1902 Encyclopedia > Ben Jonson

Ben Jonson
English dramatist and poet
(1573-1637)




BEN JONSON (for thus his Christian name was usually abbreviated by himself and his contemporaries, and thus, in accordance with his famous epitaph, it will always continue to be abbreviated by posterity), was born about the beginning (N". S.) of the year 1573. By the poet's account his grandfather had been a gentleman who " came from " Carlisle, and originally, the grandson thought, from Annandale, where Johnstons or Johnstones appear to have abounded, and where indeed at least one resident of that name is noticed in the reminiscences of a later native of the border district resembling Ben himself in the quickness of his temper and in his impatience of pretences and pretenders,—the late Thomas Carlyle. Ben Jonson further related that he was born a month after the death of his father, who, after suffering in estate and person under Queen Mary, had in the end "turned minister." Two years after the birth of her son the widow married again ; she may be supposed to have loved him in a passionate way peculiar to herself, since on one occasion we shall find her revealing an almost ferocious determination to save his honour at the cost of both his life and her own. Jonson's stepfather was a master bricklayer in or near Westminster, who—whether or not he afterwards constrained his stepson, while acquainting himself with the business into which he had been admitted, to undergo the degradation of laying a few bricks with his own trowel—certainly allowed him to lay for himself the foundations of a good education. After attending a private school in the neighbourhood, he was sent to Westminster school,—nor is it at all obvious why the master bricklayer should have been denied the credit of having sent him there. Jonson's gratitude, however, for an education to which in truth he owed an almost inestimable debt, concentrated itself upon the "most reverend head " of the illustrious Camden, then second and afterwards head master of the famous school, and the firm friend of his pupil in later life.

After reaching the highest form at Westminster, Jonson is stated, but on unsatisfactory evidence, to have proceeded to the university of Cambridge; but at the utmost he can only have made a transitory appearance in a scene of which as a painter of men and manners he nowhere reproduces a single feature. And doubtless he felt that neither his crop of learning and experience nor his wild oats were yet fully sown, when, goose quill or other implement in hand, he had to apply himself to the family business. He soon had enough of it, and was soldiering in the Netherlands, much to his own subsequent satisfaction when the days of self-conscious retrospect arrived, but to no further purpose beyond that of seeing something of the world. By the middle of 1597 we at last come across documentary evidence of him at home in London, in the shape of an entry in Henslowe's diary on July 28th of 3s. 6d. "received of Bengemenes Johnsones share." He was therefore by this time, when Shakespeare, his senior by nearly nine years, was already in prosperous circumstances and good esteem, at least a regular member of the profession, with a fixed engagement in the Lord Admiral's company, then performing under the experienced Henslowe's management at the Bose. The traditions may very possibly be true according to which he had previously acted at the Curtain (a former house of the Lord Admiral's men), and " taken mad Jeronimo's part" as a stroller. This latter appearance would in that case have probably been in The Spanish Tragedy, since in The First Part of Jerónimo Jonson would have had to dwell on the "smallness" of his "bulk." He was at a subsequent date (1601) employed by Henslowe to write up The Spanish Tragedy, in pursuance of a fashion differing from that of later times, when old plays have more usually been written down to the taste of modern audiences. Jonson's additions, which were not the first changes made in the play, are usually supposed to.be those printed with The Spanish Tragedy in the edition of 1602 ; Charles Lamb's doubts on the subject are an instance of that subjective kind of criticism in which it is unsafe to put absolute trust.

Ben Jonson may be supposed to have married two or three years before the date of Henslowe's first entry of his name. Of his wife he afterwards spoke with scant enthusiasm, and for one (undated) interval of five years he preferred to live without her. Long burnings of "oil" among his books, and long spells of recreation at the tavern, such as Jonson loved, are not the most favoured accompaniments of family life. But Jonson was no stranger to the tenderest of affections : two at least of the several children whom his wife bore to him he commemorated in touching little tributes of verse ; nor in speaking ^ of his lost eldest daughter did he forget " her mother's tears."

Within a year's time, or little more, from the date at which we first find Ben Jonson in well-authenticated connexion with the English stage, he had produced one of the most memorable plays in its history. Every Man in his Humour, the original example of a species of English comedy which cannot be said to have become altogether extinct even with the Restoration, was first acted in 1598 —probably in the earlier part of September—by the Lord Chamberlain's company, which was then still performing at the so-called Theatre, and in which Shakespeare was just on the eve of acquiring one or more shares. He certainly was one of the actors in Jonson's comedy, and it is in the character of Old Knowell in this very play that, according to a bold but ingenious guess, Shakespeare is represented in the half-length portrait of him in the folio of 1623, beneath which were printed Jonson's lines concerning the picture. Every Man in his Humour was probably followed by The Case is Altered, which was certainly acted by 1599, and which contains a satirical attack upon the pageant poet Anthony Munday. Inasmuch as the earlier of these two comedies was indisputably successful, and as Jonson's reputation was already sufficient to ensure him a mention in the Palladis Tamia of Francis Meres, published in the same year, 1598, as one of tho chief writers in tragedy (on the strength of what play or plays is unknown), it was an awkward fatality that before the year was out he should have found himself in prison and in danger of the gallows. He had had the misfortune of killing in a duel, fought in Hogsden Fields, for some cause unknown, an actor of Henslowe's company named J Gabriel Spenser; possibly Henslowe's uncourteous designation of Jonson as a " bricklayer" may imply that the success of the new comedy at the other house had not been I a subject of congratulation at that to which its author had I formerly belonged. In prison Jonson was visited by a Roman Catholic priest—a prison being the most likely place in which to meet a priest in those days ; and the result was his conversion to the Church of Rome, to which he adhered for twelve years. Jonson was afterwards a diligent student of divinity; but, though his mind was religious, it is not probable that its natural bias much inclined it to dwell upon creeds and their controversies. Though in prison spies were set upon him, which was then thought to be an admirable method for expediting justice, yet his judges (he afterwards boasted) could get nothing out of him but "aye" or "no." And thus after a short imprisonment he was released, some time early in 1599, in which year he is found back again at work for Henslowe, receiving, together with Dekker, Chettle, and " another gentleman," earnest-money for a tragedy called Robert II, King of Scots. It is of more importance that in the same year he brought out through the Lord Chamberlain's company (possibly already at the Globe, then newly built or building) the elaborate comedy of Every Man out of his Humour,—a work which subsequently had the honour, for which it was in some respects specially fitted, of being presented before Queen Elizabeth. The sunshine of court favour, rarely diffused during her reign in rays more than metaphorically golden, was not to bring any material comfort to the most learned of her dramatists, before the inevitable hand was laid upon her of which his courtly epilogue had besought death to forget the use. Indeed, of his Cynthia's Revels (1600), no doubt primarily designed as a piece of unctuous flattery to the address of the queen, the most marked result had been to offend two playwrights of note with whom he had formerly worked in company— Dekker, who had a coarse and healthy grip of his own, and Marston, who was perhaps less dangerous by his strength than by his versatility. Learning their intention, or at least that of Dekker, to wreak literary vengeance upon him, he seems to have sought to anticipate its effect by covering them with contemptuous ridicule beforehand. The Poetaster (1601), which he states to have been completed fifteen weeks after the plot of it was first conceived, did not, however, silence his adversaries; it rather gave them the opportunity of the last word, which Dekker took in producing his Satiromastix, or the Untrussing of the Humorous Poet (1602). There was indeed an attempt at some more last words on Jonson's part; but on the whole he appears to have thought (and very wisely) that the time for a season of silence had arrived for him as a court poet. According to a statement by Overbury, early in 1603, " Ben Johnson, the poet, now lives upon one Townesend" —who this generous patron was we do not know—"and scornes the world." That, however, he was not sulking in the friendly tent with which he had been accommodated is shown by the fact that in this year (1603) was produced at the Globe the earlier of his two extant tragedies, Sejanus, _—Shakespeare once more taking a part in the performance.

Meanwhile, in the year which dates the tragedy concerning the fall of the great favourite, there had begun a reign in England destined to be remembered as that of favourites hardly less hated than he. Adulatory loyalty seemed intent on showing that it had not exhausted itself at the feet of Gloriana, and Jonson's well-stored brain and ready pen had their share in devising and executing ingenious variations on the theme "Welcome—since we cannot do without thee !" It is very remarkable how promptly his genius, which it is sheer prejudice to describe as wanting in flexibility and lightness, suited itself to the sudden demands of the new taste for masks and entertainments—new of course in degree rather than in kind —introduced with the new reign. The pageant which on the 7th of May 1603 bade the king welcome to a capital dissolved in joy was partly of Jonson's partly of Dekker's devising; and, having thus been prominently brought into notice, he was able to deepen and diversify the impression by the composition of masks presented to James I. when entertained at houses of the nobility. He was soon occasionally employed by the court itself,—_ already in 1606 in conjunction with Inigo Jones as re sponsible for the "painting and carpentry,"—and thus speedily showed himself master in a species of composition to which he, more than any other of our poets before Milton, secured an enduring place in our national poetic literature. Personally, no doubt, he derived considerable material benefit from the new fashion, very valuable to poets in days when there were no monthly magazines,— more especially if his statement to Drummond was anything like correct, that out of his plays he had never gained a couple of hundred pounds.





Good humour seems to have come back with good fortune. Joint employment had reconciled him with Dekker; and with Marston also he was again on good, terms. When therefore, in 1604, the latter and Chapman (who, Jonson told Drummond, was loved of him, and whom he had probably honoured as " Virgil" in The Poetaster) produced the excellent comedy of Eastward Ho, it appears to have contained some contributions by Jonson ; at all events, when the authors were arrested on account of one or more passages in the play which were deemed insulting to the Scotch, he voluntarily imprisoned himself with them. They were soon released, and a banquet at his expense, attended by Camden and Selden, terminated the incident. If Jonson is to be believed, there had been a report that the prisoners were to have their ears and noses cut, and, with reference apparently to this peril, " at the midst of the feast his old mother drank to him, and showed him a paper which she had intended (if the sentence had taken execution) to have mixed in the prison among his drink, which was full of lusty strong poison; and that she was no churl, she told him, she minded first to have drunk of it herself." Strange to say, in 1605 Jonson and Chapman, though the former, as he averred, had so " attempered " his style as to have " given no cause to any good man of grief," were again in prison on account of " a play " ; but they appear to have been once more speedily set free, in consequence of the (very manly and dignified) letter addressed by Jonson to the earl of Salisbury. In the same year he played a part—which had till recently remained unknown, and is still in some measure obscure— in the mysterious history of the Gunpowder Plot. On November 7th, very soon after the discovery of the conspiracy, whose threads it became the immediate duty of the council to unravel, that body appears to have sent for Ben Jonson, at the advice no doubt of Salisbury, who (as has just been seen) knew of Jonson ; indeed, the latter has been supposed to have given his support as a dramatist to the party headed by Robert Cecil before Queen Elizabeth's death. As a loyal Roman Catholic Jonson was asked, and undertook to give, his good offices in inducing the priests to do something required by the council,'—one hardly likes to conjecture it to have been some tampering with the secrets of confession. In any case, the negotiations fell through, because the priests declined to come forth out of their hiding-places to be negotiated with— greatly to the wrath of Ben Jonson, who declares in a letter to Lord Salisbury that " they are all so enweaved in it that it will make 500 gentlemen less of the religion within this week, if they carry their understanding about them." Jonson himself, however, did not declare his separation from the Church of Rome for five years longer, however much it might have been to his advantage to do so.

His powers as a dramatist were at their height during the earlier half of the reign of James I.; and by the year 1616 he had produced nearly all the plays which are worthy of his genius. They include the tragedy of Catiline (1611), which achieved only a doubtful success, and the comedies of Volpone or The Fox (acted 1605), Epicoene or The Silent Woman (1609), the Alchemist (1610), Bartholomew Fair (1614), and The Devil is an Ass (1616). During the same period he produced several masks, usually in connexion with Inigo Jones, with whom, however, he seems to have quarrelled already in this reign, though it is very doubtful whether the architect is really intended to be ridiculed in Bartholomew Fair under the character of Lanthorn Leatherhead. In 1616 a modest pension of 100 marks a year was conferred upon him; and possibly this mark of royal favour may have encouraged him to the publication of the first volume of the folio collected edition of his works (1616).

He had other patrons more bountiful than the crown, and for a brief space of time (in 1613) had travelled to France as governor to the eldest son of Sir Walter Raleigh, then a state prisoner in the Tower, for whose society Jonson may have gained a liking at the Mermaid Tavern in Cheap-side, but for whose moral character he, like so many of his contemporaries, seems to have had but small esteem. Thus by the year 1616 Jonson seems to have made up his mind to cease writing for the stage, where neither his success nor his profits had equalled his merits and expectations. He continued to produce masks and entertainments when called upon; but he was attracted by many other literary pursuits, and had already accomplished enough to furnish plentiful materials for retrospective discourse over pipe or cup. He was already entitled to lord it at the Mermaid, where his quick antagonist in earlier wit-combats no longer appeared even on a visit from his comfortable retreat at Stratford. That on the other hand Ben carried his wicked town habits into Warwickshire, and there, together with Drayton, made Shakespeare drink so hard with them as to bring upon himself the fatal fever which ended his days, is a bit of petty scandal with which we may fairly refuse to load his memory.

It was in the year 1618 that Ben Jonson, like his great namesake a century and a half afterwards, resolved to have a real holiday for once, and about midsummer started for his ancestral country, Scotland. He had (very heroically for a man of his habits) determined to make the journey on foot; and—imitation is the sincerest kind of flattery—was speedily followed by John Taylor, the water-poet, who still further handicapped himself by the condition that he would accomplish the pilgrimage without a penny in his pocket. Jonson (who put money in his good friend's purse when he came up with him at Leith) spent more than a year and a half in the hospitable Lowlands, being solemnly elected a burgess of Edinburgh, and on another occasion entertained at a public banquet there. But the best remembered hospitality which he enjoyed was that of the learned and refined Scottish poet Drummond of Hawthornden, to which we owe the so-called Conversations. In these famous jottings, the work of no extenuating hand, Jonson lives for us to this day, delivering his censures freely in praise and blame, but by no means generously described in the postscript added by his exhausted host as " a great lover and praiser of himself, a 'contemner and scorner of others." A poetical account of this journey, " with all the adventures," was burnt with Jonson's library.

After his return to England Jonson appears to have resumed his former course of life. In 1619 his visits to the country seats of the nobility were varied by a sojourn at Oxford with Corbet at Christ Church, on which occasion a master's degree was conferred upon him by the university. He confessed about this time that he was or seemed growing "restive," i.e., lazy, though it was not long before he returned to the occasional composition of masks. The extremely spirited Gipsies Metamorphosed (1621) was thrice presented before the king, who was so pleased with it as to grant to the poet the reversion of the office of master of the revels, besides proposing to confer upon him the honour of knighthood. This honour Jonson (hardly in deference to the memory of Sir Petronel Flash) declined, but there was no reason why he should not gratefully accept the increase in his pension, which was in the same year (1621) raised to 200 marks. Yet the close of king James I.'s reign found the foremost of the poets of the time in an anything but prosperous condition. It would be unjust to hold " The Sun," " The Dog," " The Triple Tun," or the "Old Devil" with its Apollo club-room, where Ben's supremacy must by this time have become established, responsible for this result; taverns were the clubs of that day, and a man of letters is not considered lost in our own because he "haunts" a smoking-room in Pall Mall. Disease had weakened the poet's strength, and the burning of his library, as his Execration upon Vulcan sufficiently shows, must have been no mere transitory trouble to a poor man of letters. He thus thought it best to recur to writing for the stage, and in 1625 produced, with no faint heart, but with a very clear anticipation of the comments which would be made upon the reappearance of the " huge, overgrown play-maker," The Staple of News, a comedy excellent in some respects, but little calculated to become popular. In 1628, on the death of Middleton, some interest obtained for him the appointment of city chronologer, with a salary of 100 nobles a year—an office of which he appears to have considered the duties as purely ornamental, inasmuch as in 1631 his salary was suspended until he should have presented some fruits of his labours in his place, or—as he more succinctly phrased it—" yesterday the barbarous court of aldermen have withdrawn their chandlerly pension for verjuice and mustard, £33, 6s. 8d." After being in 1628 arrested by mistake on the utterly false charge of having written certain verses in approval of the assassination of Buckingham, he was soon allowed to return to Westminster, where it would appear from a letter of his " son and contiguous neighbour," James Howell, he was living in 1629, and about this time narrowly escaped another conflagration. In the same year (1629) he once more essayed the stage with the comedy of The New Inn, which was actually, and on its own merits not unjustly, damned on the first performance. The epilogue dwelt not without dignity upon the neglect which the poet had experienced at the hands of "king and queen" ; and it is honourable to King Charles I. that he should not only have immediately sent the unlucky author a gift of a hundred pounds, but on receiving another more cheerful versified appeal in response, should have increased his standing salary to the same sum, with the addition of an annual tierce of canary,—henceforth the poet-laureate's customary royal gift. But though he afterwards composed one or two little entertainments, and even a comedy or two, there seemed little power left in his palsy-stricken hand. The patronage of kind friends like the earl of Newcastle was never wholly wanting to him, nor could he have ended in neglect. He was the acknowledged chief of English literature, both at the festive meetings where he ruled the roost among the younger authors whose pride it was to be " sealed of the tribe of Ben," and by the avowal of grave writers, old or young, not one of whom would have ventured to dispute his pre-eminence. Nor was he to the last unconscious of the claims upon him which his position brought with it. When death came upon him on August 6, 1637, he left behind him an unfinished work of great beauty, the pastoral drama of The Sad Shepherd. For forty years, lie said in the prologue, he had feasted the public ; at first he could scarce hit its taste, but patience had at last enabled it to identify itself with the working of his pen.

We are so accustomed to think of Ben Jonson presiding, attentive to his own applause, over a circle of youthful followers and admirers, that we are apt to forget the hard struggle which he had passed through before gaining the crown now universally acknowledged to be his. Howell records, in the year before Ben's death, that at a solemn supper at the poet's own house, where the host had almost spoiled the relish of the feast by vilifying others and magnifying himself, " T. Ca." (Thomas Carew) buzzed in the writer's ear " that, though Ben had barrelled up a great deal of knowledge, yet it seemed he had not read the Ethics, which, among other precepts of morality, forbid self-commendation." Self-reliance is but too frequently coupled with self-consciousness, and for good and for evil self-confidence was no doubt the most prominent feature in the character of Ben Jonson. Hence the combativeness which involved him in so many quarrels in his earlier days, and which jarred so harshly upon the gentler nature of Drummond. But his quarrels do not apipear to have entered deeply into his soul, or itideed usually to have lasted long. He was too exuberant in his vituperations to be bitter, and too outspoken to be malicious. He loved of all things to be called " honest," and there is every reason to suppose that he deserved the epithet. The old superstition, which may perhaps still linger here and there, hardly needs notice, according to which Jonson was filled with malignant envy of the greatest of his fellow-dramatists, and lost no opportunity of giving expression to it. Those who consider that Shakespeare was beyond the criticism of his contemporaries—as he certainly very frequently is above that of posterity—may find blasphemy in the saying of Jonson that Shakespeare " wanted art." Occasional jesting allusions to particular plays of Shakespeare may be found in Jonson, among which should hardly be included the sneer at Pericles ; but these amount to nothing collectively, and to very little individually; and against them have to be set, not only the many pleasant traditions concerning the long intimacy between the pair, but also the noble lines, as noble as they are judicious, dedicated by the survivor to 'o the star of poets." But if Gifford had rendered no other service to Jonson's fame, he must be allowed to have once for all vindicated him from the cruellest aspersion which has ever been cast upon it. That in general Ben Jonson was a man of strong likes and dislikes, and was wont to manifest the latter as vehemently as the former, it would be idle to deny. He was at least impartial in his censures, dealing them out freely to Puritan poets like Wither and princes of his church like Cardinal Duperron. And, if sensitive to attack, he seems to have been impervious to flattery—to judge from the candour with which he condemned the foibles even of so enthusiastic an admirer as Beaumont. The personage that he disliked the most, and abused the most roundly to its face, was unfortunately one with many heads and a tongue to hiss in each,—no other than that "general public" which it was the radical mistake of his life to fancy he could " rail into approbation " before he had effectively secured its goodwill. And upon the whole it may be said that the admiration of the few, rather than the favour of the many, has kept green the fame of the most independent among all the masters of an art which, in more senses than one, must please to live.





Jonson's learning and industry, which were alike ex. ceptional, by no means exhausted themselves in furnish ing and elaborating the materials of his dramatic works. His enemies sneered at him as a translator—a title which only a generation earlier would have been esteemed of all literary titles the most honourable. But his classical scholarship shows itself not only in his translations from the Latin poets (the Ars Poetica in particular), in addition to which he appears to have written a version of Barclay's Argenis; it was likewise the basis of his English Grammar, of which nothing but the rough draft remains (the MS. itself having perished in the fire in his library), and in connexion with the subject of which he appears to have pursued other linguistic studies (Howell in 1629 is trying to procure him a Welsh grammar). And its effects are very visible in some of the most pleasing of his non-dramatic poems, which often display that combination of polish and simplicity hardly to be attained to—hardly even to be appreciated— without some measure of classical training.

Exclusively of the few lyrics in Jonson's dramas (which, with the exception of the stately choruses in Catiline, charm, and perhaps may surprise, by their lightness of touch), his non-dramatic works are comprised in the following collections. The book of Epigrams (published in the first folio of 1616) contained, in the poet's own words, the " ripest of his studies." His notion of an epigram was the ancient not the restricted modern one—still less that of the critic (R. C, the author of the Times' Whistle) in whose language, according to Jonson, "witty" was "obscene." On the whole, these epigrams excel more in encomiastic than in satiric touches, while the pathos of one or two epitaphs in the collection is of the truest kind. In the lyrics and epistles contained in the Forest (also in the first folio), Jonson shows greater variety in the poetic styles adopted by him; but the theme of love, which Dryden considered conspicuous by its absence in the author's dramas, is similarly eschewed here. The Underwoods (which were not published collectively till the second and surreptitious folio) are a miscellaneous series, comprising, together with a few religious and a few amatory poems, a large number of epigrams, epitaphs, elegies, and " odes," including both the tributes to Shakespeare and several to royal and other patrons and friends, besides the Execration upon Vulcan, and the characteristic ode addressed, apparently in the earlier part of his career, by the poet to himself. To these pieces in verse should be added the Discoveries—an often highly interesting commonplace-book of aphorisms that occurred to the poet in his daily readings,—self-communings of a more tranquil and perhaps a more sober kind than the outpourings of the Conversations at Hawthornden.

The dramatic works of Ben Jonson fall into three or, if his fragmentary pastoral drama be considered to stand by itself, into four distinct divisions. His tragedies are only two in number—Sejanus his Fall, and Catiline his Conspiracy? Of these the earlier, as is worth noting, was produced at Shakespeare's theatre, in all probability before the first of Shakespeare's Roman dramas, and still contains a considerable admixture of rhyme in the dialogue. Though perhaps less carefully elaborated in diction than its successor, Sejanus is at least equally impressive as a highly-wrought dramatic treatment of a complex historic theme. The character of Tiberius adds an element of curious psychological interest which is wanting in Catiline and his surroundings ; but in both plays the action is powerfully conducted, and the care bestowed by the dramatist upon the great variety of characters introduced cannot, as in some of his comedies, be said to distract the interest of the reader. Both these tragedies are noble works, though the relative popularity of the subject has perhaps secured the preference to Catiline. Yet this play and its predecessor were alike too manifestly intended by their author to court the goodwill of what he calls the " extraordinary " reader. It is difficult to imagine that (with the aid of judicious shortenings) either could altogether miss its effect on the stage; but, while Shakespeare causes us to forget, Jonson seems to wish us to remember, his authorities. The half is often greater than the whole; and Jonson, like all dramatists and, it might be said, all novelists in similar cases, has had to pay the penalty incurred by too obvious a desire to underline the learning of the author.

Perversity—or would-be originality—alone could declare Jonson's tragedy preferable to his comedy. Even if the revolution which he created in the latter branch of the drama had been mistaken in its principles or unsatisfactory in its results, it would be clear that the strength of his dramatic genius lay in the power of depicting a great variety of characters, and that in comedy alone he succeeded in finding a wide field for the exercise of this power. There may have been no very original or very profound discovery in the idea which he illustrated in Every Man in his Humour, and, as it were, technically elaborated in Every Man out of his Humour,—that in many men one quality is observable which so possesses them as to draw the whole of their individualities one way, and that this phenomenon " may be truly said to be a humour." But by refusing to apply this term to a mere peculiarity or affectation of manners, and restricting its use to actual or implied differences or distinctions of character, he broadened the whole basis of English comedy after his fashion, as Moliere at a later date did that of French after his. It does not of course follow that Jonson's disciples, the Bromes and the Cartwrights, always adequately reproduced the master's conception of " humorous " comedy. Jonson's wide and various reading helped him to diversify the application of Ms theory, while perhaps at times it led him into too remote illustrations of it. Still, Captain Bobadil and Captain Tucca, Macilente and Fungoso, Volpone and Mosca, and a goodly number of other characters commend themselves readily as well as distinctly enough to the memory of those who have once made their acquaintance. It is a very futile criticism to condemn Jonson's characters as a mere series of types of general ideas; on the other hand, it is a very sound criticism to object, as Barry Cornwall does, to the " multitude of characters who throw no light upon the story, and lend no interest to it, occupying space that had better have been bestowed upon the principal agents of the plot."

In the construction of plots, as in most other respects, Jonson's at once conscientious and vigorous mind led him in the direction of originality ; he depended to a far less degree than the greater part of his contemporaries (Shakespeare with the rest) upon borrowed plots. But either his inventive character was occasionally at fault in this respect, or his devotion (so to speak) to his characters often diverted his attention from a brisk conduct of his plot. The writer just quoted has directed attention to the essential likeness in the plot of two of Jonson's best comedies, Volpone and The Alchemist, and another critic, unsurpassed in his delicate appreciation of the relations between the drama and the stage,—Mr W. Bodham Donne,—has dwelt on the difficulty which, in The Poetaster and elsewhere, Ben Jonson seems to experience in sustaining the promise of his actions. The Poetaster is, however, a play sui generis, in which the real business can hardly be said to begin till the last act.

Dryden, when criticizing Ben Jonson's comedies in a superfine vein, which (to do him justice) he very rarely indulged, thought fit, while allowing the old master humour and incontestable "pleasantness," to deny him wit and those ornaments thereof which Quintilian reckons up under the terms urbana, salsa, faceta, and so forth. Such wit as Dryden has in view is the mere outward fashion or style of the day, the euphuism or " sheerwit" or chic which is the creed of the Fastidious Brisks and of their crafty purveyors at any given moment. In this Ben Jonson was no doubt defective ; for he was too accurate an observer of men and manners to be himself a man of fashion, literary or otherwise. But it would be an error to suppose him, as a comic dramatist, to have stood towards the world around him in the attitude of a philosopher, careless of mere transient externalisms. It is said that the scene of his Every Man in his Humour was originally laid near Florence; and his Volpone, which is perhaps the darkest social picture ever drawn by him, plays at Venice. But the atmosphere of his comedies, wherever they may be supposed to play, is familiar enough to any one fairly acquainted with the native surroundings amidst which they were produced; and Ben Jonson's times live for us in his men and women, his country gulls and town gulls, his alchemists and exorcists, his "skeldring" captains and whining Puritans, and the whole ragamuffin rout of his Bartholomew Pair, the comedy par excellence of Elizabethan low life. After he had described the pastimes, fashionable and unfashionable, of his age, its feeble superstitions and its flaunting naughtinesses, its vapouring affectations and its lying effronteries, with an odour as of "divine tabacco" pervading the whole, little might seem to be left to describe for his "sons" and successors. Enough, however, remained; only that his followers speedily again threw manners and " humours" into one undistinguishable medley.

The gift which both in his art and in his life Jonson lacked was that of exercising the influence or creating the effects which he wished to exercise or create without the appearance of consciousness. Instead of this, influenced no doubt by the example of the free relations between author and public permitted by Attic comedy, he resorted again and again, from Every Man out of his Humour to The Magnetic Lady, to sundry devices of inductions and commentatory intermezzos and appendices, which, though occasionally effective by the excellence of their execution, are to be regretted as introducing into his dramas an exotic and often vexatious element. A man of letters to the very core, he never quite understood that there is and ought to be a wide difference between the world of letters and the world of the theatre.

The richness and versatility of Jonson's genius will never be fully appreciated by those who fail to acquaint themselves with what is preserved to us of his "masks" and cognate entertainments. He was conscious enough of his success in this direction—" next himself," he said, " only Fletcher and Chapman could write a mask." He introduced, or at least established, the ingenious innovation of the anti-mask, which Schlegel has described as a species of " parody added by the poet to his device, and usually prefixed to the serious entry," and which accordingly supplies a grotesque antidote to the often extravagantly imaginative main conception. Jonson's learning, creative power, and humorous ingenuity—combined, it should not be forgotten, with a genuine lyrical gift—all found abundant opportunities for displaying themselves in these productions. Though a growth of foreign origin, the mask was by him thoroughly domesticated in the high places of English literature. He lived long enough to see the species produce its poetic masterpiece in Comics, after which it soon faded away in times too fierce to allow of its further cultivation.

The Sad Shepherd, of which Jonson left behind him three acts and a prologue, is distinguished among English pastoral dramas by its freshness of tone; and, though not altogether without either allegorical allusions or classical ornament, breathes something of the spirit of the greenwood, and is not unnatural even in its supernatural element. While this piece, with its charming love-scenes between Robin Hood and Maid Marion, remains a fragment, another pastoral by Jonson, The May Lord, has been lost, and a third, of which Loch Lomond was intended to be the scene, probably remained unwritten.

Though Ben Jonson never altogether recognized the truth of the maxim that the dramatic art has properly speaking no didactic purpose, his long and laborious life was not wasted upon a barren endeavour. In tragedy he added two works of uncommon merit to our dramatic literature. In comedy his aim was higher, his effort more sustained, and his success more solid, than were those of any of his fellows. In the subsidiary and hybrid species of the mask, he helped to open a new and attractive though undoubtedly devious path in the field of dramatic literature. His intellectual endowments surpassed those of most of our great dramatists in richness and in breadth; and in energy of application he probably surpassed them all. Yet it is less by these gifts or even by his power of hard work than by the true ring of his manliness that he is uniquely distinguished among his peers.

The date of the first folio volume of Jonson's Works (of which title his novel but characteristic use in applying it to plays was at the time much ridiculed) has already been mentioned as 1616; the second is described by Gifford as " a wretched continuation of the first, printed from MSS. surreptitiously obtained during his life, or ignoi'antly hurried through the press after his death, and bearing a variety of dates from 1631 to 1641 inclusive." The whole works were reprinted in a single folio volume in 1692, and again in 6 vols. 8vo in 1715. Whalley's edition in 7 vols., with a life, appeared in 1756, but was superseded in 1816 by Gilford's, in 9 vols, (of which the first includes a biographical memoir, and the famous essay on the '' Proofs of Ben Jonson's Malignity, from the Commentators on Shakespeare "). A new edition of Gilford's excellent book was published in 9 vols, in 1875 by Colonel F. Cunningham, as well as a cheap reprint in 3 vols, in 1870. Both contain the " Conversations with Drummond," which were first printed in full by David Laing in the Shakespeare Society's Publications (1842), and the Jonsonus Virbius, a collection (unparalleled in number and variety of authors) of poetical tributes published about six months after Jonson's death by his friends and admirers. There is also a single-volume edition, with a very readable memoir, by Barry Cornwall (1838). Recently Every Man in his Humour has been edited, with an excellent brief biographical as well as special introduction, to which the present sketch owes some details, by H. B. Wheatley (1877). The criticisms of Jonson are too numerous to mention; but among many deserving to be overlooked should not be included that of Dryden in the preface to An Evening's Love, or the Mock Astrologer. (A. W. W.)



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