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BORN, 1574,-died, 1637.
IF Ben Jonson had not tried to do half what he did, he would have had a greater fame. His will and ambition hurt him, as they always hurt genius when set in front of it. Lasting reputation of power is only to be obtained by power itself; and this, in poetry, is the result not so much, if at all, of the love of the power, as of the power of love,—the love of truth and beauty,— great and potent things they,-not the love of self, which is generally a very little thing. The "supposed rugged old bard," notwithstanding his huffing and arrogance, had elegance, feeling, imagination, great fancy; but by straining to make them all greater than they were, bringing in the ancients to help him, and aiming to include the lowest farce (perhaps by way of outdoing the universality of Shakspeare), he became as gross in his pretensions, as drink had made him in person. His jealous irritability and assumption tired out the gentlest and most generous of his contemporaries-men who otherwise really liked him (and he them),-Decker for one; and he has ended in appearing to posterity rather the usurper than the owner of a true renown. He made such a fuss with his learning, that he is now suspected to have had nothing else. Hazlitt himself cannot give him credit for comic genius, so grave and all-in-all does his pedantry appear to that critic,—an erroneous judgment, as it seems to me,-who cannot help thinking, that what altogether made Ben what he was projected his ultra-jovial person rather towards comedy than tragedy; and as a proof of this, his tragedies are all borrowed, but his comedies his own. Twelfth Night and other plays of Shakspeare preceded and surpassed
him in his boasted "humor;" but his Alchemist, and especially his Volpone, seem to me at the head of all severer English comedy. The latter is a masterpiece of plot and treatment. Ben's fancy, a power tending also rather to the comic than tragic, was in far greater measure than his imagination; and their strongest united efforts, as in the Witches' Meeting, and the luxurious anticipations of Sir Epicure Mammon, produce a smiling as well as a serious admiration. The three happiest of all his short effusions (two of which are in this volume) are the epitaph on Lady Pembroke, the address to Cynthia (both of which are serious indeed, but not tragic), and the Catch of the Satyrs, which is unique for its wild and melodious mixture of the comic and the poetic. His huge farces, to be sure (such as Bartholomew Fair), are execrable. They seem to talk for talking's sake, like drunkards. And though his famous verses, beginning "Still to be neat, still to be drest," are elegantly worded, I never could admire them. There is a coarseness implied in their very refinement.
After all, perhaps it is idle to wish a writer had been otherwise than he was, especially if he is an original in his way, and worthy of admiration. His faults he may have been unable to mend, and they may not have been without their use, even to his merits. If Ben had not been Ben, Sir Epicure Mammon might not have talked in so high a tone. We should have missed, perhaps, something of the excess and altitude of his expectations of his
Gums of Paradise and eastern air.
Let it not be omitted, that Milton went to the masques and odes of Ben Jonson for some of the elegances even of his dignified muse. See Warton's edition of his Minor Poems, passim. Our extracts shall commence with one of these odes, combining classic elegance with a tone of modern feeling and a music like a serenade.
TO CYNTHIA;-THE MOON.
Queen of hunters, chaste and fair,
State in wonted manner keep,
Earth, let not thy envious shade
Lay thy bow of pearl apart,
And thy crystal shining quiver;
Space to breathe, how short soever;
THE LOVE-MAKING OF LUXURY.
Volpone makes love to Celia.
What thou art queen of; not in expectation,
To purchase them again, and this whole state.
Is nothing we will eat such at a meal.
Cel. Good sir, these things might move a mind affected
Is all I can think wealthy, or worth th' enjoying,
If you have conscience
'Tis the beggar's virtue :
If thou had wisdom, hear me, Celia.
The milk of unicorns, and panthers' breath
Sir Epicure Mammon, expecting to obtain the Philosopher's Stone, riots in the anticipation of enjoyment.
Enter MAMMON and SURLY.
Mam. Come on, sir. Now, you set your foot on shore
In Novo Orbe : here's the rich Peru:
And there within, sir, are the golden wines,
Great Solomon's Ophir! he was sailing to 't
Three years; but we have reach'd it in ten months.
This is the day, wherein to all my friends,
I will pronounce the happy word, BE RICH.
Do we succeed? Is our day come? and holds it'
Mam. Pertinax, my Surly,
Again I say to thee, aloud, BE RICH.
This day thou shalt have ingots; and to-morrow
Face. Both blood and spirit, sir.
Mam. I will have all my beds blown up, not stuff 'd: Down is too hard.-My mists
I'll have of perfume, vapored 'bout the room
And I will eat these broths with spoons of amber,
My foot-boy shall eat pheasants, calver'd salmons,
Drest with an exquisite and poignant sauce,
Go forth, and be a knight."
Sir, I'll go look
A little, how it heightens.
Do. My shirts