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A Study of Ben Jonson 

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If poets may be divided into two exhaustive but 
not exclusive classes, — the gods of harmony and 
creation, the giants of energy and invention, — the 
supremacy of Shakespeare among the gods of 
English verse is not more unquestionable than the 
supremacy of Jonson among its giants^ Shake- 
speare himself stands no higher above Milton and 
Shelley than Jonson above Dryden and Byron. 
Beside the towering figure of this Enceladus the 
stature of Dryden seems but that of an ordinary 
man, the stature of Byron — who indeed can only 
be classed among giants by a somewhat licentious 
or audacious use of metaphor — seems little higher ^ 
than a dwarfs. Not even the ardour of his most 
fanatical worshippers, from the date of Cartwright - 
and Randolph to the date of Gilchrist and Gifford, ") 
could exaggerate the actual greatness of his various 
and marvellous energies. No giant ever came so 

B 2 

4 A Stttdy of Ben Jonson 

near to the ranks of the gods : were it possible for 
one not born a god to become divine by dint of 
ambition and devotion, this glory would have 
crowned the Titanic labours of Ben Jonson.' There 
is something heroic and magnificent in his lifelong 
dedication of all his gifts and all his powers to the 
service of the art he had elected as the business of 
all his life and the aim of all his aspiration. And 
the result also was magnificent : the flowers of his 
growing have every quality but one which belongs 
to the rarest and finest among flowers : they have 
colour, form, variety, fertility, vigour : the one 
thing they want is fragrance^ Once or twice only 
in all his indefatigable career of toil and triumph 
did he achieve what was easily and habitually 
accomplished by men otherwise unworthy to be 
named in the same day with him ; by men who 
would have avowed themselves unworthy to un- 
loose the latchets of his shoes. That singing 
power which answers in verse to the odour of a 
blossom, to the colouring of a picture, to the flavour 
of a fruit, — that quality without which they may 
be good, commendable, admirable, but cannot be 
delightful, — was not, it should seem, a natural gift 
of this great writer's : hardly now and then could 
his industry attain to it by some exceptional touch 

Comedies, Tragedies, and Masques 5 

of inspiration or of luck. It is ' above all strange- 
ness ' that a man labouring under this habitual dis- 
qualification should have been competent to re- 
cognize with accurate and delicate discernment an 
occasion on which he had for once risen above his 
usual capacity — a shot by which he had actually 
hit the white : but the lyrical verses which Ben 
Jonson quoted to Drummond as his best have 
exactly the quality which lyrical verse ought to 
have and which their author's lyrical verse almost 
invariably misses ; the note of apparently spon- 
taneous, inevitable, irrepressible and impeccable 
music. They might have been written by Cole- 
ridge or Shelley3 But Ben, as a rule, — a rule 
which is proved by the exception — was one of the 
singers who could not sing ; though, like Dryden, 
he could intone most admirably ; which is more — 
and much more — than can truthfully be said for 
Byron. He, however, as well as Dryden, has one 
example of lyrical success to show for himself, 
as exceptional and as unmistakable as Jonson's. 
The incantation in (Edipus, brief as it is, and the 
first four stanzas of the incantation in Manfred, 
imitative as they are, reveal a momentary sense of 
music, a momentary command of the instrument 
employed, no less singular and no less absolute. 

6 A Stitdy of Ben Jonson 

But Jonson, at all points the greatest and most 
genuine poet of the three, has achieved such a 
success more than once ; has nearly achieved it, 
or has achieved a success only less absolute than 
this, more than a few times in the course of his 
'works. And it should be remembered always that 
poetry in any other sense than the sense of inven- 
^ tion or divination, creation by dint of recollection 
and by force of reproduction, was by no means 
the aim and end of his ambition. , The grace, the 
charm, the magic of poetry was to him always a 
/ secondary if not always an inconsiderable quality 
K in comparison with the weight of matter, the 
^^^ solidity of meaning, the significance and purpose 
kof the thing suggested or presented. The famous 
men whose names may most naturally and most 
rationally be coupled with the more illustrious 
name of Ben Jonson came short of the triumph 
which might have been theirs in consequence of 
their worst faults or defects — of the weaker and 
baser elements in their moral nature ; because 
they preferred self-interest in the one case and 
self-indulgence in the other to the noble toil and 
the noble pleasure of doing their best for their 
art's sake and their duty's, to the ultimate satis- 
faction of their conscience ; a guide as sure and a 


Comedies^ Tragedies^ and Masques 7 

monitor as exacting in aesthetic matters — or, to 
use a Latin rather than a Greek word, in matters 
of pure inteUigence — as in questions of ethics or -^^trv*^ 

^x^orality. But with Ben Jonson conscience was . ^/^ 
the first and last consideration : the conscience of ( 
power which undoubtedly made him arrogant and , 
exacting made him even more severe in self-exac- 
tion, more resolute in self-discipline, more inexor- \ W 
able in self-devotion to the elected labour of his k^c^lJI 
life. From others he exacted much ; but less '^^^^_^ 
than he exacted from himself And it is to this \ 
noble uprightness of mind, to this lofty loyalty 
in labour, that the gravest vices and the most / t^"" 
serious defects of his work may indisputably 
be traced. Reversing the famous axiom of 
Goldsmith's professional art-critic, we may say\ 
of Jonson's work in almost every instance that the 
picture would have been better if the artist had 
taken less pains^ For in some cases at least he 
writes better as soon as he allows himself to write 

. with ease — or at all events without elaborate osten- 
tation of effort and demonstrative prodigality of 
toil. The unequalled breadth and depth of his 
reading could not but enrich as well as encumber 
his writings : those who could wish he had been 
less learned may be reminded how much we should 


8 A Study of Ben Jonson 

certainly lose — how much of solid and precious 
metal — for the mere chance of a possible gain in 
spontaneity and ease ; in qualities of lyrical or 
dramatic excellence which it is doubtful whether he 
had received from nature in any degree comparable 
with those to which his learning gave a fresh im- 
pulse and a double force of energetic life. And 
when his work is at its worst, when his faults are 
most flagrant, when his tediousness is most unen- 
durable, it is not his learning that is to blame, for 
his learning is not even apparent. The obtrusion 
and accumulation of details and references, allu- 
sions and citations, which encumber the text and 
the margin of his first Roman tragedy with such a 
ponderous mass of illustrative superfluity, may un- 
doubtedly be set down, if not to the discredit, at 
least to the disadvantage of the poet whose resolute 
caprice had impelled him to be author and com- 
mentator, dramatist and scholiast, at once: but 
however tedious a languid or a cursory reader 
may find this part of Jonson's work, he must, 
if not abnormally perverse in stupidity, admit 
that it is far less wearisome, less vexatious, less 
deplorable and insufferable, than the interminable 
deserts of dreary dialogue in which the affectations, 
pretentions, or idiocies of the period are subjected 

The Case .is Altered g 

to the indefatigable and the lamentable industry of 
a caricaturist or a photographer. 

There is nothing accidental in the work of Ben 
Jonson : no casual inspiration, no fortuitous im- 
pulse, ever guides or misguides his genius aright 

y or astray. And this crowning and damning defect 
^ of a tedious and intolerable realism was even ex- 
ceptionally wilful and premeditated. There is little 
if anything of it in the earliest comedy admitted 
into the magnificent edition which was compiled 
and published by himself in the year of the 
death of Shakespeare. And the humours of a 
still earlier comedy attributed to his hand, ^y^^ ^^^^ 
and printed apparently without his sane- " Altered. 
tion just seven years before, are not worked out 
with such wearisome patience nor exhibited with 
such scientific persistency as afterwarijs distin- 

/ guished the anatomical lecturer on vice and folly 
whose ideal of comic art was a combination of sar- 
■ casm and sermon in alternately epigrammatic and 
declamatory /dialogue. I am by no means disposed 
to question the authenticity of this play,.an excellent 
example of rDjoantic comedy dashed with farce 
and flavoured with_poetry : but, as far as I am 
aware, no notice .has yet been taken of a noticeable 
coincidence between the manner or the circum- 


lo A Study of Ben Jonson 

stances of its publication and that of a spurious 
play which had nine years previously been attri- 
buted to Shakespeare. Some copies only of The 
Case is Altered \>Q-d>x on the title-page the name of 
Jonson, as some copies only of Sir John Oldcastle 
bear on the title-page the narne of Shakespeare. 
In the earlier case, there can of course be no 
reasonable doubt that Shakespeare on his side, or 
the four actual authors of the gallimaufry on theirs, 
or perhaps all five together in the common though 
diverse, interest of their respective credits, must 
have interfered to put a stop to the piratical profits 
of a lying and thieving publisher by compelling 
him to cancel the impudently mendacious title- 
page which imputed to Shakespeare the authorship 
of a play announced in its very prologue as the 
work of. a writer or writers whose intention was to 
counteract the false impression given by Shake- 
speare's caricature, and to represent Prince Hal's old 
lad of the qastle in his proper character of hero and 
martyr. In the later case, there can be little if any 
doubt that Jonson, then at the height 'of his fame 
and influence, must have taken, measures to pre- 
clude the circulation under his name of a play which 
he would not or could not honestly acknowledge. 
So far, then, as external evidence goes, there is no 

The Case is Altered 1 1 

ground whatever for a decision as to whether TJie 
Case is Altered may be wholly or partially or not , _ 
at all assignable to the hand of Jonson. My own 
conviction is that he certainly had a hand in it, and 
was not improbably its sole author : but that on 
the other hand it may not impossibly be one of the 
compound works on which he was engaged as a 
dramatic apprentice with other and less energetic 
playwrights in the, dim back workshop of the slave- 
dealer and slave-driver- whose diary records the 
grinding toil and the scanty wages of his lean and 
laborious bondsmen. Justice, at least since the 
days of Gifford, has generally been done to the 
bright and pleasant quality of this equally romantic 
and classical comedy ; in which the passionate 
humour of the miser is handled with more fresh- 
ness- and freedom than we find in most of Jonson's 
later studies, while the figure of his putative 
daughter has more of grace and interest than he 
usually vouchsafed to be at the pains of bestowing 
on his official heroines. It is to be regretted, it 
is even to be deplored, that the influence of Plautus^^/^ 
on the style and the method of Jonsort was not \ 
more permanent and more profound. Had he been 
but content to follow his first impulse, to work 
after his earliest model — had he happily preferred 

12 A Study of Ben Jonson 

those ' Plautinos et numeros et sales ' for which his 
courtly friend Horace expressed so courtierly a 
contempt to the heavier numbers and the more 
laborious humours which he set himself to elaborate 
and to cultivate instead, we might not have had to 
applaud a more wonderful and admirable result, we 
should unquestionably have enjoyed a harvest more 
spontaneous and more gracious, more generous 
and more delightful. Something of the charm of 
Fletcher, his sweet straightforward fluency and 
instinctive lightness of touch, would have tempered 
the severity and solidity of his deliberate satire and 
his heavy-handed realism. 

And the noble work of comic art which followed 

on this first attempt gave even fuller evidence in 

its earlier than its later form of the author's 

capacity for poetic as well as realistic success. 

^The defence of poetry which appears only in the 

first edition of Every Man in his Humour 


in his is worth all Sidney's and all Shelley's 

Humour. . 

treatises thrown together. A stern and 
austere devotion to the principle which prohibits 
all indulgence in poetry, precludes all exuberance 
of expression, and immolates on the altar of 
accuracy all eloquence, all passion, and all inspira- 
tion incompatible with direct and prosaic reproduc- 

Every Man in his Humour 13 

tion of probable or plausible dialogue, induced its 
author to cancel this noble and majestic rhapsody ; 
and in so doing gave fair and full forewarning of 
the danger which was to beset this too rigid and 
conscientious artist through the whole of his mag- 
nificent career. But in all other points the process ^ 
of transformation to which its author saw fit to 
subject this comedy was unquestionably a process 
of improvement. Transplanted from the imaginary 
or fantastic Italy in which at first they lived and 
moved and had their being to the actual and 
immediate atmosphere of contemporary London, 
the characters gain even more in lifelike and 
interesting veracity or verisimilitude than in familiar 
attraction and homely association. Not only do 
we feel that we know them better, but we perceive 
that they are actually more real and cognisable 
creatures than they were under their former 
conditions of dramatic existence. But it must be 
with regret as well as with wonder that we find 
ourselves constrained to recognize the indisputable 
truth that this first acknowledged work of so great 
a writer is as certainly his best as it certainly is ^cXa^^ 
not his greatest. Never again did his genius, his^' 
industry, his conscience and his taste unite in the 
trium.phant presentation of a work so faultless, so 

14 A Stndy of Ben Jonson 

satisfactory, so absolute in achievement and so free 
frpm blemish or defect. The only three others 
among all his plays which are not unworthy to be 
ranked beside it are in many ways more wonderful, 
more splendid, more incomparable with any other 
product of human intelligence or genius : but 
neither The Fox, The Alchemist, nor The Staple of 
News, is altogether so blameless and flawless a 
piece of work ; so free from anything that might 
as well or better be dispensed with, so simply and 
thoroughly compact and complete in workmanship 
and in result. Moliere himself has no character 
more exquisitely and spontaneously successful in 
presentation and evolution than the immortal and 
inimitable Bobadil : and even Bobadil is not un- 
worthily surrounded and supported by the many 
other graver or lighter characters of this magnifi- 
cent and perfect comedy. 

It is difficult to attempt an estimate of the next 
endeavours or enterprises of Ben Jonson withojut 
incurring either the risk of impatient and uncritical 
injustice, if rein be given to the natural irritation 
and vexation of a disappointed and bewildered 
reader, or the no less imminent risk of one-sided 
and one-eyed partiality, if the superb literary 
quality, the elaborate intellectual excellence, of 

Every Man out of his Humour 

these undramatic if not inartistic satires in dialpgu^ 
be duly taken into account. From their authors 
point of view, they are worthy of all the applau^t\C?c 
he claimed for them ; and to say this is to say 
much ; but if the author's point of view was 
radically wrong, was fundamentally unsound, we 
can but be divided between condemnation and 
applause, admiration and regret. No student of 
our glorious language, no lover of our glorious 
literature, can leave these miscalled comedies un- 
read without foregoing an experience which he 
should be reluctant to forego : but no reader who 
has any sense or any conception of comic art or of 
dramatic harmony will be surprised to find that the 
author's experience of their reception on the stage 
should have driven him by steady gradations of 
fury and consecutive degrees of arrogance into a 
state of mind and a style of work which must 
have seemed even to his well-wishers most un- 
promising for his future and final triumph. Little 
if anything can be added to the excellent critical 
remarks of Gifford on Every Man out of his 
Humour, Cynthia's Revels, and Poetaster, or his 
Arraignment. The first of these magnificent mis- 
takes would be enough to ensure immortality to 
the genius of the poet capable of so superb and 

1 6 A Study of Ben Joiison 

elaborate an error. The fervour and intensity of 
the verse which expresses his loftier mood of 
Every intolerant indignation, the studious and 
ofTir^ implacable versatility of scorn v^rhich ani- 
Humojir. j-Qa.tes the expression of his disgust at the 
viler or crueller examples of social villainy then open 
to his contemptuous or furious observation, though 
they certainly cannot suffice to make a play, suffice 
to make a living and imperishable work of the 
dramatic satire which passes so rapidly from one 
phase to another of folly, fraud, or vice. And if it 
were not an inadmissible theory that the action or 
the structure of a play might be utterly disjointed 
and dislocated in order to ensure the complete 
presentation or development, the alternate exhibi- 
tion or exposure, of each figure in the revolving 
gallery of a satirical series, we could hardly fear 
that our admiration of the component parts which 
fail to compose a coherent or harmonious work of 
art could possibly carry us too far into extrava- 
gance of applause. The noble rage which inspires 
the overture is not more absolute or perfect than 
the majestic structure of the verse : and the best 
comic or realistic scenes of the ensuing play are 
worthy to be compared — though it may not be 
altogether to their advantage — with the similar 

Every Man out of his HttmoMv 1 7 

work of the greatest succeeding artists in narrative 
or dramatic satire. Too much of the studious 
humour, too much of the versatile and laborious 
realism, displayed in the conduct and evolution of 
this satirical drama, may have been lavished and 
misused in the reproduction of ephemeral affecta- 
tions and accidental forms of folly : but whenever 
the dramatic satirist, on purpose or by accident, 
strikes home to some deeper and more durable sub- 
ject of satire, we feel the presence and the power 
of a poet and a thinker whose genius was not born 
to deal merely with ephemeral or casual matters. 
The small patrician fop and his smaller plebeian 
ape, though even now not undiverting figures, are 
inevitably less diverting to us, as they must have 
been even to the next generation from Jonson's,. 
than to the audience for whom they were created : 
but the humour of the scene in which the highly 
intelligent and intellectual lady, who regards her- 
self as the pattern at once of social culture and 
of personal refinement, is duped and disgraced by 
an equally simple and ingenious trick played off 
on her overweening and contemptuous vanity, 
might have been applauded by Shakespeare or 
by Vanbrugh, approved by Congreve or Moliere. 
Here, among too many sketches of a kind which 


18 A Study of Ben Jonson 

can lay claim to no merit beyond that of an 
unlovely photograph, we find a really humorous 
conception embodied in a really amusing type of 
vanity and folly ; and are all the more astonished 
to find a writer capable of such excellence and 
such error as every competent reader must recog- 
nize in the conception and execution of this rather 
admirable than delightful play. For Moliere him- 

/ self could hardly have improved on the scene in 
which a lady who is confident of her intuitive 
capacity to distinguish a gentleman from a pre- 
tender with no claim to that title is confronted 
with a vulgar clown, whose introducers have 
assured her that he is a high-bred gentleman mas- 
querading for a wager under that repulsive likeness. 
She wonders that they can have imagined her so 
obtuse, so ignorant, so insensible to the difference 
between gentleman and clown : she finds that he 
plays his part as a boor very badly and trans- 
parently ; and on discovering that he is in fact the 
boor she would not recognize, is driven to vanish 

I in a passion of disgust. This is good comedy : 
but we can hardly say as much for the scene in 
which a speculator who has been trading on the 
starvation or destitution of his neighbours and 
tenants is driven to hang himself in despair at the 

Cynthia s Revels 19 

tidings of a better market for the poor, is cut down 
by the hands of peasants who have not recognized 
him, and on hearing their loudly expressed regrets 
for this act of inadvertent philanthropy becomes 
at once a beneficent and penitent philanthropist. 
Extravagant and exceptional as is this instance 
of Jonson's capacity for dramatic error — for the 
sacrifice at once of comic art and of common sense 
on the altar of moral or satirical purpose, it is but 
an extreme example of the result to which his 
theory must have carried his genius, gagged and 
handcuffed and drugged and blindfolded, had not 
his genius been too strong even for the force and 
the persistence of his theory. No reader and no 
spectator of his next comedy can have been inclined 
to believe or encouraged in believing 
that it was. The famous final verse of the ^£^fuf' 
epilogue to CyntJiia's Revels can hardly 
sound otherwise to modern ears than as an expres- 
sion of blusteringdiffidence — of blatant self-distrust. 
That any audience should have sat out the five 
undramatic acts of this ' dramatic satire ' is as in- 
conceivable as that any reader, however exasperated 
and exhausted by its voluminous perversities, 
should fail to do justice to its literary merits ; to 
the vigour and purity of its English, to the mas- 

c 2 

20 A Study of Ben Jons on 

culine refinement and the classic straightforward- 
ness of its general style. There is an exquisite 
song in it, and there are passages — nay, there are 
scenes — of excellent prose : but the intolerable 
elaboration of pretentious dullness and ostentatious 
ineptitude for which the author claims not merely 
the tolerance or the condonation which gratitude 
or charity might accord to the misuse or abuse of 
genius, but the acclamation due to its exercise and 
the applause demanded by its triumph — the heavy- 
headed perversity which ignores all the duties and 
reclaims all the privileges of a dramatic poet — the 
Cyclopean ponderosity of perseverance which 
hammers through scene after scene at the task of 
ridicule by anatomy of tedious and preposterous 
futilities — all these too conscientious outrages 
offered to the very principle of comedy, of poetry, 
or of drama, make us wonder that we have no re- 
cord of a retort from the exhausted audience — if 
haply there were any auditors left — to the dogged 
defiance of the epilogue : — 

By God 'tis good, and if you like 't you may. 

— By God 'tis bad, and worse than tongue can say. 

For the most noticeable point in this studiously 
wayward and laboriously erratic design is that the 
principle of composition is as conspicuous by its 

Cynthia s Revels 2 1 

absence as the breath of inspiration : that the 
artist, the scholar, the disciple, the student of classic 
models, is as indiscoverable as the spontaneous 
humourist or poet. The wildest, the roughest, the 
crudest offspring of literary impulse working 
blindly on the passionate elements of excitable 
Ignorance was never more formless, more m- 
coherent, more defective in structure, than this 
voluminous abortion of deliberate intelligence and 
conscientious culture. 

There is a curious monotony in the variety — 
if there be not rather a curious variety in the 
monotony — of character and of style which makes 
it even more difficult to resume the study of 
Cynthia's Revels when once broken off than even 
to read through its burdensome and bulky five 
acts at a sitting ; but the reader who lays siege 
to it with a sufficient supply of patience will find 
that the latter is the surer if not the only way to 
appreciate the genuine literary value of its better -^^^^^ 
portions. Most of the figures presented are less 
than sketches and little more than outlines of 
inexpert and intolerant caricature : but the ' half- 
saved ' or (as Carlyle has it) ' insalvable ' coxcomb 
and parasite Asotus, who puts himself under the 
tuition of Amorphus and the patronage of Anaides, 


2 2 A Study of Ben Jonsoii 

is a creature with something of real comic life in 
him. By what process of induction or deduction 
the wisdom of critical interpreters should have 
discerned in the figure of his patron, a fashionable 
ruffler and ruffian, the likeness of Thomas Dekker,. 
a humble, hard-working, and highly-gifted hack 
of letters, may be explicable by those who can 
explain how the character of Hedon, a courtly and 
voluptuous coxcomb, can have been designed to 
cast ridicule on John Marston, a rude and rough- 
hewn man of genius, the fellow-craftsman of Ben 
Jonson as satirist and as playwright But such 
absurdities of misapplication and misconstruction, 
once set afloat on the Lethean waters of stagnating 
tradition, will float for ever by grace of the very 
rottenness which prevents them from sinking. 
Ignorance assumes and idleness repeats what 
sciolism ends by accepting as a truth no less 
indisputable than undisputed. To any rational 
and careful student it must be obvious that until 
the publication of Jonson's Poetaster we cannot 
trace, I do not say with any certainty of evidence,, 
but with any plausibility of conjecture, the identity 
of the principal persons attacked or derided by 
the satirist. And to identify the originals of such 
figures as Clove and Orange in Every Man out of 


his Hmnour can hardly, as Carlyle might nave '-^z. 
expressed it, be matter of serious interest to any ^'^-^ 
son of Adam. But the famous polemical comedy 
which appeared a year later than the appearance 
of Cynthids Revels bore evidence about it, 


unmistakable by reader or spectator, alike 
to the general design of the poet and to the par- 
ticular direction of his personalities. Jonson of 
course asserted and of course believed that he 
had undergone gross and incessant provocation 
for years past from the ' petulant ' onslaughts of ^ 
Marston and Dekker : but what were his grounds 
for this assertion and this belief we have no means 
whatever of deciding — we have no ground what- 
ever for conjecture. What we cannot but perceive \ 
is the possibly more important fact that indigna- / 
tion and ingenuity, pugnacity and self-esteem, 
combined to produce and succeeded in producing 
an incomparably better comedy than the author's 
last and a considerably better composition than 
the author's penultimate attempt. Even the 
* apologetical dialogue ' appended for the benefit 
of the reader, fierce and arrogant as it seems to us 
in its bellicose ambition and its quarrelsome self- 
assertion, is less violent and overweening in its 
tone than the furious eloquence of the prelude to 

24 ^ Study of Bert Jonso7i 

Every Man out of his Humour. The purity of 
passion, the sincerity of emotion, which inspires 
and inflames that singular and splendid substitute 
for an ordinary prologue, never found again an 
expression so fervent and so full in the many and 
various appeals of its author to his audience, im- 
mediate or imaginary, against the malevolence of 
enemies or of critics. But in this Augustan satire 
his rage and scorn are tempered and adapted to 
something of dramatic purpose ; their expression 
is more coherent, if not less truculent, — their effect 
is more harmonious, if not more genuine, — than in 
the two preceding plays. 

There is much in the work of Ben Jonson 
which may seem strange and perplexing to the 
most devout and rapturous admirer of his genius : 
there is nothing so singular, so quaint, so in- 
explicable, as his selection of Horace for a sponsor 
or a patron saint. The affinity between Virgil and 
Tennyson, between Shelley and Lucretius, is patent 
and palpable : but when Jonson assumes the mask 
of Horace we can only wonder what would have 
been the sensation on Olympus if Pluto had sud- 
denly proposed to play the part of Cupid, or if 
Vulcan had obligingly offered to run on the 
errands of Mercury. This eccentricity of egoism 

Poetaster 25 

is only less remarkable than the mixture of care 
and recklessness in the composition of a play 
which presents us at its opening with an apparent 
hero in the person, not of Horace, but of Ovid ; 
and after following his fortunes through four-fifths 
of the action, drops him into exile at the close of 
the fourth act, and proceeds with the business of 
the fifth as though no such figure had ever taken 
part in the conduct of the play. Shakespeare, 
who in Jonson's opinion ' wanted art,' assuredly j^jr -buv^ 
never showed himself so insensible to the natural 
rules of art as his censor has shown himself here. 
Apart from the incoherence of construction which 
was perhaps inevitable in such a complication of 
serious with satirical design, there is more of 
artistic merit in this composite work of art than 
in any play produced by its author since the 
memorable date of Every Man in his Humour. 
The character of Captain Pantilius Tuccaff which 
seems to have brought down on its creator such 
a boiling shower-bath or torrent of professional 
indignation from quarters in which his own dis- 
tinguished service as a soldier and a representative 
champion of English military hardihood would 
seem to have been unaccountably if not scan- 
dalously forgotten, is beyond comparison the 

26 A Study of Ben Jonson 

brightest and the best of his inventions since the 
date of the creation of Bobadil. But the decrease 
in humanity of humour, in cordial and genial 
sympathy or tolerance of imagination, which 
marks the advance of his genius towards its 
culmination of scenical and satirical success in 
The Alchemist must be obvious at this stage of his 
work to those who will compare the delightful 
cowardice and the inoffensive pretention of Bobadil 
with the blatant vulgarity and the flagrant ras- 
cality of Tucca. 

In the memorable year which brought into 
England her first king of Scottish birth, and made 
inevitable the future conflict between the revolu- 
tionary principle of monarchy by divine right and 
the conservative principle of self-government by 
deputy for the commonweal of England, the first 
great writer who thought fit to throw in his lot 
with the advocates of the royalist revolution pro- 
duced on the boards a tragedy of which 
Sejanus. ^ ^ - ^ • 

the moral, despite his conscious or uncon- 
scious efforts to disguise or to distort it, is as 
thoroughly republican and as tragically satirical 
of despotism as is that of Shakespeare's Julius 
Ccesar. It would be well for the fame of Jonson 
if the parallel could be carried further: but, 

Sejanus 27 

although Sejanus his Fall may not have received 
on its appearance the credit or the homage due 
to the serious and solid merit of its composition 
and its execution, it must be granted that the 
author has once more fallen into the excusable 
but nevertheless unpardonable error of the too 
studious and industrious Martha. He was careful 
and troubled about many things absolutely super- 
fluous and supererogatory ; matters of no value 
or concern whatever for the purpose or the import 

> of a dramatic poem : but the one thing needful, the \ 

> very condition of poetic life and dramatic interest, 
he utterly and persistently overlooked. Tiberius, the , 

^ central character of the action — for the eponymous 
hero or protagonist of the play is but a crude study 
of covetous and lecherous ambition, — has not life 
enough in the presentation of him to inform the 
part with interest. No praise — of the sort which 
is due to such labours — can be too high for the 
strenuous and fervid conscience which inspires 
every line of the laborious delineation : the re- 
corded words of the tyrant are wrought into the 
text, his traditional characteristics are welded into 
the action, with a patient and earnest fidelity 
which demands applause no less than recognition i 
but when we turn from this elaborate statue — 


28 A Study of Ben Jo7ison 

from this exquisitely articulated skeleton — to the 
living figure of Octavius or of Antony, we feel 
and understand more than ever that Shakespeare 
*hath chosen the good part, which shall not be 
taken away from him.' 
^ Coleridge has very justly animadverted on ' the 

anachronic mixture ' of Anglican or Caledonian 
royalism with the conservatism of an old Roman 
republican in the character of Arruntius : but we 
may trace something of the same incongruous 
combination in the character of a poet who was 
at once the sturdiest in aggressive eagerness of 
self-assertion, and the most copious in courtly 

« «?e^. effusion of panegyric, among all the distinguished 

writers of his day. The power of his verse and 

the purity of his English are nowhere more re- 

» . , markable than in his two Roman tragedies : on 

^'r***^ the other hand, his great fault or defect as a 
dramatist is n owhere more perceptible. This 
general if not universal i nfirmity is pne w hich 

never seems to have occurre d to him_, careful and 
studious though he was always of his own powers 
and performances, as anything of a fault at all. 
It is one indeed which no writer afflicted with it 
could reasonably be expected to recognize or 
to repair. Of all purely negative faults, all sins 

Sejanus 29 

of intellectual omission, it is perhaps the mo s^ 
s erious and the mo st irremedia ble. It is want of ^s 
gympathy ; a lack of cordial interest, not in his zi re? »^^ 
own work or in his own genius, — no one will assert 
that Jonson was deficient on that score, — but in the 
individual persons, the men and women represented 
on the stage. He took so much interest in the 
creations that he had none left for the creatures of 
his intellect or art. This fault is not more obvious 
in the works of his disciples Cartwright ^nd 
Randolph than in the works of their master. The 
whole interest is concentrated on the intellectual 
composition and the intellectual development t)f 
the characters and the scheme. Love and hatred, 
sympathy and antipathy, are superseded and sup- ^ 
planted by pure scientific curiosity : the clear glow 
of serious or humorous emotion is replaced by 
the dry light of analytical investigation. Si vis vie 
flere — the proverb is something musty. Neither 
can we laugh heartily or long where all chance of 
sympathy or cordiality is absolutely inconceivable. 
The loving laughter which salutes the names of 
Dogberry and Touchstone, Mrs. Quickly and 
Falstaff, is never evoked by the most gorgeous 
opulence of humour, the most glorious audacity 
of intrigue, which dazzles and delights our under- 

30 A Study of Ben Jonson 

standing in the parts of Sir Epicure Mammon, 
Rabbi Zeal-of-the-Land Busy, Morose and Fit^ 
dottrel and Mosca : even Bobadil, the most 
' comically attractive of all cowards and braggarts 
on record, has no such hold on our regard as many 
a knave and many a fool of Shakespeare's comic 
progeny. The triumph of ' Don Face ' over his 
confederates, though we may not be so virtuous as 
to grudge it him, puts something of a strain upon 
our conscience if it is heartily to be applauded 
and enjoyed. One figure, indeed, among all the 
multitude of Jonson's invention, is so magnificent 
in the spiritual stature of his wickedness, in the 
still dilating verge and expanding proportion of his 
energies, that admiration in this single case may 
possibly if not properly overflow into something 
of intellectual if not moral sympathy. The genius 
and the courage of Volpone, his sublimity of cynic 
scorn and his intensity of contemptuous enjoy- 
ment, — his limitless capacity for pleasure and his 
dauntless contemplation of his crimes, — make of 
this superb sinner a figure which we can hardly 
realize without some sense of imperious fascination. 
His views of humanity are those of Swift and 
of Carlyle : but in him their fruit is not bitterness 
of sorrow and anger, but rapture of satisfaction 

Sejanus 3 1 

rand of scorn. His English kinsman, Sir Epicure \ 
Mammon, for all his wealth of sensual imagination 
and voluptuous eloquence, for all his living play of 
humour and glowing force of faith, is essentially 
but a poor creature when set beside the great 
Venetian. Had the study of Tiberius been in- 
formed and vivified by something of the same 
fervour, the tragedy of Sejanus might have had 
in it some heat of more than merely literary life. 
But this lesser excellence, the merit of vigorous 
and vigilant devotion or application to a high and 
serious object of literary labour, is apparent in 
every scene of the tragedy. That the subject is 
one absolutely devoid of all but historical and 
literary interest — that not one of these scenes can 
excite for one instant the least touch, the least 
phantom, the least shadow of pity or terror — 
would apparently have seemed to its author no 
argument against its claim to greatness as a tragic 
poem. But if it could be admitted, as it will never 
be by any unperverted judgment, that this eternal 
canon of tragic art, the law which defines terror 
and pity as its only proper objects, the alpha and 
omega of its aim and its design, may ever be 
disregarded or ignored, we should likewise have to 
admit that Jonson had in this instance achieved 

32 A Study of Ben Jonson 

a success as notable as we must otherwise consider 
his failure. For the accusation of weakness in 
moral design, of feeble or unnatural treatment 
of character, cannot with any show of justice be 
brought against him. Coleridge, whose judgment 
on a question of ethics will scarcely be allowed 
to carry as much weight as his authority on matters 
of imagination, objects with some vehemence to 
the incredible inconsistency of Sejanus in appealing 
for a sign to the divinity whose altar he proceeds 
to overthrow, whose power he proceeds to defy, 
on the appearance of an unfavourable presage. 
This doubtless is not the conduct of a strong 
man or a rational thinker : but the great minister 
of Tiberius is never for an instant throughout the 
whole course of the action represented as a man 
of any genuine strength or any solid intelligence. 
He is shown to us as merely a cunning, daring, 
unscrupulous and imperious upstart, whose greed 
and craft, impudence and audacity, intoxicate 
while they incite and undermine while they uplift 

The year which witnessed the appearance of 
Sejanus on the stage — acclaimed by Chapman at 
greater length if not with greater fervour than 
by any other of Jonson's friends or satellites — 

If "^^^ ■ - 

Masques II i\\ 3Y/.0 

witnessed also the first appearance of its a^lior in /y, '^ 
a character which undoubtedly gave free play<j:d'^'^ 
some of his most remarkable abilities, but which 
unquestionably diverted and distorted and absorbed 
his genius as a dramatist and his talent as 

r r 1 . , Part of 

a poet after a fashion which no capable King 
student can contemplate without admira- Entertain- 
tion or consider without regret. The few ^^^^'^^* 
readers whose patient energy and conscientious 
curiosity may have led them to traverse — a pil- 
grimage more painful than Dante's or than Bun- 
yan's — the entire record of the ' Entertainment * 
which escorted and delayed, at so many successive 
stations, the progress through London and West- 
minster of the long-suffering son of Mary Queen 
of Scots, will probably agree that of the two poetic 
dialogues or eclogues contributed by Jonson to the 
metrical part of the ceremony, the dialogue of the 
Genius and the Flamen is better than that of the 
Genius and Thamesis ; more smooth, more vigor- 
ous, and more original. The subsequent prophecy 
of Electra is at all points unlike the prophecies of 
a Cassandra : there is something doubly tragic in 
the irony of chance which put into the mouth of 
Agamemnon's daughter a prophecy of good fortune 
to the royal house of Stuart on its first entrance 


34 ^ Study of Ben Jonson 

into the capital and ascension to the throne of 
England. The subsequent Panegyre is justly 
A Pane- praised by Gifford for its manly and dig- 
^^^^' nified style of official compliment — court- 

liness untainted by servility : but the style is rather 
that of fine prose, sedately and sedulously measured 
and modulated, than_ that of even ceremonial 

In the same energetic year of his literary life 
the Laureate produced one of his . best 

The Satyr. . / ,. . , . 

mmor works — ihe Satyr, a little -lyric 
drama so bright and light and sweet in fancy and 
in finish of execution that we cannot grudge the 
expenditure of time and genius on so slight a sub- 
The ject. The Penates, which appeared in 

the following year, gave evidence again 
of the strong and lively fancy which was to be 
but too often exercised in the same field of in- 
genious and pliant invention. The metre is well 
conceived and gracefully arranged, worthy indeed 
of nobler words than those which it clothes with 
light and pleasant melody. The octosyllabics, it 
will be observed by metrical students, are certainly 
good, but decidedly not faultless : the burlesque 
part sustained by Pan is equally dexterous and 
brilliant in execution. 

The Fox 


In 1605 the singular and magnificent coalition 
of powers which served to build up the composite 
crenius of Tonson displayed in a single ^^ ,^ 
masterpiece the consummate and crown- or The Fox. 
ing result of its marvellous energies. No other ^ 
of even his very greatest works is at once so 
admirable and so enjoyable. The construction or 

\composition of The Alchemist is perhaps more won- ^" 
derful in the perfection and combination of cumu- 
lative detail, in triumphant simplicity of process and 
impeccable felicity of result : but there is in Volpone 
a touch of something like imagination, a savour of 
something like romance, which gives a higher tone 

'Ho the style and a deeper interest to the action. The 
chief agents are indeed what Mr. Carlyle would 
have called * unspeakably unexemplary mortals ' : ' 
but the serious fervour and passionate intensity 
of their resolute and resourceful wickedness give 
somewhat of a lurid and distorted dignity to the 
display of their doings and sufferings, which is 
wanting to the less gigantic and heroic villainies of 
Subtle, Dol, and Face. The absolutely unqualified 
and unrelieved rascality of every agent in the later -V"^ 
comedy — unless an exception should be made in 
favour of the unfortunate though enterprising 
Surly — is another note of inferiority ; a mark of 

M D 2 

36 A Study of Ben Jons on 

comparative baseness in the dramatic metal. In 
Volpone the tone of villainy and the tone of virtue 
are alike higher. Celia is a harmless lady, if 'a too 
submissive consort ; Bonario is an honourable 
gentleman, if too dutiful a son. The Puritan' and 
shopkeeping scoundrels who are swindled by Face 
and plundered by Lovewit are viler if less villainous 
figures than the rapacious victims of Volpone. 
^ As to the respective rank or comparative ex- 

cellence of these two triumphant and transcendent 
masterpieces, the critic who should take upon him- 
self to pass sentence or pronounce judgment would 
in my opinion display more audacity than discre- 
tion. The steadfast and imperturbable skill of 
hand which has woven so many threads of incident, 
\J so many shades of character, so many changes of 
/ intrigue, into so perfect and superb a pattern of in- 
comparable art as dazzles and delights the reader 
^ of The Alchemist is unquestionably unique — above 
comparison with any later or earlier example of 
kindred genius in the whole range of comedy, if 
not in the whole world of fiction. The manifold 
harmony of inventive combination and imaginative 
contrast — the multitudinous unity of various and 
concordant effects — the complexity and the 
simplicity of action and impression, which hardly 

The Fox and The Alchemist t^j 

allow the reader's mind to hesitate between enjoy- 
ment and astonishment, laughter and wonder, 
admiration and diversion — all the distinctive | 
qualities which the alchemic cunning of the poet ^ 
has fused together in the crucible of dramatic satire 
for the production of a flawless work of art, have 
given us the most perfect model of imaginative ' . 
realism and satirical comedy that the world has / . 
ever seen ; the most wonderful work of its kind 
that can ever be run upon the same lines. Nor is 
it possible to resist a certain sense of immoral 
sympathy and humorous congratulation, more keen 
than any Scapin or Mascarille can awake in the 
mind of a virtuous reader, when Face dismisses 
Surly with a promise to bring him word to his 
lodging if he can hear of ' that Face ' whom Surly 
has sworn to mark for his if ever he meets him. 
From the date of Plautus to the date of Sheridan it 
would surely be difficult to find in any comedy a 
touch of glorious impudence which might reasonably 
be set against this. And the whole part is so full 
of brilliant and effective and harmonious touches or 
strokes of character or of humour that even this 
crowning instance of serene inspiration in the line 
of superhuman audacity seems merely right and 
simply natural. 


8 A Study of Ben Jonson 


And yet, even while possessed and overmastered 
by the sense of the incomparable energy, the 
impeccable skill, and the indefatigable craftsman- 
ship, which combined and conspired together to 
produce this aesthetically blameless masterpiece 
the reader whose instinct requires something more 
than merely intellectual or aesthetic satisfaction 

/- must recognize even here the quality which distin- 
guishes the genius of Ben Jonson from that of the 

) very greatest inaaginative humourists — Aristo- 
phanes or Rabelais, Shakespeare or Sterne, Van- 
brugh or Dickens, Congreve or Thackeray. Each 
of these was evidently capable of falling in love 
with his own fancy — of rejoicing in his own 
imaginative humour as a swimmer in the waves he 
plays with : but this buoyant and passionate rapture 
was controlled by an instinctive sense which forbade 
them to strike out too far or follow the tide too 
long. However quaint or queer, however typical 
or exceptional, the figure presented may be — 
Olivia's or Tristram Shandy's uncle Toby, Sir John 
Brute or Mr. Peggotty, Lady Wishfort or Lady 
Kew, — we recognize and accept them as lifelike and 
actual intimates whose acquaintance has been made 
for life. Sir Sampson Legend might undoubtedly 
find himself as much out of place in the drawing- 

The Fox and The Alchemist 39 

room of the Countess Dowager of Kew as did Sir 
Wilful Witwoud, on a memorable occasion, in the 
saloon of his aunt Lady Wishfort : Captain Toby 
Shandy could hardly have been expected to 
tolerate the Rabelaisian effervescences of Sir Toby 
Belch : and Vanbrugh's typical ruffians of rank 
have little apparently in common with Dickens's 
representative heroes of the poor. But in all these 
immortal figures there is the lifeblood of eternal 
life which can only be infused by the sympathetic 
faith of the creator in his creature — the breath 
which animates every word, even if the word be 
not the very best word that might have been found, 
with the vital impulse of infallible imagination. ^ 
But it is difficult to believe that Ben Jonson can 
have believed, even with some half sympathetic and 
half sardonic belief, in all the leading figures of his 
invention. Scorn and indignation are but too often ^ 
the motives or the mainsprings of his comic art ; 
andl^en dramatic poetry can exist on the sterile \ 
and fiery diet of scorn and indignation, we may 
hope to find life sustained in happiness and health 
on a diet of aperients and emeticsTl The one great 
modern master of analytic art is somewhat humaner 
than Jonson in the application of his scientific 
method to the purpose of dramatic satire. The 

40 A Study of Ben Jonson 

study of Sludge is finer and subtler by far than the 
study of Subtle ; though undoubtedly it is, in con- 
sequence of that very perfection and sublimation 
of exhaustive analysis, less available for any but a 
monodramatic purpose. No excuse, no^plea, no 
pretext beyond the fact of esurience and the sense 
^Cof ability, is suggested for the villainy of Subtle, 
Dol, and Face. But if we were to see what might 
possibly be said in extenuation of their rogueries, 
to hear what might possibly be pleaded in explana- 
tion or condonation of their lives, the comedy 
would fall through and go to pieces : the dramatic 
effect would collapse and be dissolved. And to 
this great, single, aesthetic end of art the consum- 
mate and conscientious artist who created these 
immortal figures was content to subdue or to 
sacrifice all other and subordinate considerations. 
Coleridge, as no reader will probably need to be 
reminded, ' thought the CEdipus Tyrannus, The 
Alchemist^ and Torn Jones, the three most perfect 
plots ever planned.' With the warmest admiration 
and appreciation of Fielding's noble and immortal 
masterpiece, I cannot think it at all worthy of com- 
parison, for blameless ingenuity of composition and 
absolute impeccability of design, with the greatest 
of tragic and the greatest of comic triumphs in 

The Fox and The Alchemist 

construction ever accomplished by the most con- 
summate and the most conscientious among ancient 
and modern artists. And when we remember that 
this perfection of triumphant art is exhibited, not 
on the scale of an ordinary comedy, whether classic 
',or romantic, comprising a few definite types and a 
few impressive situations, but on a scale of invention 
so vast and so, various as to comprise in the course 
of a single play as many characters and as many in- 
cidents, all perfectly adjusted and naturally developed 
out of each other, as would amply suffice for the 
entire dmmatic furniture, for the entire poetic equip- 
ment, of a great dramatic poet, we feel that Gifford's ^ 
expression, a ' prodigy of human intellect,' is equally 
applicable to The Fox and to The A lchemist, and is 
not a whit too strong a term for either. Nor can I 
admit, as I cannot discern, the blemish or imper- 
fection which others have alleged that they descjy 
in the composition of Volpone — the unlikelihood of 
the device by which retribution is brought down in 
the fifth act on the criminals who were left at the 
close of the fourth act in impregnable security and 
triumph. So far from regarding the comic Nemesis 
or rather Ate which infatuates and impels Volpone 
to his doom as a sacrifice of art to morality, an 
immolation of probability and consistency on the 


42 A Study of Be7i Jons on 

altar of poetic justice, I admire as a master-stroke 
of character the haughty audacity of caprice which 
produces or evolves his ruin out of his own hardi- 
hood and insolence of exulting and daring enjoy- 
ment. For there is something throughout of the 
lion as well as of the fox in this original and in- 
comparable figure. I know not where to find a 
third instance of catastrophe comparable with that 
of either The Fox or The Alchemist in the whole 
range of the highest comedy ; whether for com- 
pleteness, for propriety, for interest, for ingenious 
felicity of event or for perfect combination and 
exposition of all the leading characters at once 
in supreme simplicity, unity, and fullness of cul- 
minating effect. 
^' And only in the author's two great farces shall 
we find so vast a range and variety of characters. 
The foolish and famous couplet of doggrel rhyme 
which brackets The Silent Woman with The Fox 
and The Alchemist is liable to prejudice the reader 
against a work which if compared with those 
marvellous masterpieces must needs seem to lose 
its natural rights to notice, to forfeit its actual 
claim on our rational admiration. Its proper place 
is not with these, but beside its fellow example 
of exuberant, elaborate, and deliberately farcical 

Farces 43 

realism — Bartholomew Fair. And the two are not 
less wonderful in their own way, less triumphant 
on their own lines, than those two crownings 
examples of comedy. Farcical in construction and V 
in action, they belong to the province of the higher 
form of art by virtue of their leading characters. 
Morose indeed, as a victimized monomaniac, is 
rather a figure of farce than of comedy : Captain ' 
Otter and his termagant are characters of comedy 
rather broad than high : but the collegiate ladies^ 
in their matchless mixture of pretention and pro- 
fligacy, hypocrisy and pedantry, recall rather the 
comedies than the farces of Moliere by the elaborate 
and vivid precision of portraiture which presents 
them in such perfect finish, with such vigour and 
veracity of effect. Again, if Bartholomew Fair is ^ 
mere farce in many of its minor characters and in 
some of its grosser episodes and details, the im- ' 
mortal figure of Rabbi Busy belongs to the highest 
order of comedy. In that absolute and complete ' 
incarnation of Puritanism full justice is done to the 
merits while full justice is done upon the demerits 
of the barbarian sect from whose inherited and 
infectious tyranny this nation is as yet but im- 
perfectly delivered. Brother Zeal-of-the-Land is 
no vulgar impostor, no mere religious quacksalver- 

44 A Shidy of Ben Jo7ison 

of such a kind as supplies the common food for 
satire, the common fuel of ridicule : he is a hypocrite 
of the earnest kind, an Ironside among civilians ; 
and the very abstinence of his creator from Hudi- 
brastic misrepresentation and caricature makes 
the satire more thoroughly effective than all that 
Butler's exuberance of wit and prodigality of 
intellect could accomplish. The snuffling glutton 
who begins by exciting our laughter ends by 
displaying a comic perversity of stoicism in the 
stocks which is at least more respectable if not less 
laughable than the complacency of Justice Overdo, 
the fatuity of poor Cokes, the humble jocosity of a 
Littlewit, or the intemperate devotion of a Waspe*. 
Hypocrisy streaked with sincerity, greed with across 
of earnestness and craft with a dash of fortitude, 
combine to make of the Rabbi at once the funniest, 
the fairest, and the faithfullest study ever taken 
of a less despicable than detestable type of fanatic. 
Not only was the genius of Jonson too great, 
but his character was too radically noble for a realist 
or naturalist of the meaner sort. It is only in the 
minor parts of his gigantic work, only in its insig- 
nificant or superfluous components or details, that 
we find a tedious insistence on wearisome or 
offensive topics of inartistic satire or ineffectual 

Masques 45 

display. Nor is it upon the ignoble sides of 
character that this great satiric dramatist prefers to 
concentrate his attention. As even in the most 
terrible masterpieces of Balzac, it is not the wicked- 
ness of the vicious or criminal agents, it is their 
energy of intellect, their dauntless versatility of 
daring, their invincible fertility of resource, for 
which our interest is claimed or by which our 
admiration is aroused. In Face as in Subtle, in 
Volpone as in Mosca, the qualities which delight 
us are virtues misapplied : it is not their cunning, 
their avarice, or their lust, it is their courage, their 
genius, and their wit in which we take no ignoble 
or irrational pleasure. And indeed it would be 
strange and incongruous if a great satirist who was 
also a great poet had erred so grossly as not to 
aim at this result, or had fallen so grievously short 
of his aim as not to vindicate the dignity of his 
design. The same year in which the stage first 
echoed the majestic accents of Volpone's opening 
speech was distinguished by the appearance of 
the Masque of Blackness : a work eminent 
even among its author's in splendour of Masqzie of 


fancy, invention, and flowing eloquence. 


Its companion or counterpart, the Masque Masque of 
of Beauty, a poem even more notable ^^"^■^' 


46 A Study of Ben Jonson 

for these qualities than its precursor, did not appear 
till three years later. Its brilliant and picturesque 
variations on the previous theme afford a perfect 
example of poetic as distinct from prosaic in- 

Between the dates of these two masques, which 
were first printed and published together, three 
other entertainments had employed the energetic 
genius of the Laureate on the double task of 
scenical invention and literary decoration. The 
first occasion was that famous visit of King 
Christian and his hard-drinking Danes which is 
patriotically supposed to have done so much harm 
to the proverbially sober and abstemious nation 
whose temperance is so vividly depicted by the 

enthusiastic cordiality of las^o. The Enter- 
Entertain- ■' ° 

ment of tainmcnt of Tzvo Kings at Theobalds opens 


Kings at well, with two vigorous and sonorous 


couplets of welcome : but the Latin verses 
are hardly worthy of Gifford's too fervid commenda- 
tion. The mock marriage of the boyish Earl of 
Essex and the girl afterwards known to ill 
fame as Countess of Somerset gave occa- 
sion of which Jonson availed himself to the full 
for massive display of antiquarian magnificence 
and indefatigable prodigality of inexhaustible 


Masques 47 

detail. The epithalamium of these quasi-nuptials 
is fine — when it is not coarse (v/e cannot away, for 
instance, with the comparison, in serious poetry, of 
kisses to — cockles !) : but the exuberant enthusiasm 
of Gifford for ' this chaste and beautiful gem ' is 
liable to provoke in the reader's mind a comparison ' 
' with the divine original ' : and among the very 
few poets who could sustain a comparison with 
Catullus no man capable of learning the merest 
rudiments of poetry will affirm that Ben Jonson 
can be ranked. His verses are smooth and strong, I 
* well-torned and true-filed ' : but the matchless 
magic, the impeccable inspiration, the grace, the 
music, the simple and spontaneous perfection of the 
Latin poem, he could pretend neither to rival nor 
to reproduce. ' What was my part,' says Jonson o, s • 
in a note, ' the faults here, as well as the virtues, ^ 
must speak.' These are the concluding words of 
a most generous and cordial tribute to the merits 
of the mechanist or stage-carpenter, the musician, 
and the dancing-master — Inigo Jones, Alfonso 
Ferrabosco, and Thomas Giles — who were em- 
ployed on the composition of this magnificent if 
ill-omened pageant : and they may very reasonably 
be applied to the two translations from Catullus 
which the poet— certainly no prophet on this 

48 A Study of Ben Jonson 

particular occasion — thought fit to introduce into 
the ceremonial verse of the masques held on the 
first and second nights of these star-crossed 
festivities. The faults and the virtues, the vigour 
of phrase and the accuracy of rendering, the stiff- 
ness of expression and the slowness of movement, 
are unmistakably characteristic of the workman. 
But in the second night's masque it must be noted 
that the original verse is distinctly better than 
the translated stanzas : the dispute of Truth and 
Opinion is a singularly spirited and vigorous 
example of amoebaean allegory. In the next year's 
. Entertainment of the king and queen at 

Entertain- ^ ^ 

ment of Thcobalds, then ceded by its owner to the 


James and king, the happy simplicity of invention 

Queen . - ., , , 

Anne at and arrangement is worthily seconded or 

Theobalds. ^ 1 1 - 1 j j* •/' 1 

supported by the grave and dignified music 
of the elegiac verse which welcomes the coming 
and speeds the parting master. Next year The 
Masque of Beauty and the masque at Lord 
Haddington's marriage, each containing some of 
Jonson's finest and most flowing verse, bore equal 
witness to the energy and to the elasticity of his 
genius for apt and varied invention. The amoebaean 
stanzas in the later of these two masques have 
more freedom of movement and spontaneity of 

Masques 49 

music than will perhaps be found in any other 
poem of equal length from the same indefatigable 
hand. The fourth of these stanzas is Masque at 
j simply magnificent : the loveliness of the '^^'i^f^'^' 
next is impaired by that anatomical par- Marriage. 
ticularity which too Often defaces the serious 
verse of Jonson with grotesque if not gross 
deformity of detail. No other poet, except pos- 
sibly one of his spiritual sons, too surely ' sealed 
of the tribe of Ben,' would have introduced 
' liver ' and ' lights ' into a sweet and graceful 
effusion of lyric ' fancy, good alike in form and 
sound ; a commendation not always nor indeed 
very frequently deserved by the verse of its author. 
The variations in the burden of ' Hymen's war * 
are singularly delicate and happy. 

The next was a memorable year in the 
literary life of Ben Jonson : it witnessed the ap- 
pearance both of the magnificent Masque 


of Queens and of the famous comedy or Masque of 
farce of The Silent Woman. The mar- 
vellously vivid and dexterous application of mar- 
vellous learning and labour which distinguishes 
'' the most splendid of all masques as one of the 
typically splendid monuments or trophies of Eng- 
lish literature has apparently eclipsed, in the 


50 A Shtdy of Ben Jons on 

appreciation of the general student, that equally 
admirable fervour of commanding fancy which 
informs the whole design and gives life to every 
detail. The interlude of the witches is so royally 
lavish in its wealth and variety of fertile and lively 
horror that on a first reading the student may 
probably do less than justice to the lofty and 
temperate eloquence of the noble verse and the 
noble prose which follow. 

Of The Silent Woman it is not easy to say 
anything new and true. Its merits are salient 
The Silent ^^^ superb : the combination of parts 
Woman. ^^^ ^^ accumulation of incidents are 
so skilfully arranged and so powerfully designed 
that the result is in its own way incomparable 
— or comparable only with other works of the 
master's hand while yet in the fullness of its 
cunning and the freshness of its strength. But a 
play of this kind must inevitably challenge a com- 
parison, in the judgment of modern readers, be- 
tween its author and Moliere : and Jonson can 
hardly, on the whole, sustain that most perilous 
comparison. It is true that there is matter enough 
in Jonson's play to have furnished forth two or 
three of Moliere's : and that on that ground — on the 
score of industrious intellis^ence and laborious versa- 

The Silent Woman 51 

tility of humour — The Silent Woman is as superior 
to the Misanthrope and the Bourgeois Gentilhomme 
as to Tzvelfth Night and Much Ado about Nothing. 
But even when most dazzled by the splendour of 
studied wit and the felicity of deliberate humour 

. which may even yet explain the extraordinary 
popularity or reputation of this most imperial and 
elaborate of all farces, we feel that the author 
could no more have rivalled the author of Twelfth 
Night than he could have rivalled the author of 
Othello. The Nemesis of the satirist is upon him : 
he cannot be simply at ease : he cannot be happy 
In his work without some undertone of sarcasm, 
some afterthought of allusion, aimed at matters 
which Moliere would have reserved for a slighter 
style of satire, and which Shakespeare would 
scarcely have condescended to recognise as possible 

r'objects of even momentary attention. His wit is 
wonderful — admirable, laughable, laudable — it is 
not in the fullest and the deepest sense delightful. 
It is (radically cruel, contemptuous, intolerant ; 

\ the sneer of the superior person — Dauphine or 
Clerimont — is always ready to pass into a snarl : 
there is something in this great classic writer of 

I the bull-baiting or bear-baiting brutality of his 
age. We put down The Fox or The Alchemist 

\^ E 2 

^ A Stttdy of Ben Jonson 

with a sense of wondering admiration, hardly 
affected by the impression of some occasional 
superfluity or excess : we lay aside TJie Silent 
Woinaii, not indeed without grateful recollection 
of much cordial enjoyment, but with distinct if 
reluctant conviction that the generous table at 
which we have been so prodigally entertained was 
more than a little crowded and overloaded with 
multifarious if savoury encumbrance of dishes. 
And if, as was Gifford's opinion, Shakespeare took 
a hint from the mock duellists in this comedy for 
the mock duellists in Twelfth Night, how wonder- 
fully has he improved on his model ! The broad 
rude humour of Jonson's practical joke is boyishly 
brutal in the horseplay of its violence : the sweet 
bright fun of Shakespeare's is in perfect keeping with 
the purer air of the sunnier climate it thrives in. 
The divine good-nature, the godlike good-humour 
of Shakespeare can never be quite perfectly appre- 
ciated till we compare his playfulness or his merri- 
ment with other men's. Even that of Aristophanes 
seems to smack of the barbarian beside it. 

I cannot but fear that to thorough-going 
Jonsonians my remarks on the great comedy in 
which Dryden found the highest perfection of 
dramatic art on record may seem inadequate if 

Masques 53 

not inappreciative. But to do • it anything like 
justice would take up more space than I can spare : 
it would indeed, like most of Jonson's other suc- 
cessful plays, demand a separate study of some 
length and elaboration. The high comedy of the 
collegiate ladies, the low comedy of Captain and 
Mrs. Otter, the braggart knights and the Latinist 
barber, are all as masterly as the versions of Ovid's 
elegiacs into prose dialogue are tedious in their I 
ingenuity and profitless in their skill. As to the---^ 
chief character — who must evidently have been a 
native of Ecclefechan— he is as superior to the 
malade imaginaire, or to any of the Sganarelles oi 
Moliere, as is Moliere himself to Jonson in light- 
ness of spontaneous movement and easy grace 
of inspiration. And this is perhaps the only play"' 
of Jonson's which will keep the reader or spectator 
for whole scenes together in an inward riot or an 
open passion of subdued or unrepressed laughter. / 

The speeches at Prince Henry's ^^^^ 
Barriers, written by the Laureate for ^Aj,^^.^^^^^ 
the occasion of the heir apparent's in- Henrfs 


vestiture as Prince of Wales, are notice- 
able for their fine and dexterous fusion of legend 
with history in eloquent and weighty verse. But 
the Masque of Oberon, presented the day before 

54 A Study of Ben J orison 

the tournament in which the prince bore himself 

so gallantly as to excite ' the great wonder of the 

_ beholders,' is" memorable for a Aiality far 

The ^ ... . 

Masque of higher than this : it is unsurpassed if not 


unequalled by any other work of its author 
for brightness and lightness and grace of fancy, for 
lyric movement and happy simplicity of expression. 
Such work, however, was but the byplay 
in which the genius of this indefatigable poet 
found its natural relaxation during the year 
rpj^^ which gave to the world for all time a 

Alchemist, gjf^ gQ munificent as that of The Alche- 
mist. This J unequalled play,' as it was called 
by contemporary admirers, was not miscalled by 
their enthusiasm ; it i§ in some respects un- 
paralleled among all the existing masterpieces 
of comedy. No student worthy of the name 
who may agree with me in preferring TJie Fox 
to TJie Alchemist will wish to enforce his pre- 
ference upon others. Such perfection _g£Dlot, 
with such multiplicity of characters — such in 
genuity of incident, with such harmony of construc- 
tion — can be matched, we may surely venture to 
say, nowhere in the whole vast range of comic inven- 
tion — nowhere in the whole wide world of dramatic 
fiction. If the interest is less poignant than in 


The Alchemist 55 

Volpone, the fun less continuous than in The Silent 
Woman, the action_ less siniple and spontaneous 
than tha/of Every Man in his Humour, the vein of 
comedy is even richer than in any of these other 
Easterpieces. The great Sir Epicure is enough in 
"himself to immortalize the glory of the great artist 
who conceived and achieved a design so fresh, so ^- 
daring, so colossal in its humour as that of this 
magnificent character. And there are at least 
nine others in the play as perfect in drawing, as 
vivIH in outline, as living in every limb and every 
feature, as even his whose poetic stature overtops 
"Siem all. The deathless three confederates, 
Kastrill and Surly, Dapper and Drugger, the too 
perennial Puritans whose villainous whine of ^ 
purity and hypocrisy has its living echoes even 
now— not a figure among them could have been 
carved or coloured by any other hand. 

Nor is the list even yet complete of Jonson's 
poetic work during this truly wonderful year 
of his literary life. At Christmas he produced 
* the Queen's Majesty's masque ' of Love Lwe freed 

J T^ 11 r*.^i from Ipio- 

freed from fgnorance and toUy ; a little ^^„^^ ^„^ 
dramatic poem composed in his lightest ^'^^y- 
and softest vein of fancy, brilliant and melodious 
throughout. The mighty and majestic Poet Lau- 

56 A Sttidy of Ben Jonson 

reate would hardly, I fear, have accepted with be- 
nignity the tribute of a compliment to the effect that 
his use of the sweet and simple heptasyllabic metre 
was worthy of Richard Barnfield or George Wither : 
but it is certain that in purity and fluency of music 
his verse can seldom be compared, as here it justly 
may, with the clear flutelike notes of Cynthia and 
The ShepJierd's Hunting. An absurd misprint in the 
last line but three has afflicted all Jonson's editors 
with unaccountable perplexity. ' Then, then, angry 
music sound,' sings the chorus at the close of a 
song in honour of * gentle Love and Beauty.' It is 
inconceivable that no one should yet have dis- 
covered the obvious solution of so slight but unfor- 
tunate an error in the type as the substitution of 
* angry ' for ' airy.' 

The tragedy of Catiline his Conspiracy gave evi- 
dence in the following year that the author of 
Sejanus could do better, but could not do 


much better, on the same rigid lines of 
rhetorical and studious work which he had followed 
in the earlier play. Fine as is the opening of this 
too laborious tragedy, the stately verse has less of 
dramatic movement than of such as might be proper 
— if such a thing could be — for epic satire cast into 
the form of dialogue. Catiline is so mere a monster 

Catiline 57 

•of ravenous malignity and irrational atrocity that 
he simply impresses us as an irresponsible though 
criminal lunatic : and there Is something so pre- 
posterous, so abnormal, in the conduct and 
language of all concerned in his conspiracy, that 
nothing attributed to them seems either rationally 
credible or logically incredible. Coleridge, in his 
notes on the first act of this play, expresses his con- 
viction that one passage must surely have fallen 
into the wrong place — such action at such a 
moment being impossible for any human creature. 
But the whole atmosphere Is unreal, the whole 
action^unnatural : no one thing said or done is less 
unlike the truth of life than any other : the writing 
is immeasurably better than the style of the rant- 
ing tragedian Seneca, but the treatment of 
character Is hardly more serious as a study of 
humanity than his. In fact, what we find here is 
exactly what we find in the least successful of Jon- 
son's comedies : a study, not of humanity, but of 
humours. The bloody humour of Cethegus, the 
braggart humour of Curlus, the sluggish humour of 
Lentulus, the swaggering humour of Catiline him- 
self — a hufifcap hero as ever mouthed and strutted 
out his hour on the stage — all these alike fall under 
the famous definition of his favourite phrase which 

58 A Study of Ben fonson 

the poet had given twelve years before in the 
induction to the second of his acknowledged 
comedies. And a tragedy of humours is hardly 
less than a monster in nature — or rather in that art 
which ' itself is nature.' Otherwise the second act 
must be pronounced excellent : the humours of the 
rival harlots, the masculine ambition of Sempronia, 
the caprices and cajoleries of Fulvia, are drawn 
with Jonson's most self-conscious care and skill. 
But the part of Cicero is burden enough to stifle 
any play : and some even of the finest passages, 
such as the much-praised description of the dying 
Catiline, fine though they be, are not good in the 
stricter sense of the word ; the rhetorical sub- 
limity of their diction comes most perilously near 
the verge of bombast. Altogether, the play is 
another magnificent mistake : and each time we 
open or close it we find it more difficult to 
believe that the additions made by its author 
some ten years before to TJie Spanish Tragedy can 
possibly have been those printed in the later 
issues of that famous play.^ Their subtle and 

* No student will need to be reminded of what is apparently- 
unknown to some writers who have thought fit to offer an opinion 
on this subject — that different additions were made at different 
dates, and by different hands, to certain popular plays of the time. 
The original Faustus of Marlowe was altered and re-altered, at least 

Masques 63 

had been acclaimed by the poet with such 
superfluous munificence of congratulation and of 
augury as might have made him hesitate, or at 
least might make us wish that he had seen fit to 
hesitate, before undertaking the celebration of the 
bride's remarriage — even had it not been made 
infamously memorable by association with matters 
less familiar to England at any time than to Rome 
under Pope Alexander VI. or to Paris under 
Queen Catherine de' Medici. But from the literary 
point of view, as distinguished from the ethical or 
the historical, we have less reason to regret than 
to rejoice in so graceful an example of the poet's 
abilities as a writer of bright, facile, ingenious 
and exquisite prose. The Irish Masque, j^j^^ r • ^ 
presented four days later, may doubtless ^^^^^l^^- 
have been written with no sarcastic intention ; 
but if there was really no such under-current 
of suggestion or intimation designed or ima- 
gined by the writer, we can only find a still 
keener savour of satire, a still clearer indication of 
insight, in the characteristic representation of a 
province whose typical champions fall to wrangling 
and exchange of reciprocal insults over the display 
of their ruffianly devotion : while there is not 
merely a tone of official rebuke or courtly compli- 

64 A Shidy of Ben Jonson 

ment, but a note of genuine good feeling and 
serious good sense, in the fine solid blank verse 
delivered by ' a civil gentleman of the nation.' 
On Twelfth Night the comic masque of 
Vindiclted Mercury Vindicated from the Alchemists 
^Aiche'' gave evidence that the creator of Subtle 
mists. ^^^ ^Q^ exhausted his arsenal of ridicule, 
but had yet some shafts of satire left for the 
professors of Subtle's art or mystery. The humour 
here is somewhat elaborate, though unquestionably 
spirited and ingenious. 

The next year's is again a blank record ; but 
the year 1616, though to us more mournfully 
memorable for the timeless death of Shakespeare, 
is also for the student of Ben Jonson a date of 
exceptional importance and interest. The pro- 
duction of two masques and a comedy in verse, 
with the publication of the magnificent first edition 
of his collected plays and poems, must have kept 
his name more continuously if not more vividly 
before the world than in any preceding year of his 
yy^^ literary life. The masque of The Golden 

Golden j^^^ Restored, presented on New Year's 
Restored. Night and again on Twelfth Night, is 
equally ingenious and equally spirited in its happy 
simplicity of construction and in the vigorous 

The Devil is an Ass 65 

fluency of its versification ; which is generally- 
smooth, and in the lyrical dialogue from after the 
first dance to the close may fairly be called sweet ; 
an epithet very seldom applicable to the solid 
and polished verse of Jonson. And if The Devil 
is an Ass cannot be ranked among the crown- 
ing masterpieces of its author, it is not The Devil 
because the play shows any sign of ^ 
decadence in literary power or in humorous inven- 
tion : the writing is admirable, the wealth of 
comic matter is only too copious, the characters 
are as firm in outline and as rich in colour as any 
but the most triumphant examples of his satirical 
or sympathetic skill in finished delineation and 
demarcation of humours. On the other hand, it 
is of all Ben Jonson's comedies since the date of 
Cynthia's Revels the most obsolete in subject of 
satire, the most temporary in its allusions and 
applications : the want of fusion or even connection 
(except of the most mechanical or casual kind) 
between the various parts of its structure and the 
alternate topics of its ridicule makes the action 
more difficult to follow than that of many more 
complicated plots : and, finally, the admixture of 
serious sentiment and noble emotion is not sa 


66 A Study of Ben Jons on 

skilfully managed as to evade the imputation of 
incongruity. Nevertheless, there are touches in 
the dialogue between Lady Tailbush and Lady 
Eitherside in the first scene of the fourth act which 
are worthy of Moliere himself, and suggestive of 
the method and the genius to which we owe the 
immortal enjoyment derived from the society of 
Cathos and Madelon — I should say, Polixene and 
Aminte, of Celimene and Arsinoe, and of Phila- 
minte and Belise. The third scene of the same 
act is so nobly written that the reader may feel 
half inclined to condone or to forget the previous 
humiliation of the too compliant heroine — her ser- 
vile and undignified submission to the infamous 
imbecility of her husband — in admiration of the 
noble and natural eloquence with which the poet 
has here endowed her. But this husband, comical 
as are the scenes in which he develops and dilates 
from the part of a dupe to the part of an impostor, 
is a figure almost too loathsome to be ludicrous — 
or at least, however ludicrous, to be fit for the 
leading part in a comedy of ethics as well as of 
manners. And the prodigality of elaboration 
lavished on such a multitude of subordinate cha- 
racters, at the expense of all continuous interest 
and to the sacrifice of all dramatic harmony, may 

Masques 67 

tempt the reader to apostrophize the poet in his 
own words : — 

You are so covetous still to embrace 
More than you can, that you lose all. 

Yet a word of parting praise must be given to 
Satan : a small part as far as extent goes, but a 
splendid example of high comic imagination after 
the order of Aristophanes, admirably relieved by 
the low comedy of the asinine Pug and the voluble 
doggrel of the antiquated Vico^. 

Not till nine years after the appearance of this 
play, in which the genius of the author may be 
said — in familiar phraseology — to have fallen be- 
tween two stools, carrying either too much sug- 
gestion of human interest for a half allegorical 
satire, or not enough to give actual interest to the 
process of the satirical allegory, did Ben Jonson 
produce on the stage a masterpiece of comedy in 
which this danger was avoided, this difficulty over- 
come, with absolute and triumphant facility of 
execution. In the meantime, however, he had pro- 
duced nine masques — or ten, counting that which 
appeared in the same year with his last 


great work of comic art. The Masque Masque of 
of Christmas^ which belongs to the same 
year as the two works last mentioned, is a com- 

F 2 

68 A Study of Ben Jonson 

fortablc little piece of genial comic realism ; plea- 
sant, quaint, and homely: the good-humoured 
humour of little Robin Cupid and his honest old 
mother ' Venus, a deaf tirewoman,' is more agree- 
able than many more studious and elaborate 
examples of the author's fidelity as a painter or 
photographer of humble life. Next year, in the 
Lovers masquc of Lovers made Men, called by 
made Men. Qjffoj.^ The Masque of Lethe, he gave full 
play toJiiaJightejL-g^nius ^and Jyric humour : it 
is a work of exceptionally simple, natural, and 
graceful fancy. In the following year he brought 
The Vision out the much-admired Vision of DeligJit ; 
ofDehgit. ^ ^^^^^^ ^^.j^ example of his capacities 

and incapacities. The fanciful, smooth, and flow- 
ing verse of its graver parts would be worthy of 
Fletcher, were it not that the music is less fresh 
and pure in melody, and that among the finest 
and sweetest passages there are interspersed such 
lamentably flat and stiff couplets as would have 
been impossible to any other poet of equal rank. 
If justice has not been done in modern times to Ben 
Jonson as one of the greatest of dramatists and 
humourists, much more than justice has been done 
to him as a lyric poet. The famous song of Night in 
this masque opens and closes most beautifully and 

Masqtces 69 

most sweetly : but two out of the eleven lines which 
compose it, the fifth and the sixth, are positively 
and intolerably bad. The barbarous and pedantic , 
license of inversion which disfigures his best lyrics 
with such verses as these — ' Create of airy forms a 
stream,' ' But might I of Jove's nectar sup ' — is not 
a fault of the age but a vice of the poet. Marlowe 
and Lyly, Shakespeare and Webster, Fletcher and 
Dekker, could write songs as free from this blemish 
as Tennyson's or Shelley's. There is no surer test 
of the born lyric poet than the presence or absence 
of an instinctive sense which assures him when and 
how and where to use or to abstain from inversion. 
And in Jonson it was utterly wanting. ' 

The next year's masque. Pleasure Reconciled to ) 
Virtue^ would be very graceful in composition if it^ 
were not rather awkward in construction. 


The verses in praise of dancing are very Reconciled 

to Virtue. 

pretty, sedate, and polished : and the bur- 
lesque part (spoken by ' Messer Gastcr ' in person) 
has more than usual of Rabelaisian freedom and 
energy. The antimasque afterwards prefixed to it, 
For the Honour of Wales, is somewhat 

For the 

ponderous in its jocularity, but has genuine Honour of 


touches of humour and serious notes of 
character in Its 'tedious and brief display of the 


70 A Study of Ben Jonson 

poet's incomparable industry and devotion to the A 
study of dialects and details : and the close is 
noble and simple in its patriotic or provincial 
eloquence. But in the year 1620 the comic genius . 
of Jonson shone out once more in all the splendour 
of its strength. The only masque of that 

News from 

the New year, News from the New World dis- 

World dis- j • j t,^ 

covered in covered in tke Moon, IS worthy of a prose 
Aristophanes : in other words, it is a satire 
such as Aristophanes might have written, if thai^ 
greater poet had ever condescended to write prose. 
Here for once the generous words of Jonson's noble 
panegyric on Shakespeare may justly be applied to 
himself : in his own immortal phrase, the humour of 
this little comedy is ' not of an age, but for all time.' 
At the very opening we find ourselves on but too 
familiar ground, and feel that the poet must have 
shot himself forward by sheer inspiration into our 
own enlightened age, when we hear * a printer of 
news ' avowing the notable fact that ' I do hearken 
after them, wherever they be, at any rates ; Til give 
anything for a good copy now, be it true or false, 
so it be news.' Are not these, the reader must ask 
himself, the accents of some gutter gaolbird — some 
dunghill gazetteer of this very present day ? Or 
is the avowal too honest in its impudence for such 

Masques 7 1 

lips as these ? After this, the anticipation of some- 
thing Hke railways (' coaches ' that ' go only with 
wind ') — if not also of something like balloons 
(' a castle in the air that runs upon wheels, with a 
winged lanthorn ') — seems but a commonplace ex- 
ample of prophetic instinct. 

The longest of Ben Jonson's masques was ex- 
panded to its present bulk by the additions made 
at each successive representation before the king ; 
to whose not over delicate or fastidious taste this 
Masque /9^^_^>^g_ Mp.tamnrphnsp.d Qip^ip.s 
would seem to have given incomparable if of the 


not inexhaustible delight. And even those phosed 
readers who may least enjoy the decide dly, 
greas y wit or humour of some among its onrf^ tp^'^t^ 
j;>opii1arJyncal parts must adrnire_andcannot but 
enjoy the rare a nd even refined loveliness of others. 
The fortune most unfortunately told of his future 
life and death to the future King Charles I. is told 
in the very best lyric verse that the poet could 
command : a strain of quite exceptional sweetness, 
simplicity, and purity of music : to which, as we 
read it now, the record of history seems to play a 
most tragically ironical accompaniment, in a minor 
key of subdued and sardonic presage. And besides 
these graver and lovelier interludes of poetry which 

72 A Shtdy of Ben Jonson 

relieve the somewhat obtrusive realism of the 
broader comic parts, this masque has other claims 
on our notice and remembrance ; the ingenuity 
and dexterity, the richness of resource and the 
pliability of humour, which inform and animate all 
its lyric prophecies or compliments. 

The masque which appparpH in fhp fnl]pwincr 

y ear is a monument of learning and labour such as 
n o other poet could have dreamed of 

The — ~~ 

Masque of lavishing on a cere monial or official piece 
qf_work, and which can only be appre- 
ciated by careful reading and thorough study of the 
copious notes and references appended to the text. 
But jhe writer's fan ry v^^'^ ^^ ^ ^^"^ f'bh when it- 
co uld devise nothing better than is to be found in 
this Masque of A ugurs : the humour is coarse and 
clumsy, the verses are flat and stiff. In the next 
year's Twelfth-Night masque, Twie vindicated to 
himself and to his honours^ the vigorous 

Time vin- 
dicated to and vicious personalitie>s of the attack on 

and to his George Wither give some life to the part 
in which the author of Abuses Stj^ipt 
and Whipt is brought in under the name of 
Chronomastix to make mirth for the groundlings 
of the Court. The feeble and facile fluency of his 
pedestrian Muse in the least fortunate hours of her 

Masques 73 

too voluble and voluminous improvisation is not 
unfairly caricatured ; but the Laureate's male- 
volence is something too obvious in his ridicule 
of the ' soft ambling verse ' whose ' rapture ' at its 
highest has the quality denied by nature to 
Tonson's — the divine sfift of melodious and f 

passionate^im£licity. A better and happier use 
for his yet unimpaired faculty of humour was found 
in the following year's masque of Neptun£ s 
Triumph for the Return of A lbion ; which contains { 
the most famous and elo quent panegyric on the ar^ 
of cookery that ever anti cipated the p^ r donrs^n f 
Thackeray and the enthusiasm of Di:|n->as. 
The passage is a really superb example of Triumph 

for the Re- 

tragl COmiC or mo ck-heroir hlanl^ vprc;p^ J turn of 

and in the closing lyrics of the m asque 
there is no lack of graceful fancy a nd harmonious 
elegance. For the next year's masque of ^^a^s 
Aj:^niversc^^ not quite 

so much can reasonably be said. It J A a typical 

and a flagrant incil-anrpj^f the pnpt'<; prn- 


verbial and incurable tendency to overdo Anni- 
everyth ing : there is but artificial smooth- 
ness in the verse, and but clownish ingenuity in 
the prose of it. 

But the year 1625 is memorable to the students 


74 A Study of Ben Jonson 

and admirers of Ben Jonson for the appearance of 
a work worth almost all his masques together ; a 
work in which the author of TJie Fox and The 
Alchemist once more reasserted his claim to a 
seat which no other poet and no other dramatist 
could dispute. The last complete and finished 
masterpiece of his genius is the splendid comedy of 
The Staple The Staple of Neivs. This, rather than 
of eivs. jy^^ Silent Woman, is the play which 
should be considered as the third — or perhaps we 
should say the fourth — of the crowning works 
which represent the consummate and incomparable 
powers of its author. 'Nojnan can know anything 
worth knowing of Ben Jonson who has not studied 
.and digested the text of Every Man in his Humour y 
The Fox, The Alchemist, and The Staple of News : 
but any man who has may be said to know him 
well. To a cursory or an incompetent reader it 
may appear at first sight that the damning fault of 
The Devil is an Ass is also the fault of this latex- 
comedy : that we have here again an infelicitous 
and an incongruous combination of realistic satire 
with Aristophanic allegory, and that the harmony 
of the different parts, the unity of the composite 
action, which a pupil of Aristophanes should at 
/ east have striven to attain — or, if he could not, at 


The Staple of News v 75 

least to imitate and to respect — can here BS- cbi4^/^ 
sidered as conspicuous only by their absence. 
But no careful and candid critic will retain such an 
impression after due study has been given to the 
third poetic comedy which reveals to us the genius 
of Jonson, not merely as a realistic artist in prose 
or a master of magnificent farce, but as a great 
comic poet. The scheme of his last preceding 
comedy had been vitiated by a want of coherence 
between the actual and the allegorical, the fantastic 
and the literal point of view ; and the result was 
confusion without fusion of parts : here, on the 
other hand, we have fusion without confusion 
between the dramatic allegory suggested by Aris- 
tophanes, the admirably fresh and living presenta- 
tion of the three Pennyboys, and the prophetic 
satire of the newsmarket or Stock Exchange of 
journalism. The competent reader will be divided 
between surprise at the possibility and delight in 
the perfection of the success achieved by a poet 
who has actually endowed with sufficiency of comic 
life and humorous reality a whole group of symbolic 
personifications ; from the magnificent Infanta 
herself, Aurelia Clara Pecunia, most gracious and 
generous yet most sensitive and discreet of imperial 
C^amsels, even down to little ' blushet ' Rose Wax 

"j^ A Study of Beii Jonson 

the chambermaid. Her young suitor is at least as 
good a picture of a generous light-headed prodigal 
as ever was shown on any stage : as much of a 
man as Charles Surface, and very much more of a 
gentleman. The miserly uncle, though very well 
drawn, is less exceptionally well drawn : but 
Pennyboy Canter, the disguised father, is equally 
delightful from the moment of his entrance with 
an extempore carol of salutation on his lips to 
those in which he appears to rescue the misused 
Infanta from the neglectful favourite of her choice, 
and reappears at the close of the play to rescue his 
son, redeem his brother, and scatter the community 
of jeerers : to whose humour Gifford is somewhat 
less than just when he compares it with 'the 
vapouring in BartJioloineiv Fair^ : for it is neither 
coarse nor tedious, and takes up but very little 
space ; and that not unamusingly. As for the 
r great scene of the Staple, it is one of the most 

^ I masterly in ancient or modern comedy of the 
typical or satirical kind. The central ' Office ' 
here opened, to the great offence (it should seem) 
of ' most of the spectators ' — a fact which, as 
Gifford justly remarks, ' argues very little for the 
good sense of the audience,' — may be regarded by 

/ a modern student as representing the narrow little 

The Staple of News jj 

nest in which was laid the modest Httle egg of 
modern journalism — that bird of many notes and 
many feathers, now so like an eagle and now so 
like a vulture : now soaring as a falcon or sailing 
as a pigeon over continents and battle-fields, now 
grovelling and groping as a dunghill kite, with its 
beak in a very middenstead of falsehood and of 
filth. The vast range of Ben Jonson's interest and 
observation is here as manifest as the wide scope 
and infinite variety of his humour. Science and 
warfare, Spinola and Galileo, come alike within 
reach of its notice, and serve alike for the material 
of its merriment. The invention of torpedos is 
anticipated by two centuries and a half; while in 
the assiduity of the newsmongers who traffic in 
eavesdropping detail we acknowledge a resem- 
blance to that estimable race of tradesmen known to 
Parisian accuracy as interwieveurs. And the lunacy 
of apocalyptic interpreters or prophets is gibbeted 
side by side with the fanatical ignorance of 
missionary enthusiasm, with impostures of pro- 
fessional quackery and speculations in personal 
libel. Certainly, if ever Ben deserved the prophetic 
title of Vates, it was in this last magnificent work ' 
of his maturest genius. Never had his style or his 
verse been riper or richer, more vigorous or more 

78 A Study of Ben Jonson 

pure. And even the interludes in which we hear 
the commentary and gather the verdict of * these 
ridiculous gossips ' (as their creator calls them) 
' who tattle between the acts ' are incomparably 
superior to his earlier efforts or excursions in the 
same field of humorous invention. The intrusive 
commentators on Every Man out of his Hzinioicr, 
for instance, are mere nullities — the awkward and 
abortive issue of unconscious uneasiness and 
inartistic egoism. But Expectation, Mirth, Tattle, 
and Censure, are genuine and living sketches of 
natural and amusing figures : and their dialogues, 
for appropriate and spirited simplicity, are worthy 
of comparison with even those of a similar nature 
which we owe not more to the genius than to the 
assailants of Moliere. 

In 1625 Ben Jonson had brought out his last 
great comedy : m 1626 he brought out the l^t^ 
of his finer sort of masques. ^ Thg. 
Masque of little so-called Masque , of Ozvls, which 


precedes it in the table of contents, i§ 


Fortunate (as Gifford points out) no masque at all : 

^^^^^"^^ their ^ it is a quaint, , effusion of ^doggrel^ dashed 

^,4^ ^«^^«. with wit and streaked with sati re. But in 

The FortuncUeJsk^^ humimr^ 

and the verse are _J ^ like PYrpHenfTj the jest on 

The New Inn 


Plato's ideas would have delighted Landor, and 
the wish of Merefool to ' see a Brahman or a 
Gymnosophist ' is worthy of a modern believer in 
esoteric Buddhism. Jew if an y of t he masque s 
have in themjyrics^o f smo o ther and clearer flo w ; 
and the constructionjs no less g-raceful than in- 

^enious. The next reappearance of the poet, after 
a silence during three years of broken or breaking 
health, was so memorably unfortunate in its issue 
that the name and the fate of a play which was 
only too naturally and deservedly hooted off the 
stage are probably familiar to many who know 
nothing of the masterpiece which had last preceded 
it. Ever since Lamb gathered some excerpts from 
the more high-toned and elaborate passages The New 
of TJie New Inn, or The Light Heart, ^^' 
and commended in them * the poetical fancy and 
elegance of mind of the supposed rugged old bard,' 
it has been the fashion to do justice if not some- 
thing more than justice to the literary qualities of 
this play ; which no doubt contains much vigorous 
and some graceful writing, and may now and then 
amuse a tolerant reader by its accumulating and 
culminating absurdities of action and catastrophe, 
character and event. But that the work shows 
portentous signs of mental decay, or at all events 

8o A Study of Ben Jonson 

of temporary collapse in judgment and in sense, 
can be questioned by no sane reader of so much as 
the argument. To rank any preceding play of 
Jonson's among those dismissed by Dryden as his 
* dotages ' would be to attribute to Dryden a verdict 
displaying the veriest imbecility of impudence : but 
to The New Inn that rough and somewhat brutal 
phrase is on the whole but too plausibly applicable. 
At the beginning of the next year Jonson came 
forward in his official capacity as court poet or 
l^^^s laureate, and produced ' the _ Queen's 


ihroligh Masque,' Love' s Txiimif^.MmmgkJZaUi- 
Cailipohs. pqH^^ and against S hrovet ide^^ the King's 
yidi^ViQ.Chloridia. A f ew good verses, f aint echoes 
nf ^ former sojTgj^redeem the first n£ thpgp fmm thp 
condemnation of compassion or contempt : and 
there is still some evidence in its composition of 
conscientious energy and of capacity not yet re- 
duced from the stage of decadence to the stage of 
collapse But the hymn which begins fairly enough 
with imitation of an earlier and nobler strain of 
verse at once subsides into commonplace, and closes 
in doggrel which would have disgraced a Sylvester 
or a Quarles. It is impossibku-to read 


Chloridia-^^^Ca&oX a regretful reflection -on- 
the lapse of time which prevented it from being _a 

The Magnetic Lady 8i 

b eautiful and typical instance of the author's lyric 
power : but, however inferior it maybe to what he 
would have made of so beautiful a subject in the 
freshness and fullness of his inventive and fanciful 
genius, it isstin Tingen ious and effect ive after a 
fashion ;; and the first song is so genuinely grace- 
ful and simple as to remind us of Wordsworth in 
his more pedestrian but not uninspired moods or 
measures of lyrical or elegiac verse. 

The higher genius of Ben Jonson as a comic 
poet was yet once more to show itself in one 
brilliant flash of parting splendour before its ap- 
proaching sunset. No other of his works would 
seem to have met with such all but uni- 


versal neglect as The Magnetic Lady ; I do Magnetic 

1 1 . Lady. 

not remember to have ever seen it quoted 
or referred to, except once by Dryden, who in his 
Essay of Dramatic Poesy cites from it an example 
of narrative substituted for action, ' where one 
comes out from dinner, and relates the quarrels and 
disorders of it, to save the undecent appearance of 
them on the stage, and to abbreviate the story.' 
And yet any competent spectator of its opening 
scenes must have felt a keen satisfaction at the 
apparent revival of the comic power and renewal 
of the dramatic instinct so lamentably enfeebled 


82 A Stttdy of Ben Jonson 

and eclipsed on the last occasion of a new play 
from the same hand. The first act is full of 
( brilliant satirical description and humorous analysis 
of humoursTjthe commentator Compass, to whom 
we owe these masterly summaries of character, is 
an excellent counterpart of that ' reasonable man ' 
who so constantly reappears on the stage of 
Moliere to correct with his ridicule or control* by 
his influence the extravagant or erratic tendencies 
of his associates. Very few examples of Jonspn's 
grave and deliberate humour are finer than the 
ironical counsel given by Compass to the courtly 
fop whom he dissuades from challenging the 
soldier who has insulted him, on the ground that 
the soldier 

has killed so many 
As it is ten to one his turn is next : 
You never fought with any, less, slew any; 
And therefore have the [fairer] hopes before you. 

The rest of the speech, with all that follows to the 
close of the scene, is no less ripe and rich in 
sedate and ingenious irony. There is no less ad- 
mirable humour in the previous discourse of the 
usurer in praise of wealth — especially as being the 
only real test of a man's character : — 

For, be he rich, he straight with evidence knows 
Whether he have any compassion 

A Tale of a Tub 83 

Or inclination unto virtue, or no : 
Where the poor knave erroneously believes 
If he were rich he would build churches, or 
Do such mad things. 

Most of the characters are naturally and vigorously- 
drawn in outline or in profile : Dame Polish is a 
figure well worthy the cordial and lavish commenda- 
tion of Gifford : and the action is not only original 
and ingenious, but during the first four acts at any 
rate harmonious and amusing. The fifth act seems 
to me somewhat weaker ; but the interludes are 
full of spirit, good humour, and good sense. 

A Tale of a 71?/^, which appeared in the follow- 
ing year, is a singular sample of farce elaborated 1 
and exalted into comedy. This rustic ^ Tale of 
study, though ' not liked ' by the king "" '^''^'' 
and queen when acted before them at court, has 
very real merits in a homely way. ' The list of 
characters looks unpromising, and reminds us to 
regret that the old poet could not be induced 
to profit by Feltham's very just and reasonable 
animadversions on ' all your jests so nominal ' ; 
which deface this play no less than The New Inn, 
and repel the most tolerant reader by their formal 
and laborious puerility. But the action opens 
brightly and briskly : the dispute about ' Zin 
Valentine ' is only less good in its way than one / 

G z 

84 A Study of Ben Jonson 

of George Eliot's exquisite minor touches — Mr. 
Dempster's derivation of the word Presbyterian 
from one Jack Presbyter of historic infamy : the 
young squire's careful and testy ' man and 
governor' is no unworthy younger brother of 
Numps in BartJiolomezv Fair: and the rustic 
heroine, a figure sketched with rough realistic 
humour, is hardly less than delightful when she 
remarks, after witnessing the arrest of her intended 
bridegroom on a charge of highway robbery, ' He 
might have married one first, and have been 
hanged after, if he had had a mind to 't ; ' a re- 
flection worthy of Congreve or Vanbrugh, Miss 
Hoyden or Miss Prue. But Jonson had never 
laid to heart the wisdom expressed in the admir- 
able proverb — ' Qui trop embrasse mal etreint ' ; 
the simple subject of the play and the homely 
motive of the action are overlaid and overloaded 
by the multiplicity of minor characters and epi- 
sodical superfluities, and the upshot of all the 
poet's really ingenious contrivances is pointless as 
well as farcical and flat as well as trivial. But 
there is certainly no sign of dotage in any work 
of Ben Jonson's produced before or after the 
lamentable date of TJie New Inn. The author 
apologizes for the homely and rustic quality of his 

Masques 85 

uncourtly play ; but if it be a failure, it is not 
on account of its plebeian humility, but through 
the writer's want of any real sympathy with 
his characters, any hearty relish of his subject : 
because throughout the whole conduct of a 
complicated intrigue he shows himself ungenially 
observant and contemptuously studious of his 
models : because the qualities most needed for 
such work, transparent lucidity and straightfor- 1 
ward simplicity of exposition, are not to be found 
in these last comedies : because, for instance, as 
much attention is needed to appreciate the in- 
genious process of ' humours reconciled ' in The 
Magnetic Lady^ or to follow the no^less ingenious 
evolution of boorish rivalries and clownish in- 
trigues in the play just noticed, as to follow the 
action and appreciate the design of TJie Fox or 

The Alchemist. ^^^ 

The ma sQU^ ^^ t^^'g yf-^y^ JA£!^'*L-v.^^!^^^£!^^£-^'^ 

Welbecky is a thi ng of very slight pretentions, 
but not unsuccessful or undiverting after 

_ V. Love's 

its homely fashion.^ Un the next year's Welcome 


companion masque. Love's VVelcqim^at 

'-— v.- '^--' ^ ^ Love's 

Bolsover^ the verse, thougJi,not wanting m Welcome 

. , 1111 1 atBolsover. 

grace or ease,, is less remarkable than the_ 

rough personal satire qnjnigojijiies ; who, it may 

86 A SttLciy of Ben J on son 

be observed, is as ready with a quotation from 
Chaucer as Goody Polish in TJie Magnetic Lady 
or Lovel in The Nezu Inn. 

Of this great dramatist's other than dramatic 
work in poetry or in prose this is not the place 
to speak : and his two posthumous fragments of 
dramatic poetry, interesting and characteristic as 
they are, can hardly affect for the better or for 
the worse our estimate of his powers. Had 
Mortimer Mortimer his Fall been completed, we 
his Fall, should undoubtedly have had a third 
i example of rhetorical drama, careful, conscientious, 
energetic, impassive and impressive ; worthy to stand 
beside the author's two Roman tragedies : and Mor- 
timer might have confronted and outfaced Sejanus 
and Catiline in sonorous audacity of rhythmic self- 
assertion and triumphant ostentation of magnificent 
The Sad vacuity. In j^>^g^>S'^jSJ£M ££;<^ we fin dthe 
Shepherd, ^^^j^^ ^^^ ^j^^ merits of his best and his 

worst masques so blended and confounded thatjve 
cannot but perceive the injurious effect on the 
Laureate's genius or instinct of intelligence pro- 
duced by the habit of conventional invention 
which the writing of verse to order and the^ 
arrangement of effects for a pageant had now 
made inevitable and incurable. _ A masque ia- 

The Sad Shepherd ^j 

eluding an antimasque, in which the serious part 
is relieved and set offby_t he introduc ti_on_ ~of 
parody or burlesque, was a form of art or artifi cial 
fashi on in which incongruity w a5^ a. merit ; th^ 
grosser the bu rle sque, the broader the paro dy, 
the greater was the success and the more effective 
_was the result : but in a dramatic attempt oL 
highe r pretention than such as might be looked 
for in the literary groundwork or raw material for 
a pageant, this intnision of inrongninTi^j-nntragl- 
is a pure barbarism — a positive solecism in com- 
posit ion. The collocation of such names and such 
figures as those of ^glamour and Earine with 
such others as Much and Maudlin, Scathlock and 
Scarlet, is no whit less preposterous or less ridi- 
culous, less inartistic or less irritating, than the 
conjunction in Dekker's Satiromastix of Peter 
Flash and Sir Quintilian, Sir Adam Prickshaft 
and Sir Vaughan ap Rees, with Crispinus and 
Demetrius, Asinius and Horace : and the offence 
is graver, more inexcusable and more inexplicable, 
in a work of pure fancy or imagination, than in a 
work of poetic invention crossed and chequered 
with controversial satire. Yet Gififord, who can 
hardly find words or occasions sufficient to express 
his sense of Dekker's * inconceivable folly,' or his 

88 A Study of Be7i Joiison 

contempt for ' a plot that can scarcely be equalled 
in absurdity by the worst of the plays which 
Dekker was ever employed to "dress/" has not a 
syllable of reprehension for the portentous incon- 
gruities of this mature and elaborate poem. On 
the other hand, even Gifford's editorial enthusiasm 
could not overestimate the ingenious excellence of 
construction, the masterly harmony of composition, 
which every reader of the argument must have 
observed with such admiration as can but intensify 
his regret that scarcely half of the projected poem 
has come down to us. \^No work of Ben Jonson's 
is more amusing and agreeable to read, as none is 
more nobly graceful in expression or more ex- 
cellent in simplicity of style. 

The immense influence of this great writer on 
his own generation is not more evident or more 
memorable than is the refraction or reverberation 
of that influence on the next. This ' sovereign 
sway and masterdom,' this overpowering prepon- 
derance of reputation, could not but be and could 
not but pass away. No giant had ever the divine 
versatility of a Shakespeare : but of all the giant 
brood none ever showed so much diversity of 
power as Jonson. In no single work has he dis- 
played such masterly variety of style as has Byron 

A Study of Ben Jonson 89 

in his two great poems, Don Juan and TJie Vision 
of Judgment : the results of his attempts at mixture 
or fusion of poetry with farce will stand exposed 
in all their deformity and discrepancy if we set 
them beside the triumphant results of Shake- 
speare's. That faultless felicity of divine caprice 
which haAnonizes into such absolute congruity 
all the outwardly incompatible elements of such 
works as Twelfth Night and The Tempest, the 
Winter^ s Tale and A Midsummer Nighfs Dream, 
is perhaps of all Shakespeare's incomparable gifts 
the one most utterly beyond reach of other poets. 
But when we consider the various faculties and 
powers of Jonson's genius and intelligence, when 
we examine severally the divers forces and capa- 
cities enjoyed and exercised by this giant work- 
man in the performance of his work, we are 
amazed into admiration only less in its degree 
than we feel for the greatest among poets. It is 
not admiration of the same kind : there is less in 
it of love and worship than we give to the gods of 
song; but it is with deep reverence and with 
glowing gratitude that we salute in this Titan of 
the English stage ' il maestro di color che sanno.' 





Among the great dramatic poets of the Shake 
spearean age there are several who would still 
have a claim to enduring remembrance as poets, 
even had they never written a line for the theatre : 
there are two only who would hold a high rank 
among the masters of English prose. For Nash 
was not a poet or a dramatist who wandered 
occasionally into prose by way of change or 
diversion : he was a master of prose who strayed 
now and then into lyric or dramatic verse. Hey- 
wood, Middleton, and Ford have left us more or 
less curious and valuable works in prose ; essays 
and pamphlets or chronicles and compilations : 
but these are works of historic interest rather than 
literary merit ; or, if this be too strong and 
sweeping an expression, they are works of less 
intrinsic than empirical value. But if all his plays 
were lost to us, the author of Ben Jonson's 


94 ^ Study of Ben Joiison 

Explorata, or Discoveries^ would yet retain a seat 
among English prose-writers beside the author of 
Bacon's Essays : the author of The Guilds Horn- 
book and The Bachelof^s Banquet would still stand 
high in the foremost rank of English humourists. 

The book of epigrams published by Jonson 

in the collected edition of his select works up 

to the date of the year 1616 is by no 


means an attractive introduction or an 
alluring prelude to the voluminous collection of 
miscellanies which in all modern editions it pre- 
cedes. * It is to be lamented,' in Gifford's opinion, 
*on many accounts,' that the author has not left 
us ' a further selection.' It is in my opinion to be 
deplored that he should have left us so large a 
selection — if that be the proper term — as he has 
seen fit to bequeath to a naturally and happily 
limited set of readers. \ ' Sunt bona, sunt quaedam 
tnediocria, sunt mala plura ' : and the worst are so 
bad, so foul if not so dull, so stupid if not so filthy, 
that the student stands aghast with astonishment 
at the self-deceiving capacity of a writer who 
could prefix to such a collection the vaunt that 
his book was ' not covetous of least self-fame ' — 
' much less ' prone to indulgence in ' beastly 
phrase.' J No man can ever have been less 

Epigrams 95 

amenable than Sir Walter Scott to the infamous 
charge of Puritanism or prudery; and it is he 
who has left on record his opinion that 'surely 
that coarseness of taste which tainted Ben Jonson's 
powerful mind is proved from his writings. Many 
authors of that age are indecent, but Jonson is 
filthy and gross in his pleasantry, and indulges 
himself in using the language of scavengers and 
nightmen.' I will only add that the evidence of 
this is flagrant in certain pages which I never 
forced myself to read through till I had undertaken 
to give a full and fair account — to the best of my 
ability — of Ben Jonson's complete works. How 
far poetry may be permitted to go in the line of 
sensual pleasure or sexual emotion may be de- 
batable between the disciples of Ariosto and the 
disciples of Milton ; but all English readers, I 
trust, will agree with me that coprology should be 
left to Frenchmen. Among them — that is, of 
course, among the baser sort of them — that un- 
savoury science will seemingly never lack disciples 
of the most nauseous, the most abject, the most 
deliberate bestiality. It is nothing less than 
lamentable that so great an English writer as 
Ben Jonson should ever have taken the plunge of 
a Parisian diver into the cesspool : but it is as 

96 A Study of Ben Jons on 

necessary to register as it is natural to deplore the 
detestable fact that he did so. The collection of 
his epigrams which bears only too noisome witness 
to this fact is nevertheless by no means devoid 
of valuable and admirable components. The 
sixty-fifth, a palinode or recantation of some pre- 
vious panegyric, is very spirited and vigorous ; 
and the verses of panegyric which precede and 
follow it are wanting neither in force nor in point 
The poem ' on Lucy Countess of Bedford/ for 
which Gifford seems hardly able to find words 
adequate to his admiration, would be worthy of 
very high praise if the texture of its expression 
and versification were unstiffened and undisfigured 
by the clumsy license of awkward inversions. 
The New Cry, a brief and brilliant satire on 
political gossips of the gobeviouche order, has one 
couplet worthy of Dryden himself, descriptive of 
such pretenders to statecraft as 

talk reserved, locked up, and full of fear, 
Nay, ask you how the day goes, in your ear ; 
Keep a Star-chamber sentence close twelve days, 
And whisper what a Proclamation says. 

The epitaph on little Salathiel Pavy, who had 
acted under his own name in the induction to 
Cynthia's Revels, is as deservedly famous as any 

The Forest 97 

minor work of Jonson's ; for sweetness and sim- 
plicity it has few if any equals among his lyrical 
attempts. _ 

•*^^jf the fifteen lyric or elegiac poems which 
compose The Forest^ there is none that is not 
worthy of all but the highest praise ; 77^^ 
there is none that is worthy of the highestT^^''^"^^" 
To come so near so often and -y^fnever to 
touch the goal of lyric triumph has never been 
the fortune and the misfortune of any other poet. 
Vigour of thought, purity of phrase, condensed 
and polished rhetoric, refined and appropriate elo- 
quence, studious and serious felicity of expression, 
finished and fortunate elaboration of verse, might 
have been considered as qualities sufficient to 
secure a triumph for the poet in whose work all 
these excellent attributes are united and displayed ; 
and we cannot wonder that younger men who had 
come within the circle of his personal influence 
should have thought that the combination of them 
all must ensure to their possessor a place above 
all his possible compeers. But among the humblest 
and most devout of these prostrate enthusiasts was 
one who had but to lay an idle and reckless hand 
on the instrument which hardly would answer the 
touch of his master's at all, and the very note of 


98 A Shtdy of Ben Jonson 

lyric poetry as it should be — as it was in the 
beginning, as it is, and as it will be for ever — 
responded on the instant to the instinctive intelli- 
gence of his touch. As we turn from Gray to 
Collins, as we turn from Wordsworth to Coleridge, 
as we turn from Byron to Shelley, so do we turn 
from Jonson to Herrick ; and so do we recognize 
the lyric poet as distinguished from the writer who 
may or may not have every gift but one in higher 
development of excellence and in fuller perfection 
of power, but who is utterly and absolutely tran- 
scended and shone down by his probably uncon- 
^ scious competitor on the proper and peculiar ground 
'; of pure and simple poetry. 

But the special peculiarity of the case now 
before us is that it was so much the greater man 
who was distanced and eclipsed ; and this not 
merely by a minor poet, but by a humble admirer 
and a studious disciple of his own. Herrick, as a 
writer of elegies, epithalamiums, panegyrical or 
complimentary verses, is as plainly and as openly 
an imitator of his model as ever was the merest 
parasite of any leading poet, from the days of 
Chaucer and his satellites to the days of Tennyson 
and his. No Lydgate or Lytton was ever more 
obsequious in his disclpleship ; but for all his 

Underwoods 99 

loving and loyal protestations of passionate humility 
and of ardent reverence, we see at every turn, at 
every step, at every change of note, that what the 
master could not do the pupil can. When Chapman 
set sail after Marlowe, he went floundering and 
lurching in the wake of a vessel that went straight 
and smooth before the fullest and the fairest wind 
of song ; but when Herrick follows Jonson the 
manner of movement or the method of progression 
is reversed. Macaulay, in a well-known passage, 
has spoken of Ben Jonson's ' rugged rhymes ' ; 
but rugged is not exactly the most appropriate 
epithet. Donne is rugged : Jonson is stiff. And 
if ruggedness of verse is a damaging blemish, 
stiffness of verse is a destructive infirmity. Rug- 
gedness is curable ; witness Donne's A nnzversanes : 
stiffness is incurable ; witness Jonson's Underwoods. 
In these, as in the preceding series called jjnder- 
The Forest^ there is so lavish a display "'^'^^^^^ 
of such various powers as cannot but excite the 
admiration they demand and deserve. They have 
every quality, their author would undoubtedly 
have maintained, that a student of poetry ought 
to expect and to applaud. What they want is 
that magic without which the very best verse is 
as far beneath the very best prose as the verse 

H 2 

lOO A Study of Ben Jonson 


which has it is above all prose that ever was or 
ever can be written. And there never was a 
generation of Englishmen in which this magic was 
a gift so common as it was in Jonson's. We have 
but to open either of the priceless volumes which 
we owe to the exquisite taste and the untiring 
devotion of Mr. Bullen, and we shall come upon 
scores after scores of ' lyrics from Elizabethan song- 
books ' as far beyond comparison with the very best 
of Jonson's as Shakespeare is beyond comparison 
with Shirley, as Milton is beyond comparison with 
Glover, or as Coleridge is beyond comparison with 
Southey. There is exceptional ease of movement, 
exceptional grace of expression, in the lyric which 
evoked from Gifford the ' free ' avowal, ' if it be 
not the most beautiful song in the language, I know 
not, for my part, where it is to be found.' Who on 
earth, then or now, would ever have supposed that 
the worthy Gifford did ? But any one who does 
know anything more of the matter than the satirist 
and reviewer whose own amatory verses were 
' lazy as Scheldt and cold as Don ' will acknow- 
ledge that it would be difficult to enumerate the 
names of poets contemporary with Jonson, from 
Frank Davison to Robin Herrick, who have left 
us songs at least as beautiful as that beginning — 
!* Oh do not wanton with those eyes, Lest I be sick 



^Yith^seeil^g.' And in 'the admirable Epode/ as 
Gifford calls it, which concludes Ben Jonson's 
contributions to Love's Martyr, though there is 
remarkable energy of expression, the irregularity 
and inequality of style are at least as conspicuous 
as the occasional vigour and the casual felicity of 
phrase. But if all were as good as the best pas- 
sages this early poem of Jonson's would un- 
doubtedly be very good indeed. Take for instance 
the description or definition of true love : 

That is an essence far more gentle, fine, ' « 

Pure, perfect, nay divine ; 
It is a golden chain let down from heaven. 

Whose links are bright and even, 
That falls like sleep on lovers. 


O, who is he that in this peace enjoys 

The elixir of all joys, 
(A form more fresh than are the Eden bowers 

And lasting as her flowers ; 
Richer than time, and as time's virtue rare. 

Sober as saddest care, 
A fixed thought, an eye untaught to glance ;) 

Who, blest with such high chance, 
Would at suggestion of a steep desire 

Cast himself from the spire 
Of all his happiness ? 

^ In the original edition, ' most gentile and fine ' : a curious 
Italianism which must have seemed questionable or unallowable to 
the author's maturer taste. 


I02 A Study of Ben Jonson 

And few of Jonson's many moral or gnomic 
passages are finer than the following : 

He that for love of goodness hateth ill 

Is more crown-worthy still 
Than he which for sin's penalty forbears 

His heart sins, though he fears. 

This metre, though very liable to the danger of 
monotony, is to my ear very pleasant ; but that of 
the much admired and doubtless admirable address 
to Sir Robert Wroth is much less so.' This poem 
is as good and sufficient an example of the author's 
ability and inability as could be found in the 
whole range of his elegiac or lyric works. It has 
excellent and evident qualities of style ; energy 
and purity, clearness and sufficiency, simplicity 
and polish ; but it is wanting in charm. Grace, 
attraction, fascination, the typical and essential 
properties of verse, it has not. Were Jonson to be 
placed among the gods of song, we should have to 
say of him what ^schylus says of Death — 

fxovou Se YleiGw 5ai/j.6pcov airoaTarel. 

The spirit of persuasive enchantment, the 
goddess of entrancing inspiration, kept aloof from 
him alone of all his peers or rivals. To men far 
weaker, to poets not worthy to be named with him 

Underwoods 103 

on the score of creative power, she gave the gift 
which from him was all but utterly withheld. And 
therefore it is that his place is not beside Shake- 
speare, Milton, or Shelley, but merely above 
Dryden, Byron, and Crabbe. The verses on 
Penshurst are among his best, wanting neither in 
grace of form nor statelirfess of sound, if too surely 
wanting in the indefinable quality of distinction or 
inspiration : and the farewell to the world has a 
•savour of George Herbert's style about it which 
suggests that the sacred poet must have been a 
sometime student of the secular. Beaumont, 
again, must have taken as a model of his lighter 
lyric style the bright and ringing verses on the 
proposition ' that women are but men's shadows.' 
The opening couplet of the striking address 'to 
Heaven ' has been, it seems to me, misunderstood 
by Gifford ; the meaning is not — ' Can I not think 
of God without its making me melancholy ? ' but 
* Can I not think of God without its being imputed 
or set down by others to a fit of dejection ? ' The 
few sacred poems which open the posthumous 
collection of his miscellaneous verse are far inferior 
to the best of Herrick's Noble Numbers ; although 
the second of the three must probably have served 
the minor poet as an occasional model. 

I04 A Study of Ben Jonson 

J^ . '^ The Celebration of Chan's m ten lyric pieces 
would be a graceful example of Jonson's lighter 
and brighter inspiration if the ten were reduced 
to eight. His anapaests are actually worse than 
Shelley's : which hope would fain have assumed 
and charity would fain have believed to be im- 
possible. ' We will take our plan from the new 
world of man, and our work shall be called the 
Pro-me-the-an ' — even the hideous and excruciating 
cacophony of that horrible sentence is not so 
utterly inconceivable as verse, is not so fearfully 
and wonderfully immetrical as this : ' And from 
her arched brows such a grace sheds itself through 
the face.' The wheeziest of barrel-organs, the 
most broken-winded of bagpipes, grinds or snorts 
out sweeter melody than that. But the hepta- 
syllabic verses among which this monstrous abor- 
tion rears its amorphous head are better than 
might have been expected ; not, as Gifford says 
of one example, ' above all praise,' but creditable 

V at their best and tolerable at their worst. 

The miscellaneous verses collected under the 

pretty and appropriate name of Underzvoods com- 

• prise more than a few of Ben Jonson's happiest 

and most finished examples of lyric, elegiac, and 

gnomic or didactic poetry ; and likewise not a 

Underwoods 105 

little of such rigid and frigidjwork as makes us 

regret the too strenuous and habitua.1 application 
of so devoted a literary craftsman to his profes- 
sional round of labour. The fifth of these poems, 
A Nymph's Passion, is not only pretty and in- 
genious, but in the structure of its peculiar stanza 
may remind a modern reader of some among the 
many metrical experiments or inventions of a 
more exquisite and spontaneous lyric poet. Miss 
Christina Rossetti. The verses ' on a lover's dust, 
made sand for an hour-glass,' just come short of 
excellence in their fantastic way ; those on his 
picture are something more than smooth and 
neat ; those against jealousy are exceptionally 
sweet and spontaneous, again recalling the manner 
of the poetess just mentioned ; with a touch of 
something like Shelley's — 

I wish the sun should shine ^ *^t 

On all men's fruits and flowers, as well as imnir^' ^ 

and also of something like George Herber6^;Si^ 
his best. The Dream is one of Jonson's most 
happily inspired and most happily expressed 
fancies ; the close of it is for once not less than 

Of the various elegies and epistles included in 


io6 A Study of Ben Jonson 

this collection it need only be said that there is 
much thoughtful and powerful writing in most if 
not in all of them, with occasional phrases or 
couplets of rare felicity, and here and there a 
noble note of enthusiasm or a masterly touch of 
satire. In the epistle to Sir Edward Sackvile the 
sketch of the ' infants of the sword ' who * give 
thanks by stealth' and in whispers for benefits 
which they are ready to disown with imprecations 
in public is worthy of the hand which drew 
Bobadil and Tucca. The sonnet to Lady Mary 
Wroth, good in itself, is characteristic in its 
preference of the orthodox Italian structure to 
the English or Shakespearean form. The four 
very powerful and remarkable elegies on a lover's 
quarrel and separation I should be inclined to 
attribute rather to Donne than to Jonson ; their 
earnest passion, their quaint frankness, their verbal 
violence, their eccentric ardour of expression, at 
once unabashed and vehement, spontaneous and 
ingenious, are all of them typical characteristics 
of the future dean in the secular and irregular 
days of his hot poetic youth. The fourth and 
final poem of the little series is especially im- 
pressive and attractive. The turn of the sentences 
and the cadence of the verse are no less significant 

Unde rwoods 107 

of the authorship than is a noble couplet in the 
poem immediately preceding them — which would 
at once be recognized by a competent reader as 
Jonson's : 

So may the fruitful vine my temples steep, 
And fame wake for me when I yield to sleep ! 

The ' epistle answering to one that asked to be 
sealed of the tribe of Ben ' is better in spirit than 
in execution; manful, straightforward, and upright. 
The ' e pigr am ' or rather satire ' on the Court 
Pucelle ' goes beyond even the license assumed 
by Pope in the virulent ferocity of its personal 
attack on a woman. This may be explained, or 
at least- illustrated, by the fact that Ben Jonson's 
views regarding womanhood in general were 
radically cynical though externally chivalrous : | 
a charge which can be brought against no other 
poet or dramatist of his age. He could pay more 
splendid compliments than any of them to this or 
that particular woman ; the deathless epitaph on 
' Sydney's sister, Pembroke's mother,' is but the 
crowning flower of a garland, the central jewel of 
a set ; but no man has said coarser (I had well- 
nigh written, viler) things against the sex to which 
these exceptionally honoured patronesses belonged./^ 
This characteristic is not more sicrnificant than the 

io8 A Shtdy of Ben Jonson 

corresponding evidence given by comparison of 
his readiness to congratulate and commend other 
poets and poeticules for work not ahvays worthy 
of his notice, and at the same time to indulge in 
such sweeping denunciation of all contemporary 
poetry as would not have misbecome the utterance 
of incarnate envy — in other words, as might have 
fallen from the lips of Byron. See, for one most 
flagrant and glaring example of what might seem 
the very lunacy of malignity, a passage in what 
Coleridge has justly called ' his splendid dedication 
of The Fox! Here he talks of raising ' the 
despised head of poetry again, and stripping her 
out of those rotten and base rags zuherezvith the 
thnes have adulterated her form! It is difficult to 
resist a temptation to emulate Ben Jonson's own 
utmost vehemence of language when we remember 
that this sentence is dated the nth of February, 
1607. Nine years before the death of Shakespeare 
the greatest writer of all time, the most wonderful 
human creature of all ages, was in the very zenith 
of his powers and his glory. And this was a 
contemporary poet's view of the condition of con- 
temporary poetry. He was not more unlucky as 
a courtier and a prophet when he proclaimed the 
triumphant security of the English government 

Underwoods 109 

as twice ensured by the birth of the future King- 
James II. 

The memorial ode on the death of Sir Henry 
Morison has thoughtful and powerful touches in it, j 
as well as one stanza so far above the rest that it ' 
gains by a process which would impair its effect if 
the poem were on the whole even a tolerably good 
one. The famous lines on ' the plant and flower of 
light ' can be far better enjoyed when cut away 
from the context The opening is as eccentrically i 
execrable as the epode of the solitary strophe 
which redeems from all but unqualified execration 
a poem in which Gifford finds ' the very soul of 
Pindar ' — whose reputation would in that case be 
the most inexplicable of riddles. Far purer in 
style and far more equable in metre is the 'ode 
gratulatory ' to Lord Weston ; and the ' epitha- 
lamion ' on the marriage of that nobleman's son, 
though not without inequalities, crudities, and 
platitudes, is on the whole a fine and dignified 
example of ceremonial poetry. Another of the 
laureate's best effusions of official verse is the short 
ode which bids his ' gentle Muse ' rouse herself to 
celebrate the king's birthday, 'though now our 
green conceits be grey,' with good wishes which 
have a tragic ring in the modern reader's ear. A 

no A SttLdy of Ben Jonson 

more unequal poem than the elegy on the 
Marchioness of Winchester is hardly to be found 
anywhere ; but the finest passages are noble indeed. 
The elegiac poems on the famous demi-mondaine 
Venetia Stanley, who made a comparatively respect- 
able end as Lady DIgby, are equally startling and 
amusing in their attribution to that heroine of a 
character which would justify the beatification if 
not the canonization of its immaculate possessor. 
The first of these is chiefly remarkable for a 
singular Scotticism — ' where Seraphim take tent of 
ordering all ' ; the fragment of the second, as an 
early attempt — I know not whether it be the 
earliest — to introduce the terza rima into English % 
verse. There are one or two fine stanzas in the 
fourth, and the Apotheosis of this singular saint has 
a few good couplets ; it contains, however, probably 
the most horrible and barbarous instance of inver- 
sion which the violated language can display : 

i7t her hajid 
Willi boughs of palm, a crowned victrice stand. 

/ Such indefinable enormities as this cannot but 
incline us to think that this great scholar, this 
laurelled invader and conqueror of every field and 
every province of classic learning, was intus et in 

Translations 1 1 1 

cute an irreclaimable and incurable barbarian. And 
assuredly this impression will be neither removed 
nor modified when we come to examine his trans- 
lations from Latin poetry. If the report is to 
be believed which attributes to Ben Jonson the 
avowal of an opinion that above all things Transla- 
he excelled in translation, it must be ^^°^^' 
admitted that for once the foolish theory which 
represents men of genius as incapable of recognizing 
what is or is not their best work or their most 
distinguishing faculty is justified and exemplified 
after a fashion so memorable that the exception 
must be invoked to prove the rule. For [a worse 
translator than Ben Jonson never committed a 
double outrage on two languages at once.; I should 
be reluctant to quote examples of this lamentable 
truth, if it were not necessary to vindicate his con- 
temporaries from such an imputation as is conveyed 
in the general belief that his method of translation 
is merely the method of his age. The fact is that 
it is as exceptionally abominable as his genius, 
when working on its own proper and original lines, 
is exceptionally admirable. I am no great lover of 
Horace, but I cannot pretend to think that the 

Si torrere jecur quseris idoneun? 

112 A Study of Ben Jonson 

are adequately rendered by the words 

If a fit liver thou dost seek to toast. 

Fate and fire did a double injury, if not a 
double injustice, to Ben Jonson, when his com- 
mentary on Horace's Art of Poetry was consumed 
and his translation of the text preserved. The 
commentary in which Donne was represented under 
the name of Criticus must have been one of the 
most interesting and valuable of Jonson's prose 
works : the translation is one of those miracles of 
incompetence, incongruity, and insensibility, which 
must be seen to be believed. It may be admitted 
that there is a very happy instance of exact and 
pointed rendering from the ninth and tenth lines of 
the original in the eleventh and twelfth lines of the 

Pictoribus atque poetis 
Quidlibet audendi semper fuit aequa potestas. 

Pope himself could not have rendered this well- 
known passage more neatly, more smoothly, more 
perfectly and more happily than thus — 

But equal power to painter and to poet 

Of daring all hath still been given : we know it. 

And in the seventh line following we come upon 
this indescribable horror — an abomination of which 

■ Translations 113 

Abraham Fraunce or Gabriel Harvey would by 
charitable readers have been considered incapable : 
as perhaps indeed they were. 

A scarlet piece or two stitch'd in ; when or 
Diana's grove or altar, with the bor- 
DVino- circles of swift waters, &c., &c. 

The bellman writes better verses/ said Mr. 
Osbaldistone, when he threw poor Frank's away. 
Walt Whitman writes no worse, a modern critic 
will reflect on reading these. 

The version of one of Martial's gracefullest 
epigrams flows more pleasantly than usual till it 
ends with a horrible jolt, thus : — 

He that but living half his days dies such, 
Makes his life longer than 'twas given him, much. 

And Echo answers — Much ! Gifford, however, 
waxes ecstatic over these eight lines. ' It is the 
most beautiful of all the versions of this elegant 
poem,' and, if we may believe him, ' clearly and 
fully expresses the whole of its meaning.' Witness 
the second line — 

Thou worthy in eternal flower to fare. 

That is no more English than it is Latin — no 
more accurate than it is intelligible. The original 
is as simple as it is lovely : — 

Liber in seterna vivere digne rosa. 


114 -^ SttLciy of Ben Jonson 

It would be worse than superfluous to look 
among his other versions from Horace for further 
evidence of Ben Jonson's incomparable incom- 
petence as a translator. But as this has been 
hitherto very insufficiently insisted on, — his reputa- 
tion as a poet and a scholar standing apparently 
between the evidence of this fact and the recogni- 
tion of it, — I will give one crowning example from 
TJie Poetaster. This is what Virgil is represented 
as reading to Augustus — and Augustus as hearing 
without a shriek of agony and horror. 

Meanwhile the skies 'gan thunder, and in tail ^ 
Of that fell pouring storms of sleet and hail. 

* In tail of that ' ! Proh Detlm atque hominum 

fidem I And it is Virgil — Virgil, of all men and 

all poets — to whom his traducer has the assurance 

to attribute this inexpressible atrocity of outrage ! 

^ \ The case of Ben Jonson is the great standing 

example of a truth which should never be forgotten 

or overlooked ; that no amount of learning, of 

! labour, or of culture will supply the place of natural 

11 I taste and native judgment — will avail in any 

slightest degree to confer the criticaLfaculty upon 

/ i a man to whom nature has denied it. Just judg- 

^ Compare ^n. iv. i6o. 

Commendatory Verses 115 

ment of others, just judgment of himself, was all 
but impossible to this great writer, this consummate 

\and indefatigable scholar, this generous and enthu- 
siastic friend. The noble infirmity of excess in 
benevolence is indisputably no less obvious in three 
great writers of our own century ; great, each of 
them, like Ben Jonson, in prose as well as in verse : 
one of them greater than he, one of them equal, 
and one of them hardly to be accounted equal with 
him. Victor Hugo, Walter Savage Landor, and 
Theophile Gautier, were doubtless as exuberant 
in generosity — the English poet was perhaps as 
indiscriminate in enthusiasm of patronage or of 
sympathy — as even the promiscuous panegyrist of 
Shakespeare, of Fletcher, of Chapman, of Drayton, 
of Browne, of Brome, and of May ; and moreover 
of one Stephens, of one Rutter, of one Wright, of 
one Warre, and of one Filmer. Of these last five 
names, that of the worthy Master Joseph Rutter — 
Ben's ' dear son, and right learned friend ' — is the 
only one which signifies to me the existence of an 
author not utterly unknown. His spiritual father 
or theatrical sponsor is most copious and most 
cordial in his commendations of the good man's 
pastoral drama ; he has not mentioned its one 
crowning excellence ■ - the quality for which, having 

1 1 6 A Study of Ben Jonson 

tried it every night for upwards of six weeks 
running, I can confidently and conscientiously 
recommend it. Chloral is not only more dangerous 
but very much less certain as a soporific : the 
sleeplessness which could resist the influence of Mr. 
Rutter's verse can be curable only by dissolution ; 
the eyes which can keep open through the perusal 
of six consecutive pages must never hope to find 
rest but in the grave. 

The many ceremonial or occasional poems 
addressed to friends and patrons of various ranks 
and characters, from the king and queen to a Mr. 
Burges and a Mr. Squib, are of equally various 
interest, now graver and now lighter, to a careful 
student of Ben Jonson as a poet and a man. Nor, 
when due account is taken of the time and its con- 
ventional habits of speech, does it seem to me that 
any of them can be justly charged with servility or 
flattery, or, as the writer might have said, with 
'assentation.' But these effusions or improvisa- 
tions are of no more serious importance than the 
J ^ exquisitely neat and terse composition of 

Convivales. ^^ < Leges Convivales,' or the admirable 
good sense and industry, the admirable perspica- 
city and perspicuity, which will be recognized no 
less in the Latin than in the English part of his 

English Grammar 117 

English Grammar. It is interesting to observe an 
anticipation of Landor's principle with respect to 
questions of orthography, in the preference Eddish 
given to the Latin form of spelling for Grammar, 
words of Latin derivation, while admitting that this 
increase of accuracy would bring the written word 
no nearer to the sound uttered in speaking. The 
passage is worth transcription as an example of 
delicately scrupulous accuracy and subtly con- 
scientious refinement in explanation. 

Alii h£ec baud inconsulto scribunt abil^ stabil, fabul ; 
tanquam a fontibus habilis, stabilis, fabiila : veriiis, sad 
nequicquam proficiunt. Nam consideratius auscultanti 
nee / nee u est, sad tinnitus quidam, vocalis naturam 
habans, quae naturaliter his liquidis inast. 

A point on which I am sorry to rest uncertain 
whether Landor would have felt as much sympathy 
with Jonson's view as I feel myself is the regret 
expressed by the elder poet for the loss of the 
Saxon characters that distinguished the two dif- 
ferent sounds now both alike expressed, and ex- 
pressed with equal inaccuracy, by the two letters 
th. ' And in this,' says Jonson — as it seems to me, 
most reasonably, ' consists the greatest difficulty of 
our alphabet and true writing.' 

The text of the grammar, both Latin and 

1 1 8 A Study of Ben Jonson 

English, requires careful revision and correction ; 
but indeed as much must be said of the text of 
Jonson's works in general. Gifford did very much 
for it, but he left not a little to be done. And the 
arrangement adopted in Colonel Cunningham's 
beautiful and serviceable edition of 1875 is the 
most extraordinary — at least, I hope and believe 
so — on record. All the misreadings of the edition 
of 1 8 16 are retained in the text, where they stand 
not merely uncorrected but unremarked ; so that 
the bewildered student must refer at random, on 
the even chance of disappointment, to an appendix 
in which he may find them irregularly registered, 
with some occasional comment on the previous 
editor's negligence and caprice : a method, to put 
it as mildly as possible, somewhat provocative of 
strong language on the part of a studious and 
belated reader — language for which it cannot 
rationally be imagined that it is he who will be 
registered by the recording angel as culpably re- 
sponsible. What is wanted in the case of so great 
an English classic is of course nothing less than 
this : a careful and complete edition of all his 
extant writings, with all the various readings of the 
various editions published during his lifetime. This 
is the very least that should be exacted ; and this 

Miscellanies 119 

is less than has yet been supplied. Edition after 
edition of Shakespeare is put forth under the 
auspices of scholars or of dunces without a full and 
plain enumeration of the exact differences of text 
— the corrections, suppressions, alterations, and 
modifications — which distinguish the text of the 
quartos from the too frequently garbled and 
mangled, the sometimes transfigured and glorified 
text of the folio. And consequently not one de- 
voted student in a thousand has a chance of 
knowing what he has a right to know of the 
gradations and variations in expression, the deve- 
lopment and the self-discipline in display, of the 
most transcendent intelligence that ever illuminated 
humanity. And in the case of Shakespeare's most 
loyal comrade and panegyrist — though sometimes, 
it may be, his rather captious rival and critic — the 
neglect of his professed devotees and editorial 
interpreters has been scarcely less scandalous and 
altogether as incomprehensible. In every edition 
which makes any pretence to completeness, or to 
satisfaction of a serious student's indispensable 
requisites and inevitable demands, the first text of 
Every Man in his Humour should of course be 
given in full. Snatches and scraps of it are given 
in the notes to the edition of 1816 ; the first act is 

I20 '^ A Study of Ben Jonso7i 

reprinted — the first act alone — in the appendix to 
the first volume of the edition of 1875. What 
would be said by Hellenists or Latinists if such 
contemptuous indolence, such insolence of neglect, 
were displayed by the editor of a Greek or Latin 
poet — assuming that his edition had been meant 
for other than fourth-form or fifth-form service ? 
Compare the devotion of their very best editors to 
Shakespeare and to Jonson with the devotion of 
Mr. Ellis to Catullus and Mr. Munro to Lucretius. 
It is a shame that Englishmen should not be 
forthcoming who would think it worth while to 
expend as much labour, and would be competent 
to bring that labour to as good an end, in the 
service of their own immortal countrymen, as is 
expended and as is attained by classical scholars 
in the service of alien and not more adorable gods. 
And on one point — a point indeed of more signifi- 
cance than importance — the capricious impertinence 
of such editors as do condescend to undertake any 
part of such a task is so inexplicable except on 
one supposition that we are tempted to embrace, 
or at least to accept, the assumption that the editor 
(for instance) of Ben Jonson considers the author 
of The Silent Woman, Bartholornew Fair, and 
certain metrical emetics classified under the head 


Miscellanies l( -^ta.t ^'fi'>\ 

\-^ '%'\ 
of Epigrmns^ as a writer fit to be placed iK"^^!^. ^'^^ 

hands of schoolgirls. And even then it is difficult- .^2-— -i 

to imagine why we come upon certain rows of 

asterisks in the record of his conversations with 

Drummond, and in the anonymous interlude written 

— as Gifford supposes — ' for the christening of a 

son of the Earl of Newcastle, to whom the king or 

the prince stood godfather.' Even if Jonson had 

taken — as on such an occasion it would be strange 

if he had taken — the utmost license of his friends 

Aristophanes and Rabelais, this would be no reason 

for treating the reader like a schoolboy or a 

Dauphin. What a man of genius has written for 

a public occasion is public property thenceforward 

and for ever : and the pretence of a man like 

Gifford to draw the line and determine the limit of 

publicity is inexpressibly preposterous. 

The little interlude, however broad and even 

coarse in its realistic pleasantry, is a quaint and 

spirited piece of work ; but there are other matters 

in Colonel Cunningham's appendix which have no 

right, demonstrable or imaginable, to the place 

they occupy. It is incredible, it is inconceivable, 

that Jonson should ever have written such a line as 

this by way of a Latin verse : 

Macte : tuo scriptores lectoresque labore (!!!) 

122 A Study of Ben Jonson 

' Les chassepots partiraient d'eux-memes ' — birch 
would make itself into spontaneous rods for the 
schoolboy who could perpetrate so horrible an 
atrocity. The repulsive and ridiculous rubbish 
which has ignorantly and absurdly been taken for 
'a fragment of one of the lost quaternions of 
EupJieme ' is part, I am sorry to say, of an elegy 
by Francis Beaumont on one Lady Markham. It 
is an intolerable scandal that the public should be 
content to endure such an outrage as the intrusion 
of another man's abominable absurdities into the 
text of such a writer as Ben Jonson. This effusion 
of his young friend's, which must surely have been 
meant as a joke — and a very bad, not to say a very 
brutal one, is probably the most hideous nonsense 
ever written on the desecrated subject of death 
and decay. A smaller but a serious example of 
negligence and incompetence is patent in the text 
of the ten lines contributed by Jonson to the 
Annalia Dubrensia — that most pleasant and curious 
athletic anthology, the reissue of which is one of 
the wellnigh countless obligations conferred on 
students of the period by the devoted industry, 
energy, and ability of Dr. Grosart. He, of course, 
could not fail to see that the first of these lines 
was corrupt. * I cannot bring my Muse to dropp 

Miscellmiies 123 

Vies ' is obviously neither sense nor metre. It is 
rather with diffidence than with confidence that I 
would suggest the reading double in place of the 
palpably corrupt word drop: but from Gifford's 
explanation of the gambling term vie I should 
infer that this reading, which certainly rectifies the 
metre, might also restore the sense. Another 
obvious error is to be noted in the doggrel lines on 
Lady Ogle, which afford a curious and compact 
example of Ben Jonson's very worst vices of style 
and metre. Still, as Ben was not in the habit of 
writing flat nonsense, we ought evidently to read 
' in the sight of Angels,' not, as absurdly printed 
in the edition of 1875 (ix. 326), 'in the Light'; 
especially as the next verse ends with that word. 
The commendatory verses on Cynthids Revenge 
which reappear at page 346 of the same volume 
had appeared on page 332 of the volume im- 
mediately preceding. Such editorial derelictions 
and delinquencies are enough to inoculate the most 
patient reader's humour with the acerbity of 
Gifford's or Carlyle's. Again, this appendix gives 
only one or two fragments of the famous addi- 
tional scenes to The Spanish Tragedy, while the 
finest and most important passages are omitted 
and ignored. For one thing, however, we have 

124 ^ Stttdy of Ben Jonson 

reason to be grateful to the compiler who has 
inserted for the first time among Ben Jonson's 
works the fine and flowing stanzas described by their 

[ author as an allegoric ode. This poem, which in 
form is Horatian, has no single stanza so beailtiful 
or so noble as the famous third strophe of the 
Pindaric ode to Sir Lucius Gary on the death of 
Sir Henry Morison ; but its general superiority in 
purity of style and fluidity of metre is as remark- 
able as the choice and use of proper names with 
such a dexterous felicity as to emulate while it 
recalls the majestic and magnificent instincts of 
Marlowe and of Milton. 

If the fame of Ben Jonson were in any degree 

/ dependent on his minor or miscellaneous works in 
verse, it would be difficult to assign him a place 
above the third or fourth rank of writers belonging 
to the age of Shakespeare. His station in the 
first class of such writers, and therefore in the 
front rank of English authors, is secured mainly by 
the excellence of his four masterpieces in comedy ; 
U The Fox and The Alchemist^ The Staple of News 
and Every Man in his Humour : but a single leaf 
of his Discoveries is worth all his lyrics, tragedies, 
elegies, and epigrams together. That golden little 
book of noble thoughts and subtle observations is 

Miscellanies 1 2 5 

the one only province of his vast and varied 
empire which yet remains for us to examine ; and 
in none other will there be found more ample and 
more memorable evidence how truly great a man 
demands our homage — ' on this side idolatry ' — 
for the imperishable memory of Ben Jonson. 




That chance is the ruler of the world I should be 
sorry to believe and reluctant to affirm ; but it 
would be difficult for any competent and careful 
student to maintain that chance is not the ruler of 
the world of letters. Gray's odes are still, I sup- 
pose, familiar to thousands who know nothing of 
Donne's Ajiniversaries ; and Bacon's Essays are 
conventionally if not actually familiar to thousands 
who know nothing of Ben Jonson's Discoveries, 
And yet it is certain that in fervour of inspiration^ 
in depth and force and glow of thought and 
emotion and expression, Donne's verses are as 
far above Gray's as Jonson's notes or observations 
on men and morals, on principles and on facts, are 
superior to Bacon's in truth of insight, in breadth 
of view, in vigour of reflection and in concision of 
eloquence. The dry curt style of the statesman, 
docked and trimmed into sentences that are 


1 30 A Stttdy of Ben Jonson 

regularly snapped off or snipped down at the 
close of each deliverance, is as alien and as far 

; from the fresh and vigorous spontaneity of the 
poet's as is the trimming and hedging morality of 
.the essay on ' simulation and dissimulation ' from 
the spirit and instinct of the man who 'of all 
things loved to be called honest' But indeed, 
from the ethical point of view which looks merely 
or mainly to character, the comparison is little less 
than an insult to the Laureate ; and from the 
purely intelligent or aesthetic point of view I 
should be disposed to say, or at least inclined to 
think, that the comparison would be hardly less 
unduly complimentary to the Chancellor. 

^ For at the very opening of these Explorata^ or 
Discoveries^ we find ourselves in so high and so 
pure an atmosphere of feeling and of thought that 
we cannot but recognize and rejoice in the pre- 
sence and the infliuence of one of the noblest, 
manliest, most honest and most helpful natures 
that ever dignified and glorified a powerful intelli- 
gence and an admirable genius. In the very first 
note, the condensed or concentrated quintessence 
of a Baconian essay on Fortune, we find these 
among other lofty and weighty words : ' Heaven 
prepares good men with crosses ; but no ill can 

Discoveries 131 

happen to a good man.' ' That which happens to 
any man, may to every man. But it is in his 
reason what he accounts it and will make it.' 

There is perhaps in the structure of this 
sentence something too much of the Latinist — 
too strong a flavour of the style of Tacitus in its 
elaborate if not laborious terseness of expression. 
But the following could hardly be bettered. 

No man is so foolish but may give another good 
counsel sometimes ; and no man is so wise but may easily 
err, if he will take no other's counsel but his own. But 
very few men are wise by their own counsel, or learned 
by their own teaching. For he that was only taught by / 

himself had a fool to his master. -- ' 

The mind's ear may find or fancy a silvery ring / * 
of serene good sense in the note of that reflection ; 1/ 
but the ring of what follows is pure gold. 

There is a necessity all men should love their country ; ^^^ 
he that professeth the contrary may be delighted with his ^^^c 
words, but his heart is Tnot] there. v'i* 

The magnificent expansion or paraphrase of 
this noble thought in the fourth scene of Landor's 
magnificent tragedy of Count Julian should be 
familiar to all capable students of English poetry 
at its purest and proudest height of sublime con- 
templation. That probably or rather undoubtedly 

132 A Stttdy of Ben Jonson 

unconscious echo of the sentiment of an^older poet 
and patriot has in it the prolonged reverberation 
and repercussion of music which we hear in the 
echoes of thunder or a breaking sea. 

Again, how happy in the bitterness of its truth 
is the next remark : ' Natures that are hardened to 
evil you shall sooner break than make straight : 
they are like poles that are crooked and dry : 
there is no attempting them.' And how grand is 

I cannot think nature is so spent and decayed that 
she can bring forth nothing worth her former years. She 
is always the same, like herself ; and when she collects 
her strength,^ is abler still. Men are decayed^ and studies: 
she is not. 

Jonson never wrote a finer verse than that ; 
and very probably he never observed that it was a 

The next note is one of special interest to all 
students of the great writer who has so often been 
described as a blind worshipper and a servile 
disciple of classical antiquity. 

- ' I know nothing can conduce more to letters,' says 
the too obsequious observer of Tacitus and of Cicero in 

1 As in the production of Shakespeare — if his good friend Ben 
had but known it. 



tbejcomposition of his Roman tragedies, ' than to examine 
the writings of the ancients, and not to rest on their sole 
authority, or take all upon trust from them ; provided the 
plagues of judging and pronouncing against them be away; 
such as are envy, bitterness, precipitation, impudence, 
and scurril scoffing. For, to all the observations of the 
ancients, we have our own experience ; which if we will 
use and apply, we have better means to pronounce. It 
is true they opened the gates, and made the way, that 
went before us ; but as guides, not commanders : Non 
domini nostri sed duces fiiere. Truth lies open to all ; it 
is no man's several. Patet ornnibus Veritas: nondum est 
oclcupata. Multum ex ilia etiam futuris relictum est.''^ 

Time and space would fail me to transcribe all 
that is u^orth transcription, to comment on every- 
thing that deserves commentary, in this treasure- 
house of art and wisdom, eloquence and good 
sense. But the following extract could be passed 
over by no eye but a mole's or a bat's. 

I do not desire to be equal with those that went 
before ; but to have my reason examined with theirs, and 
so much faith to be given them, or me, as those shall 
evict [in modern English — if the text is not corrupt — 'as 
the comparison or confrontation of theirs with mine shall 
elicit ']. I am neither author nor fautor of any sect. I 
will have no man addict himself to me ; but if I have 

* The scandalously neglected text reads relicta. Perhaps we 
should read ' Multa — relicta sunt, ' 

134 ^ Study of Ben Jonson 

anything right, defend it as Truth's, not mine, save as it 
conduceth to a common good. It profits not me to have 
any man fence or fight for me, to flourish, or take my 
side. Stand for Truth, and 'tis enough. 

The haughty vindication of ' arts that respect 
the mind ' as ' nobler than those that serve the 
body, though we less can be without them ' (the 
latter), is at once amusingly and admirably 
Jonsonian. Admitting the ignoble fact that with- 
out such ' arts ' as ' tillage, spinning, weaving, 
building, &c.,' ' we could scarce sustain life a 
day,' a proposition which it certainly would seem 
difficult to dispute, he proceeds in the loftiest tone 
of professional philosophy: 'But these, were the 
works of every hand ; the other of the brain only, 
and those the most generous and exalted wits and 
spirits, that cannot rest or acquiesce. The mind of 
man is still fed with labour : opei^e pascitur! 

This conscientious and self-conscious pride of 
intellect finds even a nobler and more memorable 
expression in the admirable words which instruct 
or which remind us of the truth that ' it is as great 
a spite to be praised in the wrong place, and by the 
wrong person, as can be done to a noble nature.' 
A sentence worthy to be set beside the fittest 
motto for all loyal men — ' ^Equa laus est a laudatis 

Discoveries 135 

laudari et ab improbis improbari.' Which it 
would be well that every man worthy to apply it 
should lay to heart, and act and bear himself 

It is to be wished that the dramatist and 
humourist had always or had usually borne in mind 
the following excellent definition or reflection of 
the aphoristic ■ philosopher or student : 'A tedious 
person is one a man would leap a steeple from, 
gallop down any steep hill to avoid him ; forsake 
his meat, sleep, nature itself, with all her benefits, 
to shun him.' What then shall we say of the 
courtiers in Cynthia's Revels and the vapourers in 
Bartholomezv Fair ? 

The following is somewhat especially sugges- 
tive of a present political application ; and would 
find its appropriate setting in a modern version of 
the Irish Masque. 

He is a narrow-minded man that affects a triumph in 
any glorious study ; but to triumph in a lie, and a lie 
themselves have forged, is frontless. Folly often goes 
beyond her bounds ; but Impudence knows none. 

From the forty-third to the forty-eighth entry 
inclusive these disconnected notes should be readJ; 
as a short continuous essay on envy and calumnyl/ 


136 A Study of Ben Jonson 

For weight, point, and vigour, it would hardly be 
possible to overpraise it 

In the admirable note on such ' foolish lovers ' 
as ' wish the same to their friends as their enemies 
would,' merely that they might have occasion to 
display the constancy of their regard, there is a 
palpable and preposterous misprint, which reduces 
to nonsense a remarkably fine passage : ' They make 
a causeway to their courtesy by injury ; as if it 
were not honester to do nothing than to seek a 
way to do good by a mischief For the obviously 
right word ' courtesy ' the unspeakable editors read 
' country ' ; which let him explain who can. 

The two notes on injuries and benefits are 
observable for their wholesome admixture of 
common sense with magnanimity. 

Injuries do not extinguish courtesies : they only suffer 
them not to appear fair. For a man that doth me an 
injury after a courtesy takes not away that courtesy, but 
defaces it : as he that writes other verses upon my verses 
takes not away the first letters, but hides them. 

Surely no sentence more high-minded and 
generous than that was ever written : nor one more 
sensible and dignified than this : — 

The doing of courtesies aright is the mixing of the 

Discoveries ^^vi^i'x ^ 

respects for his own sake and for mine. He that doet^-v. 
them merely for his own sake is Hke one that feeds his 
cattle to sell them : he hath his horse well drest for 

The following touch of mental autobiography 
is not less interesting than curious. Had Shake- 
speare but left us the like ! 

I myself could in my youth have repeated all that 
ever I had made, and so continued till I was past forty : 
since, it is much decayed in me. Yet I can repeat whole 
books that I have read, and poems of some selected 
friends, which I have liked to charge my memory with. 
It was wont to be faithful to me \ but, shaken with age 
now, and sloth, which weakens the strongest abilities, it 
may perform somewhat, but cannot promise much. By 
exercise it is to be made better, and serviceable. What- 
soever I pawned with it while I was young, and a boy, it 
offers me readily, and without stops : but what I trust to 
it now, or have done of later years, it lays up more negli- 
gently, and oftentimes loses ; so that I receive mine own 
(though frequently called for) as if it were new and bor- 
rowed. Nor do I always find presently from it what I 
seek : but while I am doing another thing, that I laboured 
for will come ; and what I sought with trouble will offer 
itself when I am quiet. Now in some men [was Shake- 
speare, we must ask ourselves, one of these?] I have 
found it as happy as nature, who, whatsoever they read 
or pen, they can say without book presently; as if 
they did then write in their mind. And it is more a 

138 A Shtdy of Ben Joiison 

wonder in such as have a swift style, for their memories 
are commonly slowest ; such as torture their writings, and 
go into council for every word, must needs fix somewhat, 
and make it their own at last, though but through their 
own vexation. 

I cannot but imagine that Jonson must have 
witnessed this wonder in the crowning case of 
Shakespeare ; the swiftness of whose ' style ' or 
composition was matter of general note. 

The anti-Gallican or anti-democratic view of 
politics can never be more vividly or happily 
presented than in these brilliant and incisive 
words : — 

^ Suffrages in Parliament are numbered, not weighed : 

f" nor can it be otherwise in those public councils, where 

nothing is so unequal as the equality : for there, how odd 

soever men's brains or wisdoms are, their power is always 

even and the same. 

But the most cordial hater or scorner of par- 
liaments, whether from the Carlylesque or the 
Bonapartist point of vantage, must allow that the 
truth expressed in the two first sentences follow- 
ing is more certain and more precious than the 
doctrine just cited. 

Truth is man's proper good, and the only immortal 
thing was given to our mortality to use. No good 

Discoveries 139 

Christian or ethnic, if he be honest, can miss it: no 
statesman or patriot should| For without truth all the 
actions of mankind are craft, malice, or what you will 
rather than wisdom. Homer says he hates him worse 
than hell-mouth that utters one thing with his tongue and 
keeps another in his breast. Which high expression was 
grounded on divine reason : for a lying mouth is a stink- 
ing pit, and murders with the contagion it venteth. 
Besides, nothing is lasting that is feigned ; it will have 
another face than it had ere long. As Euripides saith, 
'No lie ever grows old.' 

. — 
It would be well if this were so : but the in- 
veterate reputation of Euripides as a dramatic 
poet is hardly reconcilable with the truth of 
his glibly optimistic assumption. Nor, had that J 

fluent and facile dealer in flaccid verse and senti= iJ^AnP 
mental sophistry spoken truth for once in this 
instance, should we have had occasion to wonder 
at the admiration expressed for him by the most 
subtle and sincere, the most profound and piercing 
intelligence of our time ; nor could that sense of 
reverential amazement have found spontaneous 
expression in the following couplet of Hudibrastic 
doggrel : — "^ 

That the huckster of pathos, whose gift was insipid ease, 
Finds favour with Browning, must puzzle Euripides. 

But Jonson himself, it seems to me, was far . /- 

140 A Study of Ben Jonson 

less trustworthy as a critic of poetry than as a 
judge on ethics or a student of character. The 
tone of supercilious goodwill and friendly con- 
donation which distinguishes his famous note on 
Shakespeare is unmistakable except by the most 
wilful perversity of prepossession. His noble 
metrical tribute to Shakespeare's memory must 
of course be taken into account when we are dis- 
posed to think too hardly of this honest if egotistic 
eccentricity of error : but it would be foolish to 
suppose that the most eloquent cordiality of a 
ceremonial poem could express more of one man's 
real and critical estimate of another than a delibe- 
rate reflection of later date. And it needs the 
utmost possible exertion of charity, the most 
generous exercise of justice, to forgive the final 
phrase of preposterous patronage and considerate 
condescension — 'There was ever more in him 
to be praised than to be pardoned.' The candid 
author of Sejanus could on the whole afford to 
admit so much with respect to the popular author 
oi Hamlet. 

In the subsequent essay, divided under ten 
several heads into ten several notes, on ' the 
difference of wits,' or the diversity of accomplish- 
ments and understandings, there is much worth 

Discoveries 141 

study for its soundness of judgment, its accuracy 
of definition, and its felicity of expression, It 
would be well if educational and professional for- 
malists would bear in mind the truth that ' there 
is no doctrine will do good, where nature is want- 
ing ' ; and nothing could be neater, terser, or truer 
than the definition of those characters ' that are 
forward and bold ; and these will do every little 
thing easily ; I mean, that is hard by and next 
them, which they will utter unretarded without 
any shamefastness. These never perform much, 
but quickly. They are what they are, on the 
sudden ; they show presently, like grain that, 
scattered on the top of the ground, shoots up, but 
takes no root; has a yellow blade, but the ear 
empty. They are wits of good promise at first, 
but there is an ingenistitium — a wit-stand : they 
stand still at sixteen, they get no higher.' 

As well worth remark and recollection are the 
succeeding notes on 'others, that labour only to 
ostentation ; and are ever more busy about the 
colours and surface of a work than in the matter 
and foundation : for that is hid, the other is seen ' ; 
and on those whose style of composition is pur- 
posely ' rough and broken— and if it would come 
gently, they trouble it of purpose. They would 

142 A Stttdy of Be7i Jonson 

not have it run without rubs : as if that style were 
more strong and manly that struck the ear with 
a kind of unevenness. These men err not by 
chance, but knowingly and willingly ; they are 
like men that affect a fashion by themselves, have 
some singularity in a ruff, cloak, or hat-band ; or 
their beards specially cut to provoke beholders, 
and set a mark upon themselves. They would be 
reprehended, while they are looked on. And this 
vice, one, that is in authority with the rest, loving, 
delivers over to them to be imitated ; so that oft- 
times the faults which he fell into, the others seek 
for : this is the danger, when vice becomes a pre- 
cedent' / 

It is difficult to imagine that Jonson was not 
here thinking of the great writer whom 'he es- 
teemed the first poet in the .world in some things,' 
but upon whom he passed the too sweeping 
though too plausible sentence 'that Donne, for 
not being understood, would perish.' Nor can we 
suppose that he was not alluding to Daniel — the 
inoffensive object of his implacable satire — when 
he laid a ' chastising hand ' on ' others that have 
no composition at all, but a kind of tuning and 
rhyming fall, in what they write. It runs and 
/ slides, and only makes a sound. Women's poets 

Discoveries 143 

they are called, as you have women's tailors. — 
You may sound these wits and find the depth of 
them with your middle finger. They are cream- 
bowl- (or but puddle-) deep.' 

An amusing anticipation of the peculiar genius 
for elaborate mendacity which distinguishes and 
connects the names of De Ouincey and Merimee 
will be found in Jonson's words of stern and indig- 
nant censure on ' some who, after they have got 
authority, or, which is less, opinion, by their 
writings, to have read much, dare presently to feign 
whole books and authors, and lie safely. For what 
never was will not easily be found; not by the 
most curious.' Certainly it was not by the innocent 
readers whose research into the original authorities 
for the history of the revolt of the Tartars, or 
whose interest in the original text of Clara 
Gazul's plays and the Illyrian ballads of La 
Guzlay must have given such keen delight to 
those two frontless and matchless charlatans of 

The keen and scornful intelligence of Jonson 
finds no less admirable expression in the two 
succeeding notes ; of which the first sets a brand 
on such cunning plagiarists as protest against all 
reading, and so ' think to divert the sagacity of 

144 -^ Study of Ben Jonson 

their readers from themselves, and cool the scent of 
their own fox-like thefts ; ' but, as he proceeds to 
observe, ' the obstinate contemners of all helps and 
arts are in a ' wretcheder ' case than even these. 
His description of such pretenders is too lifelike, 
and too vivid in its perennial veracity, to be over- 
looked ; ' such as presuming on their own naturals 
(which perhaps are excellent) dare deride all dili- 
gence, and seem to mock at the terms when they 
understand not the things ; thinking that way to 
get off wittily with their ignorance. These are 
imitated often by such as are their peers in negli- 
gence, though they cannot be in nature ; and they 
utter all they can think with a kind of violence and 
indisposition ; unexamined, without relation to 
person, place, or any fitness else ; and the more 
wilful and stubborn they are in it, the more learned 
they are esteemed of the multitude, through their 
excellent vice of judgment ; who think those things 
the stronger, that have no art ; as if to break were 
better than to open ; or to rend asunder, gentler 
than to loose.' 

In the tenth section or subdivision of this 
irregular and desultory but incisive and masterly 
essay we find a singular combination of critical 
insight with personal prejudice — of general truth 

Discoveries 145 

with particular error. But the better part is excel- 
lent alike in reflection and in expression. 

It cannot but come to pass that these men who com- 
monly seek to do more than enough may sometimes 
happen on something that is good and great \ but very 
seldom : and when it comes it doth not recompense the 
rest of their ill. — The true artificer will not run away 
from nature, as he were afraid of her ; or depart from life, 
and the likeness of truth ; but speak to the capacity of 
his hearers. 

The rest of the note is valuable as a studious 
and elaborate expression of Jonson's theory or 
ideal of dramatic poetry, couched in apt and 
eloquent phrases of thoughtful and balanced rhe- 
toric ; regrettable only for the insulting reference 
to the first work of a yet greater poet than himself, 
to whose ' mighty line ' he had paid immortal 
homage in an earlier and a better mood of judg- 

But however prone he may be to error or 
perversity in particular instances or in personal 
examples, he is constantly and nobly right in his 
axiomatic reflections and his general observations. 
The following passage seems to me a magnificent 
illustration of this truth. 

I know no disease of the soul but ignorance ; not of 



146 A Study of Ben Jons on 

the arts and sciences, but of itself : yet relating to those 
it is a pernicious evil, the darkener of man's life, the dis- 
turber of his reason, and the common confounder of truth ; 
with which a man goes groping in the dark, no otherwise 
than if he were blind. Great understandings are most 
racked and troubled with it ; nay, sometimes they will 
rather choose to die than not to know the things they 
study for. ^ Think then what an evil it is, and what [a] 
good the contrary. 

The ensuing note on knowledge has less depth 
of direct insight, less force of practical reason ; but 
the definition which follows is singularly eloquent 
and refined, however scholastic and irrational in 
its casuistic and rhetorical subtlety. 

Knowledge is the action of, the soul, and is perfect 
without the senses, ^ as having the seeds of all science 
and virtue in itself ; but not without the service of the 
senses ; by these organs the soul works : she is a per- 
petual agent, prompt and subtle ; but often flexible and 
erring, entangling herself like a silkworm : but her reason 
is a weapon with two edges, and cuts through. 

I am inclined to suspect that we may discern in 

* No modern reader of these lofty words can fail to call to mind 
the sublime pathos and the historic interest of Mr. Browning's 
j glorious poem, A Grammarian^s Funeral. ■_^ 

2 It is a pity we are not told how ; for to the ordinary intelli- 
gence of reasoning mankind it would appear that * without the 
senses ' not only could knowledge not be perfect, but it could not 
even exist in the most inchoate or embryonic phase of being. 

Discoveries 147 

the next note another fragment of autobiography. 
For it may be doubted whether ' the boon Delphic 
god/ so admirably described by his faithful acolyte 
Marmion as presiding in the form of a human 
Laureate over the Bacchanalian oracle of Apollo, 
can ever have been able to say with equal truth of 
another than himself, 

I have known a man vehement on both sides, that 
knew no mean either to intermit his studies or call upon 
them again. When he hath set himself to writing, he ^ 
would join night to day, press upon himself without re- - '" 

lease, not minding it, till he fainted ; and when he got J" 
off, resolve himself into all sports and looseness again, 
that it was almost a despair to draw him to his book ; but 
once got to it, he grew stronger and more earnest by the 
ease. His whole powers were renewed : he would work 
out of himself what he desired ; but with such excess, as 
^^is study could not be ruled : he knew not how to dispose 
his own abilities or husband them, he was of that im- 
moderate power against himself Nor was he only a 
strong but an absolute speaker and writer \ but his subtlety 
did not show itself; his judgment thought that a vice : 
for the ambush hurts more that is hid. He never forced 
his language, nor went out of the highway of speaking, 
but for some great necessity, or apparent profit : for he 
denied figures to be invented for ornament, but for aid : 
and still thought it an extreme madness to bend or wrest 
that which ought to be right. 

L2 ♦ 


T48 A Study of Ben Jons on 

If any reader should think such a mixture of 
critical self-examination and complacent self-glori- 
fication impossible to any man of indisputable 
genius and of general good sense, that reader is 
not yet ' sealed of the tribe of Ben ' ; he has not 
arrived at a due appreciation of the writer's general 
strength and particular weakness as a critic and a 
workman, an artist and a thinker. 

The note on famous orators is remarkable for 
its keen discrimination and appreciation of various 
talents ; and the subsequent analysis or definition 
^of Bacon's great gifts as a speaker, which has been 
often enough quoted to dispense with any fresh 
citation, is only less fine than the magnificent 
tribute paid a little further on to the same great 
man in his days of adversity. It may well be 
questioned whether there exists a finer example 
of English prose than the latter famous passage ; 
where sublimity is resolved into pathos, and pathos 
dilates into sublimity. His idealism of monarchy, 
however irrational it may seem to us, has a finer 
side to it than belongs to the blind superstition of 
such a royalist as Fletcher. Witness this striking 
and touching interpretation of an old metaphor : 
Why are prayers said with Orpheus to be the 
daughters of Jupiter, but that princes are thereby 

Discoveries 149 

admonished that the petitions of the wretched 
ought to have more weight with them than the 
laws themselves ? ' And the following note gives a 
better and a kindlier impression of King James I. 
than anything else — as far as I know — recorded 
of that singular sovereign. 

It was a great accumulation to his majesty's deserved 
praise, that men might openly visit and pity those whom 
his greatest prisons had at any time received, or his laws 

The note on * the attribute of a prince ' is rather 
Baconian than Jonsonian in its cult of * prudence ' 
as ' his chief art and safety ' ; but the peculiar and 
practical humour of Jonson's observant and studious 
satire is well exemplified in his strictures on such 
theological controversialists as * are like swaggerers 
in a tavern, that catch that which stands next 
them, the candlesticks or pots — turn everything 
into a weapon : ofttimes they fight blindfold, and 
both beat the air. The one milks a he-goat, the 
other holds under a sieve. Their arguments are as 
fluxive as liquor spilt upon a table, which with 
your finger you may drain as you will' But the 
remarks on ' untimely boasting ' are especially 
worth transcription, both for their own real ex- 
cellence and for the unconscious but inexpressible 


150 A Study of Ben Jojison 

drollery of such an utterance from the ' capacious 
mouth ' which had so often and so loudly set forth 
under divers names and figures the claims and the 
merits of Ben Jonson. 

Men that talk of their own benefits are not believed 
to talk of them because they have done them, but to have 
^one them because they might talk of them. That which 
ad been great if another had reported it of them vanisheth 
nd is nothing if he that did it speak of it. For men, 
when they cannot destroy the deed, will yet be glad to 
take advantage of the boasting and lessen it. 

We may hope that these wise and weighty 
words were not written without some regretful if 
not repentant reminiscence of sundry occasions on 
\ \ which this rule of conduct had been grossly and 
grievously transgressed by the writer, to his own 
inevitable damage and discomfiture. 

The note on flattery and flatterers is as exalted 
in its austerity as trenchant in its scorn. And the 
following remark ' on human life ' is the condensed 
or distilled essence of a noble satire or a powerful 

I have considered our whole life is Hke a play, where- 
f in every man, forgetful of himself, is in travail with ex- 
pression of another. Nay, we so. insist in imitating others, 
as we cannot (when it is necessary) return to ourselves ; 

Discoveries 151 

like children that imitate the vices of stammerers so long, 
till at last they become such; and make the habit to 
another nature, as it is n.ever forgotten. 

There is a noble enthusiasm for goodness in the 
phrase which avers that ' good men are the stars, 
the planets of the ages wherein they live, and 
illustrate the times.' After an enumeration of 
scriptural instances, the poet adds this commentary : 
* These, sensual men thought mad, because they 
would not be partakers or practisers of their mad- 
ness. But they, placed high on the top of all 
virtue, looked down on the stage of the world, and 
contemned the play of fortune. For though the 
most be players, some must be spectators.' 

And there is a fine touch of grave and bitter 
humour in the discovery ' that a feigned familiarity 
in great ones is a note of certain usurpation on the 
less. For great and popular men feign themselves 
to be servants to others, to make those slaves to 
them. So the fisher provides bait for the trout, 
roach, dace, &c., that they may be food to 

But finer by far and far more memorable than 
this is the following commentary on the fact that 
the emperor whose ' voice was worthier a headsman 
than a head, when he wished the people of Rome 

152 A Study of Ben Jonson 

had but one neck,' ' found (when he fell) they had 
many hands.' 

A tyrant, how great and mighty soever he may seem 
/ to cowards and sluggards, is but one creature, one animal. 

That sentence is worthy of Landor ; and those 
who would reproach Ben Jonson with the extra- 
vagance of his monarchical doctrines or theories 
must admit that such royalism as is compatible 
with undisguised approval of regicide or tyrannicide 
might not irrationally be condoned by the sternest 
and most rigid of republicans. 
^ The next eight notes or entries deal in a some- 
what desultory fashion with the subject of govern- 
ment ; and display, as might be expected, a very 
singular combination or confusion of obsolete 
sophistry and superstition with rational and liberal 
intelligence. He attacks Machiavelli repeatedly, 
but there is a distinct streak of what is usually 
understood as Machiavellism in the remark, for 
example, that when a prince governs his people 
* so as they have still need of his administration 
(for that is his art) he shall ever make and hold 
them faithful.' In answer to Machiavelli's principle 
of cruelty by proxy, he pleads with great and 
■simple force of eloquence against all principles of 


Discoveries 153 

cruelty whatever. Many noble passages might be 
quoted from this pleading ; but only a few can 
here be selected from the third and fourth, the 
sixth and seventh, of the entries above mentioned ; 
which may on the whole be considered, when 
all due reservation is made with regard to the 
monarchical principle or superstition, as composing 
altogether a concise and masterly essay on the art 
and the principles of wise and righteoy^ |?Bfem>- 

Many punishments sometimes and in some^sefs^^ 
much discredit a prince as many funerals a physicians;^ 
The state of things is secured by clemency : severity re- 
presseth a few, but irritates more. The lopping of trees 
makes the boughs shoot out thicker ; and the taking away 
of some kind of enemies increaseth the number. It is 
then most gracious in a prince to pardon, when many 
about him would make him cruel; to think then how- 
much he can save, when others tell him how much he 
can destroy ; not to consider what the impotence of others 
hath demolished, but what his own greatness can sustain. 
These are a prince's virtues : and they that give him other 
counsels are but the hangman's factors. 

But princes, by hearkening to cruel counsels, become 
in time obnoxious to the authors, their flatterers and 
ministers ; and are brought to that, that when they would 
they dare not change them ; they must go on, and defend 
cruelty with cruelty ; they cannot alter the habit. It is 

154 ^ Stttdy of Ben Jonson 

then grown necessary they must be as ill as those have 
made them : and in the end they will grow more hateful 
to themselves than to their subjects. Whereas, on the 
contrary, the merciful prince is safe in love, not in fear. 
He needs no emissaries, spies, intelligencers, to entrap 
true subjects- He fears no libels, no treasons. His 
people speak what they think, and talk openly what they 
do in secret. They have nothing in their breasts that 
they need a cipher for. He is guarded with his own 

There is nothing with some princes sacred above their 
majesty; or profane, but what violates their sceptres. 
But a prince with such a council [qu. counsel ?] is like the 
god Terminus of stone, his own landmark ; or (as it is in 
the fable) a crowned Hon. ... No men hate an evil 
prince more than they that helped to make him such. 
And none more boastingly weep his ruin than they that 
procured and practised it. The same path leads to ruin 
which did to rule, when men profess a license in govern- 
ment. A good king is a public servant. 

A prince without letters is a pilot without eyes. All 
his government is groping. In sovereignty it is a most 
happy thing not to be compelled \ but so it is the most 
miserable not to be counselled. And how can he be 
counselled that cannot see to read the best counsellors, 
which are books ; for they neither flatter us nor hide from 
us ? He may hear, you will say ; but how shall he always 
be sure to hear truth ? or be counselled the best things, 
not the sweetest ? They say princes learn no art truly 
but the art of horsemanship. The reason is, the brave 

Discoveries 155 

beast is no flatterer. He will throw a prince as soon as 
his groom. Which is an argument that the good coun- 
sellors to princes are the best instruments of a good age. 
For though the prince himself be of most prompt in- 
clination to all virtue, yet the best pilots have need of 
mariners, besides sails, anchor, and other tackle. 

It must be admitted that the royalism of this 
laureate is sufficiently tempered and allayed with 
rational or repu blican go od^ sense to exci te in the 1/ /1y< 
reader's mind a certain curiosity of conjecture as 
to the effect which might or which must have been 
produced on his royal patrons by the publication 
of opinions so irreconcilable with the tragically 
comic form of idolatry embodied in the heroes 
and expressed in the rhapsodies of Beaumont 
and Fletcher. Amintor and Aecius, Archas and 
Aubrey, are figures or types of unnatural heroism 
or preposterous devotion which are obviously and 
essentially wellnigh as far from Jonson's ideal of 
manhood and of duty as from Shakespeare's. 

There is a quaint fierce touch of humour in the 
reflection that ' he which is sole heir to many rich 
men, having (beside his father's and uncle's) the 
estates of divers his kindred come to him by acces- 
sion, must needs be richer than father or grand- 
father : so they which are left heirs ex asse ' (sole 

156 A Stttdy of Ben Jonson 

heirs) ' of all their ancestor's vices, and by their 
good husbandry improve the old, and daily pur- 
chase new, must needs be wealthier in vice, and 
have a greater revenue or stock of ill to spend on.' 
But this is only one in a score of instances which 
might be quoted to show that if a great English 
poet and humourist had left nothing behind him 
but this little book of 'maxims,' as the French 
call them — notes, observations, or reflections cast 
in a form more familiar to French than to English 
writers — he would still hold a place beside or 
above La Rochefoucauld, and beside if not above 
Chamfort. And yet, even among his countiymen, 
it may be feared that the sardonic wit and the 
cynical wisdom of the brilliant French patrician 
and the splendid French plebeian are familiar to 
many who have never cared to investigate the 
Discoveries of Ben Jonson. 

Again we meet the strangely outspoken satirist 
and malcontent in the person of the court laureate 
who allowed himself to remark that 'the great 
thieves of a state are lightly ' [usually or naturally] 
' the officers of the crown : they hang the less still, 
play the pikes in the pond, eat whom they list. 
The net was never spread for the hawk or buzzard 
that hurt us, but the harmless birds ; they are good 



meat.' But the critic of state consoles himself with 
a reflection on the precarious tenure of their powers 
enjoyed by such tenants or delegates of tyranny, 
and cites against them a well-known witticism of 
that great practical humourist King Louis XI. 

The partially autobiographic or personal note 
which follows this opens and closes at once nobly 
and simply. 

A good man will avoid the spot of any sin. The very 
aspersion is grievous ; which makes him choose his way 
in his life, as he would in his journey. The ill man rides 
through all confidently ; he is coated and booted for it. 
The oftener he offends, the more openly ; and the fouler, 
the fitter in fashion. His modesty, like a riding-coat, the 
more it is worn, is the less cared for. It is good enough 
for the dirt still, and the ways he travels on. 

No one will be surprised to find that Ben 
Jonson's chosen type or example of high-minded 
innocence, Incessantly pursued by malice, delated 
and defamed, but always triumphant and confident, 
even when driven to the verge of a precipice. Is 
none other than Ben Jonson. His accusers were 
' great ones ' ; but they '• were driven, for want of 
crimes, to use invention, which was found slander ; 
or too late (being entered so far) to seek startlng-j 
holes for their rashness, which were not given them.' 

158 A Study of Be7i Jonson 

His profession also, as well as his person, was 
attacked : ' they objected making of verses to me 
when I could object to most of them their not 
being able to read them but as worthy of scorn ; 
and strove, after the changeless manner of their 
estimable kind, to back and bolster up their accu- 
sations and objections by falsified and garbled ex- 
tracts, * which was an excellent way of malice ; as 
if any man's context might not seem dangerous and 
offensive, if that which was knit to what went before 
were defrauded of his beginning ; or that things by 
themselves uttered might not seem subject to 
calumny, which read entire would appear most free/ 
So little difference is there, in the composition of 
the meanest and foolishest among literary parasites 
and backbiters, between the characteristic develop- 
ments or the representative products of the seven- 
teenth and the nineteenth century. 

At last they would object to me my poverty : I con- 
fess she is my domestic ; sober of diet, simple of habit, 
frugal, painful, a good counsellor to me, that keeps me 
from cruelty, pride, or other more delicate impertinences, 
which are the nurse-children of riches. 

All ' great and m.onstrous wickednesses,' avers 
the Laureate — not perhaps without an implied 
reference to such hideous instances as the case of 



Somerset and Overbury, — ' are the issue of the [ 
wealthy giants and the mighty hunters : whereas ^ . 
no great work, or worthy of praise or memory, 
but came out of poor cradles. It was the ancient 
poverty that founded commonweals, built cities, 
invented arts, made wholesome laws, armed men 
against vices, rewarded them with their own virtues, 
and preserved the honour and state of nations, till 
they betrayed themselves to riches.' 

It is hardly too much to say that there are few 
finer passages than that in Landor ; in other words, 
that there can be few passages as fine in any third 
writer of English prose. 

The fierce and severe attack on worldliness and / ] 
love of money which follows this noble panegyric ' 
on the virtues of poverty should be read as part of 
the same essay rather than as a separate note or 
reflection. Indeed, throughout the latter part of 
the Discoveries, it is obvious that we have before 
us the fragments, disunited and disjointed, of single 
and continuous essays on various great subjects, 
rather than the finished and coherent works) which 
their author would have offered to his readers had 
he lived long enough in health and strength of spirit 
and of body to carry out his original design. This 
sermon against greed of all kinds — avarice, luxury, 

1 6o A Study of Ben Jonson 

ambition of state and magnificence of expenditure 
— is full of lofty wisdom and of memorable 

What a wretchedness is this, to thrust all our riches 
outward, and be beggars within \ to contemplate nothing 
but the little, vile, and sordid things of the world : not 
the great, noble, and precious ? We serve our avarice ; 
and not content with the good of the earth that is offered 
us, we search and dig for the evil that is hidden. God 
offered us those things, and" placed them at hand and 
near us, that he knew were profitable for us; but the 
hurtful he laid deep and hid. Yet do we covet only the 
things whereby we may perish ; and bring them forth, 
when God and nature hath buried them. We covet super- 
fluous things, when it were more honour for us if we could 
contemn necessary. 

A little further on, the Laureate who had lavished 
the wealth of his poetic invention and his scenic 
ingenuity on the festivities which welcomed the 
Danish king to the court of his brother-in-law 
refers in the following terms of sorrowful and 
sarcastic reminiscence to those splendid and sterile 
extravagances of meaningless magnificence. 

Have I not seen the pomp of a whole kingdom, and 
what a foreign king could bring hither? alP to make 

1 The current text reads * Also ' ! My emendation at all events 
makes sense of a fine passage. 

Discoveries 1 6 1 

himself gazed and wondered at, laid forth as it were to 
the show — and vanish all away in a day. And shall that 
which could not fill the expectation of few hours enter- 
tain and take up our whole lives ? when even it appeared 
as superfluous to the possessors as to me that was a 
spectator. The bravery was shown, it was not possessed : 
while it boasted itself, it perished. It is vile, and a poor 
thing, to place our happiness on these desires. Say we 
wanted them all. Famine ends famine. 

These reflections are uncourtly enough from 
the hand of a courtly poet ; but they are tame and 
tender if compared with his animadversions on * vice 
and deformity,' which ' we may behold — so much 
the fouler in having all the splendour of riches to 
gild them, or the false light of honour and power 
to help them. Yet this is that wherewith the world 
is taken, and runs mad to gaze on : clothes and 
titles, the birdlime of fools.' 

No man ever made more generous response to 
the friendly or generous kindness of others than 
Ben Jonson : no man had ever less disposition or 
inclination towards the grudging mood of mind 
which regrets or the abject mood of mind which 
resents the acceptance of a benefit. For all that 
he received of help or support from his wealthier 
friends or patrons he returned the noblest and 
most liberal payment in manly and self-respectful 


1 62 A Study of Ben Jons on 

gratitude : he did not, like the rival poets of the 
restored Stuarts, condescend to undertake the 
deification or glorification of a male or female 
prostitute of parliament or of court : but it must 
be admitted that the outpourings of his heart in 
thanks and praises may seem somewhat excessive 
even to those who bear in mind that the tribute of 
his cordial homage was by no means confined to 
kings and princes, lords and ladies. But that ' he 
[would not flatter Neptune for his trident or Jove 
for his power to thunder ' — that he would not 
speak well, that he could hardly forbear from 
speaking evil, of any whom he found or whom he 
held to be undeserving — is as certain as that no 
loftier scorn than breathes through the words above 
transcribed was ever expressed by the most demo- 
cratic or sarcastic of republicans for the mere attri- 
butes of rank and power. This fierce and deep 
contempt informs with even more vehement 
eloquence the note which follows. 

What petty things they are we wonder at ! like chil- 
dren, that esteem every trifle, and prefer a fairing before 
their fathers ; what difference is betwixt us and them, but 
that we are dearer fools, coxcombs at a higher rate ? . . . 
All that we call happiness is mere painting and gilt ; and 
all for money : what a thin membrane of honour that is ! 
and how hath all true reputation fallen, since money 

Discoveries 163 

began to have any ! Yet the great herd, the multitude, 
that in all other things are divided, in this alone conspire 
and agree ; to love money. They wish for it, they em- 
brace it, they adore it : while yet it is possest with greater 
stir and torment than it was gotten. 

The pure and lofty wisdom of the next note is 
worthy of Epictetus or Aurelius. 

Some men, what losses soever they have, they make 
them greater : and if they have none, even all that is not 
gotten is a loss. Can there be creatures of more wretched 
condition than these, that continually labour under their 
own misery and others' envy ? ^ A man should study 
other things : not to covet, not to fear, not to repent him : 
to make his base such as no tempest shall shake him : to 
be secure of all opinion, and pleasing to himself, even 
for that wherein he displeases others : for the worst 
opinion, gotten for doing well, should delight us. Wouldst 
not thou be just but for fame, thou oughtest to be it with 
infamy : he that would have his virtue published is not 
the servant of virtue, but glory. 

In the following satirical observation all students 
will recognize the creator of Fastidious Brisk — and 
rather, perhaps, the spirit of Macilente than of 

A dejected countenance, and mean clothes, beget 

' That is, the envy they bear towards others : an equivocal, 
awkward, and affected Latinism. The writer would not — he never 
would — remember that a phrase or a construction which makes very 
good Latin may make very bad English. 

M 2 

164 ^ Stitdy of Ben Jonson 

often a contempt, but it is with the shallowest creatures ; 
courtiers commonly : look up even with them in a new 
suit, you get above them straight. Nothing is more 
short-lived than [? their] pride : it is but while their 
clothes last : stay but while these are worn out, you can- 
not wish the thing more wretched or dejected. 

In the four notes which compose a brief essay 
on painting (or, as Jonson calls it, picture) the 
finest passage by far is this wise and noble word of 
tribute paid to another great art by a great artist 
in letters : — 

Whosoever loves not picture is injurious to truth and 
all the wisdom of poetry. Picture is the invention of 
heaven, the most ancient, and most akin to nature. It is 
itself a silent work, and always of one and the same 
habit : yet it doth so enter and penetrate the inmost 
affection (being done by an excellent artificer) as some- 
times it overcomes the power of speech and oratory. 

The summary history of ' picture,' or the art of 
painting, in which Jonson has given us his views on^ 
the relation of that art to poetry, geometry, optics, 
and moral philosophy, bears no less witness to his 
wide reading and his painstaking attention than to 
his quaint and dogmatic self-confidence in laying 
down the law at second hand on subjects of which he 
seems to have known less than little. But when v^e 
pass from criticism of painters to the lower ground 

Discoveries 165 

of satirical observation — ^from the heights of a noble 
art to the depths or levels of ignoble nature, we meet 
once more the same fierce and earnest critic of life / 
who should certainly be acknowledged as the greatest 
of all poets by any one — if any one there be — 
to whom ' criticism of life ' seems acceptable or 
imaginable as a definition of the essence or the 
end of poetry. 

The opening of the satirical essay on parasites 
which is here divided or split up into two sections 
by the blundering negligence and the unprincipled 
incompetence of its editors has the force and the 
point of a keen and heavy weapon, edged with wit 
and weighted with indignation. Juvenal has hardly 
left us a more vivid likeness of the creatures who 
'■ grow suspected of the master, hated of the servants, 
while they inquire, and reprehend; and compound, 
and delate business of the house they have nothing 
to do with.' This note ends with the admirable 
remark, ' I know not truly which is worse, he that [ 
maligns all or that praises all.' An eminent poet 
and dramatist of our own age, M. Auguste Vac- 
querie, has said much the same thing in words 
even more terse, accurate, and forcible than 
Jonson's : — * Louer tout, c'est une autre facon de 
denigrer tout' 

1 66 A Study of Ben Jonson 

What follows as part of the same note is a 
letter to a nobleman who had asked Jonson's 
advice as to the education of his sons, ' and 
especially to the advancement of their studies.' 
The kindly and practical wisdom of his counsel is 
'■ not of an age, but for all time ' : indeed, it is in 
some points as far ahead of our own age as of 
the writer's. Though nature ' be proner in some 
children to some disciplines, yet are they naturally 
prompt to taste all by degrees, and with change. 
For change is a kind of refreshing in studies, and 
infuseth knowledge by way of recreation.' The 
old Westminster boy, who had paid such loyal 
■homage of gratitude to the ' most reverend head ' 
of his old master, is as emphatic in his preference of 
public to private education as in his insistence that 
scholars ' should not be affrighted or deterred in 
their entry, but drawn on with exercise and emula- 
tion.' His illustrious namesake of the succeeding 
century was hardly more emphatic in his advocacy 
of the opposite principle. That which Samuel 
Johnson and Charles Kingsley considered as 
' doubtless the best of all punishments ' is 
denounced by Ben Jonson as energetically as by 
Quintilian : but I trust he would not have preferred 
to it the execrable modern substitute of torture by 

Discoveries 167 

transcription — the infernal and idiotic infliction of 
so many hundred lines to be written out by way_of 
penance. fih^^^'^' 

!' <v> ' </. \ 

Would we did not spoil our own children, and OYerV'. .. '^-p^ 
throw their manners ourselves by too much indulgencf^^'-'^.y '^ 
To breed them at home is to breed them in a shade^W^// ^'^ 
where in a school they have the light and heat of the sun. 
They are used and accustomed to things and men. When 
they come forth into the commonwealth, they find nothing 
new, or to seek. They have made their friendships and 
aids, some to last their age. They hear what is com- 
manded to others as well as themselves. Much approved, 
much corrected ; all which they bring to their own store 
and use, and learn as much as they hear. Eloquence 
would be but a poor thing if we did but converse with 
singulars — speak man and man together. Therefore I 
like no private breeding. I would send them where their 
industry should be daily increased by praise ; and that 
kindled by emulation. It is a good thing to inflame the 
mind, and though ambition itself be a vice, it is often the 
cause of great virtue. Give me that wit whom praise 
excites, glory puts on, or disgrace grieves ; he is to be 
nourished with ambition, pricked forward with honour, 
checked with reprehension, and never to be suspected of 
sloth. Though he be given to play, it is a sign of spirit 
and liveliness, so there be a mean had of their sports and 

If the nineteenth century has said anything on 
this subject as well worth hearing — as wise, as 

1 68 A Study of Ben Jons on 

humane, as reasonable, as full of sympathy and of 
judgment — as these reflections and animadversions 
of a scholar living in the first half or quarter of the 
seventeenth, I have never chanced to meet with it 
/ { ^The forty-eight notes or entries Avhich complete 
the sum of Ben Jonson's Discoveries should be 
considered as composing an essay on style, con- 
I tinuous in aim though desultory in treatment^ The 
cruel, stupid, and insolent neglect of his editors has 
left it in so disjointed and dislocated a condition 
that we can only read it as we might read so many 
stray notes jotted down irregularly at odd moments 
on the first sheet or scrap of paper which might 
have fallen under the fatigued and fitful hand of the 
venerable poet. The very last entry is a repetition 
of a former remark and a former quotation, 
tumbled in by some blundering printer's devil with 
no reference whatever to the sentence preceding 
it.^ As to the punctuation, let one example stand 
for many. ' Again, whether a man's genius is best 
able to reach thither, it should more and more con- 
tend, lift, and dilate itself To rectify this hope- 
less nonsense does not require the skill of a Bentley 
or a Porson. It is obvious that Jonson must have 
written ^ whither a man's genius is best able to 

* Compare Ixxii., Not. 4, and clxxi. 

Discoveries 1 69 

reach, thither/ &c. But the moles and bats who 
have hitherto taken charge of this great writer's 
text could not see even so simple and glaring a fact 
as this. 

It is natural that Jonson should insist with 
some excess of urgency on the necessity for care 
and labour in writing. 

No matter how slow the style be at first, so it be ; 
laboured and accurate : seek the best, and be not glad of ' 
the froWard conceits or first words that offer themselves ^ 
to us j but judge of what we invent, and order what we 
approve. Repeat often what we have formerly written ; 
which beside that it helps the consequence, and makes 
the juncture better, it quickens the heat of imagination, 
that often cools in the time of setting down, and gives it 
new strength, as if it grew lustier by the going back. As 
we see in the contention of leaping, they jump farthest 
that fetch their race largest ; or as in throwing a dart or 
javelin we force back our arms to make our loose the 
stronger. Yet, if we have a fair gale of wind, I forbid 
not the steering out of our sail, so the favour of the gale 
deceive us not. For all that we invent doth please us in 
the conception or birth, else we would never set it down. 

This extract is no exceptional example of the 
purity, force, and weight of style by which this 
essay is distinguished even among the works of its 
author. It is impossible for any commentator to 

170 A Study of Ben Jons on 

convey more than a most imperfect impression of 
its rich and various merits. 

Great as was Jonson's reliance on the results of 

/ ^ training and study, he never forgot that ' arts and 
precept avail nothing, except nature be beneficial 
and aiding. And therefore these things are no 
more written to a dull disposition than rules of 
husbandry to a barren soil. No precepts will 
profit a fool ; no more than beauty will the 
blind, or music the deaf^ , As we, should take care 
that our style in writing be neither dry nor empty, 
we should look again it be not winding, or wanton 
with far-fetched descriptions : either is a vice. But 
that is worse which proceeds out of want than 
that which riots out of plenty. The remedy of 
fruitfulness is easy, but no labour will help the 

Of Spenser, whom he seems to have liked no 

j^ better than did Landor — in other words, no better 
than might have been expected of him, — he 
speaks here, on one point at least, in terms quite 
opposite to those recorded in Drummond's too 
sparing and irregular but delightful and in- 
valuable notes. To the Scottish poet he said 
that * Spenser's stanzas pleased him not, nor his 
matter ' : whereas in this later essay, while still 

Discoveries 171 

insisting that * Spenser, in affecting the ancients, 
writ no language,' he adds, ' yet I would have him 
read for his matter, but as Virgil read Ennius.' 
In his preference of Plautus to Terence, it may be 
observed that Ben Jonson anticipated the verdict 
of two such very different great men as Jonathan 
Swift and Victor Hugo. 

In the Greek poets, as also in Plautus, we shall see 
the economy and disposition of poems better observed 
than in Terence, and the latter [that is, in later comic 
dramatists], who thought the sole grace and virtue of 
their fable the sticking in of sentences, as ours do the 
forcing in of jests. 

The Herculean energy and industry of Jonson 
might have been expected to make him as 
intolerant of indolence as he shows himself in the 
following fine passage : — 

We should not protect our sloth with the patronage 
of difficulty. It is a false quarrel [(Querela, as the mar- 
ginal titl^ of this note expresses it] against nature, that 
she helps understanding but in a fe^, when the most part 
of mankind are inclined by her thither, if they would 
take the pains ; no less than birds to fly, horses to run, 
&c. ; which if they lose, it is through their own sluggish- 
ness, and by that means become her prodigies, not her 

172 A Study of Ben Jons on 

The whole of the section which opens with 
these noble and fervent words should be most 
carefully studied by those who would appreciate 
the peculiar character of Jonson's intelligence and 
genius. It may be doubted, even by those who 
would admit that we learn best what we learn 
earliest, whether ' nature in children is more 
patient of labour in study, than in age ; for the 
sense of the pain, the labour of the judgment, is 
absent ; they do not measure what they have done. 
And it is the thought and consideration that 
affects us, more than the weariness itself.' Plato, 
we are reminded, went first to Italy and afterwards 
to Egypt in pursuit of Pythagorean and Osirian 
mysteries. ' He laboured, so must we.' From the 
examples of musicians and preachers, whose work 
requires the service of many faculties at once, this 
lesson may be drawn : — * if we can express this 
variety together, why should not divers studies, at 
divers hours, delight, when the variety is able 
alone to refresh and repair us ? As, when a man 
is weary of writing, to read ; and then again of 
reading, to write. Wherein, howsoever we do 
many things, yet are we (in a sort) still fresh to 
what we begin ; we are recreated with change, as 
the stomach is with meats. ... It is easier to do 

Discoveries 173 

many things, and continue, than to do one thing- 

' A fool may talk,' as Jonson observes a little 
further on, ' but a wise man speaks ' : and to such 
a man it will scarcely be questioned that we have 
been listening. But though 'it were a sluggish 
and base thing to despair ' when the attainment of 
knowledge is possible, yet, ' if a man should prose- 
cute as much as could be said of everything, his 
work would find no end.' 

The next four notes deal more directly with 
special and practical details and principles of style. 
If some of the points insisted on seem either 
obsolete or obvious, there are others which cannot 
be too often asserted or too strenuously main- 
tained. Silence may be golden on certain occa- 
sions ; but it is none the less certain that ' speech 
is the only benefit man hath to express his ex- 
cellency of mind above other creatures. Words 
are the people's, yet there is a choice of them to 
be made ' ; and the rules laid down for the limita- 
tion and regulation of this choice are as sound in 
principle as brilliant in expression. At every step 
we find something which might well be quoted in 
evidence of this. 

A good man always profits^ by his endeavour, by his 

174 ^ Study of Ben Jonson 

help, yea, when he is absent, nay, when he is dead, by 
his example and memory. So good authors in their style : 

\a strict and succinct style is that where you can take 
away nothing without loss, and that loss to be manifest. 

The grace of metaphor in the following sen- 
tence is not more notable than the soundness of 
its counsel. 

Some words are to be culled out for ornament and 
/' colour, as w^e gather flowers to strew houses, or make 

garlands ; but they are better when they grow in our style ; 

as in a meadow, where though the mere grass and green- 
I ness delight, yet the variety of flowers doth heighten and 


No modern student of letters will read this 
without seeing in it an anticipatory tribute to the 
incomparable style of Mr. Ruskin. 

All the definitions of different styles are good, 
I but this is excellent : — 

The congruent and harmonious fitting of parts in a 
sentence hath almost the fastening and force of knitting 
and connection ; as in stones well squared, which will 
rise strong a great way without mortar. 

The reader of the following extract will be 
reminded at its close of an ever-memorable de- 
liverance recorded by Boswell. 

Periods are beautiful, when they are not too long ; for 



SO they have their strength too, as in a pike or javeHn. 
As we must take the care that our words and sense be 
clear, so, if the obscurity happen through the hearer's or 
reader's want of understanding, I am not to answer for 
them, no more than for their not listening or marking ; 
I must neither find them ears nor mind. 

All must remember how the second ereat 


dictator of literary London who bore the name of 
Johnson expressed the same very rational objec- 
tion : — ' I have found you a reason, sir ; I am not 
bound to find you an understanding.' 

The following precept is of perennial value — 
and of perennial application. 

We should therefore speak what we can the nearest 
way, so as we keep our gait, not leap ; for too short may 
as well be not let into the memory, as too long not kept 
in. Whatsoever loseth the grace and clearness, converts 
into a riddle : the obscurity is marked, but not the value. 
That perisheth, and is passed by, like the pearl in the 
fable. Our style should be like a skein of silk, to be 
carried and found by the right thread, not ravelled and 
perplexed : then all is a knot, a heap. 

Nor is this less weighty or less true : — 

Language most shows a man. Speak, that I may see 
thee. It springs out of the most retired and inmost parts of 
us, and is the image of the parent of it, the mind. No glass 
renders a man's form or likeness so true as his speech. 


176 A Shtdy of Ben Jons on 

Nay, it is likened to a man : and as we consider feature 
and composition in a man, so words in language ; in the 
greatness, aptness, sound, structure, and harmony of it. 

The seven succeeding notes deal in more detail 
with various kinds of oratory; 'high and great,' j 
' grave, sinewy, and strong,' or ' humble and low,'"^/ ^ 
' plain and pleasing,' or ' vicious ' and bombastic,H ) b 
'fleshy, fat, and corpulent— full of suet and tallow,' '^'^ 
or ' bony and sinewy.' These notes are as full ofH 
happy and humorous illustration as of sound and 
sensible criticism ; but it is a matter of more 
interest to consider the observations of such a man 
as Jonson on such men as Bacon and Aristotle. 
His reflections on the mediaeval worship of a 
name are not unworthy of modern consideration. 

Nothing is more ridiculous than to make an author 
a dictator, as the schools have done Aristotle. The 
damage is infinite knowledge receives by it : for to many 
things a man should owe but a temporary relief and sus- 
pension of his own judgment, not an absolute resignation 
of himself, or a perpetual captivity. Let Aristode and 
others have their dues ; but if we can make farther dis- 
coveries of truth and fitness than they, why are we envied ? 
Let us beware, while we strive to add, we do not diminish 
or deface ; we may improve, but not augment. By dis- 
crediting falsehood, truth grows in request. We must 
not go about, like men anguished or perplexed, for vicious 

Discoveries 177 

affectation of praise ; but calmly study the separation of 
opinions, find the errors have intervened, awake antiquity, 
call former times into question ; but make no parties 
with the present, nor follow any fierce undertakers ; 
mingle no matter of doubtful credit with the simplicity 
of truth, but gently stir the mould about the root of the 

The remarks ' on epistola ry stylej are rich in 
humour and good sense, as well as curiously illus- 
trative of the singular fashion of the time. 
' Sometimes men make baseness of kindness/ 
observes the writer ; and proceeds to illustrate 
the fact, in a manner which may remind us of 
Thackeray's, by examples of absurd and verbose 
adulation, expressed in phrases ' that go a-begging 
for some meaning, and labour to be delivered of 
the great burden of nothing.' 

A word seems to have dropped out of the 
following admirable sentence ; but the beetle- 
headed boobies to whose carelessness the charge 
of Jonson's posthumous writings was committed 
by the malignity of accident were incapable of 
noticing the nonsense they had made of it 

The next property of epistolary style is perspicuity, 
and is oftentimes [lost] by affectation of some wit ill 
angled for, or ostentation of some hidden terms of art. 
Few words they darken speech, and so do too many ; as 



178 A Study of Ben Jo7iso7i 

well too much light hurteth the eyes as too little ; and a 
long bill of chancery confounds the understanding as 
much as the shortest note ; therefore let not your letters 
be penned like English statutes, and this is obtained. 

Passing from the subjects of oratory and letter- 
writing to the subject of poetry, the Laureate at 
once falls foul of his personal assailants. 'The 
age is grown so tender of her fame, as she calls 
all writings aspersions. That is the state word, 
the phrase of court — Placentia College, which some 
call Parasites' Place, the Inn of Ignorance.' That 
is a tolerably harsh phrase for a wearer of courtly 
laurels to allow himself; but it is gentle and 
temperate compared with this effusion of divine 
wrath on the heads of victims now indiscernible 
and secure from fame or shame. 

A It sufficeth I know what kind of persons I displease \ 
: men bred in the declining and decay of virtue, betrothed 
J to their own vices ; that have abandoned or prostituted 
their good names ; hungry and ambitious of infamy, 
invested in all deformity, enthralled to ignorance and 
malice, of a hidden and concealed malignity, and that 
hold a concomitancy with all evil. 

The general and historical notes on poetry 
which follow are of less interest than they 
assuredly must have been if Jonson had given us 

Discoveries 179 

less of Aristotle, Cicero, and Horace, and more 
of himself It is therefore less important to know 
what he thought of Euripides than to know what 
he thought of Aristotle, 

But whatsoever nature at any time dictated to the 
most happy, or long exercise to the most laborious, that 
the wisdom and learning of Aristotle hath brought into 
an art ; because he understood the causes of things : and 
what other men did by chance or custom, he doth by 
reason ; and not only found out the way not to err, but 
the short way we should take not to err. 

' To judge of poets,' says a later note, ' is only 
the faculty of poets ; and not of all poets, but the 
best' It is unlucky that in the note preceding it 
Ben Jonson should have committed himself to the 
assertion that Euripides, of all men, ' is sometimes 
peccant, as he is most times perfect.' The perfec- 
tion of such shapeless and soulless abortions as 
the Pliceitissae and the Hercules Furens is about as 
demonstrable as the lack of art which Ben Jonson 
regretted and condemned in the author of Hafulet 
and Othello. 

It is comically pathetic to find that the failure 
\of Jonson's later comedies had led him to observe, 
with the judicious Aristotle, that ' the moving of 
laughter is a fault in comedy, a kind of turpitude 


1 80 A Study of Ben Jonson 

that depraves some part of a man's nature without 
a disease ' : and likewise that ' this induced Plato 
to esteem of Homer as a sacrilegious person, 
because he presented the gods sometimes laugh- 
ing.' But this deplorable and degrading instinct of 
perverse humanity becomes irrepressible and irre-. 
sistible in the reader who discovers in the authol: 
of Bartholomew Fair and TJie Silent Woman so 
delicate and sensitive a dislike of plebeian horseplay 
and farcical scurrility that he cannot at any price 
abide the insolence and indecency of so vulgar a 
writer as Aristophanes. 

The concluding essay on ' the magnitude and 
compass of any fable, epic or dramatic,' is of less 
interest, except to special students, than the 
animadversions of the writer on more particular 
subjects of criticism. Constant good sense, occa- 
sional felicity of expression, conscientious and 
logical intensity of application or devotion to every 
point of the subject handled or attempted, all 
readers will find, as all readers will expect : and 
it should be superfluous to repeat that they will 
find a text so corrupt and so confused as no editor 
of any but an English classic would venture to 

And now it must be evident that if Ben 

Discoveries 1 8 1 

Jonson was the author of Bacon's Essays — as that 
eminent Irish-American scholar, Dr. Athanasius 
Dogberry (of New Gotham, U.S.A.), maintains with 
a fervour not unworthy of Rabbi Zeal-of-the-Land 
Busy — his genius and his intelligence were by no 
means at their best when he produced that famous 
volume, and gave or sold it to his friend the Lord 
Chancellor. r"The full and fertile harvest of 
eloquence anothought, the condensed and com- 
pressed wealth of reflection and observation, over- 
flowing on all sides from the narrow garner or 
treasury of the wonderful little book on which I 
have not hoped to write anything more than a 
most imperfect and inadequate commentary, may 
still be left unreaped and untreasured by the 
common cry of nominal students or lovers of 
English literature. But none who have studied it 
can fail to recognize that its author was in every 
way worthy to have been the friend of Bacon and f 
of Shakespeare. 








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