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LIFE OF JONSON,
BY MR. CHALMERS.
The circumstances of Jonson's life have been hitherto very inaccurately related. Some particulars may be collected from his works, and from Fuller and Wood who lived at no great distance from his time. Drummond, the celebrated Scotch poet has afforded a few interesting memoirs which, coming from Jonson in the hours of confidence, may be considered as authentic ; but these materials have furnished no general narrative that is not inconsistent, and imperfect for want of dates. What follows, therefore, must be read, as it was written, with considerable diffidence.
Ben Jonson, or Johnson, for so he, as well as some of his friends, wrote his name, was born in Hartshorne Lane near Charingcross, Westminster, June 11, 1574, about a month after the death of his father. Dr. Bathurst, whose life was written by Mr. Warton, informed Aubrey that Jonson was born in Warwickshire, but all other accounts fix his birth in Westminster. Fuller says that “ with all his industry he could not find him in his cradle, but that he could fetch him from his long coats : when a little child, he lived in Hartshorne Lane near Charing Cross." Mr. Malone examined the register of St. Margaret's Westminster and St. Martin's in the Fields, but without being able to discover the time of his baptism'.
His family was originally of Annandale in Scotland, whence his grandfather removed to Carlisle in the time of Henry VIII. under whom he held some office. But his son being deprived both of his estate and liberty in the reign of queen Mary, went afterwards in holy orders, and leaving Carlisle, settled in Westminster.
Our poet was first sent to a private school in the church of St. Martin's in the Fields, and was afterwards removed to Westminster school. Here he had for his preceptor the illustrious Camden, for whom he ever preserved the highest respect, and besides dedicating one of his best plays to him, commemorates him in one of his epigrams as the person to whom he owed all he knew. He was making very extraordinary progress at this school, when his mother, who, soon after her husband's death, had married a bricklayer, took him home to learn his step-father's business. How long he continued in
' Shakspeare, Ford and Jonson, in Malone's Shakspeare. C.
this degrading occupation is uncertain ; according to Fuller he soon left it and went to Cambridge, but necessity obliged him to return to his father who, ainong other works, employed him on the new building at Lincoln's Inn, and there he was to be seen with a trowel in one hand and a book in the other. This, Mr. Malone thinks, must have been either in 1588, or 1593, in each of which years, Dugdale informs us, some new buildings were erected by the society. Wood varies the story by stating that he was taken from the trowel to attend sir Walter Raleigh's son abroad and afterwards went to Cambridge, but young Raleigh was not born till 1594, nor ever went abroad except with his father in 1617 to Guiana, where he lost his life. So many of Jonson's contemporaries, however, have mentioned his connection with the Raleigh family that it is probable he was in some shape befriended by them ', although not while he worked at his father's business, for from that he ran away, enlisted as a common soldier and served in the English army then engaged against the Spaniards in the Netherlands. “Here," says the author of his life in the Biographia Britannica, " he acquired a degree of military glory, which rarely falls to the lot of a comman man in that profession. In an encounter with a single man of the enemy, he slew his opponent, and stripping him, carried off the spoils in the view of both armies." As our author's fame does not rest on his military exploits, it can be no detraction to hint that one man killing and stripping another is a degree of military prowess of no very extraordinary kind. His biographer, however, is unwilling to quit the subject until he has informed us that “ the glory of this action receives a particular heightening from the reflection, that he thereby stands singularly distinguished above the rest of his brethren of the poetical race, very few of whom have ever acquired any reputation in arms."
On his return, he is said to have resumed his studies, and to have gone to St. John's College, Cambridge. This fact rests chiefly upon a tradition in that college, supporter by the gift of several books now in the library with his name in them. As to the ques. tion why his name does not appear in any of the lists, it is answered that he was only a sizar, who made a short stay, and his name could not appear among the admissious where no notice was usually taken of any young men that had not scholar-ships; and as to matriculation, there was at that time no register. If he went to St. John's it seems probable enough that the shortness of his stay was occasioned by his necessities, and this would be the case whether he went to Cambridge in 1588, as Mr. Malone conjectures, or after his return from the army, perhaps in 1594. In either case he was poor, and received no encouragement from his family in his education. His persevering love of literature, however, amidst so many difficulties, ought to be mentioned to his honour.
Having failed in these more creditable attempts to gain a subsistence, he began his theatrical career, at first among the strolling companies, and was afterwards admitted into an obscure theatre, called the Green Curtain, in the neighbourhood of Shoreditch, from which the present Curtain Road seems to derive its name. He had not been there long, before he attempted to write for the stage, but was not at first very successful either as an author or actor. Meres enumerates him among the writers of tragedy, but no tragedy of his writing exists, prior to 1598 when his comedy of Every Man in bis Humour procured him a name. Dexter, in his Satyromastix, censures his acting as aukward and mean, and his temper as rough and untractable.
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 bim 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 be 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 Jouson 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 amoug 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 Joves, 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 Sbakspeare, 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 o 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 bundred 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 grant .
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 embarrasoment, 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
* From Mr. Malone's valuable note on “ Shakspeare, Ford and Jonson” before quoted. C. * 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.