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of our work, pursue the course of his genius through all its varieties, and endeavour to accompany him in his loftier and more poetical flights.
The object, at least, of our aim we feel to be just. To restore the taste for antient simplicity of style—for wit, whose zest is moral, and for humour, whose foundation is truth, can be no unbecoming trial. To shew, that the noblest exertions of imagination, and the most interesting pictures of passion, may be found amid the severest morals and the chastest methods'of writing, will, at least, be an effort towards reclaiming the luxuriant romance of the age, and engaging the judgment in the assistance of the fancy. We cannot, perhaps, expect that the novel-reading lady should prefer Ben Jonson to her piquante food, but we will, at least, do her and her sentimental male gossips the service to shew them, that the solid fare which honest Ben has prepared for their palates is of a description which will not disgust by its homeliness, nor pall by its false relish, Mr. Gifford's admirable edition, at all events, is within their reach, and may, by its more modern type, if not by its excellent explanations, afford some excuse to a fashionable friend for its lying on a reading desk. We shall prefix to our present offering at the altar of immortal greatness, the names of two of its noblest supports,
"Evert/ Man in his Humour," — " Every Man out of his Humour."
Next Jonson came, instructed from the school,
To please by method and invent by rule:
His studious patience and laborious art,
With regular approach essay'd the heart;
Cold approbation gave the lingering bays,
And they, who durst not censure, scarce could praise.
So says Samuel Johnson of his more illustrious namesake, in a prologue, which has been celebrated beyond any attempt of its kind for the mathematical justice of its criticism: so says the oracle of his day, of one of our greatest dramatists. These six lines are a curious specimen of how far a position, delivered with an air of certainty under the sanction of an authoritative name, will pass for years as a current truth, and become a test for the examination of the very powers which it misconstrues and belies. In a sense, however, evidently unmeant by the author, the last line, to which we in particular allude, is probably a historical fact. It has been the misfortune of Jonson's fame, that in order to be praised he must be understood; and that to be understood he must be studied. The "coldness of men's approbation" arose from their incapacity of understanding the justice of cause and effect, the nice link of character and action which Jonson, above any other even of his age of intellectual giants, comprehended and depicted. Jonson was no meretricious dramatist; with him, the pedigree of a jest is carefully inspected before it is installed in his house of fame; and his adoption of the ideas of others, or the use he makes of his own, is the badge and coat armour of their merit. His endeavour, from the beginning, was not so much to gain applause, as to shew that, if he failed, he deserved it. His plays possess not only their own intrinsic interest, but he has endeavoured to throw around them a new one—the justice of his own plea of encouragement from his auditors. In Every Man out of his Humour, in particular, our constant feeling is of a trial and proof of dramatic skill; and we feel no less pleasure in the author's success in his undertaking, than in the perfect and artful catastrophe of his subject. It is from this cause that, though much talked of, he is little read. He speaks to us with the gravity and command of an instructor, and the age is too weak and petulant to bear with his severities. He is of all authors the most perfect writer, because he is an exemplification throughout of his own precepts. His works are a grammar of classical sentiment and dramatic propriety. But let it not be supposed, that we mean to degrade him to the mere rank of a critic: to shew that he is fit to become the instructor of others, we shall prove not only that his rules are true, and his precepts golden, but that he affords proofs of a mighty poetical genius, which his art frequently rather prevented from making use of unworthy means, than fettered from the attempt and attainment of its legitimate objects. There is another cause for his present neglected state ;—his characters, although far from being in his best comedies individual satires, are the representatives of the embodied follies of his times; not mere abstract passions with voices, but individual enough in their respective humours, though in their excellencies, vices, or absurdities, they include the major part of mankind. With Jonson, the improvement of the times was the first object; the reprehension of their follies was the proper end of his comedies; while with Beaumont and Fletcher, and Shakspeare, they are only introduced occasionally; and these last rather attack the constant source of frivolity, and engage the passion of vanity in itself, than occupy themselves, like Jonson, with turning its outward form into ridicule. With Master Stephen, we debate the merits of a silk or a woollen stocking; in Master Slender, we behold the vanity of a man endeavouring to recommend himself to his mistress, by his valour in a bear-fight: in the former we see the bare instance, in the latter the humour is incidental, and heightened by the
interest of its purpose. Still, Jonson must not be considered as the mere satirist of his age. If the gallants of this time delight not in flame-coloured stockings, their pleasures of dress are not unworthy of their critical progenitors. The breed is not lost, though its motley is composed of different patches. The affectation of a Puntarvolo may be obsolete in the generality of travel to which easier communications have given birth; but a Sordido and a Fungoso are "weeds of every soil," they will endure as long as avarice holds its iron reign in man's heart, and the respect paid to externals induces the weak to consider them the objects of highest attainment. In proportion, however, as Jonson becomes less interesting to the common-place reader, does he rise in utility to the historian of manners: in proportion as he is less understood by the crowd, is he valuable as a record of the habits of his time; and hence, though a first reading may be almost unprofitable, upon a second we begin to feel his spirit, and on the third become actual existents of the reign of Elizabeth, roving over Moorfields to Hoxton, through meadows and rustic avenues; or drinking grist at the Windmill, in all the delight of antiquated jollity. If the fire of his genius were allayed by his learning, it was not in his comedy: under the name of comedy, he produced not only scenes of pure wit and humour, refined from the dross of nature in which he found them; but tragic passions and reflections, sublime elucidations of truth, which bestow on him a lustre of transcendant brightness when he wields the bolt and hurls the lightnings of anger, or wears the steady grandeur of undeviating rectitude. The name of tragedy, indeed, was a spell of dark and unwholesome magic upon the powers of Jonson: he deemed it necessary to withdraw from the contemplation of those living models, which were the evident originals of his comedy; and which, when produced, seem ennobled by a reciprocity of nature and art: he found that men were no longer heroes, and, without examining the present beauties of the world, he endeavoured to cast his statues in the immense moulds of antique Rome.
But the composition of those mighty forms was lost, and the fragile materials yet left were unable to bear the cumbrous adornments which he selected from the pages of history. To compare his Volpone with his Sejanus or Catiline, we shall have ample proof that, had he been content with the passions which he beheld, and spoken with the voice of that nature which he heard, we should have had, in spite of the want ot romantic interest in the subjects, the noble and soul-rending summer storm of tragedy, instead of cold dramatic editions of Tacitus, Pliny, and Suetonius, embellished with the beauties of Latin literature, breaking, like spring flowers, through a frosty earth. Yet all that could be done, under this error of judgment, was accomplished by Jonson: if his characters were inanimate, they are Romans in their very sleep of death—decent, graceful, sublime; and, where historic materials are deficient, Jonson's mind leaps forth in its native vigour. Achilles arises to compensate for the fall of Patroclus.
Petreius. The straits and needs of Catiline being such,
Cover'd the earth they 'ad fought on with their trunks,
Ambitious of great fame, to crown his ill
Collected all his fury, and ran in
(Arm'd with a glory high as his despair)
Into our battle, like a Libyan lion
Upon his hunters, scornful of our weapons,
Careless of wounds, plucking down lives about him,
Till he had circled-in himself with death:
Then fell he too, t' embrace it where it lay.
And as in that rebellion 'gainst the gods,
Minerva holding forth Medusa's head,
One of the giant brethren felt himself
Grow marble at the killing sight; and now,
Almost made stone, began to inquire what flint,
What rock, it was that crept thro' all his limbs;
And, ere he could think more, was that he fear'd:
So Catiline, at the sight of Rome in us,
Became his tomb; yet did his look retain
Some of his fierceness, and his hands still mov'd,
As if he labour'd yet to grasp the state
With those rebellious parts.
Cato. A brave bad death!
The sublimity of the images made use of in this description, and the human passion displayed in it, render it awful and interesting—we think of it as we should of the ruin of a cloudcapt prison—rejoicing, yet wondering and sorrowful in our joy.
The critical examination of the plays mentioned in our title, will now probably be called for by the reader, and we shall endeavour to extract such portions as shall amuse the superficial, keeping in view the higher aim of opening a door to the more studious, whom we trust to induce to seek his collective beauties of character, by proving that they are adorned with the minor yet more generally interesting elegancies of abstract charms. Every Man in his Humour may be ranked among the first of Jonson's comedies, and, therefore, among the very first in the English language. Perhaps it is surpassed by the fire and action of Volpone, and the single character of Morose in Epicazne, but by nothing else in this author. Every Man in his Humour is a conversation by Gerrard Doiiw; a cabinet group of the highest finish. Exactitude is as much aimed at as effect, and every face is marked with lineaments as distinct and perfect as the hand of art can trace from the varied features of nature. It may challenge comparison with any work of the kind,