페이지 이미지
PDF
ePub

most grotesque. Perhaps his genius leans most in the latter direction. This is a field of laughter not much occupied in the present day; perhaps it belongs to a coarser and simpler state of mind than now prevails. Such caricatures as those of Leonardo da Vinci show it in its rudest forms. It prevailed in the time of George III.: Smollett and Gilray are grotesque, Sterne is often so. It is the element of the ridiculous that lies either in the native disproportion or in the voluntary distortion of real things. The figure of Punch is the type of the grotesque. It deals much with the disease and wretchedness and basenesses of human nature, and is generally more or less inhuman. It is rare in Shakespeare: perhaps the Apothecary in Romeo and Juliet, and Falstaff's ragged regiment, are the only instances of it. In Jonson, on the other hand, it is common; but rather in its moral than physical manifestations. Bartholomew Fair is made up of it, in the most degraded forms; The Alchymist, The Staple of Vews, The New Inn, contain abundant specimens of it. His worst works are full of instances of his unbounded power of imagining ludicrous situations.

Jonson wrote two tragedies, Sejanus and Catiline. The former is incomparably the better. His aim was not to represent man under the influence of deep and moving passion, but to find occasion for pompous periods and stately diction. It was lis ambition to “do it after the high Roman fashion.” He laments that it is not possible in modern times “to observe the old state and splendour of dramatic poems ;” but he adds, “In the mean time, if in truth of argument, dignity of persons, gravity and height of elocution, fullness and frequency of sentence, I have discharged the other offices of a tragic poet, let not the absence of these forms be imputed to me.” And if, indeed, these be the only other offices of the tragic poet, Jonson has succeeded in tragedy; and in some respects, he has gone beyond these requisitions, especially in the character of Tiberius, which displays great insight, and is remarkable for its power and originality. The picture is in great measure probably true to the original; and the stage has no figure like it, of deep and crafty dissiinulation and unbounded self-indulgence pressing into their service an astute intellect and large mental capacity. Catiline is history distorted into poetry; and both history and poetry suffer from the forced transformation. We would rather read the In Catilinam in the original than translated into blank verse, and made a speech in a tragedy. To say nothing of other objections, it stops the way. The description of the battle, with which the play concludes, is a fine specimen of " height of elocution” and “fullness of sentence." Compare it with a similar description in Macbeth. It was well

[ocr errors]

"'*

a

said by Oldys of these classical tragedies, that the author “ had pulled down all antiquity on his head.”

Mr. Bell, the editor of the neat little edition of Jonson's poetical works lately published, tells us that “it is in his minor poems we must look for him as he lived, felt, and thought;" and that from his plays alone “we should arrive at very imperfect and erroneous conclusions upon his personal and poetical character.” This is one of those things that it suits a present purpose so well to say, that a man does not care to inquire too closely whether it be correct or not. No doubt the minor poems of Jonson add something to our knowledge of him; but the insight derived from them into either his genius or his character is insignificant compared to that afforded by his greater works. Even the lighter and more graceful side of his poetical faculty is to be found exercised in greater perfection in the “Sad Shepherd,”—though that piece has been preposterously over-estimated,-and in the songs scattered through his plays and masques, than in the “ Forest” and “Underwoods.'

The minor poems rank higher in common estimation than they deserve. People are familiar with a few admirable specimens, and are apt to think there must be many more like them; whereas the fact is, that our popular anthologies contain all Jonson's best songs, which are separated by a wide interval from his worse ones. The origin of many of the most popular among them has been traced back by the commentators to classical originals, and it is probable that many others are indebted to sources not discovered ; for Jonson was not only a good scholar, but, if we may trust Gifford, a most excursive reader of all that had been written in the languages of Greece and Rome. “Drink to me only with thine eyes!” is from the love-letters of Philostratus, the different ideas being scattered through several letters of the original, but each idea having its exact antecedent, as may be seen in Gifford's edition, where the passages are quoted; and though the combination of such scattered thoughts may show, as the present editor urges, and as is undoubtedly true, a high degree of artistic ingenuity, it is a much more cold blooded plagiarism than even the transference of a whole poem. “Still to be neat, still to be drest," is taken from a little Latin poem of Jean Bonnefons; though, oddly enough, the point of the original, “ Fingere se semper non

• It is a serious defect, that in a work professing to contain the poetical works of Ben Jonson these songs should not have been collected. The consequence is, that the reader will turn the pages of this volume in vain for one or two of Jonson's very best minor productions. No cheapness can compensate for want of completeness. Another marked blot is the absence of any index or detailed table of contents. On the other hand, the life prefixed is well written, and the notes brief and pertinent.

[ocr errors]

est confidere amori," and to which Jonson's song too seems to lead, is omitted in his version. “Come, my Celia, let us prove, " and “Kiss me, sweet, the wary lover," are from Catullus. Jonson borrows every where largely from the ancients, not with the idea of surreptitiously availing himself of their ideas, but in conformity with the opinion in his day, that to adapt them well was at least as happy an effort of genius as to invent for oneself. He boldly avows, and defends, his practice:

“And for his true use of translating men,

It still hath been a work of as much palm

In clearest judgments as to invent or make.” No man was ever less of a copyist. He is master of what he uses. In some cases, indeed, he puts in a borrowed plume in the most odd and extravagantly inappropriate place, as when he makes one of his shepherds refer to "the lovers' scriptures, Heliodores or Statii, Longi, Eustathii, Prodromi ;” and in others overwhelms all dramatic propriety from the desire to insert a good translation: as where in Catiline he introduces Cicero speaking something like the whole of the In Catilinam; in the Silent Woman makes Truewit lecture on love out of Ovid by the pageful; or concludes an act of the Poetaster with a literal translation of one of Horace's satires. In general, however, he shows a remarkable dexterity in transferring his borrowed material into the substance of his work; and it is only the retriever-like sagacity of some industrious commentator which informs the reader that a cast serving-man is talking Statius, or a Venetian magnifico quoting Libanius. Jonson, however, borrows not only from the ancients, but frequently from himself; repeating ideas, and even whole lines, of his own, and thus furnishing the strongest proof that the absence of what he calls "copia” in his own resources is what often throws him on those of others. His songs, however, are very far from being mere borrowings from the antique. The originals have often little to recommend them: he supplements the idea; his strong artistic taste comes into play, and he gives to his little poem a completeness and justness of form, and a finish which make it truly his own. Nor can it ever be denied that Jonson had a vein of sweet and fanciful imagination, which, though it was narrow, contained a large proportion of pure metal. It is probable he himself underrated this side of his genius, and cramped its exercise; but every now and then he has given it expression in forms of crystalline clearness and perfect symmetry. Such a one is the “Hymn to Diana.” We quote this and others, not because they will be new to any one, but because criticism on poetry is dull and inappreciable unless the poems be not only known to have been written, but are fresh in the memory of the reader:

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

“Queen and huntress, chaste and fair,

Now the sun is laid to sleep,
Seated in thy silver chair,
State in wonted manner keep.

Hesperus entreats thy light,

Goddess, excellently bright.
Earth, let not thy envious shade

Dare itself to interpose ;
Cynthia's shining orb was made
Heaven to clear, when day did close.

Bless us, then, with wished sight,

Goddess, excellently bright.
Lay thy bow of pearl apart,

And thy crystal shining quiver ;
Give unto the flying hart
Space to breathe, how short soever,-

Thou that mak'st a day of night,

Goddess, excellently bright.' There is a calm serenity in the whole movement of this piece like that of the moon through the floating clouds, and in exquisite harmony with the subject-matter. The following, too,

very perfect in a very different style, and more light, easy, and playful than we often find in the writings of Jonson, who is apt to lean somewhat too heavily in his most trifling productions :

“If I freely may discover

What would please me in my lover-
I would have her fair and witty,
Savouring more of court than city;
A little proud, but full of pity ;
Light and humorous in her toying,
Soon building hopes, and soon destroying ;
Long, but sweet, in the enjoying ;
Neither too easy nor too hard :
All extremes I would have barr’d,
She should be allowed her passions,
So they were but used as fashions.
Sometimes froward, and then frowning ;
Sometimes sickish, and then swowning :
Every fit with change still crowning.
Purely jealous I would have her,
Then only constant when I crave her ;
'Tis a virtue should not save her.
Thus nor her delicates could cloy me,

Nor her peevishness annoy me.' This too has been traced to an epigram of Martial. Of the following song Mr. Gifford says, that “if it be not the most beautiful song in the language, I freely confess, for my own part, that I know not where it is to be found.”*

By some slip, Mr. Bell has assigned this dictum of Gifford's to another song. As the two come together, it is probably merely an error of the press in the reference.

A SONG.
O do not wanton with those eyes,

Lest I be sick with seeing;
Nor cast them down, but let them rise,

Lest shame destroy their being.

O be not angry with those fires,

For then their threats will kill me;
Nor look too kind on my desires,

For then my hopes will spill me.

O do not steep them in thy tears,

For so will sorrow slay me;
Nor spread them as distract with fears;

Mine own enough betray me. Gifford was a most able and industrious commentator, but his opinion on poetry is not valuable; and for Jonson he has a blind partiality, partly the result of a good deal of similarity in their natures, and still more from his forming an excellent field on which to do battle with other critics, and furnishing a good opportunity for venting the acrimony of his disposition on those who had previously abused, and, it is fair to add, traduced his author. To us, it seems that the above song is a favourable specimen of Jonson when thrown entirely on his own resources, and that, like the rest of his love-songs, it is artificial and thoroughly heartless. Nowhere has Jonson depicted the passion of love with nature or delicacy. It is scarcely too much to say, that he has never depicted it at all, and was himself incapable of feeling it. The attitude of the ancients towards women found something in his nature which answered to it very exactly. In his life, he seems freely to have indulged his appetites, without the sanction of any deep or permanent attachments. He has not in any of his plays drawn a female character with the slightest power to inspire us with interest. He uses them in general only as a sort of block on which to hang to advantage ridiculous fashions and contemptible caprices. There is one love-scene in his works-Ovid parting from Julia. It is on the same model as the chamber scene in Romeo and Juliet, and forms a singular contrast with it. In both cases the lover, condemned to exile, takes his last farewell. In one case, pure passion breathes itself in accents so simple, that the reader cannot stay to admire, but is borne along until the completed scene leaves its whole tender impression on the mind. In the other, the speakers themselves run into disquisitions on love and mortal life; and though we cannot help thinking Jonson has in this place warmed his genius at the fire of his great contemporary, and struck out some fine flashes of the poetical expression of highly wrought feelings, yet in the main

« 이전계속 »