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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 ex. pectations- 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 digni. fied 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,
Now the sun is laid asleep,
Hesperus entreats thy light,
Earth, let not thy envious shade
Dare itself to interpose;
Bless us then with wishód sight,
Lay thy bow of pearl apart,
And thy crystal shining quiver;
Thou, that mak'st a day of night,
THE LOVE-MAKING OF LUXURY.
Volpone makes love to Celia.
See, behold, What thou art queen of; not in expectation, As I feed others, but possess'd and crown'd. See here, a rope of pearl ; and each, more orient Than that the brave Ægyptian queen caroused : Dissolve and drink them. See, a carbuncle, May put out both the eyes of our St. Mark; A diamond would have bought Lollia Pauliner, When she came in like star-light, hid with jewels, That were the spoils of provinces ; take these And wear and lose them; yet remains an ear-o'ng
To purchase them again, and this whole state.
Cel. Good sir, these things might move a mind affected
'Tis the beggar's virtue :
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
Face. The evening will set red upon you, sir;
Mam. Pertinax, my Surly, Again I say to thee, aloud, BE RICH. This day thou shalt have ingots; and to-morrow Give lords the affront.—Is it, my Zephyrus, right ?Thou’rt sure thou saw'st it blood ?
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 To lose ourselves in ; and my baths, like pits, To fall into : from whence we will come forth, And roll us dry in gossamer and roses, Is it arriv’d at ruby?- And my flatterers Shall be the pure and gravest of divines.-And they shall fan me with ten estrich tails A-piece, made in a plume to gather wind. We will be brave, Puffe, now we have the med'cine My meat shall all come in, in Indian shells, Dishes of agate, set in gold, and studded With emeralds, sapphires, hyacinths, and rubies, The tongues of carps, doramice, and camels' heels, Boil'd in the spirit of sol, and dissolv'd pearl, Apicius' diet ’gainst the epilepsy: And I will eat these broths with spoons of amber, Headed with diamond and carbuncle. My foot-boy shall eat pheasants, calver'd salmons, Knots, godwits, lampreys: I myself will have The beards of barbels serv'd, instead of salads ; Oil'd mushrooms; and the swelling, unctuous paps Of a fat pregnant sow, newly cut off, Drest with an exquisite and poignant sauce, For which I'll say unto my cook, “ There's gold; Go forth, and be a knight.” Face.
Sir, I'll go look A little, how it heightens.
[Exit FACE Mam.
Do. My shirts I'll have of taffeta-sarsnet, soft and light