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[Bom 1573; educated at Westminster School and (according to Fuller) at St. John's College, Cambridge. After a brief connexion with the trade of his step-father, a master-bricklayer, he served as a volunteer in the Low Countries, and settled in London as a playwright not later than 1597. His first important comedy, Every Man in his Humour, was acted 1598; his first tragedy, Sejanus, 1603. His masques chiefly belong to the reign of James I, more especially to its earlier part. He wrote nothing for the stage from 1616 to 1625. After this he produced a few more plays, with. out permanently securing the favour of the public. Of these plays the last but two was The New Inn, the complete failure of which on the stage provoked Jonson's longer Ode to Himself. He enjoyed however in his later years, besides a fluctuating court patronage, the general homage of the English world of letters as its veteran chief. He died in London, August 6, 1637. The First Folio edition of his Works, published in 1616, included the Book of Epigrams, and the lyrics and epistles gathered under the heading The Forest in the same Folio: the Second Folio, published posthumously in 1641, contained the larger and (as its name implies) supplementary collection, called Underwoods by its author.]
Though the readers of Ben Jonson are relatively few, there is no securer fame in our literature than his. He lived long, and ended his days in a very different world of letters as well as of politics from that upon which, after his return from military service in the Netherlands, he had launched the earliest of his great comedies. In his old age, when he had survived both the heat of the quarrels in which he had exulted and the fulness of the popularity which he had contemned,—when his powers were declining and his troubles increasing,—he was generally acknowledged as the ief of his art. His society was courted by grave seniors and by youthful aspirants to literary honours, while by an inner circle of devotees he was venerated as their ‘metropolitan in poetry,' and honoured after death with a collection of tributes such as even in that age of panegyrics would have overweighted the remembrance of any other man. During the
Restoration period his reputation as an English dramatist was still second to none, so far as critical opinion was concerned. But a poet's name is not kept green by critical opinion, and the name of a dramatic poet perhaps least of all. In his old age, as Jonson informed King Charles I, the 'less poetic boys' had judged 'parts of him decayed'; to posterity he gradually came to seem over-full and over-difficult. And thus in the end his inability or unwillingness (often expressed with unnecessary frankness) to come to terms with the larger public has revenged itself by his writings having been long and unworthily neglected. To sink irresistibly into the souls of men, or lightly to move the mirth of the multitude, was and is beyond the power of his poetic genius. To dissolve its inspirations in wantonness, or to satisfy coarse appetites with the husks of its fruits, was incompatible with the character of his mind. No writer was ever at once so varied and so serious, so voluminous and so conscientious. Few have been so careful about what they wrote before publication, and so careless about it afterwards. He thought that he could trust his reputation to the judgment of those who can "understand and define what merit is’; and upon the whole it may be said that both the audience to which he appealed, and that whose opinion he professed neither to love nor to fear, have taken him at his word. His fame as a dramatist-on which his general fame will always essentially depend-must therefore remain within the keeping of those who are 'sealed of the tribe of Ben’; but of these the succession is certain to remain unbroken.
One quite special cause has in the course of time not less unjustly than unfortunately interfered with the posthumous popularity of Ben Jonson. Not only has his poetic fame—as was inevitable—been overshadowed by that of Shakspere ; but he was long believed to have entertained, and to have taken frequent opportunities of expressing, a malign jealousy of one both greater and more successful than himself. This rather musty charge was elaborately examined and refuted by Jonson's editor, Gifford, to whose efforts on this head nothing remains to be added, though perhaps here and there something may with advantage be taken away from them. With pen and with tongue Ben Jonson was always, consciously or unconsciously, exerting his critical faculty; and like his great namesake of the eighteenth century, who in many respects (not including creative gifts) so strangely resembles him, he loved to measure and qualify even the praise which came warmest from his heart. In order to judge of his feelings towards Shakspere, and his opinion of Shakspere's genius, it suffices to read with candour as well as care the famous lines included in the following selection. If the constitution of the writer's mind, and the circumstances of the writing be taken into account,
be said with truth that few criticisms at once so generous and so discerning have ever been committed to posterity by one great poet concerning another. At all events it should not be overlooked that the praise which from Jonson weighs heaviest-the praise of Shakspere's art—was precisely that of which many generations delighting in the poet's 'native woodnotes wild' failed to understand the meaning.
As a matter of course, Jonson is chiefly remembered as a dramatist, though his labours as such very far from exhausted his extraordinary powers of work, and though for ten years (beginning with that of Shakspere's death, he never wrote for the stage at all. Indeed, though he declared his profits as a playwright to have been extremely small, it seems to have been necessity rather than choice which turned his efforts in this direction. In the spirited Ode to Himself (of which the date is uncertain, but which probably belongs to some time near 1616), as well as in the lines to Shakspere, he makes no secret of his longing for what seemed to him nobler because freer forms of poetry. But though he not long afterwards (1619) told Drummond of Hawthornden in one of his famous Conversations, that he had an intention to perfect an epic poem entitled Heroologia, of the Worthies of this Country roused by Fame, and to dedicate it to his country,' nothing came of the project. Nor would it appear that the burning of his library, for which he execrated 'the lame Lord of Fire' in a vivacious series of his favourite heroic couplets, consumed together with the MS. of his English Grammar and of his Aristotelian notes for his Translation of Horace's Art of Poetry, any original poem of special length or importance. Exclusively, therefore, of his dramas and masques, and of a few translations from the Latin Poets professing to be nothing more than such, Jonson's poetical remains consist only of the three collections mentioned at the head of this notice. How far the last of these, the Underwoods, which comprises epistles, epigrams, and lyrics of various kinds, was prepared or even designed for publication by Jonson, is unknown.
The lyrics in Jonson's dramas are extremely few, as becomes a dramatist who (as he rather too tersely expresses it) strove not only to set 'words above action,' but 'matter above words.' Indeed, with the exception of two or three pretty songs (of which one, exquisitely rendered from a Latin original, and another, afterwards reprinted in an enlarged form in the Underwoods, are cited to exemplify the light touch at the command of Jonson's not always laborious fingers) none of these often charming and always disturbing obstacles to dramatic interest interfere with the steady progress of his plays. The stately choruses in the tragedy of Catiline stand on a different footing from that of more or less desultory songs.
Even in Jonson's masques,-a form of poetry which owes to him not indeed its origin, but its establishment as a species in our literature—though the lyrical element necessarily forms an integral part of the composition, yet the importance attached to it by the author is unmistakeably secondary. Nor is the reason of this far to seek. From one point of view, indeed, it is right and proper to insist upon the essential differences between a masque and a drama, and upon the consequent absurdity of applying the same standards of criticism to both. From another point of view it is equally true that it is the dramatic element, or the element of action, in the masque as treated by Jonson, which constitutes the difference between it and a mere disguising'-a difference which in the case of earlier masques had no existence at all. According to his wont, Jonson was above all anxious to "furnish the inward parts of the masques, barriers and other entertainments composed by him, and in an age when, by the caprice of fashion and according to the inevitable law of change, a taste for these transitory devices' had largely superseded the love of the drama, to offer nothing that was not both 'nourishing and sound.' Hence whether it was a municipal “invention in the Strand,' to the body of which he had to 'adapt his soul,' or a hint of the Queen's which he had to develope as ladies' hints sometimes require, his aim was chiefly to give something of dramatic life as well as of deeper meaning to his occasional pieces. Not only was he resolved that so far as in him lay ‘painting and carpentry’ should not be (as he thought Inigo Jones strove to make them) “the soul of masque'; but even the songs and dances, indispensable though they were in one sense, were in another to be, so to speak, adventitious. Thus while his masques contain more dramatic life than those of any of his contemporaries, and reveal more poetic pur