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BENJAMIN 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.
gives a particular examination of his "Silent Woman," as 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 Benjamin received his education under the learned proper sphere; and in that he delighted most to Camden, at Westminster school; and had made represent mechanics." Besides his comedies, Jonson extraordinary progress in his studies, when his mo- composed two tragedies, Sejanus and Catiline, both ther, who had married a bricklayer for her second formed upon ancient models, and full of transhusband, took him away to work under his step-lations; and neither of them successful. His drafather. From this humble employment he escaped, matic compositions, however, do not come within by enlisting as a soldier in the army, then serving in the scope of the present publication. 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
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 1657, 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.
CAMDEN, most reverend head, to whom I owe
What sight in searching the most antique springs!
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
2. I have been gathering wolves' hairs,
3. I, last night, lay all alone
O' the ground, to hear the mandrake groan; And pluck'd him up, though he grew full low; And, as I had done, the cock did crow.
4. And I ha' been choosing out this skull,
5. Under a cradle I did creep,
By day; and, when the child was asleep,
7. A murderer, yonder, was hung in chains, The sun and the wind had shrunk his veins; I bit off a sinew, I clipp'd his hair,
I brought off his rags, that danc'd i' the air.
8. The screech-owls' eggs, and the feathers black,
9. And I ha' been plucking (plants among)
10. I, from the jaws of a gardener's bitch,
11. I went to the toad breeds under the wall, I charm'd him out, and he came at my call;
I scratch'd out the eyes of the owl before,
I tore the bat's wing: what would you have more?
Yes, I have brought (to help our vows)
ON THE COUNTESS OF PEMBROKE, SISTER TO SIR PHILIP SIDNEY.
UNDERNEATH this marble herse
ON LUCY COUNTESS OF BEDFORD.
THIS morning, timely rapt with holy fire,
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. I meant she should be courteous, facile, sweet, Hating that solemn vice of greatness, pride; I meant each softest virtue there should meet,
Fit in that softer bosom to reside. Only a learned, and a manly soul
I purpos'd her; that should, with even pow'rs, The rock, the spindle, and the sheers controul
Of Destiny, and spin her own free hours. Such when I meant to feign, and wish'd to see, My Muse bade, Bedford write, and that was she.
Kiss me, sweet: the wary lover
FROM THE SHEPHERD'S HOLIDAY.
THUS, thus, begin the yearly rites
Strew, strew, the glad and smiling ground,
The garden-star, the queen of May,
Drop, drop you violets, change your hues,
That from your odour all may say,
LOVE, A LITTLE BOY.
MASQUE ON LORD HADDINGTON'S MARRIAGE.
BEAUTIES, have ye seen this toy,
She, that will but now discover
He hath of marks about him plenty :
At his sight, the Sun hath turned,
Wings he hath, which though ye clip, He will leap from lip to lip,