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During his early engagements on the stage, he had the misfortune to kill one of the players in a duel, for which he was thrown into prison, "brought near the gallows," but afterwards pardoned. While in confinement, a popish priest prevailed on him to embrace the Roman Catholic faith, in which he continued about twelve years. As soon as he was released, which appears to have been about the year 1595, he married, to use his own expression, “ a wife who was a shrew, yet honest to him,” and endeavoured to provide for his family by his pen. Having produced a play which was accidentally seen by Shakspeare, he resolved to bring it on the stage of which he was a manager, and acted a part in it himself. What play this was we are not told, but its success encouraged him to produce his excellent comedy of Every Man in his Humour, which was performed on the same stage in 1598. Oldys, in his manuscript notes on Langbaine, says that Jonson was himself the master of a playhouse in Barbican, which was at a distant period converted into a dissenting meeting-house. He adds that Ben lived in Bartholomew Close, in the house which was inhabited, in Oldys's time, by Mr. James, a letter founder. Mention is made in his writings of his theatre, of the Sun and Moon tavern in Aldersgate Street, and of the Mermaid. But the want of dates renders much of this information useless.
In the following year he produced the counterpart of his former comedy, entitled Every Man out of his Humour, and continued to furnish a new play every year until he was called to assist in the masks and entertainments given in honour of the accession of king James to the throne of England, and afterwards on occasions of particular festivity at the courts of James and Charles I. But from those barbarous productions, he occasionally retired to the cultivation of his comic genius, and on one occasion gave an extraordinary proof of natural and prompt excellence in his Volpone, which was finished within the space of five weeks.
His next production indicated somewhat of that rough and independent spirit which neither the smiles nor terrours of a court could repress. It was, indeed, a foolish ebullition for a man in his circumstances to ridicule the Scotch nation in the court of a Scotch king, yet this he attempted in a comedy, entitled Eastward-Hoe, which he wrote in conjunction with Chapman and Marston, although, as Mr. Warton has remarked, he was in general "too proud to assist or be assisted." The affront, however, was too gross to be overlooked, and the three authors were sent to prison, and not released without much interest. Camden and Selden are supposed to have supplicated the throne in favour of Jonson on this occasion. At an entertainment which he gave to these and other friends on his release, his mother "more like an antique Roman than a Briton, drank to him, and showed him a paper of poison, which she intended to have given him in his liquor, after having taken a portion of it herself, if sentence upon him (of pillory, &c.) had been carried into execution." The history of the times shows the probable inducement Jonson had to ridicule the Scotch. The court was filled with them, and it became the humour of the English to be jealous of their encroachments. Jonson, however, having obtained a pardon, endeavoured to conciliate his offended sovereign by taxing his genius to produce a double portion of that adulation in which James delighted.
His connection with Shakspeare, noticed above, has lately become the subject of a controversy. Pope, in the preface to his edition of Shakspeare, says, "I cannot help thinking that these two poets were good friends and lived on amicable terms, and in
offices of society with each other. It is an acknowledged fact that Ben Jonson was introduced upon the stage, and his first works encouraged by Shakspeare. And after his death, that author writes To the Memory of his beloved Mr. William Shakspeare,' which shows as if the friendship had continued through life." Mr. Malone, the accuracy of whose researches are entitled to the highest respect, has produced many proofs of their mutual dislike, amounting, as he thinks, on the part of Jonson, to malignity. Mr. Steevens and Mr. George Chalmers are inclined likewise to blame Jonson, but Dr. Farmer considered the reports of Jonson's pride and malignity as absolutely groundless. Mr. O. Gilchrist, in a pamphlet just published, has vindicated Jonson with much acuteness, although without wholly effacing the impression which Mr. Malone's proofs and extracts are calculated to make. That Jonson was at times the antagonist of Shakspeare, and that they engaged in what Fuller calls "wit-combats," may be allowed, for such occurrences are not uncommon among contemporary poets; but it is inconsistent with all we know of human passions and tempers that a man capable of writing the high encomiastic lines alluded to by Pope, could have at any time harboured malignity in his heart against Shakspeare. Malignity rarely dies with its object, and more rarely turns to esteem and veneration.
Jonson's next play, Epicæne, or the Silent Woman, did not appear until 1609, and amply atoned for his seeming neglect of the dramatic Muse. It is perhaps the first regular comedy in the language, and did not lose much of this superiority by the appearance of his Alchemist in 1610. His tragedy, however, of Catiline, in 1611, as well as his Sejanus, of both which he entertained a high opinion, seem only to confirm the maxim that few authors know where their excellence lies. The Catiline, says Dr. Hurd, is a specimen of all the errours of tragedy.
In 1613, he went to Paris, where he was admitted to an interview with cardinal Perron, and with his usual frankness told the cardinal that his translation of Virgil was "nought." About this time he commenced a quarrel with Inigo Jones, and made him the subject of his ridicule in a comedy called Bartholomew Fair, acted in 1614. Jones was architect or machinist to the masques and entertainments for which Jonson furnished the poetry, but the particular cause of their quarrel does not appear. "Whoever," says lord Orford, was the aggressor, the turbulent temper of Jonson took care to be most in the wrong. Nothing exceeds the grossness of the language that he poured out, except the badness of the verses that were the vehicle. There he fully exerted all that brutal abuse which his contemporaries were willing to think wit, because they were afraid of it: and which only serves to show the arrogance of the man who presumed to satirize Jones and rival Shakspeare. With the latter, indeed, he had not the smallest pretensions to be compared, except in having sometimes written absolute nonsense. Jonson translated the ancients, Shakspeare transfused their very soul into his writings." If Jonson was the rival of Shakspeare, he deserves all this, but with no other claims than his Catiline and Sejanus, how could he for a moment fancy himself the rival of Shakspeare?
Bartholomew Fair was succeeded by The Devil's an Ass, in 1616, and by an edition of his works in folio, in which his Epigrams were first printed, although they appear to have been written at various times, and some long before this period. He was now in the zenith of his fame and prosperity. Among other marks of respect, he was presented with the honorary degree of master of arts by the university of Oxford; he had
been invited to this place by Dr. Corbet, senior student; and afterwards dean of Christ Church and bishop of Norwich: According to the account he gave of himself to Drummond, he was master of arts of both universities.
Wood informs us that he succeeded Daniel as poet-laureat, in Oct. 1619, as Daniel did Spenser. Mr. Malone, however, has very clearly proved that neither Spenser nor Daniel enjoyed the office now known by that name. King James, by letters patent dated February 3, 1615-16, granted Jonson an annuity or yearly pension of one hundred marks during his life," in consideration of the good and acceptable service heretofore done, and hereafter to be done by the said B. I." On the 23d of April 1630, king Charles by letters patent, reciting the former grant, and that it had been surrendered, was pleased, " in consideration (says the patent) of the good and acceptable service done unto us, and our father by the said B. I. and especially to encourage him to proceed in those services of his wit and pen, which we have enjoined unto him, and which we expect from him," to augment his annuity of one hundred marks, to one hundred pounds per annum, during his life, payable from Christmas, 1629. Charles at the same time granted him a tierce of Canary Spanish wine yearly during his life, out of his majesty's cellars at Whitehall: of which there is no mention in the former grant3.
Soon after the pension was settled on him, he went to Scotland to visit his intimate friend and correspondent, Drummond of Hawthornden, to whom he imparted many particulars of his life and his opinions on the poets of his age. Of these communications some notice will be taken hereafter. After his return from this visit, which appears to have afforded him much pleasure, he wrote a poem on the subject, but this with several more of his productions, was destroyed by an accidental fire, and he commemorated his loss in a poem entitled An Execration upon Vulcan.
Although it is not the purpose of this sketch to notice all his dramatic pieces, it is necessary to mention that in 1629, he produced a comedy called the New Inn, or the Light Heart, which was so roughly handled by the audience that he was provoked to write an Ode to Himself, in which he threatened to abandon the stage. Threats of this kind are generally impotent, and Jonson gained nothing but the character of a man who was so far spoiled by public favour as to overrate his talents. Feltham and Suckling reflected on him with some asperity on this occasion, while Randolph endeavoured to reconcile him to his profession. His temper, usually rough, might perhaps at this time have been exasperated by disease, for we find that his health was declining from 1625 to 1629, when his play was condemned. He was also suffering about this time the usual vexations which attend a want of economy; in one case of pecuniary embarrassment, king Charles relieved him by the handsome present of an hundred pounds. This contradicts a story related by Cibber and Smollett, that when the king heard of his illness, he sent him ten pounds, and that Jonson said to the messenger, "His majesty has sent me ten pounds, because I am old and poor and live in an alley go and tell him that his soul lives in an alley." Jonson's blunt manners and ready wit make the
3 From Mr. Malone's valuable note on " Shakspeare, Ford and Jonson" befare quoted. C.
4 The fire above mentioned Oldys fixes in this year, and says that it destroyed a history of Henry V. of which Jonson had gone through eight of his nine years, and in which it is said he was assisted by sir George Carew, sir Robert Cotton, and the celebrated Selden. Oldys's MS. Notes to Langbaine, in the British Museum. C
reply sufficiently credible had the former part of the story been true, but the lines of gratitude which he addressed to his majesty are a satisfactory refutation. Jonson, however, continued to be thoughtlessly lavish and poor, although in addition to the royal bounty he is said to have enjoyed a pension from the city, and received occasional assistance from his friends. The pension from the city appears to have been withdrawn in 1631, if it be to it he alludes in the postscript of a letter in the British Museum, dated Yesterday the barbarous court of aldermen have withdrawn their chand
This letter, which is addressed to the Earl of Newcastle, shows so much of his temper and spirit at this time, that a larger extract may be excused.
"I myself being no substance, am faine to trouble you with shaddowes, or what is less, an apologue, or fable in a dream. I being stricken with a palsy in 1628, had, by sir Thomas Badger, some few months synce, a foxe sent mee, for a present, which creature, by handling, I endeavoured to make tame, as well for the abating of my disease as the delight I took in speculation of his nature. It happened this present year 1631, and this verie weeke being the weeke ushering Christmas, and this Tuesday morning in a dreame (and morning dreames are truest) to have one of my servants come to my bedside, and tell me, Master, master, the fox speaks! whereas mee thought I started and troubled, went down into the yard to witnesse the wonder. There I found my reynard in his tenement, the tubb, I had hired for him, cynically expressing his own lott, to be condemn'd to the house of a poett, where nothing was to be seen but the bare walls, and not any thing heard but the noise of a sawe dividing billates all the weeke long, more to keepe the family in exercise than to comfort any person there with fire, save the paralytic master, and went on in this way, as the fox seemed the better fabler of the two. I, his master, began to give him good words, and stroake him: but Reynard, barking, told mee this would not doe, I must give him meat. I angry call'd him stinking vermine. Hee reply'd, looke into your cellar, which is your larder too, youle find a worse vermin there. When presently calling for a light, mee thought I went downe, and found all the floor turn'd up, as if a' colony of moles had been there, or an army of salt-petre vermin. Whereupon I sent presently into Tuttle-street for the king's most excellent mole catcher, to release mee and hunt them but hee when hee came and viewed the place, and had well marked the earth turned up, took a handfull, smelt to it, and said, master, it is not in my power to destroy this vermin, the K. or some good man of a noble nature must help you: this kind of mole is called a want, which will destroy you and your family, if you prevent not the worsting of it in tyme. And therefore God keepe you and send you health.
"The interpretation both of the fable and dream is, that I, waking, doe find want the worst and most working vermin in a house: and therefore my noble lord, and next the king my best patron, I am necessitated to tell it you, I am not so imprudent to borrow any sum of your lordship, for I have no faculty to pay; but my needs are such, and so urging, as I do beg what your bounty can give mee, in the name of good letters and the bond of an evergratefull and acknowledging servant to your honour."
Sutton, the founder of the Charterhouse is said to have been one of his benefactors, which renders it improbable that Jonson could have intended to ridicule so excellent a character on the stage: yet according to Mr. Oldys, Volpone was intended for Mr. Sutton. But although it is supposed that Jonson sometimes laid the rich under contributions by a dread of his satire, it is not very likely that he would attack such a man as Sutton.
The Tale of a Tub, and The Magnetic Lady, were his last dramatic pieces, and bear very few marks of his original powers. He penned another masque in 1634, and we have a New Year's Ode dated in 1635, but the remainder of his life appears to have been wasted in sickness of the paralytic kind, which at length carried him off, Aug. 16, 1637, in the sixty-third year of his age. Three days afterwards he was interred in Westminster Abbey, at the north-west end near the belfry, with a commonpavement stone laid over his grave, with the short and irreverend inscription of "O rare Ben Jonson," cut at the expense of sir John Young, of Great Milton in Oxfordshire.
His death was lamented as a public loss to the poetical world. About six months after this event, his contemporaries joined in a collection of elegies and encomiastic poems, which was published under the title of Ionsonius Virbius; or the Memory of Ben Jonson revived by the Friends of the Muses. Dr. Duppa, bishop of Chichester, was the editor of this volume, which contained verses by lords Falkland and Buckhurst, sir John Beaumont, sir Francis Wortley, sir Thomas Hawkins, Messrs. Henry King, Henry Coventry, Thomas May, Dudley Diggs, George Fortescue, William Habington, Edmund Waller, J. Vernon, J. Cl. (probably Cleveland) Jasper Mayne, William Cartwright, John Rutter, Owen Feltham, George Donne, Shakerley Marmion, John Ford, R. Brideoak, Rich. West, R. Meade, H. Ramsay, T. Terrent, Rob. Wasing, Will. Bew, and Sam. Evans. A subscription also was entered into for a monument in the Abbey, but prevented by the rebellion. The second earl of Oxford contributed the bust in bas-relievo which is now in Poet's Corner. Jonson had several children, but survived them all. One of them was a poet, and, as Mr. Malone has reported, the author of a drama written in conjunction with Brome. It should seem that he was not on good terms with his father. Fuller says that "Ben was not happy in his children."
As many points of his character are obscure or disputed, it may not be unnecessary in this place to exhibit the evidence of his contemporaries, or of those who lived at no great distance of time.
The following particulars Aubrey collected from Dr. Bathurst, sir Bennet Hoskyns, Lacy the player, and others.
"I remember when I was a scholar at Trin. Coll. Oxon. 1646, I heard Mr. Ralph Bathurst (now dean of Welles) say that Ben Johnson was a Warwyckshire man. "Tis agreed that his father was a minister; and by his epistle D. D. of Every Man- to Mr. W. Camden, that he was a Westminster scholar, and that Mr. W. Camden was his schoolmaster. His mother, after his father's death, married a bricklayer, and 'tis generally said that he wrought for some time with his father-in-lawe, and particularly on the garden wall of Lincolns inne next to Chancery lane; 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 maintain him at Trinity College in Cambridge, where he was: then he went into the Lowe Countryes, and spent some time, not very long, in the armie; not to the disgrace of [it], as you may find in his Epigrames. Then he came into England, and acted and wrote at the Greene Curtaine, but both ill; a kind of nursery or obscure playhouse somewhere in the suburbs (I think towards Shoreditch or Clerkenwell). Then he undertook again to write a play,
For the transcription of this article, the reader is indebted to Mr. Malone's Historical Account of the English Stage. It is perhaps unnecessary to add that Aubrey's MSS. are in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
• A few contractions in the manuscript are not retained in this copy. C.