seagul, in the play, praises what was then the new settlement of Virginia, as “a place without sergeants, or courtiers, or lawyers, or intelligencers, only a few industrious Scots perhaps, who indeed are dispersed over the whole earth. But as for them, there are no greater friends to Englishmen and England, when they are out on’t, in the world, than they are ; and, for my own part, I would a hundred thousand of them were there, for we are all one countrymen now, ye know, and we should find ten times more comfort of them there than we do here.” This bitter taunt, which probably made the theatre roar with applause, was so represented to the king, that Marston and Chapman were arrested and imprisoned. Jonson nobly insisted on sharing their fate ; and as he had powerful friends at court, and was esteemed by James himself, his course may have saved his friends from disgraceful mutilations. A report was circulated that the noses and ears of all three were to be slit and Jonson tells us, that, in an entertainment he gave to Camden, Selden, and other friends after his liberation, his old mother exhibited a paper full of “ lustie strong poison,” which she said she intended to have mixed in his drink, in case the threat of such a shameful punishment had been officially announced. The phrase “ his drink” is very characteristic ; and, whatever liquid was meant, we may be sure that it was not water, and that the good lady would have daily had numerous opportunities to mix the poison with it.

The five years which succeeded his imprisonment carried Jonson to the height of his prosperity and glory. During this period he produced the three great comedies on which his fame as a dramatist rests, — “The Fox,” “The Silent Woman,” and “The Alchymist,” — and also many of the most beautiful of those Masques, performed at court, in which the ingenuity, delicacy, richness, and elevation of his fancy found fittest expression. His social position was probably superior to Shakespeare’s. He was really the Court Poet long before 1616, when he received the office, with a pension of a hundred marks. We have Clarendon’s testimony to the fact that “his conversation was very good, and with men of the best note.” Among his friends occurs the great name of Bacon.

In 1618, when “Ben Jonson” had come to be familiar words on the lips of all educated men in the island, he made his celebrated journey on foot to Scotland, and was hospitably entertained by the nobility and gentry around Edinburgh. Taylor, the water poet, in his “ Pennylesse Pilgrimage” to Scotland, has this amiable reference to him. “At Leith,” he says, “ I found my long approved and assured good friend, Master Benjamin Jonson, at one Master John Stuart’s house. I thank him for his great kindness; for, at my taking leave of him, he gave me a piece of gold of two-and-twenty shillings’ value, to drink his health in England.” One object of Jonson’s journey was to visit Drummond of Hawthornden. He passed three or four weeks with Drummond at Hawthornden, and poured out his mind to him without reserve or stint. The finical and fastidious poet was somewhat startled at this irruption of his burly guest into his dainty solitude ; took notes of his free conversation, especially when he decried his contemporaries; and further carried out the rites of hospitality by adding a caustic, though keen, summary of his qualities of character. Thus, according to his dear friend’s charitable analysis, Ben 11 was a great lover and praiser of himself; a contemner and scorner of others ; given rather to losse a friend than a jest; jealous of every word and action of those about him (especiallie after drink, which is one of the elements in which he liveth); a dissembler of ill parts which raigne in him, a bragger of some good that he wanteth ; thinketh nothing well bot what either he himself or some of his friends and countrymen have said or done ; he is passionately kynde and angry; careless either to gaine or keep; vindictive, but, if he be well answered, at himself.” It is not much to the credit of Jonson’s insight, that, after flooding his pensively taciturn host with his boisterous and dogmatic talk, he parted with him under the impression that he was leaving an assured friend. Ah ! your demure listeners to your unguarded conversation, — they are the ones that give the fatal stabs !

A literal transcript of Drummond's original notes of Jonson’s conversations, made by Sir Robert Sibbald about the year 1710, has been published in the collections of the Shakespeare Society. This is a more extended report than that included in Drummond’s works, though still not so full as the reader might desire. The stoutness of Ben’s character is felt in every utterance. Thus he tells Drummond that “he never esteemed of a man for the name of a lord,” — a sentiment which he had expressed more impressively in his published epigram on Burleigh : —

“Cecil, the grave, the wise, the great, the good,
What is there more that can ennoble blood? ’’

He had, it seems, “a minde to be a churchman, and, so he might have favour to make one sermon to the King, he careth not what thereafter sould befall him; for he would not flatter though he saw Death.” Queen Elizabeth is the mark of a most scandalous imputation, and the mildest of Ben’s remarks respecting her is that she “ never saw herself, after she became old, in a true glass; they painted her, and sometymes would vermilion her nose.” “ Of all styles,” he said, “ he most loved to be named Honest, and hath of that one hundreth letters so naming him.” His judgments on other poets were insolently magisterial. “ Spenser’s stanzas pleased him not, nor his matter ” ; Samuel Daniel was a good honest man, but no poet; Donne, though “the first poet in the world in some things,” for “ not keeping of accent, deserved hanging ” ; Abram Fraunce, “in his English hexameters, was a foole ” ; Sharpham, Day, and Dekkar were all rogues; Francis Beaumont “loved too much himself and his own verses.” Some biographical items in the record of these conversations are of interest. It seems that the first day of every new year the Earl of Pembroke sent him twenty pounds “to buy bookes.” By all his plays he never gained two hundred pounds. “Sundry tymes he hath devoured his bookes,” that is, sold them to supply himself with necessaries. When he was imprisoned for killing his brother actor in a duel, in the Queen’s time, “his judges could get nothing of him to all their demands but I and No. They placed two damn’d villains, to catch advantage of him, with him, but he was advertised by his keeper ” ; and he added, as if the revenge was as terrible as the offence, “of the spies he hath ane epigrame.” He told a few personal stories to Drummond, calculated to moderate our wonder that Mrs. Jonson was a shrew ; and, as they were boastingly told, we must suppose that his manners were not so austere as his verse. But perhaps the most characteristic image he has left of himself, through these conversations, is this : “ He hath consumed a whole night in lying looking to his great toe, about which he hath seen Tartars and Turks, Romans and Carthaginians, feight in his imagination.”

Jonson’s fortunes seem to have suffered little abatement until the death of King James, in 1625. Then declining popularity and declining health combined their malice to break the veteran down ; and the remaining twelve years of his life were passed in doing battle with those relentless enemies of poets, — want and disease. The orange — or rather the lemon — was squeezed, and both court and public seemed disposed to throw away the peel. In the epilogue to his play of “The New Inn,” brought out in 1630, the old tone of defiance is gone. He touchingly appeals to the audience as one who is “ sick and sad”; but, with a noble humility, he begs they will refer none of the defects of the work to mental decay.

“ All that his weak and faltering tongue doth crave
Is that you not refer it to his brain ;
That's yet unhurt, although set round with pain.”

The audience were insensible to this appeal. They found the play dull, and hooted it from the stage. Perhaps, after having been bullied so long, they took delight in having Ben “on the hip.” Charles the First, however, who up to this time seems to have neglected his father’s favorite, now generously sent him a hundred pounds to cheer him in his misfortunes ; and shortly after he raised his salary, as Court Poet, from a hundred marks to a hundred pounds, adding, in compliment to jonson’s known tastes, a tierce of Canary,— a wine of which he was so fond as to be nicknamed, in ironical reference to a corpulence which rather assimilated him to the ox, “a Canary bird.” It is to this period, we suppose, we must refer his testimony to his own obesity in his “ Epistle to my Lady Coventry.”

“So you have gained a Servant and a Muse :
The first of which I fear you will refuse,
And you may justly ; being a tardy, cold,
Unprofitable chattel, fat and old,
Laden with belly, and doth hardly approach
His friends, but to break chairs or crack a coach.
His weight is twenty stone, within two pound ;
And that’s made up, as doth the purse abound.”

As his life declined, it does not appear that his disposition was essentially modified. There are two characteristic references to him in his old age, which prove that Ben, attacked by palsy and dropsy, with a reputation perceptibly waning, was Ben stillOne is from Sir John Suckling’s pleasantly malicious “ Session of the Poets ”: —

“ The first that broke silence was good old Ben,
Prepared before with Canary wine,
And he told them plainly he deserved the bays,
For his were called works where others were but plays.

. . . . .

Apollo stopped him there, and bade him not go on ;
’T was merit, he said, and not presumption,
Must carry't; at which Ben turned about,
And in great choler offered to go out.”

That is a saucy touch, — that of Ben’s rage when he is told that presumption is not, before Apollo, to take the place of merit, or even to back it!

The other notice is taken from a letter from Howel to Sir Thomas Hawk, written the year before Jonson’s death : —

“ I was invited yesternight to a solemn supper by B. J., where you were deeply remembered. There was good company, excellent cheer, choice wines, and jovial welcome. One thing intervened which almost spoiled the relish of the rest,—that B. began to engross all the discourse, to vapor extremely by himself, and, by vilifying others, to magnify his own Muse. For my part, I am content to dispense with the Roman infirmity of Ben, now that time has snowed upon his pericranium.”

But this snow of time, however it may have begun to cover up the solider qualities of his mind, seems to have left untouched his strictly poetic faculty. That shone out in his last hours, with more than usual splendor, in the beautiful pastoral drama of “The Sad Shepherd”; and it may be doubted if, in his whole works, any other passage can be found so exquisite in sentiment, fancy, and expression as the opening lines of this charming product of his old age: —

“ Here she was wont to go ! and here ! and here !
Just where those daisies, pinks, and violets grow :
The world may find the Spring by following her ;
For other print her airy steps ne’er left :
Her treading would not bend a blade of grass,
Or shake the downy blow-ball from his stalk !
But like the soft west-wind she shot along,
And where she went the flowers took thickest root,
As she had sowed them with her odorous foot ! ”

Before he completed “ The Sad Shepherd,” he was struck with mortal illness ; and the brave old man prepared to meet his last enemy, and, if possible, convert him into a friend. As early as 1606 he had returned to the English Church, after having been for twelve years a Romanist ; and his penitent death-bed was attended by the Bishop of Winchester. He died in August, 1637, in his sixty-fourth year, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. The inscription on the common pavement stone which was laid over his grave still expresses, after a lapse of two hundred years, the feelings of all readers of the English race,—


It must be admitted, however, that this epithet is sufficiently indefinite to admit widely differing estimates of the value of his works. In a critical view, the most obvious characteristic of his mind is its bulk ; but its creativeness bears no proportion to its massiveness. His faculties, ranged according to their relative strength, would fall into this rank : — first, BEN ; next, understanding ; next, memory ; next, humor ; next, fancy; and last and least, imagination. Thus, in the strictly poetic action of his mind, his fancy and imagination being subordinated to his other faculties, and not co-ordinated with them, his whole nature is not kindled, and his best masques and sweetest lyrics give no idea of the general largeness of the man. In them the burly giant becomes gracefully petite; it is Fletcher’s Omphale “smiling the club” out of the hand of Hercules, and making him, for the time, “spin her smocks.” Now the greatest poetical creations of Shakespeare are those in which he is greatest in reason, and greatest in passion, and greatest in knowledge, as well as greatest in imagination, — his poetic power being

“ Like to the fabled Cytherea’s zone,
Binding all things with beauty."

His mind is “one entire and perfect chrysolite,” while Jonson’s rather suggests the pudding-stone. The poet in Ben, being thus but a comparatively small portion of Ben, works by effort, rather than efficiency, and leaves the impression of ingenuity rather than inventiveness. But in his tragedies of “ Sejanus ” and “Catiline,” and especially in his three great comedies of “The Fox,” “The Alchymist,” and “ The Silent Woman,” the whole man is thrust forward, with his towering individuality, his massive understanding, his wide knowledge of the baser side of life, his relentless scorn of weakness and wickedness, his vivid memory of facts and ideas derived from books. They seem written with his fist. But, though they convey a powerful impression of his collective ability, they do not convey a poetic impression, and hardly an agreeable one. His greatest characters, as might be expected, are not heroes or martyrs, but cheats or dupes. His most magnificent cheat is Volpone, in “The Fox”; his most magnificent dupe is Sir Epicure Mammon, in “ The Alchymist” ; but in their most gorgeous mental rioting in imaginary objects of sense, the effect is produced by a dogged accumulation of successive images, which are linked by no train of strictly imaginative association, and are not fused into unity of purpose by the fire of passion-penetrated imagination.

Indeed, it is a curious psychological study to watch the laborious process by which Jonson drags his thoughts and fancies from the reluctant and resisting soil of his mind, and then lays them, one after the other, with a deep-drawn breath, on his page. Each is forced into form by main strength, as we sometimes see a pillar of granite wearily drawn through the street by a score of straining oxenTake, for example, Sir Epicure Mammon’s detail of the luxuries he will revel in when his possession of the philosopher’s stone shall have given him boundless wealth. The first cup of Canary and the first tug of invention bring up this enormous piece of humor : —

“My flatterers
Shall be the pure and gravest of divines
That I can get for money.”

Then another wrench of the mind, and, it is to be feared, another inlet of the liquid, and we have this : —

“ My meat shall all come in in Indian shells,
Dishes of agate, set in gold, and studded
With emeralds, sapphires, hyacinths, and rubies.”

Glue that on, and now for another tug: —

“ My shirts
I ’ll have of taffeta-sarsnet, soft and light
As cobwebs; and for all my other raiment,
It shall be such as might provoke the Persian,
Were he to teach the world riot anew.”

And then, a little heated, his imagination is stung into action, and this refinement of sensation flashes out: —

“ My gloves of fishes’ and birds’ skins perfumed
With gums cf Paradise and Eastern air.”

And now we have an extravagance jerked violently out from his logical fancy: —

“ I will have all my beds blown up, not stuffed ;
Down is too hard.”

But all this patient accumulation of particulars, each costing a mighty effort of memory or analogy, produces no cumulative effect. Certainly, the word “strains,” as employed to designate the effusions of poetry, has a peculiar significance as applied to Jonson’s verse. No hewer of wood or drawer of water ever earned his daily wages by a more conscientious putting forth of daily labor. Critics — and among the critics Ben is the most clamorous — call upon us to admire and praise the construction of his plays. But his plots, admirable of their kind, are still but elaborate contrivances of the understanding, all distinctly thought out beforehand by the method of logic, not the method of imagination ; regular in external form, but animated by no living internal principle ; artful, but not artistic ; ingenious schemes, not organic growths ; and conveying the same kind of pleasure we experience in inspecting other mechanical contrivances. His method is neither the method of nature nor the method of art, but the method of artifice. A drama of Shakespeare may be compared to an oak; a drama by Jonson, to a cunningly fashioned box, made of oak-wood, with some living plants growing in it. Jonson is big; Shakespeare is great.

Still we say, “ O rare Ben Jonson!” A large, rude, clumsy, English force, irritable, egotistic, dogmatic, and quarrelsome, but brave, generous, and placable ; with no taint of a malignant vice in his boisterous foibles ; with a good deal of the bulldog in him, but nothing of the spaniel, and one whose growl was ever worse than his bite ; — he, the bricklayer’s apprentice, fighting his way to eminence through the roughest obstacles, capable of wrath, but incapable of falsehood, willing to boast, but scorning to creep, still sturdily keeps his hard-won position among the Elizabethan worthies as poet, playwright, scholar, man of letters, man of muscle and brawn ; as friend of Beaumont and Fletcher and Chapman and Bacon and Shakespeare ; and as ever ready, in all places and at all times, to assert the manhood of Ben by tongue and pen and sword.