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The life of a poet is his works ; the author of genius, which cannot die, still continueth to flourish, and to survive in them. But as curiosity inclines us to be equally acquainted with the man, as well as with the writer ; and as custom hath made it necessary to prefix some history of his life and person, we shall endeavour to gratify the reader, by presenting him with such particulars as we have been able to collect, relating to the author of the following poems.
Benjamin Jonson was descended from an ancient family in Scotland : his grandfather was originally of Annandale in that kingdom, and removed from thence to Carlisle in the reign of Henry VIII. under whom he enjoyed some post or office. The father of Jonson was a sufferer in the time of Queen Mary, and probably on the account of religion. He was not only imprisoned, but lost his estate, and afterwards entered into holy orders. It should seem that he did not enter into orders, till after the death of Mary, and when Queen Elizabeth was in possession of the
Whether he then lived at Carlisle, or at what time he left it with his family, is uncertain. But we find that he resided in Westminster at the time of his death. This happened in the year 1574, about a month before the birth of Benjamin his son. It is no where said on what day, or in what month of that year, nor in what part of Westminster, Jonson was born. Conjecture would lead us to imagine that he was born in the parish of St. Martin in the Fields. There was then a private school in that church, and to that he was first sent for education. He was afterwards removed from thence, and sent to Westminster school, where Camden was his master. Whilst he continued there, his mother married a second husband, by trade a bricklayer.
As her son grew up, and was fit to be employed, his mother took him home, and obliged him to work at his father-in-law's business.
There is some little difference in the relations given us, witi regard to the earlier part of Jonson's life, and the time he continued to work at the trade of a bricklayer. Dr. Fuller saith, that he soon left his father, and went to the University of Cambridge; but being unable to continue there for want of a proper maintenance, he returned to his father in a few weeks, and was employed in the new structure of Lincoln’s-Inn, with a trowel in his hand, and a book in his pocket. Mr. Wood tells us, that when he worked with his father, he was pitied by some generous gentlemen, and received assistance from them : and that he was recommended by Camden to Sir Walter Raleigh, whose son he attended in his travels abroad. On his return to England, he and his pupil parted, not in cold blood; that Jonson then went to Cambridge, and was statutably elected into St. John's College. But this account by Mr. Wood hath great difficulties, not to be reconciled with the age of either of Sir Walter's sons, nor with the incidents of Jonson's life. The account we follow is given by himself.
Disliking his father's business, he went into the Low Countries as a soldier ; there he distinguished himself by his valour, killing and despoiling one of the enemies in the view of both arinies. Poets have been seldom memorable for their military atchievements, or actions in the field ; we may the less wonder therefore, that Jonson hath touched on this incident of his life, with some elation of heart, in an epigram addressed to true soldiers. After his return home, he resumed his former studies; and then became a member of the University of Cambridge ; but his name doth not occur, either in the public or private registers of that place. It hath been a constant tradition, that he was a sizar of St. John's College ; but as no account was then taken in that college of those who were admitted, but of those only who received a scholarship, there is no mention of him in their books ; neither doth his name occur in the list of those who were matriculated : for it appeared, on consulting the university register, that there was an omission or neglect for about ten or twelve years together ; in which time it is supposed that Jonson was admitted. There are, however, several books in the library of St. John's college, with his name in them, and which were given by him. to. that college; and these books were probably given in his life-time, for we do not find that he left a will, although a diligent search hath been made for that purpose.
It is not easy to determine how long a time he continued at Cambridge; it was undoubtedly but short, his fortune not supplying him with the decent conveniencies of a learned ease.
When he left the university, he betook himself to the playhouse: a transition not peculiar to Jonson, nor uncommon in the present age. The play-house he entered in was an obscure one,
in the skirts of the town, and called the Green Curtain, in the neighbourhood of Shoreditch or Clerkenwell. : At this time likewise he turned his thoughts to compositions for the stage ; yet at first, his talents for writing, as well as those for acting, were far from being excellent; and the success in both was answerable. Most of his earlier pieces are said to have miscarried in the representation, or were afterwards neglected by him, when his genius and his judgment improved. His attempts in acting could neither procure him a subsistence, nor recommend liim to a share in any of the companies or theatres, which in that age were numerous in the town. His inabilities as a player were a topick of satire to Jonson's adversaries; and they have mentioned some characters in which he appeared with no great credit or applause. Decker reproacheth him “ with leaving his former occupation of morter-treader, to “ turn actor;" and informs us particularly,
" that he performed " the part of Zuliman at Paris-garden : that he ambled by a “play-waggon in the highway, and took mad Jeronymo's part " to get service among the mimicks ; that in this service he would “ have continued, but could not set a good face on the matter, " and so was .cashiered." It is ungenerous to reproach a man with imperfections he cannot prevent; but Decker had no wit nor humour, and made up what was wanting in both by contumely and abuse. Happy was it for Jonson, that his poverty was his chief crime ; and that his adversaries could accuse him rather of the lowness of his fortunes, than the ignominy of his mind or
Whilst he was thus a retainer to the stage, he had the misfortune to be engaged in a duel; but Jonson was not the aggressor. In this rencounter he killed his opponent, who had challenged him; and he himself was wounded in the arm, by his adversary's sword, ten inches longer than his own. Decker hath casually told us, this antagonist was a player. For this offence he was committed to prison; and during his confinement, he was visited by a popish priest, who taking the advantage of his melancholy and dejection of spirits, made him a convert to the church of Rome. He continued twelve years in the Romish communion, but afterwards recanted, and was reconciled to the church of England. It is unknown how long he was kept in prison, and equally uncertain by what method he obtained a releaseinent from it.
We have now brought Jonson to about the twenty-fourth year of his age, from whence we are to date the rise of his reputation as a dramatic writer. About this time his acquaintance commenced with Shakspeare, who began it, as we are told, with a remarkable piece of service and good-nature ; nor is Jonson to be taxed with want of gratitude, or esteem for his friend. He had wrote a play or two which neither added to his reputation or his
profit. He was now offering another to the publick, and had put it into the hands of a person, who running it over in a careless supercilious manner, was returning it to him with answer, that it would be of no service to their company. Shakspeare happened luckily to cast his eye upon it ; and found something so well in it as to engage him to read it through, and afterwards to recommend the poet and his writings to the publick. The name of the play is no where mentioned ; and I do not imagine it to have been any of those we now have ; for he omitted some plays, unquestionably his own, when he published a volume of his works in folio ; and one of those plays we have here reprinted from an old quarto, and placed at the end of the seventh volume.
In the year- 1598, his comedy intitled Every Man in his Humour, was acted by the lord chamberlain's servants. Their theatre was called the Globe, and situate on the bank-side in Southwark. Shakspeare belonged to it, and was a performer in this comedy of Jonson. The principal comedians belonging to this house, were Shakspeare, Burbage, Hemings, Condel, and several others, all eminent in the profession of acting. Hemings and Condel were the first editors of Shakspeare's plays in folio, about seven years after his decease. The edition is incorrect and faulty, but their intention was good ; and it was but fitting that he who had given life to them and others, should himself live in the fame and memory of admiring posterity.
Every Man in his Humour is the first dramatic performance, in the several editions of Jonson's works. After this he produced a play regularly every year, for some years successively. Every Man out of his Humour, his second coinedy, was represented in 1599, at the same place, and by the same performers as the former play. There is much less design and action in this, than in the preceding piece ; but the characters are very strongly marked, and some of them have been thought to glance at particular persons of the author's acquaintance.
Cynthia's Revels was acted in the year 1600, and the performers were the children of queen Elizabeth's Chapel. Jonson hath called this not a comedy, but a comical satire. This too hath little or no plot, and the persons of the play are rather vices or passions personized, than characters copied from real life ; bis principal intention seemeth to have been, a desire to compliment the Queen, under the allegorical personage of the goddess Cynthia,
His next performance was the Poetaster, which bath also the title of a comical satire, and was represented by the same performers in 1601. There was at this time a quarrel between Jonson and Decker ; possibly they were contending heroes for the poetic crown, but certainly the competition between them was very unequal. Decker was personally alluded to in this play, under
the character of Crispinus : and Jonson was further taxed of particularly reflecting in it on some professors of the law, and on some military men, who were both well known in that age. The popular clamours against him upon this occasion ran very high ; and to these he replied, in vindication of himself, by an apologetical dialogue, which was once spoke upon the stage ; and which he annexed on the publication of his works, to the end of this play. But Decker was bent upon revenge, and resolved if possible to conquer Jonson at his own weapons ; for immediately after he wrote a play, intitled Satiromastix, or the untrussing the Humorous Poet; and in this Jonson is introduced, under the character of Horace junior. Of Decker's performance we may say, it has much malice mingled with no wit: the Poetaster of Jonson hath indeed some merit; but it was abusing his talents, and his time, and paying no great compliment to an audience, in presenting them with the idle quarrels of himself and his rival ; and whatever it might cost his adversary, part of the entertainment was undoubtedly at his own expence.
As we have said so much of these plays, we shall take leave to say something of the performers in them. Jonson's was presented by the children of the chapel, and Decker's by the children of Saint Paul's. These children were the choristers belonging to both those places : and their reputation for acting, enabled them to vie with the most celebrated players of that age: and it should seem from what Shakspeare hath hinted in Hamlet, in relation to this matter, that the public suffrage was divided between them. There is an Epitaph in Jonson on the death of one of these children, which I omitted to take notice of in its proper place. His name, as we conjecture from the initial letters S. P. was Sal. Pavy, who had a part in Cynthia's Revels, and the Poetaster. The epitaph informs us he had acted with applause for three years; that he was remarkable for playing the character of an old man, and was but in the thirteenth
year of his age when he died. It is the 120th of his Epigrams.
The tragedy of Sejanus succeeds the Poetaster. It was acted in 1603, and the players were the king's servants. These were the company belonging to the Globe, and were at first the servants of the Lord Chamberlain. But in the beginning of this year, they had a patent or licence for playing, granted them by James the First, who at the same time honoured them with the title of his servants It appears from the preface to this play, that Shakspeare, who was an actor in it, wrote also, as we suppose, some parts of the tragedy; but when Jonson published it in 1605, those parts or speeches were omitted by him.
After an intermission of two years, he wrote his comedy of Volpone or the Fox, which was acted in 1605, by the same performers as the tragedy of Sejanus'; only we may observe, that as