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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Barrett Wendell (1855–1921)

By Ben Jonson (1572–1637)

BEN JONSON was born about 1572, and died in 1637. A typical Londoner all his life, it was his fortune to find an unintentional biographer in a contemporary man of letters who was not even a resident of England. In the year 1618, Jonson, then in the full ripeness of his fame and character, walked to Scotland, where he visited William Drummond of Hawthornden. In Drummond’s note-book, which survives, we have a remarkable record of his conversation. Quotations from this will give a better idea of him than can any paraphrase:—

  • Of His Owne Lyfe, Education, Birth, Actions
  • HIS grandfather came from Carlisle, and, he thought, from Anandale to it; he served King Henry 8, and was a gentleman. His Father losed all his estate under Queen Marie, having been cast in prisson and forfaitted; at last turn’d Minister: so he was a minister’s son. He himself was posthumous born, a moneth after his father’s decease; brought up poorly, putt to school by a friend (his master Cambden); after taken from it, and put to ane other craft (I think was to be a wright or bricklayer), which he could not endure; then went he to the Low Countries; but returning soone he betook himself to his wonted studies. In his service in the Low Countries, he had, in the face of both the campes, killed ane enemie and taken spolia opima from him; and since his comming to England, being appealed to the fields, he had killed his adversarie, which had hurt him in the arme, and whose sword was 10 inches longer than his: for the which he was emprissoned, and almost at the gallowes. Then took he his religion by trust, of a priest who visited him in prisson. Thereafter he was 12 yeares a Papist.
  • He was Master of Arts in both the Universities, by their favour, not his studie….
  • At that tyme the pest was in London; he being in the country … with old Cambden, he saw in a vision his eldest sone, then a child and at London, appear unto him with the mark of a bloodie crosse on his forehead, as if it had been cutted with a sword, at which amazed he prayed unto God, and in the morning he came to Mr. Cambden’s chamber to tell him; who persuaded him it was but ane apprehension of his fantasie, at which he sould not be disjected; in the mean tyme comes then letters from his wife of the death of that boy in the plague. He appeared to him (he said) of a manlie shape, and of that grouth that he thinks he shall be at the resurrection.
  • He was dilated … to the King for writting something against the Scots,… and voluntarly imprissoned himself with Chapman and Marston, who had written it amongst them. The report was, that they should then had their ears cut and noses. After their delivery he banqueted all his friends;… at the midst of the feast his old Mother dranke to him, and shew him a paper which she had (if the sentence had taken execution) to have mixed in the prisson among his drinke, which was full of lustie strong poison; and that she was no churle, she told: she minded first to have drunk of it herself….
  • S. W. Raulighe sent him governour with his Son, anno 1613, to France. This youth being knavishly inclined, among other pastimes … caused him to be drunken, and dead drunk, so that he knew not wher he was; therafter laid him on a carr, which he made to be drawen by pioners through the streets, at every corner showing his governour stretched out, and telling them that was a more lively image of the Crucifix than any they had: at which sport young Raughlie’s mother delyghted much (saying, his father young was so inclyned), though the Father abhorred it….
  • After he was reconciled with the Church, and left of to be a recusant, at his first communion, in token of true reconciliation, he drank out all the full cup of wine….
  • He heth 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….
  • HIS CENSURE OF MY VERSES WAS: That they were all good, especiallie my Epitaphe of the Prince, save that they smelled too much of the Schooles, and were not after the fancie of the tyme….
  • He dissuaded me from Poetrie, for that she had beggered him, when he might have been a rich lawer, physitian, or marchant….
  • [He said] he was better versed, and knew more in Greek and Latin, than all the Poets in England…. In his merry humor he was wont to name himself The Poet.
  • He went from Lieth homeward the 25 of January, 1619, in a pair of shoes which, he told, lasted him since he came from Darnton, which he minded to take back that farr again….
  • If he died by the way, he promised to send me his papers of this Country, hewen as they were.
  • Drummond of Hawthornden was a rather precise Scottish gentleman. When he made these memoranda, he was clearly stirred by such emotions as declare themselves in any conservative and respectable man who has been startled at his own table by the outburst of an unconventional Bohemian. His private opinion of his guest, therefore, was hardly favorable.

  • JANUARY 19, 1619.—He is 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 but what either he himself or some of his friends and countrymen hath said or done; he is passionately kynde and angry; careless either to gaine or keep; vindicative, but, if he be well answered, at himself.
  • For any religion, as being versed in both. Interpreteth best sayings and deeds often to the worst. Oppressed with fantasie, which hath ever mastered his reason, a generall disease in many Poets. His inventions are smooth and easie; but above all he excelleth in a Translation.
  • With due allowance for the personal feeling which pervades these memoranda, they give incomparably the most vivid portrait in existence of an Elizabethan man of letters. The man they deal with, while not the greatest poet of his time, was distinctly the most conspicuous personal figure among those whose profession was literature. An excellent scholar, according to the contemporary standard; a playwright who never deigned to sacrifice his artistic conscience to popular caprice; a lyric poet acceptable alike to the great folk who patronized him, and to the literary followers who gathered about him at his favorite taverns; laureate; chief writer of the masques which were so characteristic a diversion of the court;—he went sturdily through life with more renown than fortune. Born before the outburst of Elizabethan literature, he lived until the times of Charles I. had begun to be troublous. He lies in the north aisle of Westminster Abbey, with the epitaph “O rare Ben Jonson” cut in the pavement above his head.

    In 1616, the year when Shakespeare died, Jonson published in folio a collection of his plays and poems. To this he gave the characteristic title of ‘Works.’ There were current jokes, of course, about the absurdity of so naming a volume of obvious plays; but the name was well chosen. What Jonson achieved, he achieved by conscientious labor. Drummond was right when he wrote, “Above all he excelleth in a Translation.” Jonson knew two things thoroughly: the language and literature of classical Rome, and the language and life of London under Elizabeth, James, and Charles. The former he possessed to a degree almost unique; the latter, of course, he shared to the full with the human beings about him. As his two tragedies show, as is shown by many passages in his comedies, and again and again in his lyrics, the thing he could do supremely well was to turn the lifelessness of the classics into terms of contemporary vitality. In the best sense of the word, no better translator ever lived: he never forgot that faithfulness to his original is only half the task of the translator, who adds only to the dead weight of printed matter if he fail to bear to living men, in living language, tidings that without him were to them unmeaning.

    The very trait which made him a consummate translator, however, made him, in spite of his vigorous personality, a less effective original writer than many of his less-gifted contemporaries. Inevitably, a man who becomes saturated with classical literature becomes possessed of the chief ideal which pervades it,—the ideal which maintains that there is one definite way in which things ought to be done, as distinguished from the innumerable other ways in which they ought not to be done. The general trait of the Elizabethan drama is untrammeled freedom of form. Jonson, as a dramatist, felt conscientiously bound to keep in mind the laws of classical composition. In this respect, his work is more analogous to that which has prevailed on the stage of France and of Italy than to that which has characterized the stage of England. “Shakspeer,” he told Drummond, “wanted art.” No one ever admired Shakespeare more sturdily than did Ben Jonson. All the same, he could never forget that Shakespeare broke every rule of dramatic art maintained by the authorities of Greece and Rome. By the same token, Jonson’s own plays never achieved the full vitality of Elizabethan England.

    This fact has been generally remarked. Another trait of his, which greatly affected his dramatic writing, has hardly been recognized. He told Drummond, we may remember, that he had seen his dead child in a vision; and that he had lain awake watching strange figures battling about his great toe. In modern terms, this means that he was gifted with an exceptional visual imagination. The chief imaginative trait of the Elizabethan drama is sympathetic insight: whatever else the dramatists knew of their characters, they knew how those characters must have felt; they were in full touch not with their physical life, but with their emotional. In Jonson’s case, all this was reversed; one often doubts whether he were in deep emotional sympathy with his characters, but one is sure that he knew precisely how those characters looked and moved. When one has been reading Shakespeare, or almost any of his other contemporaries, Jonson’s plays often seem obscure and puzzling. If in such case one turn for an hour to Hogarth, the whole thing is explained. Jonson’s imagination was primarily visual; though his vehicle was poetry, his conception was again and again that of painting. Ask yourself not what Jonson’s characters felt, but what they looked like, and they will spring into life.

    The analogy between Jonson and Hogarth, indeed, is very suggestive. Not only were both gifted with singular fertility of visual imagination, but both alike instinctively expressed themselves in such exaggerated terms as in our time would be called caricature, and as in Jonson’s time were called humorous. Both seized upon some few characteristic traits of the personages with whom they dealt, and so emphasized these traits as to make them monstrous. Both were stirred by conscious moral purpose; both had a crude but wholesome sense of fun; both knew London to the core. In spite of the century and more which separates them, they may well be studied together. Whoever understands the one will understand the other.

    For both alike were really artists. In the color and the texture of Hogarth’s paintings, one feels, for all their seeming ugliness of purpose, a genuine sense of what is beautiful. In Jonson’s verses, from beginning to end, one feels, as surely as one feels the occasional limitations of pedantry, that higher, purer spirit of classical culture, which maintains that whatever a poet utters should be phrased as beautifully as his power can phrase it. In some lyrics, and in certain lines and passages of his plays, Jonson fairly excels. A scholar and a Londoner, vigorous, sincere, untiring, he stands in our literature as the great type of a sturdy British artist.

    In the selections which follow, an attempt has been made to give some slight evidence of his purposes and his achievement. The two passages from his posthumous ‘Timber, or Discoveries’ may suggest at once his literary method and the temper in which he regarded his chief contemporary. His well-known verses on Shakespeare repeat in more studied form the latter views, and at the same time show his mastery of English verse. The prologue to ‘Every Man in His Humour’ states his dramatic creed. The passage from ‘Sejanus’ shows his great, if superficial, mastery of Roman life and manners. The passage from the ‘Silent Woman’ shows at once his “humorous” manner, and his consummate power of translation; for the tirade against women is taken straight from Juvenal. Finally, the necessarily few fragments from his other plays, and selections from his lyrics, may perhaps serve to indicate the manner of thing which his conscientious art has added to permanent literature.