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Essay on the Life and dramatic Writings
of Ben Jonson.
Preface. On Shakspeare and his times though very much has been said and written, since the curiosity of the learned was first directed towards that age, yet in the whole catalogue of writings with respect to them I could discover none in any degree answerable to the grandeur and variety of the subject. There are, to be sure, many valuable books among the number, and plenty of such as it would be difficult, if not impossible, to dispense with. However great may have been the industry of the literati of the eighteenth century, it has undoubtedly been by far surpassed by the scrupulousness of modern inquiries. As for the accuracy of ascertaining recorded facts, and of gathering the raw materials of history, there is, perhaps, little remaining to be done. But what I looked for everywhere, a coherent and luminous survey of the rise, progress, and final decline, of English poetry, a lively description of the intellectual “form and pressure” of the Elizabethan age, I sought everywhere in vain.
By this avowal I would not impeach the meritorious and universally acknowledged researches of Drake, Collier, Dyce, and other critics; part of whom spent their lives upon collecting authentic details concerning that period. But whether it came from a voluntary resolution to confine their pursuits to limits easy to be surveyed, and only clear the path for others, or from any diffidence of their own powers: they certainly did not so much as aspire to the palm of historic art. Nor, perhaps, ever will. For if I am not wholly mistaken, this last and most important task shall be performed by one of our German countrymen. The literary intercourse of the English · and German nations reverses the commercial: the former deal,
if I may hazard the expression, in raw productions, the latter in those of workmanship. Literary history worth the name is not of long date even with us, yet owes its existence to a German, and was, perhaps, not likely to originate elsewhere.
The ingenious author of the “History of the poetic Literature of the German Nation” has repeatedly been reported to have engaged in a similar task concerning the period of Shakspeare: - if it were so, we should no longer stand in need of gleaning the “dead and scattered limbs” of history, but see before us the whole of it, pervaded as it were with the breath and stir of life, and know the secret and almost imperceptible relations of national and individual existences. Till then, it will be a hazardous enterprize to write upon a particular subject with a view to its connection with literary and public life at large, the more especially if the character of the poet in review was greatly influenced by the circumstances of the time. Thus it is with Ben Jonson, whose poetry was almost pamphlet-writing. Notwithstanding this, I have undertaken to draw a sketch of his life and literary character, hoping that, if I myself should fall short to the truth, I might help some other to arrive at it; for the most insignificant performance may prove a step in the scale of science, or promote knowledge at least by meeting with contradiction. The short treatise now offered does not attempt to claim the merit of any new discoveries of documents which were, indeed, out of my reach — but I have only endeavoured to present a narrative which may exhibit the character of Ben Jonson in connection with the spirit of his age.
Benjamin Jonson, or, as the name is commonly styled, Ben Jonson, was a cotemporary, and passed for the rival, of Shakspeare, which circumstance alone would suffice to immortalize his memory. He was born in 1574 - Shakspeare's junior by ten years — and died in 1637. His literary fate has at all times been very fickle and capricious, and not only bis coevals, but posterity have not yet arrived, with respect to him, at a certain standard. We are, indeed, inclined to assume that length of time is the surest arbiter of human affairs, and that all things in a long course of years will settle, like water, in their proper level and situation. But this too natural belief will hold good only with authors of absolute perfection, that live on in the hearts and mouths of mankind, and belong, not to the antiquities or curiosities of our present literature, but to its living substance: in all cases, however, tried before the tribunal of learned criticism, there is not, for aught I know, a single instance of absolute unanimity. Notwithstanding the copiousness of our systems and theories we are swayed in questions of polite literature by individual sympathies and antipathies, and literary characters, even when dead, share the destiny of the living, to be honoured and cherished by some, and hated or despised by others.
Such has also been the fate of Ben Jonson, on whom from his first coming before the world as a poet to the present day praises and censures have alternately been lavished. As I am not writing a critical analysis, but an historical memoir, it would be to no purpose to dwell on these any longer: suffice it, then, to say, that his principal adversaries of later times are to be found among the followers of the literary school called romantic, as the late Augustus William Schlegel, Mr. Lewis Tieck, and their partisans; his most able apologizers among his English editors, of whom Mr. Gifford is beyond all comparison the foremost. Whether this excellent critic in his vindication of Ben Jonson's character was prompted by a wellgrounded indignation at the shallow censures and misconstructions of his antagonists, or led astray by too natural a partiality for a subject he had made the business of his life, he has undoubtedly gone too far. He might have pleaded for Ben Jonson without derogating from the reputation of Shakspeare, and need not exchange the office of an historian for that of an advocate. Surely, had he not been prejudiced by somewhat too eager a desire of carrying the victory by any means, he would have been aware of that crisis in English literature announced and ripened particularly by the compositions of Ben Jonson, when
poetry lost the stamp of genuine nature and simplicity, creative genius was succeeded by sophisticated refinement, sensibility by reflexion, everlasting truth by accidental reality: he would, in all probability, have perceived the proud stream of popular English poetry ebbing into shallow by-channels, which were soon swallowed up by the sands. How much or how little Ben Jonson contributed towards this change of public taste and literary industry, and in what manner he became instrumental to a general revolution of thought and sentiment, these questions I dare not answer directly, but shall endeavour, by relating what shall seem connected with them, to explain in some measure, and get nearer to, their purport.
At the time of Shakspeare's first applying himself to the theatre, dramatic poetry was yet in that state of barbarousness and wild extravagance always characterizing the first attempts at art of a sound and vigorous, though rude and intemperate, spirit. Real genius will first manifest itself by displaying its strength; at a later period it begins to aim at beauty. On the accession of Elizabeth the English nation had gone through a mighty religious revolution, and was entering the second stage of modern culture, viz the literary. For there are three different phases in the history of the nations of modern Europe after their deliverance from the hierarchal and feudal fetters of the middle ages: the religious, the literary, and political existences. Soon after the commencement of Elizabeth's reign literary concerns came to be uppermost in England, — though this country then became famous in different ways; – soon after the death of the queen it. was engrossed by political strifes. We perceive in this that rule of history first pointed out by the excellent Mr. Gervinus, and not to be refuted by the objection, that the principles and tendencies of a bygone may extend into, and act upon, the following period. National life cannot indeed be analyzed and decomposed by categories of philosophy, and its animated organism does not secern, as by a chimical process, a caput mortuum of the past. But new notions, and a new bent of thought, brought on through a natural turn of public life, imperceptibly convey themselves into the popular mind, and in a manner take its whole substance into their service. In the