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BENJAMIN ENJAMIN JONSON, (or Johnson,) a poet, who, during life, attained a distinguished character, was the posthumous son of a clergyman in Westminster, where he was born in 1574, about a month after his father's decease. His family was originally from Scotland, whence his grandfather removed to Carlisle, in the reign of Henry VIII.
Benjamin received his education under the learned Camden, at Westminster school; and had made extraordinary progress in his studies, when his mother, who had married a bricklayer for her second husband, took him away to work under his stepfather. From this humble employment he escaped, by enlisting as a soldier in the army, then serving in the Netherlands against the Spaniards. An exploit which he here performed, of killing an enemy in single combat, gave him room to boast ever after of a degree of courage which has not often been found in alliance with poetical distinction.
On his return, Jonson entered himself at St. John's College, Cambridge, which he was shortly obliged to quit from the scanty state of his finances. He then turned his thoughts to the stage, and applied for employment at the theatres; but his talents, as an actor, could only procure for him admission at an obscure playhouse in the suburbs. Here he had the misfortune to kill a fellow-actor in a duel, for which he was thrown into prison. The state of mind to which he was here brought, gave the advantage to a Popish priest in converting him to the Catholic faith, under which religion he continued for twelve years.
After his liberation from prison, he married, and applied in earnest to writing for the stage, in which he appears to have already made several attempts. His comedy of "Every Man in his Humour," the first of his acknowledged pieces, was performed with applause in 1596; and henceforth he continued to furnish a play yearly, till his time was occupied by the composition of the masques and other entertainments, by which the accession of James was celebrated. Dryden, in his Essay on Dramatic Poetry, speaks of him as the "most learned and judicious writer which any theatre ever had," and
gives a particular examination of his "Silent Woas a model of perfection. He afterwards, however, seems to make large deductions from this commendation. "You seldom (says Dryden) find him making love in any of his scenes, or endeavouring to move the passions; his genius was too sullen and saturnine to do it gracefully. Humour was his proper sphere; and in that he delighted most to represent mechanics." Besides his comedies, Jonson composed two tragedies, Sejanus and Catiline, both formed upon ancient, models, and full of translations; and neither of them successful. His dramatic compositions, however, do not come within the scope of the present publication.
In 1616, he published a folio volume of his works, which procured for him a grant from his majesty of the salary of poet-laureat for life, though he did not take possession of the post till three years after. With high intellectual endowments, he had many unamiable traits in his character, having a high degree of pride and self-conceit, with a disposition to abuse and disparage every one who incurred his jealousy or displeasure. Jonson was reduced to necessitous circumstances in the latter part of his life, though he obtained from Charles I. an advance of his salary as laureat. He died in 1637, at the age of 63, being at that time considered as at the head of English poetry. He was interred in Westminster Abbey, where an inscription was placed over his grave, familiarly expressive of the reputation he had acquired among his countrymen: it was, "O rare Ben Jonson.' Six months after his death, a collection of poems to his honour, by a number of the most eminent writers and scholars in the nation, was published, with the title of "Jonsonius Virbius; or the memory of Ben Jonson, revived by the Friends of the Muses."
Although, as a general poet, Jonson for the most part merits the character of harsh, frigid, and tedious; there are, however, some strains in which he appears with singular elegance, and may be placed in competition with some of the most favoured writers of that class.
TO WILLIAM CAMDEN.
most reverend head, to whom I owe All that I am in arts, all that I know. (How nothing 's that!) to whom my country owes The great renown, and name wherewith she goes. Than thee the age sees not that thing more grave, More high, more holy, that she more would crave. What name, what skill, what faith hast thou in things!
What sight in searching the most antique springs! What weight, and what authority in thy speech! Man scarce can make that doubt, but thou canst
Pardon free truth, and let thy modesty,
FROM CYNTHIA'S REVELS.
QUEEN and huntress, chaste and fair, Now the Sun is laid to sleep; Seated in thy silver chair,
State in wonted manner keep : Hesperus intreats thy light, Goddess excellently bright.
Earth, let not thy envious shade
Heaven to clear, when day did close;
Lay thy bow of pearl apart,
And thy crystal-shining quiver; Give unto the flying heart
Space to breathe, how short soever : Thou that mak'st a day of night, Goddess excellently bright.
FROM THE SILENT WOMAN.
STILL to be neat, still to be drest,
1. I HAVE been, all day, looking after
ON LUCY COUNTESS OF BEDFORD.
THIS morning, timely rapt with holy fire,
I thought to form unto my zealous Muse, What kind of creature I could most desire,
To honour, serve, and love; as poets use. I meant to make her fair, and free, and wise,
Of greatest blood, and yet more good than great; I meant the day-star should not brighter rise,
Nor lend like influence from his lucent seat.
Hating that solemn vice of greatness, pride;
I purpos'd her; that should, with even pow'rs,
KISS me, sweet: the wary lover
TO THE SAME.
DRINK to me only with thine eyes,
And I'll not look for wine.
But might I of Jove's nectar sup, I would not change for thine.
I sent thee, late, a rosy wreath, Not so much honouring thee, As giving it a hope, that there
It could not withered be.
But thou thereon did'st only breathe,
Since when, it grows, and smells, I swear,