Imatges de pÓgina

Lecture the Fourteenth.


HE second place in the dramatic literature of this important period, has been usually assigned to Jonson, though some writers may be disposed to claim it for the more Shaksperian genius of Beaumont and Fletcher.

BEN JONSON was descended from Scottish ancestry, and was born at Westminster, in 1574. His early life was full of trials and vicissitudes. His father, a clergyman, died one month before the future poet's birth, and his mother, marrying, some years after, a bricklayer, Ben, who had now been, for some time, at Westminster school, preparing for the university, was taken thence by his step-father, and placed at his own employment. Feeling degraded by this change, and sooner than submit to it, he abandoned his home, and though not fifteen years of age, enlisted in the army then forming for service in Holland. He is reputed to have killed, while abroad, one of the enemy in single combat, in the view of both armies, and to have otherwise distinguished himself by his youthful bravery.

Soon after his return to England, Jonson entered St. John's College, Cambridge; but in consequence of his straitened circumstances, he remained there only a very short time, and in the twentieth year of his age repaired to London, and resorted to the stage. He made his first appearance at a low theatre near Clerkenwell, and, as his opponents afterward reminded him, failed completely as an actor. About the same time he commenced writing for the stage, either by himself, or conjointly with others. He soon after quarreled with another performer, and a duel being the consequence, Jonson had the misfortune to kill his antagonist, and to be severely wounded himself. He was committed to prison on a charge of murder, but was released without being brought to trial. After he regained his liberty, he relinquished the stage, as an actor, and in 1596, when in the twenty-third year of his age, produced his first important drama, Every Man in his HuThe scene of the play was laid in Italy, but the characters and manners which it exhibited were exclusively English. Jonson afterward recast the whole, and transferred the scene itself also to England. In its revised


form, 'Every Man in his Humour' was brought out at the Globe Theatre, in 1598, and Shakspeare performed one of the prominent characters. He had himself, previous to this time, produced some of his finest comedies, but Jonson was no imitator of his great rival, who blended a spirit of poetic romance with his comic sketches, and made no attempt to delineate the domestic manners of his countrymen. Jonson opened a new walk in the drama: he felt his strength, and the public cheered him on with its plaudits. Queen Elizabeth patronized the new poet, and ever afterwards he was ‘a man of mark and likelihood.' In 1599, appeared his Every Man out of his Humour, which was a less able performance than its predecessor. Cynthia's Revels, and the Poetaster, followed; and the fierce rivalry and contention which clouded Jonson's after-life seem to have begun about this time. He had, in the Poetaster, attacked Marston and Dekker, two of his brother dramatists, with much severity. Dekker replied with spirit in his Satiromastix, and Jonson was silent during the following two years, 'living upon one Townsend, and scorning the world,' as is recorded in the diary of a contemporary.

In 1603, Jonson tried 'if tragedy had a more kind aspect,' and produced his classic drama of Sejanus. Shortly after the accession of King James, a comedy called Eastward Hoe, was written conjointly by Jonson, Chapman, and Marston. Some passages in this play reflected on the Scottish nation, and the matter was represented to the king by Sir James Murray, one of his courtiers, in so strong a light, that the authors were apprehended, thrown into prison, and threatened with the loss of their ears and noses. They were not tried, however; and the presumption is, that what was, at first, regarded as severe satire, was nothing more than playful wit. Jonson's three great comedies, Volpone, or the Fox, Epicene, or the Silent Woman, and The Alchemist, were his next serious performances; and in 1611, appeared Catiline, his second classical tragedy. His fame had now reached its highest elevation; but he produced several other comedies, and a vast number of court entertainments, before his star began sensibly to decline. In 1619, he received the appointment of poet laureate, with an annual pension of a hundred marks; and, during the same year, he made a journey on foot to Scotland, where he had many friends. He was well received by the Scottish gentry, and was so much pleased with the country, that he designed a poem on the beauties of Loch-lomond. The last of his visits was made to Drummond, of Hawthornden, with whom he passed three weeks, and Drummond kept notes of his conversation, which, in a subsequent age, were communicated to the world, not much to the credit of either host or guest.

The latter days of Jonson form a striking contrast with those of Shakspeare, being dark and painful in the extreme. Frequent attacks of palsy confined him to his house, and having, by his prodigality, squandered the proceeds of his literary labors as fast as they were received, his necessities compelled him to write for the stage when his pen had lost its vigor, and wanted the charm of novelty. In 1630, he produced his comedy, the New

Inn, which was unsuccessful on the stage; and the king, when he heard of this failure, sent him a present of a hundred pounds: he also, soon after, raised his laureate pension to the same sum per annum, adding a tierce of Canary wine yearly. Jonson continued to write to the last. Dryden styled his latter works, his dotages, and some of them are certainly unworthy of him; but the Sad Shepherd, which he left unfinished, exhibits the poetical fancy of a youthful composition. He died in 1637, in the sixtyfourth year of his age, and was buried in Westminster Abbey, where a square stone, marking the spot where the poet's body was disposed vertically, was long after shown, inscribed only with the words,


Jonson founded a style of regular English comedy, massive, well compacted, and fitted to endure; yet not very atractive in its materials. His works, altogether, consist of about fifty dramatic pieces, but by far the greater part of them are Masques and Interludes. His principal comedies are, Every Man in his Humour, Volpone, The Silent Woman, and The Alchemist. The voluptuous 'Volpone' is drawn with great breadth and freedom; and generally his portraitures of eccentric characters—men in whom some peculiarity has grown to an egregious excess—are ludicrous and impressive. His scenes and characters show the labors of the artist, but still an artist possessing rich resources; an acute and vigorous intellect; great knowledge of life from its highest point of elevation down to its lowest descent; wit, lofty declamation, and a power of dramatizing his knowledge and observation, with singular skill and effect. Jonson prided himself immoderately upon his classical attainments, and was apt to slight and condemn his less learned associates; hence his pedantry is often misplaced and ridiculous. His comic theatre is a gallery of strange, original portraits, powerfully drawn, and skillfully disposed, but many of them repulsive in expression, or so exaggerated, as to look like caricatures or libels on humanity. There is little deep passion or winning tenderness to link the beings of his drama with those we love or admire, or to make us sympathize with them as with existing mortals. The charm of reality is generally wanting, or when found, it is not a pleasing reality. When the great artist escapes entirely from his elaborate wit, and personified humors, into the region of fancy, as he does in the lyrical passages of 'Cynthia," Epicene,' and the whole drama of the 'Sad Shepherd,' we are struck with the contrast it exhibits to his ordinary manner. He thus presents two natures; one hard, rugged, gross, and sarcastic-the other, airy, fanciful, and graceful, as if its possessor had never combatted with the world and its bad passions, but nursed his understanding and his fancy in poetical seclusion and contemplation. Indeed, we think, the most delightful, at least, aspect of Jonson's genius is presented in the lyrics found in his dramas, and elsewhere in his writings. The Forest, from which the first three of the following poems are taken, was published by Jonson, along with the plays which he had then written, in 1616. It consists of a collection of miscellaneous poems, all of

which abound with those delicate touches that form the author's prevailing characteristic.


Drink to me only with thine eyes,

And I will pledge with mine;
Or leave a kiss but in the cup,

And I'll not look for wine.

The thirst that from the soul doth rise,
Doth ask a drink divine;

But might I of Jove's nectar sup,
I would not change for thine.

I sent thee late a rosy wreath,
Not so much honouring thee,
As giving it a hope, that there
It could not wither'd be.

But thou thereon didst only breathe,

And sent'st it back to me;

Since when it grows, and smells, I swear,

Not of itself, but thee.


Oh do not wanton with those eyes,
Lest I be sick with seeing;

Nor cast them down, but let them rise,
Lest shame destroy their being.

Oh be not angry with those fires,
For then their threats will kill me;
Nor look too kind on my desires,
For then my hopes will spill me.

Oh do not steep them in thy tears
For so will sorrow slay me;

Nor spread them as distraught with fears;
Mine own enough betray me.


See the chariot at hand here of love,
Wherein my lady rideth!

Each that draws is a swan or a dove,

And well the car love guideth.

As she goes all hearts do duty
Unto her beauty;

And enamour'd do wish, so they might

But enjoy such a sight

That they still were to run by her side,

Through swords, through seas, whither she would ride.

Do but look on her eyes, they do light

All that love's world compriseth!

Do but look on her, she is bright
As love's star when it riseth!

Do but mark, her forehead's smoother

Than words that soothe her!

And from her arch'd brows, such a grace
Sheds itself through the face,

As alone there triumphs to the life

All the gain, all the good of the elements' strife.

Have you seen but a bright lily grow,

Before rude hands have touch'd it?
Have you mark'd but the fall of the snow
Before the soil hath smutch'd it!

Have you felt the wool of the beaver,
Or swan's down ever?

Or have smell'd of the bud o' the brier?
Or the 'nard in the fire?

Or have tasted the bag of the bee?

O so white! O so soft! O so sweet is she!


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 shining quiver:

Give unto the flying heart,

Space to breathe, how short soever;

Thou that mak'st a day of night,

Goddess excellently bright!

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