Moulton's Library of Literary Criticism
[From The Library of Literary Criticism of English and American Authors, ed. Charles Wells Moulton (London: Moulton Publishing, 1901), 1: 745-67).
Born, in Westminster (?), 1573(?). Educated at St.-Martin's-in-the-Fields Parish School; and at Westminster School. Worked as a bricklayer for a short time, afterwards served with English troops in Flanders. Returned to England about 1592, married soon afterwards. First acted, and wrote for stage, about 1595. Imprisoned for killing a fellow-actor in a duel, 1598. Became a Roman Catholic, same year. "Every Man in His Humour, " produced at Globe Theatre, 1598. Wrote plays for Henslowe's company, 1599-1602. "Sejanus," produced at Globe Theatre, 1603. Prolific writer of plays; and of Masques, for Court performance, 1605-30. Imprisoned for a short time in connection with political allusions in play "Eastward Ho," 1605. In France. as tutor to son of Sir W. Raleigh, 1613. Journey to Scotland, on foot 1618. Elected Burgess of Edinburgh, Sept. 1618. Visited Drummond of Hawthornden. Returned to England, spring of 1619. Visit to Oxford, 1620, received Hon. M. A. degree. Ill-health began, 1626. Chronologer to City of London, Sept. 1628 deprived of Salary, 1631; restored to post, Sept. 1634. Died, in London, 6 Aug. 1637. Buried in Westminster Abbey. Works: "Every Man Out of His Humour," 1600 (2nd edn. same year); "Cynthia's Revels," 1600, "Every Man in his Humour," 1601; "Poetaster," 1602; Additions to "Jeronymo," 1602, "A Particular Entertainment," 1603;"Part of King James his . . . Entertainment," 1604, "Sejanus," 1605; "Eastward Ho" (with Chapman and Marston), 1605 (3rd edn. same year); ‘'Hymenaei,'‘ 1606; "Volpone," 1607; "Description of the . . . Masque" at Viscount Hadington's Marriage (1608), "Epicoene, " 1609, "The Character of two royall Masques, " 1609; "Ben Jonson, his Case is Altered, " 1609; "The Masque of Queenes," 1609; ACatiline his Conspiracy," 1611; "The Alchemist," 1612; "Certayne Masques,"1615; "Works" (2 vols.), 1616-40; "Lovers Made Men" (known as "The Masque of Lethe;" anon.), 1617; "The Masque of Augures," 1621; "Neptune's Triumph" (anon.), : "The Fortunate Isles" , "Love's Triumph through Callipolis," 1630; "Chloridia" [1630?], "The New Inne," 1631. Posthumous: "The Bloody Brother, by B. J. F." (mainly by Fletcher, perhaps part by Jonson), 1639, "Underwoods," 1640; "Execration against Vulcan," 1640; "The English Grammar," 1640 "The Widow" (with Fletcher and Middleton), 1652, "The Fall of Mortimer" (anon., completed by another hand), 1771; "The Sad Shepherd, " ed. by F. G. Waldron, 1783. He translated: "Horace his Art of Poetrie," 1640. Collected Works: in one vol. 1692, in 7 vols., ed. by Whalley, 1756, ed. by Gifford, 1816.-SHARP, R. FARQUHARSON, 1897, A Dictionary of English Authors, p. 152.
Sence you weare with me I have lost one of company, which hurteth me greatly, that is Gabrill, for he is slayen in Hogesden fylldes (Hoxton Fields) by the hands of Bengemen Jonson, bricklayer, therefore I wold fayne have a littell of your counsell yf I would. - HENSL0WE, PHILIPS, 1598 Letter to Edward Alleyne, Sept. 26, Collier's Memoirs of Edward Alleyne.
At Leith 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. - TAYLOR, JOHN, 1618, Pennylesse Pilgrimage.
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 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.-- DRUMMOND, WILLIAM, 1619, Notes on Ben Jonson's Conversations.
Come, leave the loathed stage
And the more loathsome age
Where pride and impudence, in faction knit
Usurp the chair of wit!
Indicting and arraigning every day
Something they call a play.
Let their fastidious, vain
Commission of the brain
Run on and rage, sweat, censure and condemn;
They were not made for thee, less thou for them.
- JONSON, BEN, c. 1629, Ode to Himself.
And famous Jonson, though his learned pen
Be dipt in Castaly, is still but Ben.
- HEYWOOD, THOMAS, 1635, The Hierarchy of the Blessed Angels.
Sir:-- 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 vapour extremely by himself, and, by vilifying others, to magnify his own Muse. T. Ca. buzzed me in the ear that though Ben had barrelled up a great deal of knowledge, yet it seems he had not read the Ethiques, which, among other precepts of Morality, forbid self-commendation, declaring it to be an ill-favoured solecism in good manners. . . . But for my part, I am content to dispense with the Roman infirmity of B., now that time hath snowed upon his pericranium. You know Ovid, and (your) Horace were subject to this humour, the first bursting out into
Jamq; opus exegi, quod nec Jovis ire nec ignis, &c.
The other into
Exegi monumentum aere pernnius, &c.
As also Cicero, while he forced himself into this hexameter: "O fortunatam natam, me console Romam!" There is another reason that excuseth B., which is that if one be allowed to love the natural issue of his Body, why not that of his Brain, which is of a spiritual and more noble extraction? - HOWELL, JAMES, 1636, Letter to Sir Thomas Hawk, April 5th.
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 bad him not go on,
‘T was merit, he said, and not presumption,
Must carry it; at which Ben turned about,
And in great choler offered to go out.
- SUCKLING, SIR JOHN, 1637, A Sessions of the Poets.
Say how, or when
Shall we thy guests
Meet at those lyric feasts
Made at the Sun
The Dog, the Triple Tun?
Where we such clusters had
As made us nobly wild, not mad;
And yet each verse of thine
Outdid the meat, outdid the frolic wine.
Or come again,
Or send to us,
Thy witts great overplus;
But teach us yet
Wisely to husband it,
Lest we that talent spend;
And having once brought to an end
That precious stock, the store
Of such a wit the world should have no more.
- HERRICK, ROBERT, 1637? An Ode for Him.
Though I cannot with all my industrious inquiry find him in his cradle, I can fetch him from his long coats. When a little child, he lived in Harts-horn-lane near Charing-cross, where his Mother married a Bricklayer for her second husband. . . . He help'd in the building of the new structure of Lincoln's Inn, when, having a trowell in his hand, he had a book in his pocket. Some gentlemen, pitying that his parts should be buried under the rubbish of so mean a calling, did by their bounty manumise him freely to follow his own ingenious inclinations. Indeed his parts were not so ready to run of themselves, as able to answer the spur; so that it may be truly said of him, that he had an elaborate wit wrought out by his own industry. He would sit silent in learned company, and suck in (besides wine) their several humors into his observation. What was ore in others, he was able to refine to himself. -- FULLER, THOMAS, 1662, The Worthies of England, ed. Nichols, vol. II, p. 112.
His mother. after his father's death, married a bricklayer; and ‘tis generally sayd that he wrought sometime with his father-in-lawe (and particularly on the gardenwall of Lincoln's Inne next to Chancery-lane -- from old parson [Richard] Hill, of Stretton, Hereff., 1646), and that . . ., a knight, a bencher, walking thro' and hearing him repeat some Greeke verses out of Homer, discoursing with him, and finding him to have a witt extraordinary, gave him some exhibition to maintaine him at Trinity college in Cambridge, where he was . . . . (quaere). Then he went into the Lowe-countreys and spent some time (not very long) in the armie, not to the disgrace of . . ., as you may find in his Epigrammes. Then he came over into England, and acted and wrote, but both ill, at the Green Curtaine, a kind of nursery or obscure playhouse, somewhere in the suburbes (I thinke towards Shoreditch or Clarkenwell) -- from J. Greenhill. Then he undertooke againe to write a playe, and did hitt its admirably well, viz. "Every man . . . . " which was his first good one. . . . He was (or rather had been) of a clear and faire skin; his habit was very plaine. I have heard Mr. Lacy, the player, say that he was wont to weare a coate like a coachman's coate, with slitts under the arme-pitts. He would many times exceed in drinke (Canarie was his beloved liqueur): then he would tumble home to bed, and, when he had thoroughly perspired, then to studie. I have seen his studyeing chaire, which was of strawe such as old woemen used, and as Aulus Gellius is drawen in.... He lies buryed in the north aisle in the path of square stone (the rest is lozenge), opposite to the scutcheon of Robertus de Ros, with this inscription only on him, in a pavement square, of blew marble, about 14 inches square,
O RARE BEN JOHNSON
which was donne at the chardge of Jack Young (afterwards knighted) who, walking there when the grave was covering, gave the fellow eighteen pence to cutt it. -- AUBREY, JOHN, 1669-96, Brief Lives, ed. Clark, vol. II, pp. 11, 12, 13.
Ben Johnson's name can never be forgotten, having by his very good learning, and the severity of his nature and manners, very much reformed the Stage; and indeed the English poetry itself: his natural advantages were, judgment to order and govern fancy, rather than excess of fancy, his productions being slow and upon deliberation, yet then abounding with great wit and fancy, and will live accordingly; and surely as he did exceedingly exalt the English language in eloquence, propriety, and masculine expressions; so he was the best judge of and fittest to prescribe rules to Poetry and Poets, of any man who had lived with or before him, or since, if Mr. Cowley had not made a flight beyond all men, with that modesty yet, to ascribe much of this, to the example and learning of Ben. Johnson. His conversation was very good, and with the men of most note; and he had for many years an extraordinary kindness for Mr. Hyde, till he found he betook himself to business, which he believed ought never to be preferred before his company: he lived to be very old, and till the palsy made a deep impression upon his body and his mind. -- CLARENDON, EDWARD, LORD, 1674-1760, Life, vol. I, p. 23.
He was a Man of a very free Temper, and withal blunt, and somewhat haughty to those that were either Rivals in Fame or Enemies to his Writings: (witness his " Poetaster," wherein he falls upon Decker, and his answer to Dr. Gill, who writ against his "Magnetick Lady,") otherwise of a good Sociable Humor, when amongst his Sons and Friends in the Apollo. -- LANGBAINE, GERARD, 1691, An Account of the English Dramatick Poets, p. 283.
Each true Briton is to Ben so civil,
He swears the Muses met him at the Devil.
-- POPE, ALEXANDER, 1733, First Epistle of the Second Book of Horace.
Jonson hath been often represented as of an envious, arrogant, overbearing temper, and insolent and haughty in his converse, but these ungracious drawings were the performance of his enemies; who certainly were not solicitous to give a flattering likeness of the original. But considering the provocations he received, with the mean and contemptible talents of those who opposed him, what we condemn as vanity or conceit, might be only the exertions of conscious and insulted merit. . . . In his studies Jonson was laborious and indefatigable: his reading was copious and extensive; his memory so tenacious and strong that, when turned of forty, he could have repeated all that he ever wrote: his judgment was accurate and solid, and often consulted by those who knew him well, in branches of very curious learning, and far remote from the flowery paths loved and frequented by the muses. -- WHALLEY, PETER, 1756, ed. Jonson's Works, Life of Jonson, p. iv.
Notwithstanding the remarks which will be found scattered over the succeeding volumes, respecting the alleged hostility of Jonson to Shakspeare, it appears to me that I should but imperfectly discharge my duty unless I presented the reader with a concentrated view of a part of the proofs by which the accusation is supposed to be made good. Our dramatic literature has been absolutely poisoned by the malice of Jonson's persecutors. Whoever brought forward an old poet offered up a victim to his fame, and this victim was invariably our author: but while it was generously admitted that the rest of his contemporaries felt his malignity only at intervals, it was universally affirmed that his abuse of Shakespeare was unremitted. Neither writer nor reader ever dreamed of questioning the accuracy of this statement, and nothing could be more amusing than the complacent simplicity with which it was handed down from Mr. Malone to Mr. Weber, from Mr. G. Chalmers to Mr. Stephen Jones. It is to the praise of Mr. Gilchrist that be was the first person who, amidst the general outcry against Jonson, evinced sufficient honesty to investigate the truth, and sufficient courage to declare it. His little Publication startled the critics, though it could not silence them. His triumph, however, was complete; for he had justice on his side: and there is something ludicrous in the half-concessions which the force of his facts occasionally elicits from his opponents. -- GIFFORD, WILLIAM, 1816, ed. Works of Ben Jonson, vol. I, p. cxciii.
O Ben, my rare Friend, is this in very deed thou? There in the body, with thy rugged sagacities and genialities; with thy rugged Annandale face and unquenchable laughing eyes; -- like a rock hiding in it perennial limpid wells! My rare friend, there is in thee something of the lion, observe: -- thou art the rugged Stonemason, the harsh, learned Hodman; yet hast strains too of a noble softness, melodious as the voice of wood-doves, fitfully thrilling as the note of nightingales, now and then! Rarer union of rough clumsy strength with touches of an Ariel beauty I have not met with. A sterling man, a true Singer-heart, -- born of my native Valley too: to whom and to which be all honour! -- CARLYLE, THOMAS, 1844-49-98, Historical Sketches of Notable Persons and Events in the Reigns of James I. and Charles I., p. 74.
In spite, therefore, of his faults, both as a man and as an author -- his arrogance, his intemperance, his sarcastic and sometimes coarse humour, his pedantry and his pride -- we must ever hold him to have been a great and good man: grateful, generous, valiant, free spoken, with something of the old Roman spirit in him, a mighty artist, and a man of a gigantic and cultivated genius; and we may reverently echo the beautiful words of the epitaph which long remained inscribed upon his grave -- "o rare Ben Jonson!" -- SHAW, THOMAS B., 1847, Outlines of English Literature, p. 125.
How Decker's hearers must have appreciated every allusion to the arrogant Ben the Poet, with the fierce mouth and small beard; his face marked with small pox; his hollow cheeks, his speaking through his nose; his sour face when he reads his own songs, his stamping on the stage as if he was treading mortar. The audience all knew Master Jonson had once killed a man in a duel, and had left brick-making to make rails; they knew he took months writing a play, and that he despised the opinion of his audience, and they laughed accordingly. -- THORNBURY, GEORGE WALTER, 1856, Shakspere's England, vol. ii, p. 13.
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-soured" 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 jurymen towards the Irish advocate, who had an unpleasant habit of sending them the challenge of the duellist 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 claim to rank next to Shakespeare among the dramatists of his age, we beg our readers to understand that we do it under intimidation. -- WHIPPLE, EDWIN P., 1859-68, The Literature of the Age of Elizabeth, p. 85.
According to the local tradition, he asked the King (Charles I) to grant him a favour. "What is it?" said the King -- "Give me eighteen inches of square ground." "Where?" asked the King. -- "In Westminster Abbey." This is one explanation given of the story that he was buried standing upright. Another is that it was in view to his readiness for the Resurrection . . . . This stone [covering his grave] was taken up when, in 1821, the Nave was repaved, and was brought back from the stoneyard of the clerk of the works, in the time of Dean Buckland, by whose order it was fitted into its present place in the north wall of the Nave. Meanwhile, the original spot had been marked by a small triangular lozenge, with a copy of the old inscription. When, in 1819, Sir Robert Wilson was buried close by, the loose sand of Jonson's grave (to use the expression of the clerk of the works who superintended the operation) "rippled in like a quicksand," and the clerk "saw the two leg-bones of Jonson, fixed bolt upright in the sand, as though the body had been buried in the upright position; and the skull came rolling down among the sand, from a position above the leg-bones, to the bottom of the newly-made grave. There was still hair upon it, and it was of a red colour." It was seen once more on the digging of John Hunter's grave; and "it had still traces of red hair upon it. The world long wondered that he should lie buried from the rest of the poets and want a tomb." This monument, in fact, was to have been erected by subscription soon after his death, but was delayed by the breaking-out of the Civil War. The present medallion in Poets' Corner was set up in the middle of the last century by "a person of quality, whose name was desired to be concealed." By a mistake of the sculptor, the buttons were set on the left side of the coat. Hence this epigram --
O rare Ben Jonson-what a turncoat grown!
Thou ne'er wast such, till clad in stone:
Then let not this disturb thy sprite,
Another age shall set thy buttons right.
-- STANLEY, ARTHUR PENRHYN, 1867-96, Historical Memorials of Westminster Abbey, pp. 288, 289.
A vigorous, heavy and uncouth person; a wide and long face, early marred by scurvy, a square jaw, enormous cheeks; his animal organs as much developed as those of his intellect; the sour aspect of a man in a passion or on the verge of a passion; to which add the body of an athlete, about forty years of age, "mountain belly, ungracious gait." Such was the outside, and the inside is like it. He is a genuine Englishman, big and coarsely framed, energetic, combative, proud, often morose, and prone to strange splenetic imaginations. -- TAINE, H. A., 1871, History of English Literature, tr. Van Laun, vol. I, bk. ii, ch. iii, p. 268.
Jonson's person was not built on the classical type of graceful or dignified symmetry: he had the large and rugged dimensions of a strong Borderland river, swollen by a sedentary life into huge corpulence. Although in his later days he jested at his own "mountain belly and his rocky face," he probably bore his unwieldy figure with a more athletic carriage than his namesake the lexicographer. Bodily as well as mentally he belonged to the race of Anak. His position among his contemporaries was very much what Samuel Johnson's might have been had he been contradicted and fought against by independent rivals, jealous and resentful of his dictatorial manner. Ben Jonson's large and irascible personality could not have failed to command respect, but his rivals had too much respect for themselves to give way absolutely to his authority. They refused to be as grasshoppers in his sight. We should do wrong, however, to suppose that this disturbed the giant's peace of mind. -- MINTO, WILLIAM, 1874-85, Characteristics of English Poets, p. 338.
Besides being a born critic, Jonson was possessed of both a generous heart and a robust intellect; and there is a ludicrous incongruity with the transparent nature of the man in the supposition that it was poisoned by a malignant hatred of Shakspere and his fame. The difference between the two poets was indeed extremely great, and reflects itself in almost everything left to us from their respective hands. But it is not a whit less absurd to look upon Jonson and Shakspere as the heads of opposite schools or tendencies in literature, than to suppose the one writer to have personally regarded the other with a jealous feeling of rivalry. Ben Jonson was a genuine scholar, whose chief pride was his library, afterwards destroyed by a fire which inflicted an irreparable loss upon our literature. His love of reading must have been insatiable of his book-learning numberless illustrations are furnished by his plays, in one of which he bears testimony to it with pardonable self-sufficiency. But to the canary-sack must be ascribed part of the boastfulness which made him tell Drummond that "he was better versed, and knew more in Greek and Latin, than all the Poets in England, and" -- here Drummond appears to have imperfectly understood the author of the "English Grammar" -- "quintessence their brains" -- WARD, ADOLPHUS WILLIAM, 1875 - 99, A History of English Dramatic Literature, vol. II, pp. 297, 314.
He goes there [The Mermaid Tavern], or to other like places, very often. He is a friend no doubt of the landlady; he is a friend, too, of all the housemaids, and talks university chaff to them; a friend, too, of all such male frequenters of the house as will listen to him, and will never dispute him; otherwise he is a slang-whanger and a bear. -- MITCHELL, DONALD G., 1889, English Lands Letters and Kings, From Celt to Tudor, p. 295.
A man of extreme convivial and decidedly undomestic turn, he was accessible to everyone at the taverns he frequented and besides the group of "Sons," which is famous, and included all the more noted men of letters of the second half of our period, he seems to have had a wide circle of proteges and clients extending, as later traditions more or less dimly indicate, all over the kingdom. This semi-Falstaffian gift of tavern-kingship, however, could not have availed of itself to give Jonson the position he held. But his more solid claims to literary respect were usually great. Although it is very doubtful whether he belonged to either University in any but an honorary capacity scholars of the strictest academic sufficiency like Selden, Farnaby, and others, admitted his scholarship, he was the honoured friend of Raleigh and Bacon; and it is impossible for any reader, himself possessing the slightest tincture of classical learning, not to recognise in every work of Jonson's -- be it play, poem, or prose -- the presence of reading which never obscured, though it sometimes stiffened and hardened, the creative faculties of the author. -- SAINTSBURY GEORGE, 1895, Social England, ed. Traill, vol. IV, p. 113.
Ben Jonson was an awfully unguarded man; he struck out right and left and straight from the arm-pits. He hit hard all his life was a fight. He seems to have loved fighting. Turbulent, glorious old whirlwind of a man: so honest, so bitter, so keen, so bluff, so hearty and kind, so fierce and uncompromising! He was a Scotchman by his ancestry, and he had a good deal of the perfervidum genus stowed away in the capacious receptacle of his brawny breast. -- BROWN, T. E., 1896, Ben Jonson, The New Review, vol. 14, p. 514.
He was strong and massive in body, racy and coarse, full of self-esteem, and combative instincts, saturated with the conviction of the scholar's high rank and the poet's exalted vocation, full of contempt for ignorance, frivolity, and lowness, classic in his tastes, with a bent towards careful structure and leisurely development of thought in all that he wrote, and yet a true poet in so far as he was not only irregular in his life and quite incapable of saving any of the money he now and then earned, but was, moreover, subject to hallucinations: once saw Carthaginians and Romans fighting on his great toe, and, on another occasion, had a vision of his son with a bloody cross on his brow, which was supposed to forbode his death. . . . With all his weaknesses, however, he was a sturdy, energetic, and high-minded man, a commanding, independent, and very comprehensive intelligence, and from 1598, when he makes his first appearance on Shakespeare's horizon, throughout the rest of his life, he was, so far as we can see, the man of all his contemporaries whose name was oftenest mentioned along with Shakespeare's. . . . Though his society may have been somewhat fatiguing, it must nevertheless have been both instructive and stimulating to Shakespeare, since Ben was greatly his superior in historical and linguistic knowledge, while as a poet he pursued a totally different ideal. -- BRANDES, GEORGE, 1898, William Shakepeare, A Critical Study, vol. I, pp. 385.
He was a loyal and affectionate father, and a constant if not an adoring husband; he described his wife many years after his marriage as "a shrew, yet honest." -- MARIE, HAMILTON WRIGHT, 1900, William Shakespeare, Poet, Dramatist, and Man, p. 280.
"Every Man in his Humour" is founded on such follies and passions as are perpetually incident to, and connected with, man's nature; such as do not depend upon local custom or change of fashion, and, for that reason, will bid fair to last as long as many of our old comedies. The language of Jonson is very peculiar; in perspicuity and elegance he is inferior to Beaumont and Fletcher, and very unlike the masculine dialogue of Massinger. It is almost needless to observe that he comes far short of the variety, strength, and natural flow, of Shakspeare. To avoid the common idiom, he plunges into stiff, quaint, and harsh, phraseology: he has borrowed more words, from the Latin tongue, than all the authors of his time. However, the style of this play, as well as that of the "Alchemist" and "Silent Woman," is more disentangled and free from foreign auxiliaries than the greatest part of his works. Most of the characters are truly dramatic. -- DAVIES, THOMAS, 1783, Dramatic Micellanies, vol. II, p. 53.
"Every Man in his Humour" is perhaps the earliest of European domestic comedies that deserves to be remembered; for even the Mandragora of Machiavel shrinks to a mere farce in comparison. A much greater master of comic powers than Jonson was indeed his contemporary, and, as he perhaps fancied, his rival; but, for some reason Shakspeare had never yet drawn his story from the domestic life of his countrymen. Jonson avoided the common defect of the Italian and Spanish theatre, the sacrifice of all other dramatic objects to one only, a rapid and amusing succession of incidents: his plot is slight and of no great complexity, but his excellence is to be found in the variety of his characters, and in their individuality very clearly defined, with little extravagance. -- HALLAM, HENRY, 1837-39, Introduction to the Literature of Europe, pt. ii, ch. vi, par. 53.
Neither my duly unqualified love for the greater poet nor my duly qualified regard for the less can alter my sense that their mutual relations are in this one case inverted; that "Every Man in his Humour" is altogether a better comedy and work of higher art than the "Merry Wives of Windsor. -- SWINBURNE, ALGERNON CHARLES, 1880, A Study of Shakespeare, p. 121.
The success of "Every Man in his Humor" will surprise no one who has followed the varied and yet simple action of this lively comedy. It is written with all Jonson's precision and in his peculiar manner; but it lacks that rigidity which his manner afterwards assumed. Though the parts of the knavish servant and his young master remind us of the Roman theatre, Jonson has recast them in accordance with English character and custom. His erudition, indeed, in this play makes itself less prominently felt than in some of his later masterpieces. Kitely, as the jealous husband, deserves a place beside Ford in Shakespeare's "Merry Wives of Windsor. -- SYMONDS, JOHN ADDINGTON, 1886, Ben Jonson (English Worthies).
I fear no mood stamp'd in a private brow
When I am pleased t' unmask a public vice.
I fear no strumpet's drugs, nor ruffian's stab
Should I detect their hateful luxuries.
-- JONSON, BEN, 1599, Every Man out of his Humour, Prologue.
If the reader would see the extravagance of building dramatic manners on abstract ideas, in its full light, he needs only turn to B. Johnson's "Every Man out of his Humour;" which under the name of a play of character is in fact, an unnatural and, as the painters call it, hard delineation of, a group of simply existing passions, wholly chimerical, and unlike to anything we observe in the commerce of real life. Yet this comedy has always had its admirers. And Randolph in particular, was so taken with the design, that he seems to have formed his muse's looking-glass in express imitation of it. -- HURD, RICHARD, 1757, A Dissertation on the Several Provinces of the Drama, vol. I, p. 266.
In aim the comedy is truly moral, and if in many passages the author displays no small measure of self-complacency, he must be allowed to have done enough and more than enough to warrant the satisfaction with which he evidently regarded what is one of the masterpieces of English comic literature. The learning of Ben Jonson is very amply exhibited in this Play, which abounds with reminiscences from the classics and from Erasmus. -- WARD, ADOLPHUS WILLIAM, 1875-99, A History of English Dramatic Literature, vol. II p. 349.
The fervour and intensity of the verse which expresses his loftier mood of intolerant indignation, the studious and implacable versatility of scorn which animates the expression of his disgust at the viler or crueller examples of social villainy then open to his contemptuous or furious observation, though they certainly cannot suffice to make a play, suffice to make a living and imperishable work of the dramatic satire which passes so rapidly from one phase to another of folly, fraud, or vice. -- SWINBURNE, ALGERNON CHARLES, 1889, A Study of Ben Jonson, p. 16.
He is above everything a satirist of vice: he hates it, and he lashes it with a whip of scorpions. Listen to Asper -- clearly Jonson himself -- in the introduction to "Every Man Out of His Humour." It is very scathing; but it is very splendid. As a mere question, of language, how nervous it is, how like the very best and strongest utterings of our own time! Contempt is the most frequent note but sometimes it swells to defiance, and becomes gratuitously, recklessly insulting. -- BROWN, T. E., 1896, Ben Jonson, The New Review, vol. 14, p. 522.
However we may respect Jonson's sterling qualities as man and poet, we cannot read the prologue and epilogue to "Cynthia's Revels" without resenting its strain of self-laudation. The three characters, used by him as masks in the three "Comical Satires," namely, Asper, Crites, Horace, make us justly angry. We cannot stomach the writer who thus dared to praise and puff himself. -- SYMONDS, JOHN ADDINGTON, 1886, Ben Jonson, (English Worthies), p. 35.
The most noticeable point in this studiously wayward and laboriously erratic design is that the principle of composition is as conspicuous by its absence as the breath of inspiration: that the artist, the scholar, the disciple, the student of classic models, is as indiscoverable as the spontaneous humourist or poet. The wildest, the roughest, the crudest offspring of literary impulse working blindly on the passionate elements of excitable ignorance was never more formless, more incoherent, more defective in structure than this voluminous abortion of deliberate intelligence and conscientious culture. -- SWINBURNE, ALGERNON CHARLES, 1889, A Study of Ben Jonson, p. 20.
This Roman play seems written to confute those enemies of Ben in his own days and ours, who have said he made a pedantical use of his learning. He has here revived the whole Court of Augustus, by a learned spell. We are admitted to the society of the illustrious dead. Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Tibullus, converse in our own tongue more finely and poetically than they were used to express themselves in their native Latin. Nothing can be imagined more elegant, refined, and court-like, than the scenes between this Louis the Fourteenth of antiquity and his literati. The whole essence and secret of that kind of intercourse is contained therein. The economical liberality by which greatness, seeming to waive some part of its prerogative, takes care to lose none of the essentials; the prudential liberties of an inferior, which flatter by commanded boldness and soothe with complimentary sincerity. -- LAMB, CHARLES, 1808, Specimens of Dramatic Poets.
"Poetaster" is Jonson's acknowledged reply to the numerous attacks that had been made upon him during a period of three years. . . . So far as Jonson was concerned "The War of the Theatres" was ended, although peace was not declared. -- PENNIMAN, JOSIAH H., 1897, The War of the Theatres, p. 118.
The more we reflect and examine, examine and reflect, the more astonished shall we be at the immense superiority of Shakspere over his contemporaries: -- and yet what contemporaries! -- giant minds indeed! Think of Jonson's erudition, and the force of learned authority in that age; and yet in no genuine part of Shakspere's works is there to be found such an absurd rant and ventriloquism as this, and too, too many other passages ferruminated by Jonson from Seneca's tragedies and the writings of the later Romans. I call it ventriloquism, because Sejanus is a puppet, out of which the poet makes his own voice appear to come. -- COLERIDGE, SAMUEL TAYLOR, 1818, Notes on Ben Jonson, ed. Ashe, p. 414.
Whatever this tragedy may want in the agitating power of poetry, it has a strength and dramatic skill that might have secured it, at least, from the petulant contempt with which it has been too often spoken of. Though collected from the dead languages, it is not a lifeless mass of antiquity but the work of a severe and strong imagination, compelling shapes of truth and consistency to rise in dramatic order from the fragments of Roman eloquence and history; and an air not only of life but of grandeur is given to those curiously adjusted materials. -- CAMPBELL, THOMAS, 1819, Specimens of the British Poets.
In 1603, he produced his weighty tragedy of "Sejanus," at Shakespeare's theatre, The Globe, -- Shakespeare himself acting one of the inferior parts. Think of Shakespeare laboriously committing to memory the blank verse of Jonson ! Though "Sejanus" failed of theatrical success, its wealth of 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. -- WHIPPLE, EDWIN P. 1859-68, The Literature of the Age of Elizabeth, I. p. 102.
Although "Sejanus his Fall" may not have received on its appearance the credit or the homage due to the serious and solid merit of its composition and its execution it must be granted that the author has once more fallen into the excusable but nevertheless unpardonable error of the too studious and industrious Martha. He was careful and troubled about many things absolutely superfluous and supererogatory; matters of no value or concern whatever for the purpose or the import of a dramatic poem: but the one thing needful, the very condition of poetic life and dramatic interest, he utterly and persistently overlooked. - SWINBURNE, ALGERNON CHARLES, 1889, A Study of Ben Jonson, p. 27.
Was not very successful, but it succeeded better after he had recast it in part and made it all his own. It was printed in 1605, and the small criticisms of a pedantic age Ben Jonson forestalled by footnotes citing the authority for all that he had worked into harmonious and very noble play. Because the footnotes were there, and looked erudite, the superficial thing to do was to pronounce the play pedantic. But it is not pedantic. Jonson was no pedant. He had carried on for himself the education received at Westminster School, was a good scholar delighted in his studies, and accumulated a large library, which, in or about the year 1622, was burnt. But he was true poet and true artist. -- MORLEY, HENRY, AND GRIFFIN, W. HALL, 1895, English Writers, vol. XI, p. 219.
. . . the art which thou alone
Hast taught our tongue, the rules of time, of place,
And other rites, delivered with the grace
Of comic style, which only, is far more
Than any English stage bath known before.
-- BEAUMONT, FRANCIS, 1607 ? To My Dear Friend, Master Ben Jonson, upon his "Fox."
In the comedy of "The Fox, " there is not much to be censured, except the language, which is so pedantic and struck so full of Latinity, that few, except the learned, can perfectly understand it. "Jonson, " says Dr. Young, "brought all the antients upon his head: by studying to speak like a Roman, he forgot the language of his country." -- DAVIES, THOMAS, 1783, Dramatic Micellanies, vol. II, p. 97.
This admirable, indeed, but yet more wonderful than admirable, play is from the fertility and vigour of invention, character, language, and sentiment the strongest proof, how impossible it is to keep up any pleasurable interest in a tale, in which there is no goodness of heart in any of the prominent characters. After the third act, this play becomes not a dead, but a painful weight on the feelings. -- COLERIDGE, SAMUEL TAYLOR, 1818, Notes on Ben Jonson, ed. Ashe, p. 414.
The revolting aspects of life exhibited in this comedy are likely to prevent full justice being rendered its merits by most modern readers. Yet it long retained its hold over the national stage, while -- which is less to be wondered at -- the central character continued for generations to express to the popular mind the incarnation of a most loathsome variety of the vast genus hypocrite. Everybody knows how, at a critical stage of events in the reign of Queen Anne, Dr. Sacheverell in his notorious sermon pointed an attack upon the Whig leaders as representatives of revolution principles, by alluding to the Lord Treasurer Godolphin under the nick-name of the Old Fox or Volpone. -- WARD, ADOLPHUS WILLIAM, 1875-99, A History of English Dramatic Literature, vol. II, p. 363.
We, however, who are far removed from the literary discords of those times, can peruse with calmness and enjoy the manly eloquence of that great dedication to the Sister Universities which forms the preface to "Volpone." Bating some personalities and blustering defiances which impair the dignity of the oration. This high-built edifice of ceremonious language deserves to rank with Milton's sublime periods upon the poet's priesthood, and with Sidney's lofty vindication of the poet's claim to prophecy. Unhappily, the piece, which ought to find its honoured place in every anthology of English prose, is both too long to quote in full, and also too closely wrought to bear abstraction of its well-weighed sentences without the risk of mutilation. -- SYMONDS, JOHN ADDINGTON, 1886, Ben Jonson, (English Worthies), p. 31.
No other of even his very greatest works is at once so admirable and so enjoyable. The construction or composition of "The Alchemist" is perhaps more wonderful in the perfection and combination of cumulative detail, in triumphant simplicity of process and impeccable felicity of result: but there is in "Volpone" a touch of something like imagination, a savour of something like romance, which gives a higher tone to the style and a deeper interest to the action. The chief agents are indeed what Mr. Carlyle would have called "unspeakably unexemplary mortals:" but the serious fervour and passionate intensity of their resolute and resourceful wickedness give somewhat of a lurid and distorted dignity to the display of their doings and sufferings, which is wanting to the less gigantic and heroic villainies of Subtle, Dol. and Face. -- SWINBURNE, ALGERNON CHARLES, 1889, A Study of Ben Jonson, p. 35.
Ben Jonson added a cubit to his literary stature by producing his noble comedy of AVolpone or the Fox." -- GOSSE,EDMUND, 1894, The Jacobean Poets, p. 24.
When his play of a "Silent Woman" was first acted, ther was found verses after l on the stage against him, concluding that that play was well named the "Silent Woman," ther was never one man to say Plaudite to it. -- DRUMMOND, WILLIAM, 1619, Notes on Ben Jonson's Conversations.
This is to my feelings the most entertaining of old Ben's comedies, and, more than any other, would admit of being brought out anew, if under the management of a judicious and stage-understanding play-wright; and an actor, who had studied Morose, might make his fortune.-- COLERIDGE, SAMUEL TAYLOR, 1818, Notes on Ben Jonson, ed. Ashe, p. 415.
The plot is a distasteful one to my own feelings: it is coarse in design, coarse in its improbability, and, in short, is a direct contradiction of the author's own theory as to that which should characterise legitimate comedy, for the play of "Epicene" is little better than a hoydening farce. The character of Morose himself is certainly well sustained, although, in it an extreme case is put throughout and enormous demands are made upon the credulity of the audience that such a man could be supposed to exist at all, with so morbid a sensitiveness to noise as to poison his whole existence. -- CLARKE, CHARLES COWDEN, 1871, On the Comic Writers of England, Gentleman's Magazine, N.s. vol. 6, p.643.
"Epicoene" would be properly described as an elaborate farce. . . . Of its kind "Epicoene" is without a rival, unless we turn to the writings of a comic dramatist worthy to rank as Jonson's peer -- I speak of course of Moliere. The briskness of the fun in the dialogue -- only, here and there lapsing into Jonson's favourite weakness for lengthy analyses of character -- is even less remarkable, than the fecundity of invention displayed in a series of effective situations. Instead of flagging, the play grows more and more amusing from act to act; the fourth, with the catastrophe of the two timid fools -- one of the most laughable comic situations ever invented -- surpasses all that has preceded it, but the fifth is even better, with its inimitable consultation on the question of Divorce, and its final surprise. -- WARD, ADOLPHUS WILLIAM, 1875-99, A History of English Dramatic Literature, vol. II, p. 365.
Of "The Silent Woman" it is not easy to say anything new and true. Its merits are salient and superb: the combination of parts and the accumulation of incidents are so skilfully arranged and so powerfully designed that the result is in its own way incomparable -- or comparable only with other works of the master's hand while yet in the fullness of its cunning and the freshness of its strength. But a play of this kind must inevitably challenge a comparison, in the judgment of modern readers, between its author and Moliere: and Jonson can hardly, on the whole, sustain that most perilous comparison. It is true that there is matter enough in Jonson's play to have furnished forth two or three of Moliere's: and that on that ground -- on the score of industrious intelligence and laborious versatility of humour -- "The Silent Woman" is as superior to the "Misanthrope" and the "Bourgeois Gentilhomme" as to "Twelfth Night" and "Much Ado about Nothing." But even when most dazzled by the splendour of studied wit and the felicity of deliberate humour which may even yet explain the extraordinary popularity or reputation of this most imperial and elaborate of all farces, we feel that the author could no more have rivalled the author of "Twelfth Night" than he could have rivalled the author of "Othello." The Nemesis of the satirist is upon him: he cannot be simply at ease: he cannot be happy in his work without some undertone of sarcasm, some afterthought of allusion, aimed at matters which Moliere would have reserved for a slighter style of satire, and which Shakespeare would scarcely have condescended to recognize as possible objects of even momentary attention. His wit is wonderful -- admirable, laughable laudable -- it is not in the fullest and the deepest sense delightful. It is radically cruel, contemptuous, intolerant; the sneer of the superior person -- Dauphine or Clerimont -- is always ready to pass into a snarl: there is something in this great classic writer of the bull-baiting or bear-baiting brutality of his age.-- SWINBURNE, ALGERNON CHARLES, 1889, A Study of Ben Jonson, p. 50.
To say, this comedy pleased long ago,
Is not enough to make it past you now.
Yet, gentlemen, your ancestors had wit;
When few men censured, and when fewer writ.
And Jonson, of those few the best, chose this,
As the best model of his masterpiece
Subtle was got by our Albumazar,
That Alchymist by this Astrologer;
Here he was fashion'd, and we may suppose
He liked the fashion well, who wore the clothes.
But Ben made nobly his what he did mould;
What was another's lead becomes his gold:
Like an unrighteous conqueror he reigns,
Yet rules that well, which he unjustly gains.
-- DRYDEN, JOHN, 1668, Albumazar, Prologue.
This comedy, which was laudably written to ridicule a prevailing folly, must, no doubt, have been greatly successful originally, since we have seen it very much followed and admired during the time Garrick ornamented the stage. His incomparable performance, however, of Abel Drugger was a considerable drawback from the proper reputation of the author, and in great measure the cause of the success of the play; at the same time it must be confessed that the best acting can do nothing without good materials, with which certainly the "Alchymist" abounds. -- DIBDIN, CHARLES, 1795, A Complete History of the Stage, vol. III, p. 295.
The judgment is perfectly overwhelmed by the torrent of images, words, and book-knowledge, with which Epicure Mammon (Act 2, Scene 2) confounds and stunts his incredulous hearer. They come pouring out like the successive falls of Nilus. They "doubly redouble strokes upon the foe." Description outstrides proof. We are made to believe effects before we have testimony for their causes. If there is no one image which attains the height of the sublime, yet the confluence and assemblage of them all produces a result equal to the grandest poetry. The huger Xerxean army countervails against single Achilles. Epicure Mammon is the most determined offspring of its author. It has the whole "matter and copy of the father -- eye, nose, lip, the trick of his frown." It is just such a swaggerer as contemporaries have described old Ben to be. Meercraft, Bobadil, the Host of the New Inn, have all his image and superscription. But Mammon is arrogant pretension personified. Sir Samson Legend, in "Love for Love," is such another lying overbearing character, but he does not come up to Epicure Mammon. What "towering bravery" there is in his sensuality! he affects no pleasure under Sultan. It is as if "Egypt with Assyria strove in luxury." -- LAMB, CHARLES, 1808, Specimens of Dramatic Poets.
Jonson here escaped his usual pitfall of the unsympathetic, for the vices and follies he satirizes are not loathsome, only contemptible at worst, and not always that. He found an opportunity of exercising his extraordinary faculty of concentration as he nowhere else did, and given us in Sir Epicure Mammon a really magnificent picture of concupiscence, of sensual appetite generally, sublimed by heat of imagination into something poetic. -- SAINTSBURY, GEORGE, 1887, History of Elizabethan Literature, p. 181.
The steadfast and imperturbable skill of hand which has woven so many threads of incident, so many shades of character, so many changes of intrigue, into so perfect and superb a pattern of incomparable art as dazzles and delights the reader of "The Alchemist" is unquestionably unique -- above comparison with any later or earlier example of kindred genius in the whole range of comedy, if not in the whole world of fiction. The manifold harmony of inventive combination and imaginative contrast -- the multitudinous unity of various and concordant effects -- the complexity and the simplicity of action and impression, which hardly allow the reader's mind to hesitate between enjoyment and astonishment, laughter and wonder, admiration and diversion -- all the distinctive qualities which the alchemic cunning of the poet has fused together in the crucible of dramatic satire for the production of a flawless work of art, have given us the most perfect model of imaginative realism and satirical comedy that the world has ever seen; the most wonderful work of its kind that can ever be run upon the same lines. -- SWINBURNE, ALGERNON CHARLES, 1889, A Study of Ben Jonson, p. 36.
Remains, in spite of its proved unfittedness for the stage, and its antiquated interests, one of the most splendid compositions written by an English hand. Lamb, with unerring instinct, hit upon the central jewel of the whole splendid fabric when he selected for special praise the long scene in Subtle's house, where Epicure Mammon boasts what rare things he will do when he obtains the philosopher's stone. Here Jonson, running and leaping under the tremendous weight of his own equipment, perfectly overwhelms the judgment "by the torrent of images words, and book-knowledge with which Mammon confounds and stuns" us. -- GOSSE, EDMUND, 1894, The Jacobean Poets, p. 28.
Thy labours shall outlive thee; and, like gold
Stampt for continuance, shall be current, where
There is a sun, a people, or a year.
-- FLETCHER, JOHN, 1611? To my worthy friend, Ben Jonson, on his Catiline.
Whose inspirations, if great Rome had had,
Her good things had been bettered, and her bad
Undone; the first for joy, the last for fear,
That such a Muse should spread them, to our ear.
But woe to us then! -- for thy laureat brow
If Rome enjoyed had, we had wanted now.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Each subject thou, still thee each subject raises,
And whosoever thy book, himself dispraises.
-- FIELD, NATHANIEL, 1611? To his Worthy Beloved Friend, Master Ben Jonson, on his "Catiline."
With strenuous, sinewy words that Catiline swells,
I reckon it not among men -- miracles.
How could that poem well a vigour lack
When each line oft cost Ben a cup of sack.
-- R. BARON, 1650, Pocula Castalia, p. 113.
"Catiline" is only less interesting than "Sejanus," because it presents no such difficult problem of characterization as Tiberius. Within the limits of his subject, however, Jonson has fully availed himself of his opportunities. Each of the characters, notably those of the conspirators, stands out distinctly from the rest, perhaps in his effort to draw distinctly, the dramatist has, after his manner, rather overdrawn the humours, thereby impairing the humanity, of his personages, -- the visionary imbecility of Lentulus, the braggadocio of Cethegus, the savage ferocity of Catiline. On the other hand, the oratorical expansiveness of Cicero is delicately, though copiously illustrated; the danger is avoided of rendering him ridiculous, although both his love of speech and his respect for his own achievements are allowed ample expression. Of Caesar and of Cato enough is hardly made, the key to the double-handed policy of the former is not clearly revealed, while the latter appears too generally as the mere echo of Cicero. The female characters of the play are drawn with a humour nothing less than exuberant. -- WARD, ADOLPHUS WILLIAM, 1875-99, A History of English Dramatic Literature, vol. II, p. 341.
BARTHOLOMEW FAIR 1614 This strange play, out of which might be framed the humour of half a dozen farces, is fuller, perhaps, of comic characters than any thing that ever appeared on the stage. We are given to understand that Jonson wrote it purposely to ridicule the age in which he lived, for the prevalent preference given to low wit, instead of polished and refined writing. If this was his motive he has outwitted himself, for there is more nature in "Bartholomew Fair" than in any one of his other works; but yet, being as it is, crammed full of extraneous and heterogeneous incidents, he has as much overshot the mark as he had come short of it in his "Catiline," which this play was written purposely to defend, that tragedy having nothing interesting in it, on account of its dullness and declamation, and this comedy on account of its wildness and extravagance. -- DIBDIN, CHARLES, 1795, A Complete History of the Stage, vol. III, p. 297.
Absolutely original, so far as is known, in both conception and construction, it abounds with the most direct kind of satire and with the broadest fun. -- WARD, ADOLPHUS Wl111AM, 1875-99, A History of English Dramatic Literature, vol. II. p. 370.
A pure farce, conceived in the spirit of rollicking mirth, and executed with colossal energy. It is no satire either of manners or of individuals, but a broad Dutch painting of the humours of a London Carnival. . . . The personages are admirably studied and grouped together with consummate insight into dramatic effect. The proctor, with his pretty wife and puritanical mother-in-law; the sleek minister from Banbury, who woos the widow, the squire from Harrow, and his watchful attendant. -- SYMONDS, JOHN ADDINGTON, 1886, Ben Jonson, (English Worthies), p. 111.
There is no dramatic work in English at all comparable in its own kind with this brilliant and bewildering presentment of a comic turmoil, and, by a curious chance it is exactly here, where it might be expected that the dramatist would be peculiarly tempted to subordinate all attempt at character-painting to the mere embodiment of humours, that one of Ben Jonson's few really living and breathing creatures is found in the person of the Puritan, Rabbi Zeal-of-the Land. -- GOSSE, EDMUND, 1894, The Jacobean Poets, p. 32.
THE SAD SHEPHERD 1637 In his unfinished pastoral drama of the "Sad Shepherd, " his biographer traces one bright and sunny ray that broke through the gloom of his settling days. -- CAMPBELL, THOMAS, 1819, Specimens of the British Poets.
Fletcher's pastoral, blasted as it is in some parts by fire not from heaven, is still a green and leafy wilderness of poetical beauty; Jonson's, deformed also by some brutality more elaborate than anything of the same sort in Fletcher, is at the best but a trim garden, and, had it been ever so happily finished, would have been nothing more. -- CRAIK, GEORGE L., 1861, A Compendious History of English Literature and of the English Language, vol. I, p. 605.
A very charming fragment, so sweet and gentle, that it stands alone in conspicuous beauty amidst the rough and stalwart productions of his dramatic Muse. -- CLARKE, CHARLES COWDEN, 1871, On the Comic Writers of England, Gentleman's Magazine, N.s., vol. 6, p. 649.
The "Sad Shepherd" is not quite complete; but, though not without a few blots and stains, it contains some of Jonson's finest poetry. The shepherdess Amie is such a sweet creation that one is indignant at the dramatist for the vulgar and wholly superfluous immodesty of one of her expressions in her first confession of unrest: to the pure all things are pure, but it exposes the simple shepherdess to unnecessary ridicule from the ordinary reader. One is surprised to find such sympathy with simple innocence in rare but rough Ben -- all the more that the "Sad Shepherd" was written in his later years, when he was exacerbated by failure and poverty. -- MINTO, WILLIAM, 1874-85, Characteristics of English Poets, p. 343.
In "The Sad Shepherd" he has with singular freshness caught the spirit of the greenwood. If this pastoral is more realistic in texture than either Spenser's or Milton's efforts in the same direction, the result is due, partly to the character of the writer, partly to the circumstance that Jonson's "shepherds" are beings of a definite age and country. -- WARD, ADOLPHUS WILLIAM, 1875-99, A History of English Dramatic Literature, vol. II, p.385.
Jonson, stout and rugged as he was undoubtedly, Dryasdust as some conceive him, had yet an exquisite sense of rural beauty. This he showed in the fine fragment of his "Sad Shepherd." -- SYMONDS, JOHN ADDINGTON, 1884, Shakspere's Predecessors in the English Drama, p. 350.
GENERAL Our English Horace. --CHETTLE HENRY,1603, Englands Mourning Garment.
Not onely give you the Idea but the soule of the acting Idea; as well could, if so he would, the elaborate English Horace that gives number, weight and measure to every word, to teach the reader by his industries, even our Lawreat, worthy Benjamen, whose Muse approves him with (our mother) the Ebrew signification to bee the elder Sonne, and happely to have been the childe of Sorrow. -- SMITHES, SIR THOMAS, 1605, Voiage and Entertainment in Rushia.
A meere Empyrick, one that getts what he hath by observation, and makes onely nature priuy to what he indites, so slow an Inuentor that he were better betake himselfe to his old trade of Bricklaying, a bould whorson, as confident now in making a booke, as he was in times past in laying of a brick. -- ANON, 1606, The Return from Parnassus, ed. Macray, Act I, Sc. 2,p. 87.
The labored and understanding works of Master Jonson. -- WEBSTER, JOHN, 1612, The White Devil, Preface.
Johnson, whose full of merit to reherse
Too copious is to be confined in verse
Yet therein only fittest to be known
Could any write a line which he might own.
One, so judicious, so well-knowing, and
A man whose least worth is to understand;
One so exact in all he doth prefer
To able censure; for the theatre
Not Seneca transcends his worth of praise:
Who writes him well shall well deserve the bays.
-- BROWNE, WILLIAM, 1613, Britannia's Pastorals, bk. ii, song ii.
If that thy lore were equall to thy wit,
Thou in Apollo's chaire might justly sit.
-- GAMAGE, WILLIAM, 1613, Linsi-woolsie, or Two Centuries of Epigrammes.
For lyric sweetness in an ode, or sonnet,
To BEN the best of wits might vail their bonnet.
-- HODGSON, WILLIAM, 1616, Commendatory Verses on Ben Jonson.
If I should declare mine own rudeness rudely, I should then confess, that I never tasted English more to my liking, nor more smart, and put to the height of use in poetry, than in that vital, judicious, and most practicable language of Benjamin Jonson's poems. -- BOLTON, EDMUND, 1624, Hypercritica.
Next these, learn'd Jonson in this list I bring
Who had drank deep of the Pierian spring
Whose knowledge did him worthily prefer,
And long was lord here of the theater:
Who in opinion made our learn'd to stick
Whether in poems rightly dramatic
Strong Seneca or Plautus, he or they,
Should bear the buskin and the sock away.
-- DRAYTON, MICHAEL, c. 1627, Of Poets and Poesie.
He better loves Ben Jonson's book of plays,
But that therein of wit he finds such plenty
That he scarce understands a jest of twenty.
-- FENTON, FRANCIS, 1629, The Young Gallant's Whirligig. Let others glut on the extorted praise
Of vulgar breath, trust thou to after days;
Thy labour'd works shall live, when time devours
Th' abortive offspring of their hasty hours
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . let this suffice --
The wiser world doth greater thee confess
Than all men else, than thyself only less.
-- CAREW, THOMAS, 1631? To Ben Jonson.
If Jonson's learned sock be on.
-- MILTON, JOHN, 1633, L'Allegro. That when we hear but once of Jonson's name,
Whose mention shall make proud the breath of fame,
We may agree, and crowns of laurel bring
A justice unto him the poets' king.
-- SHIRLEY, JAMES, 1637, The Alchemist, Prologue
What are his faults (O Envy!) that you speake
English at Court, the learned Stage acts Greeke?
That Latine Hee reduc'd, and could command
That which your Shakespeare scarce could understand?
-- RAMSAY, H., 1638, Upon the Death of Benjamin Jonson.
Drawn to the life of every line and limb,
He (in his truth of art, and that in him)
Lives yet, and will, while letters can be read;
The loss is ours; now hope of life is dead.
Great men, and worthy of report, must fall
Into their earth, and sleeping there sleep all:
Since he, whose pen in every strain did use
To drop a verse, and every verse a muse
Is vowed to heaven; as having with fair glory
Sung thanks of honour, or some nobler story.
The court, the university, the heat
Of theatres, with what can else beget
Belief, and admiration, clearly prove
Our Poet first in merit, as in love:
Yet if he do not at his full appear,
Survey him in his Works, and know him there.
-- FORD, JOHN, 1638, On the best of English Poets, Ben Jonson, Deceased.
The Muses' fairest light in no dark time;
The wonder of a learned age; the line
Which none can pass; the most proportion'd wit
To Nature, the best judge of what was fit;
The deepest, plainest, highest, clearest pen;
The voice most echo'd by consenting men
The son which answer'd best to all well said
By others, and which most requital made;
Tuned to the highest key of ancient Rome
Returning all her music with his own
In whom with nature study claimed a part
And yet who to himself owed all his art:
Here lies Ben Jonson! Every age will look
With sorrow here, with wonder on his book.
-- CLEVELAND, JOHN, 1638, To the Memory of Ben Jonson.
And now, since Jonson's gone, we well may say,
The stage hath seen her glory and decay.
Whose judgment was't refined it? or who
Gave laws, by which hereafter all must go,
But solid Jonson? from whose full strong quill,
Each line did like a diamond drop distil,
Though hard, yet clear.
-- FELTHAM, OWEN, 1638, To the Memory of Immortal Ben.
Mirror of poets! mirror of our age! -- WALTER, EDMUND, 1638, Upon Ben Jonson.
Look up! where Seneca and Sophocles
Quick Plautus and sharp Aristophanes
Enlighten yon bright orb! doth not your eye,
Among them one far larger fire descry
At which their lights grow pale? ‘Tis Jonson.
-- HABINGTON, WILLIAM, 1638, Upon the Death of Ben Jonson.
Thou great refiner of our poesy
Who turn'st to gold that which before was lead,
Then with that pure elixir raised the dead!
Nine sisters who (for all the poets' lies)
Had been deemed mortal, did not Jonson rise
And celestial sparks (not stol'n) revive
Those who could erst keep winged fame alive.
-- BEAUMONT, SIR JOHN, 1638, To the Memory of him who can never lie Forgotten, Master Benjamin Jonson.
To compare our English Dramatick Poets together (without taxing them) Shakespear excelled in a natural Vein, Fletcher in Wit, and Johnson in Gravity and ponderousness of Style; whose onely fault was, he was too elaborate, and had he mixt less erudition with his Playes, they had been more pleasant and delightful than they are. Comparing him with Shakespear, you shall see the difference betwixt Nature and Art; and with Fletcher, the difference between Wit and Judgement: Wit being an exuberant thing, like Nilus, never more commendable then when it overflowed, but Judgment a stayed and reposed thing, alwayes containing it self within its bounds and limits. -- FLECKNOE, RICHARD, c. 1660-64, A Short Discourse of the English Stage.
He was paramount in the Dramatique part of Poetry, and taught the Stage an exact conformity to the laws of Comedians. His Comedies were above the Volge (which are only tickled with downright obscenity), and took not so well at the first stroke as at the rebound, when beheld the second time; yea they will endure reading, and that with due commendation, so long as either ingenuity or learning are fashionable in our Nation. If his later be not so spriteful and vigorous as his first pieces, all that are old will, and all that desire to be old should, excuse him therein. -- FULLER, THOMAS 1662, The Worthies of England, ed. Nichols, vol. II, p. 112.
As for Jonson, to whose character I am now arrived, if we look upon him while he was himself (for his last plays were but his dotages), I think him the most learned and judicious writer which any theatre ever had. He was a most severe judge of himself, as well as others. One cannot say he wanted wit, but rather that he was frugal of it. In his works you find little to retrench or alter. Wit and language, and humour also in some measure, we had before him, but something of art was wanting to the drama, till he came. He managed his strength to more advantage than any who preceded him. You seldom find him making love in any of his scenes, or endeavouring to move the passions; his l genius was too sullen and saturnine to do it gracefully, especially when he knew he came after those who had performed both to such an height. Humour was his proper sphere; and in that he delighted most to represent mechanic people. He l was deeply conversant in the ancients, both Greek and Latin, and he borrowed boldly from them: there is scarce a poet or historian among the Roman authors of those times, whom he has not translated in "Sejanus" and "Catiline." But he has done his robberies so openly, that one may say he fears not to be taxed by any law. He invades authors like a monarch and what would be theft in other poets is only victory in him. With the spoils of these writers he so represents old Rome to us, in its rites, ceremonies, and customs, that if one of their poets had written either of his tragedies, we had seen less of it than in him. If there was any fault in his language, it was, that he weaved it too closely and laboriously, in his comedies especially: perhaps, too, he did a little too much Romanize our tongue, leaving the words which he translated almost as much Latin as he found them: wherein, though he learnedly followed their language, he did not enough comply with the idiom of ours. If I would compare him with Shakespeare, I must acknowledge him the more correct poet, but Shakespeare the greater wit. Shakespeare was the Homer, or father of our dramatic poets; Jonson was the Virgil, the pattern of elaborate writing. I admire him, but I love Shakespeare. To conclude of him, as he has given us the most correct plays, so in the precepts which he has laid down in his "Discoveries," we have as many and profitable rules for perfecting the stage, as any wherewith the French can furnish us. -- DRYDEN, JOHN, 668-93, An Essay of Dramatic Poesy, Works, ed. Scott and Saintsbury, vol. xv, p. 346.
Benjamin Jonson, the most learned, judicious, and correct, generally so accounted, of our English Comedians, and the more to be admired for being so, for that neither the height of natural parts, for he was no Shakespeare, nor the cost of extraordinary education, for he is reported but a bricklayer's son, but his own proper industry and addiction to books advanced him to this perfection. In three of his comedies, namely, "The Fox," "Alchymist," and "Silent Woman," he may be compared in the judgment of learned men, for decorum, language, and well humouring of the parts, as well with the chief of the ancient Greek and Latin comedians, as the prime of modern Italians, who have been judged the best of Europe for a happy vein in comedies; nor is his "Bartholomew Fair" much short of them. As for his other comedies, "Cynthia's Revels," "Poetaster," and the rest, let the name of Ben Johnson protect them against whoever shall think fit to be severe in censure against them. The truth is, his tragedies, "Sejanus" and "Catiline," seem to have in them more of an artificial and inflate, than of a pathetical and naturally tragic height. -- PHILLIPS, EDWARD, 1675, Theatrum Poetarum Anglicanorum, ed. Brydges, p. 241.
Too nicely Jonson knew the critic's part;
Nature in him was almost lost in art.
-- COLLINS, WILLIAM, 1743, Epistle to Sir Thomas Hammer.
Then Jonson came, instructed from the school,
To please im method, and invent by rule;
His studious patience and laborious art,
By regular approach assail'd the heart:
Cold approbation gave the lingering bays,
For those, who durst not censure, scarce could praise.
A mortal born, he met the general doom
But left, like Egypt's kings, a lasting tomb.
-- JOHNSON, SAMUEL, 1747, Prologue, spoken by Mr. Garrick at the opening of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.
Jonson possessed all the learning which was wanting to Shakspeare, and wanted all the genius of which the other was possessed. Both of them were equally deficient in taste and elegance, in harmony and correctness. A servile copyist of the ancients, Jonson translated into bad English the beautiful passages of the Greek and Roman authors, without accommodating them to the manners of his age and country. His merit has been totally eclipsed by that of Shakspeare, whose rude genius prevailed over the rude art of his contemporary. -- HUME, DAVID, 1754-62, The History of England, James I, Appendix.
His nature was severe and rigid, and this in giving a stength and manliness, gave at times too, an intemperance to his satyr. His taste for ridicule was strong but indelicate, which made him not over curious in the choice of his topics. And lastly his style in picturing characters, tho' masterly, was without that elegance of hand, which is required to correct and allay the force of so bold a colouring. Thus, the biass of his nature leading him to Plautus rather than Terence for his model, it is not to be wondered that his wit is too frequently caustic; his raillery coarse; and his humour excessive. -- HURD, RICHARD, 1757, A Dissertation on the Several Provinces of the Drama, vol. I, p. 306.
The book of man he read with nicest art
And ransack'd all the secrets of the heart;
Exerted penetration's utmost force
And traced each passion to its proper source;
Then, strongly marked, in liveliest colours drew
And brought each foible forth to public view:
The coxcomb felt a lash in every word,
And fools, hung out, their brother fools deterred.
His comic humour kept the world in awe,
And laughter frighten'd Folly more than Law.
-- CHURCHILL, CHARLES, 1761, The Rosciad, v. 275-284.
He was as defective in tragedy, as he was excellent in comedy, and that excellence is confined to a few of his works. In Shakspeare, we see the force of genius; in Jonson, the power of industry. He is frequently deficient in the harmony, and sometimes even in the measure, of his verses. What appears to be facility in his compositions is generally the effect of uncommon labour. -- GRANGER, JAMES, 1769-1824, Biographical History of England, vol. II, p. 125.
Jonson gave an early example of metaphysical poetry; indeed, it was the natural resource of a mind amply stored with learning, gifted with a tenacious memory and the power of constant labour, but to which was denied that vivid perception of what is naturally beautiful, and that happiness of expression, which at once conveys to the reader the idea of the poet. . . . In reading Shakspeare, we often meet passages so congenial to our nature and feelings, that, beautiful as they are, we can hardly help wondering they did not occur to ourselves; in studying Jonson, we have often to marvel how his conceptions could have occurred to any human being. The one is like an ancient statue, the beauty of which, springing from the exactness of proportion, does not always strike at first sight, but rises upon us as we bestow time in considering it; the other is the representation of a monster, which is at first only surprising, and ludicrous or disgusting ever after. -- SCOTT, SIR WALTER, 1805, Life of John Dryden.
He endeavoured to form an exact estimate of what he had on every occasion to perform, hence he succeeded best in that species of the drama which makes the principal demand on the understanding and with little call on the imagination and feeling, -- the comedy of character. He introduced nothing into his works which critical dissection should not be able to extract again, as his confidence in it was such, that he conceived it exhausted everything which pleases and charms us in poetry. He was not aware that in the chemical retort of the critic what is most valuable, the volatile living spirit of a poem, evaporates. His pieces are in general deficient in soul, in that nameless something which never ceases to attract and enchant us even because it is indefinable. In the lyrical pieces, his Masques, we feel the want of a certain mental music of imagery and intonation, which the most accurate observation of difficult measures cannot give. He is everywhere deficient in those excellencies which, unsought flow from the poet's pen, and which no artist who purposely hunts for them can ever hope to find. We must not quarrel with him, however, for entertaining a high opinion of his own works, since whatever merits they have he owed, like acquired moral properties, altogether to himself. The production of them was attended with labour, and unfortunately it is also a labour to read them. They resemble solid and regular edifices, before which, however, the clumsy scaffolding still remains, to interrupt and prevent us from viewing the architecture with ease and receiving from it a harmonious impression. -- SCHLEGEL, AUGUSTUS WILLIAM, 1809, Dramatic Art and Literature.
With such extraordinary requisites for the stage, joined to a strain of poetry always manly, frequently lofty, and sometimes almost sublime, it may, at first, appear strange that his dramas are not more in vogue; but a little attention to his peculiar modes and habits of thinking will, perhaps, enable us in some measure to account for it. The grace and urbanity which mark his lighter pieces he laid aside whenever he approached the stage, and put on the censor with the stock. This system (whether wise or unwise,) naturally led to circumstances which affect his popularity as a writer; he was obliged, as one of his critics justly observes, "to hunt down his own characters, " and, to continue the metaphor, he was frequently carried too far in the chase. - GIFFORD, WILLIAM, 1816, ed. The Works of Ben Jonson, Memoir, vol. I.
Ben Jonson is original, he is, indeed, the only one of the great dramatists of that day who was not either directly produced, or very greatly modified, by Shakspere. In truth, he differs from our great master in everything -- in form and in substance -- and betrays no tokens of his proximity. He is not original in the same way as Shakspere is original; but after a fashion of his own, Ben Jonson is most truly original. . . . Ben Jonson exhibits a sterling English diction, and he has with great skill contrived varieties of construction; but his style is rarely sweet or harmonious, in consequence of his labour at point and strength being so evident. In all his works, in verse or prose, there is an extraordinary opulence of thought; but it is the produce of an amassing power in the author, and not of a growth from within. Indeed a large proportion of Ben Jonson's thoughts may be traced to classic or obscure modern writers, by those who are learned and curious enough to follow the steps of this robust, surly, and observing dramatist. -- COLERIDGE, SAMUEL TAYLOR, 1818, Notes on Jonson, Beaumont, Fletcher, and Massinger, ed. Ashe, pp. 396, 397.
There are people who cannot take olives: and I cannot much relish Ben Jonson, though I have taken some pains to do it and went to the task with every sort of good will. I do not deny his power or his merit; far from it; but it is to me a repulsive and unamiable kind. He was a great man in himself, but one cannot readily sympathize with him. His works, as the characteristic productions of an individual mind, or as records of the manners of a particular age, cannot be valued too highly; but they have little charm for the mere general reader. -- HAZLITT, WILLIAM, 1819, Lectures on the English Comic Writers.
In the regular drama he certainly holds up no romantic mirror to nature. His object was to exhibit human characters at once strongly comic and severely and instructively true; to nourish the understanding, while he feasted the sense of ridicule. He is more anxious for verisimilitude than even for comic effect. He understood the humors and peculiarities of his species scientifically, and brought them forward in their greatest contrasts and subtlest modifications. If Shakspeare carelessly scattered illusion, Jonson skillfully prepared it. This is speaking of Jonson in his happiest manner. There is a great deal of harsh and sour fruit in his miscellaneous poetry. It is acknowledged that in the drama he frequently overlabours his delineation of character, and wastes it tediously upon uninteresting humours and peculiarities. He is a moral painter, who delights over-much to show his knowledge of moral anatomy. -- CAMPBELL, THOMAS, 1819, An Essay on English Poetry.
I do not think that his Poetical merits are yet properly appreciated. I cannot consent that the palm of humour alone shall be given to him, while in wit, feeling, pathos, and Poetical diction, he is to be sunk fathoms below Fletcher and Massinger. In the last particular, I think that he excels them both, and, indeed, all his contemporaries, excepting Shakspeare. -- NEELE, HENRY, 1828, Lectures on English Poetry; Lecture III.
There is nothing in his own entire plays equalling in pathetic beauty some of his contributions to "The Spanish Tragedy. " -- COLLIER, JOHN PAYNE, 1831, History of English Dramatic Poetry, vol. III, p. 205, note.
If asked to give our opinion of Ben Jonson's powers in general, we should say that he was a poet of a high order as far as learning, fancy, and an absolute rage of ambition, could conspire to make him one, but that he never touched at the highest, except by violent efforts, and during the greatest felicity of his sense of success. The material so predominated in him over the spiritual, -- the sensual over the sentimental, -- that he was more social than loving, and far more wilful and fanciful than imaginative. Desiring the strongest immediate effect, rather than the best effect, he subserved by wholesale in his comedies to the grossness and commonplace of the very multitude whom he hectored; and in love with whatsoever he knew or uttered, he set learning above feeling in writing his tragedies, and never knew when to leave off, whether in tragedy or comedy. His style is more clear and correct than impassioned, and only rises above a certain level at remarkable intervals, when he is heated by a sense of luxury or domination. He betrays what was weak in himself, and even a secret misgiving, by incessant attacks upon the weakness and envy of others, and, in his highest moods, instead of the healthy, serene, and good-natured might of Shakspeare, has something of a puffed and uneasy pomp, a bigness instead of greatness, analogous to his gross habit of body: nor, when you think of him at any time, can you well separate the idea from that of the assuming scholar and the flustered man of taverns. -- HUNT, LEIGH, 1839, Men, Women, and Books, vol. II.
Ben Jonson was a man of the new age, and the new direction of mind; he was that half of Shakepeare which reached forward into the future, but in a more eminent degree. His chief strength was in the very excess of his one-sidedness. With the immense force of his intellectual, reflective, and critical powers, he knocked down everything in his own way -- but overthrew the good together with the bad. His first principle was, to have definite palpable reasons for everything: he wished at every point to know what ought to be done or left undone. The clearness of the reflecting consciousness was the standard to which he referred everything; but of that immediate creative faculty of fancy and feeling which is properly artistic, he possessed scarcely a germ. On this account the other half of Shakespeare's character, which, like the whole of the English national theatre, belonged to the romantic middle ages, was to him hateful, inconceivable and worthless. -- ULRICI, HERMANN, 1839, Shakspeare's Dramatic Art, pp. 81, 82.
Jonson's intense observation was microscopical when turned to the minute evolutions of society, while his diversified learning at all times bore him into a nobler sphere of comprehension. This taste for reality, and this fullness of knowledge on whatever theme he chose, had a reciprocal action, and the one could not go without the other. Our poet doggedly set to "a humour" through its slightest anomalies, and, in the pride of his comic art, expanded his prototype. Yet this was but half the labor which he loved: his mind was stored with the most burdensome knowledge, and to the scholar the various erudition which he had so diligently acquired threw a more permanent light over those transient scenes which the painter of manners had so carefully copied. -- DISRAELI, ISAAC, 1841, The "Humours" of Jonson, Amenities of Literature.
O rare Ben Jonson, let us have thy songs, rounded each with a spherical thought, and the lyrics from thy masques alive with learned fantasy, and thine epigrams keen and quaint, and thy noble epitaphs, under which the dead seem stirring! . . . At Jonson's name we stop perforce, and do salutation in the dust to the impress of that "learned sock." He was a learned man, as everybody knows, and as everybody does not believe, not the worse for his learning. His material, brought laboriously from East and West, is wrapt in a flame of his own. If the elasticity and abandonment of Shakespeare and of certain of Shakespeare's brothers are not found in his writings, the reason of the defects need not be sought out in his readings. His genius, high and verdant as it grew, yet belonged to the hard woods: it was lance-wood rather than bow-wood -- a genius rather noble than graceful -- eloquent, with a certain severity and emphasis of enunciation. -- BROWNING, ELIZABETH BARRETT, 1842-63, The Book of the Poets.
With this basis of sound English sense, Jonson has fancy, humor, satire, learning, a large knowledge of men and motives, and a remarkable command of language, sportive, scornful, fanciful, and impassioned. One of the fixed facts in English literature, he is too strongly rooted ever to be unset. He stands out from all his contemporaries, original, peculiar, leaning on none for aid, and to be tried by his own merits alone. Had his imagination been as sensitive as that of many of his contemporaries, or his self-love less, he would probably have fallen into their conscious or unconscious imitaion of Shakespeare, but, as it was he emained satisfied with himself to the fast, delving in his own mine. -- WHIPPLE, EDWIN P., 1846, Old English Dramatists, Essays and Reviews, vol. II. p. 26.
A mighty and solid genius, whose plays bear an impress of majestic art and slow but powerful elaboration, distinguishing them from the careless ease and unpremeditated abundance so strongly characterising the drama of this period. . . . He was undoubtedly one of the most learned of this or indeed any age of English literature. -- SHAW, THOMAS B., 1847, Outlines of English Literature, ch. vii.
We of this age, a little too careless perhaps of learned labor, would give a whole wilderness of Catilines and Poetasters, and even of Alchemists and Volpones, for another score of the exquisite lyrics which are scattered carelessly through the plays and masques which -- strange contrast with the rugged verse in which they are imbedded -- seem to have burst into being at a stroke, just as the evening primrose flings open her fair petals at the close of the day. Lovelier songs were never written than these wild and irregular ditties. -- MITFORD, MARY RUSSELL, 1851, Recollections of a Literary Life, ch. xix.
He read the best Latin books, and the commentaries which illustrated them; he wrote two plays on subjects taken from Roman history. Very striking subjects they were. The hero of one was Catiline, who tried to overthrow the social order of the Republic, the hero of the other was Sejanus, who represents, by his grandeur and his fall, the very character and spirit of the Empire in the days of Tiberius. In dealing with these subjects, Ben Jonson had the help of two of the greatest Roman authors, both of them possessing remarkable powers of narration, one of them a man of earnest character, subtle insight, deep reflection. Though few men in his day understood these authors, and the government and circumstances of Rome, better than Jonson, though he was a skilful and experienced play-writer, most readers are glad when they have got Catiline and Sejanus fairly done with. They do not find that they have received any distinct impressions from them of Roman life; to learn what it was they must go to the authors whom he has copied. --MAURICE, FREDERICK BENISON, 1856-74, The Friendship of Books and Other Lectures, ed. Hughes, p. 8.
Ben Jonson was a conscientious and intelligent workman, whose plays glow, here and there, with the golden pollen of that poetic feeling with which his age impregnated all thought and expression; but his leading characteristic, like that of his great namesake, Samuel, was a hearty common sense, which fitted him rather to be a great critic than a great poet. He had a keen and ready eye for the comic in situation, but no humor. -- LOWELL, JAMES RUSSELL, 1858-64-90, Library of Old Authors, Prose Works, Riverside ed., vol. I., p. 277.
Shakespeare had permanently near him one envious person, Ben Jonson, an indifferent comic poet, whose debut he assisted. -- HUGO, VICTOR, 1864, William Shakespeare, tr. Baillot, p. 23.
Few writers have laboured more, and more conscientiously; his knowledge was vast, and in this age of great scholars he was one of the best classics of his time, as deep as he was accurate and thorough, having studied the minutest details of ancient life. It was not enough for him to have stored himself from the best writers, to have their whole works continually In his mind, to scatter his pages, whether he would or no, with recollections of them. . . . A still greater proof of his force is, that his learning in nowise mars his vigour; heavy as is the mass with which he loads himself, he carries it without stooping. This wonderful compound of reading and observation suddenly begins to move, and falls like a mountain on the overwhelmed reader. . . . A genuine literary Leviathan, like the war elephants which used to bear towers, men, weapons, machines on their backs, and ran as swiftly under the freight as a nimble steed. -- TAINE, H. A., 1871, History of English Literature, tr. Van Laun, vol. I. bk. ii, ch. iii, pp. 270, 271.
Ben Jonson has been regarded as the first person who has done much in settling the "grammar of the English language." This merit is duly awarded to him, and Pope gives him the credit of having brought critical learning into vogue; also of having instructed both actors and spectators in what was the proper province of the dramatic Muse. His prose style, however, is a transcript of his laborious and painstaking mind, ostentatiously correct, and frequently forcible, with commonly a satisfactory felicity of epithet; but his sentences never appear to be extemporaneous, but always studied, and as being one result of the primeval curse, for he seems to have produced both his thoughts and his language "by the sweat of his brow." -- CLARKE, CHARLES COWDEN, 1871, On the Comic Writers of England, Gentleman's Magazine, N. s., vol. 6, p. 633.
One grave defect in all his creations is what may be called their monotony. There is no flexibility of disposition, no free play of nature. Moreover, his works exhibit too plainly the travail and effort with which they were composed. One seems to be taken into his workshop, and see him toiling and groaning, and, in the very act of elaboration, shaping now this limb and now that. -- HALES, JOHN W., 1873, Notes and Essays on Shakespeare, p. 66.
His comedy is no genial reflection of life as it is, but a moral, satirical effort to reform manners. It is only his wonderful grace and real poetic feeling that lighten all this pedantry. He shares the vigor and buoyancy of life which distinguished the school from which he sprang. His stage is thronged with figures. In spite of his talk about correctness, his own extravagance is only saved from becoming ridiculous by his amazing force. If he could not create characters, his wealth of striking details gave life to the types which he substituted for them. His poetry, too, is of the highest order; his lyrics of the purest, lightest fancy; his masques rich with gorgeous pictures; his pastoral, "The Sad Shepherd," fragment as it is, breathes a delicate tenderness. -- GREEN, JOHN RICHARD, 1874, A Short History of the English People, ch. vii, sec. vii.
Ben Jonson had a mind of immense force and pertinacious grasp; but nothing could be wider of the truth than the notion maintained with such ferocity by Gifford, that he was the father of regular comedy, the pioneer of severe end correct taste. Jonson's domineering scholarship must not be taken for more than it was worth: it was a large and gratifying possession in itself, but he would probably have written better plays and more poetry without it. It is a sad application of the mathematical method to the history of our literature to argue that the most learned playwright of his time superseded the rude efforts of such untaught mother-wits as Shakespeare with compositions based on classical models. What Jonson really did was to work out his own ideas of comedy and tragedy, and he expressly claimed the right to do so. The most scrupulous adherence to the unity of time, and the most rigid exclusion of tragic elements from comedy, do not make a play classical. Ben Jonson conformed to these externals; but there was not a more violently unclassical spirit than his among all the writers for the stage in that generation. --MINTO, WILLIAM, 1874-85, Characteristics of English Poets, p. 337.
To the modern reader, Ben Jonson's plays have lost their old attraction; but his occasional poems are full of heroic thought, and his songs are among the best in the language. -- EMERSON, RALPH, WALDO, 1875, Parnassus, Preface, p. vi.
Broad-absed, broad-fronted, bounteous, multiform,
With many a valley impleached with ivy and vine,
Wherein the springs of all the streams run wine,
And many a crag full-faced against the storm,
The mountain where thy Muse's feet made warm
Those lawns that revelled with her dance divine,
Shines yet with fire as it was wont to shine
From tossing torches round the dance a-swarm.
Nor less, high-stationed on the gray grave heights,
High-thoughted seers with heaven's heart-kindling lights
Hold converse: and the herd of meaner things
Knows or by fiery scourge or fiery shaft
When wrath on thy broad brows has risen, and laughed,
Darkening thy soul with shadow of thunderous wings.
-- SWINBURNE, ALGERNON CHARLES, 1882, Ben Jonson.
Ben Jonson stands at the head of that school of dramatists who take for their Dramatis Personae not individuals but conventional types, and who somewhat ignored the complexities of human nature. No argument is wanted to show that Shakspere's method of truly holding the mirror up to nature is the higher, the greater, and the truer method, but Jonson has ancient tradition in favour of his view of the dramatic art. . . . Seldom departs from the strict tradition: his cowardly braggarts are most inveterate cowards and braggarts, his knaves most arrant knaves, his fools have no redeeming touch of good sense, and his misers are grasping and avaricious beyond all human precedent and possibility. Nevertheless, the magnificent genius of the man -- chiefly a literary genius -- takes the reader's judgment by storm; and if the reader's, how much more would the hearer be captivated by the broad persistent humor of Bobadill and the mordant cynicism of Mosca and Volpone! -- CRAWFURD, OSWALD, 1883, ed. English Comic Dramatists, p. 12.
His racy representations of the follies and oddities, and, as he would call them, the humours, of the day, are balanced by the classical representations which led Milton to speak of "Jonson's learned sock," though there are indeed some of his works which rise almost to the dignity of the buskin. "The Alchemist," "The Fox," and "Every Man in his Humour" have made themselves well known. Let me commend to you a less real drama, "Catiline," in which the story of the great conspiracy is finely told, partly through noble paraphrases of Cicero and Sallust, and partly through the play of the dialogue between the conspirators. If any of you should be tempted to read it, let him take note of the delicious piece of partly personal, partly political, gossip among the Roman ladies, which leads to the betrayal of the plot. There is another clever Roman play, "The Poetaster," which would have been a rather appropriate subject for discussion to-night, for it tells the old old tale of the struggle between father and son, when the one enjoins the study of the law and the other flies resolutely to his studies in poetry. -- NORTHCOTE, HENRY STAFFORD, 1885, Desultory Reading, p. 54.
His literary influence was very great, and with Donne he determined the whole course of English literature for many years and retained a great name even in the comparative eclipse of the "Giant Race" after the Restoration. It was only when the study of Shakespere became a favourite subject with persons of more industry than intelligence in the early eighteenth century, that a singular fabric of myth grew up round Ben Jonson. He was pictured as an incarnation of envy, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness, directed in the first place towards Shakespere, and then towards all other literary craftsmen. William Gifford, his first competent editor, set himself to work to destroy this, and undoubtedly succeeded. But the acrimony with which Gifford tinctured all his literary polemic perhaps rather injured his treatment of the case; even yet it may be doubted whether Ben Jonson has attained anything like his proper place in English literary history. . . . His lovely "Masques" are probably unread by all but a few scores, if so many, in each generation. His noble sinewy prose is, for the most part, unattractive in subject. His minor poems, though not a few of them are known even to smatterers in literature, are as a whole (or at least it would seem so) unknown. Yet his merits are extraordinary. -- SAINTSBURY, GEORGE, 1887, History of Elizabethan Literature, pp. 176, 177.
The more I read of the literary history of those days the more impressed I am by the predominance of Ben Jonson, -- a great, careless, hard-living, hard-drinking, not ill-natured literary monarch. His strength is evidenced by the deference shown him -- by his versatility; now some musical masque sparkling with little dainty bits which a sentimental miss might copy in her album or chant in her boudoir; and this, matched or followed by some labored drama full of classic knowledge, full of largest wordcraft, snapping with fire-crackers of wit, loaded with ponderous nuggets of strong sense, and the whole capped and booted with prologue and epilogue where poetic graces shine through proudest averments of indifference -- of scorn of applause -- of audacious self-sufficiency. -- MITCHELL, DONALD G., 1890, English Lands, Letters and Kings, From Elizabeth to Anne, p. 26.
Too few read Ben Jonson's plays. -- STEDMAN, EDMUND CLARENCE, 1892, The Nature and Elements of Poetry, p. 170.
He repels his admirers, he holds readers at arm's length. He is the least sympathetic of all the great English poets, and to appreciate him the rarest of literary tastes is required, -- an appetite for dry intellectual beauty, for austerity of thought, for poetry that is logical, and hard, and lusty. Yet he did a mighty work for the English language. At a time when it threatened to sink into mere prettiness or oddity, and to substitute what was non-essential for what was definite and durable, Jonson threw his massive learning and logic into the scale and forbade Jacobean poetry to kick the beam. He was rewarded by the passionate devotion of a tribe of wits and scholars; he made a deep mark on our literature for several generations subsequent to his own, and he enjoys the perennial respect of all close students of poetry. -- GOSSE, EDMUND, 1894, The Jacobean Poets, pp. 37, 38.
Jonson's pages are not so thickly sown with metaphor as are Chapman's and those of many others. His language is too realistic for that. There are almost no prolonged similes and few prolonged metaphorical passages. Short similes however, are very frequently employed. -- CARPENTER, FREDERIC IVES, 1895, Metaphor and Simile in the Minor Elizabethan Drama, pp. 127, 132.
Jonson, whose splendid scorn took to itself lyric wings in the two great Odes to Himself, sang high and aloof for a while, then the frenzy caught him, and he flung away his lyre to gird himself for deeds of mischief among nameless and noteless antagonists. . . . He lost the calm of his temper and the clearness of his singing voice, he degraded his magnanimity by allowing it to engage in street-brawls, and he endangered the sanctuary of the inviolable soul. -- RALEIGH, WALTER, 1897, Style, pp. 68, 71.
The comic of Jonson is a scholar's excogitation of the comic. -- MEREDITH, GEORGE, 1897, An Essay on Comedy and the Uses of the Comic Spirit, p. 16.
It was Jonson who first revealed to the age the literary possibilities of the masque, and lesser men were not slow to follow in the path which he had marked out. Had it not been for Jonson, it is hardly too much to say that the masque would today be the exclusive property of the Court chronicler and the antiquarian, and of no more significance to literature than a tilting match or a Christmas gambol. -- EVANS, HERBERT ARTHUR, 1897, English Masques, Introduction, p. xi.
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