Page images
PDF
EPUB

a bricklayer, removed him (notwithstanding his extraordinary progress in classical learning) from this illustrjous seminary, and obliged him to work under his step-father. * .

But his spirit was not of a temper to accommodate itself to so mortifying a change. He resentfully left his home; and after a short time spent at Cambridge, whence his poverty compelled him to withdraw, joined the English army, then engaged against the Spaniards in the Netherlands. Here he acquired a degree of military glory, which rarely falls to the lot of a private soldier. In an encounter with a single enemy, he slew his opponent, and carried off the spoils in the view of both armies. Of this achievement he was naturally, ever afterward, not a little proud.

Upon his return to England, he followed the bent of his inclination; and resuming his studies, entered himself of St. John's College, f Cambridge. But here he had speedily the misfortune to encounter a second mortification. The scantiness of his purse not supplying him with the decent conveniences of

* Fuller informs us that he was employed in the new structure of Lincoln's Inn (the garden-wall next to Chancery Lane, built, according to Dugdale in 1588 or 1593) with a trowel in his hand, and a Horace in his pocket. In this situation, Wood adds, he was assisted by some generous gentlemen, who saw and pitied his unworthy degradation.

+ Aubrey says, he was of Trinity College; but, beside that tradition assigns him to St. John's, there are in the library of the latter College several books with his name in them given by himself. That name, however, does not occur either in the public or the private registers of the University; as there was, about this time, a considerable chasm in their records. VOL. II.

2 P

learned ease, he found himself under a necessity, after à short stay, of again quitting the seat of the Muses; and was admitted as an actor at an obscure play-house, called the Green Curtain, in the neighbourhood of Shoreditch and Clerkenwell. He had not been long in this station, before he commenced author, and wrote some pieces for the stage. But his performances either way did little credit to his genius : by his contemporary Decker his acting is censured as awkward and mean, and his temper as rough and untractable. . During his continuance in this humble station, he fought a duel with one of his brother players, who had sent him a challenge, and having killed his ad

versary, though his sword was ten inches longer than , his own,* was thrown into prison, and (as he himself told Drummond) • almost at the gallows. His spirit sunk into melancholy by his misfortune, he became a fit object for the crafty attacks of a Popish priest, who officiously visited him in his confinement, and prevailed upon him to become a Roman Catholic. Not long afterward, he got his freedom, and a wife, who (to adopt his own expression) was ó a shrew, yet honest to him. With his liberty, his spirit returned ; and in defiance of all discouragements, he continued digging in the poetic mine, and by dint of unparallelled industry at length produced a play, which having fortunately fallen into the hands of

* This, as Sir Egerton Brydges notices in one of those curious volumes, of which only a few copies issue from his private press, was Marlow the poet. Jonson appears to have carried the same spirit of warfare into the literary republic.

+ He remained twelve years within the pale of that church.

Shakspeare, that good-natured bard employed his interest to bring it upon the stage, * and acted a part in it himself. It is even said, that he occasionally assisted him in finishing some of his subsequent pieces; but the genius and qualifications of the two dramatists were so dissimilar, that little harmony could result from the union. In Jonson's plays, as they have come down to us, we discern few traces of the hand of Shakspeare.

Thus encouraged, his genius ripened apace, and his comedy entitled, • Every Man in his Humour, made it's appearance on the same stage in 1598, It was followed, the next year, by · Every Man out of his Humour;' a work, however, of much less design and action than it’s predecessor. In this manner he continued annually furnishing a new play, till he was called off by the masques and entertainments made for the reception of James I. on his accession to the English throne.t In this employ he was retained

* The Globe, in Southwark, where the actors were then considered as the Lord Chamberlain's servants. It was not till 1603, that they obtained a royal licence.

t Of these, Cynthia's Revels, a comic satire of little or no plot, of which the characters may be regarded as Vices or Passions personified, was acted in 1600 by the children or choristers of Queen Elizabeth's chapel. His nextperformance entitled • Poetaster,' a work of nearly the same description, was acted by the same little troop of admirable comedians in the following year. It was the Dunciad of that day, in which Decker, according to Dryden (or, as by some it has been surmised, Marston) is severely lashed under the character of Crispinus.' In it, with flames too long smothered, he burst over the heads of rivals and detractors of every description, poetical, military, legal, and histrionic; and, of course, provoked a host of antagonists. He wrote an apologetical epilogue, breathing a spirit worthy of himself; but that was a spirit too haughty to be

upon all occasions, during the remainder of his life. Inigo Jones was his associate, in designing suitable devices; an office, which he appears to have executed with delicacy and magnificence. And yet, during the greater part of the thirty years, in which they jointly administered to the royal pleasures, the two collegues appear to have been constantly at variance.

But these slighter labours did not wholly occupy his genius. Both inclination and ambition prompted him to the weightier works of the drama. His tragedy, entitled · Sejanus,' was represented by the King's servants in 1603. The parts, however, added by Shakspeare, who took a part in the exhi

relished by contemporary jealousy, and the town would not suffer the composition to be repeated. Under the character of his favourite · Horace' he describes himself, as “ a mere spunge. Nothing but humours and observations, he goes up and down sucking from every society, and when he comes home squeezes himself dry again. He will pen all he knows. He will sooner lose his best friend, than his least jest.” To Jonson's satire Decker made a bitter retort in the Horace Junior of his SatiroMastrix,' represented soon afterward by the children of St. Paul's, in which he seemed to have caught some portion of his adversary's spirit.

To prove the great liberty, which Jonson allowed himself in personal satire (says D’Israeli, on the authority of Howell) he lampooned even his benefactor; and Sutton, the founder of the Charter-House School and Hospital was · Volpone,' or the Fox. And that he could even condescend to bring obscure individuals on the stage, appears from his character of Carlo Buffon, in • Every Man out of his Humour,' which was intended (as the Aubrey papers state) for “ one Charles Chester, a bold impertinent fellow-a perpetual talker, that made a noise like a drum in a room: so one time at a tavern Sir Walter Ralegh beats him, and seals up his mouth, that is, his upper and nether beard, with hard wax."

bition, were omitted on it's subsequent publication in 1605. In the latter year came out, also, his • Volpone, or the Fox;' a comedy, which though finished in the short space of five weeks, is for it's interest, admirable conception, and inimitable execution surpassed by few productions of a similar nature. Indulging the sourness of his temper, he next produced a satirical piece, called, · Eastward Ho, containing some satirical reflexions upon the Scottish nation. For this both he and his coadjutors, Chapman and Marston, were committed to prison, and incurred the risk of losing their ears and noses in the pillory.* They had the good fortune, however, to obtain a pardon, probably through the intercession of Camden and Selden.

To retrieve this fault, Jonson almost wholly sacrificed both his time and his muse to masques for some years; so that his next play did not appear till 1609. But for the length of this interval he made some amends by the perfection of the work, to which it gave birth. It was entitled, “Epicone, or the Silent Woman ;' and was generally esteemed the most finished drama, which England had at that period produced. The next year he brought out " The Alchemist, one of his best comedies; perversely followed, in 1611, by his · Catiline,

* At an entertainment, which he gave to his friends (including Camden and Selden) upon his release, his mother drank to him, and with the guilty vigour of a Roman spirit showed him a paper of poison, which she had intended to divide with him, had not the ignominious sentence been annulled. From this play, it may be remarked, Hogarth took the plan of his Industrious and Idle Apprentices.

« PreviousContinue »