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Ben Jonson, a distinguished English dramatist, born at Westminster, probably in 1574; died Aug. 6, 1637. Before he was out of his teens he enlisted in the army and saw some service in Flanders; after which he is said to have been entered at St. John's College, Cambridge, where his stay must have been short, for at twenty we find him upon the stage. In 1596 appeared his “ Comedy of Humors," which was subsequently remodeled, and appeared under the title of “Every Man in His Humor.” In 1599 appeared Jonson's less successful comedy, “Every Man out of His Humor.” He continued to write for the stage down to near the close of his life. The latest and apparently the most complete collection of his works, which appeared in 1853, contains seventeen plays, and more than thirty masques and interludes, besides many miscellaneous pieces in prose and verse. His two most important tragedies are “Sejanus” (1603) and “ Catiline" (1611), both founded upon scenes in Roman history. His principal comedies, besides those already mentioned, are “Volpone, or the Foxe” (1605); “Epicæne, or the Silent Woman” (1609); and the “ Alchemist ” (1610). Scattered through the masques and interludes, and among the miscellaneous pieces, are several exquisite poems.
Jonson's personal history was marked by many vicissitudes. Shortly after the accession of James I., in 1603, Jonson, in conjunction with Chapman and Marston, produced the comedy of “ Eastward Hoe,” which was supposed to reflect severely upon the Scottish nation; the authors were thrown into prison, and threatened with the loss of their ears and noses. Jonson, however, soon made his peace with the King, with whom he rose into high favor. In 1613 he went to the Continent as tutor to a son of Sir Walter Raleigh. In 1619 he was made Poet Laureate. In 1628 he had a stroke of palsy, whereupon King Charles I. increased his stipend. Notwithstanding these beneficences, he was always involved in pecuniary difficulties. He was buried in Westminster Abbey; and his tombstone (since removed) contained by way of inscription only the words, “ O rare Ben Jonson." It is said that in this inscription the name was spelt with an h as is the custom with the Scot branch of the family.
ON STYLE. (From “ Timber, or Discoveries Made upon Men and Matter.") DE STILO, ET OPTIMO SCRIBENDI GENERE. — For a man to write well, there are required three necessaries, — to read the best authors, observe the best speakers, and much exercise of his own style. In style, to consider what ought to be written, and after what manner, he must first think and excogitate his matter, then choose his words, and examine the weight of either. Then take care, in placing and ranking both matter and words, that the composition be comely; and to do this with diligence and often. No matter how slow the style be at first, so it be labored and accurate; seek the best, and be not glad of the forward conceits or first words that offer themselves to us : but judge of what we invent, and order what we approve. Repeat often what we have formerly written ; which beside that it helps the consequence, and makes the juncture better, it quickens the heat of imagination, that often cools in the time of setting down, and gives it new strength, as if it grew lustier by the going back. As we see in the contention of leaping, they jump farthest that fetch their race largest; or as in throwing a dart or javelin, we force back our arms to make our loose the stronger. Yet, if we have a fair gale of wind, I forbid not the steering out of our sail, so the favor of the gale deceive us not. For all that we invent doth please us in the conception of birth, else we would never set it down. But the safest is to return to our judgment, and handle over again those things the easiness of which might make them justly suspected. So did the best writers in their beginnings: they imposed upon themselves care and industry; they did nothing rashly; they obtained first to write well, and then custom made it easy and a habit. By little and little their matter showed itself to them more plentifully; their words answered, their composition followed ; and all, as in a well-ordered family, presented itself in the place. So that the sum of all is, ready writing makes not good writing, but good writing brings on ready writing. Yet when we think we have got the faculty, it is even then good to resist it, as to give a horse a check sometimes with a bit, which doth not so much stop his course as stir his mettle. Again, whither a man's genius is best able to reach, thither it should more and more contend, lift, and dilate itself; as men of low stature raise themselves on their toes, and so ofttimes get even, if not eminent. Besides, as it is fit for grown and able writers to stand of themselves, and work with their own strength, to trust and endeavor by their own faculties ; so it is fit for the beginner and learner to study others and the best. For the mind and memory are more sharply exercised in comprehending another man's things than our own; and such as accustom themselves and are familiar with the best authors shall ever and anon find somewhat of them in themselves : and in the expression of their minds, even when they feel it not, be able to utter something like theirs, which hath an authority above their own. Nay, sometimes it is the reward of a man's study, the praise of quoting another man fitly; and though a man be more prone and able for one kind of writing than another, yet he must exercise all. For as in an instrument, so in style, there must be a harmony and consent of parts.
ON SAAKSPEARE. DE SHAKSPEARE NOSTRAT. – I remember the players have often mentioned it as an honor to Shakspeare, that in his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, “Would he had blotted a thousand;" which they thought a malevolent speech. I had not told posterity this, but for their ignorance who chose that circumstance to commend their friend by wherein he most faulted; and to justify mine own candor, for I love the man, and do honor his memory on this side idolatry as much as any. He was indeed honest, and of an open and free nature; had an excellent fancy, brave notions, and gentle expressions, wherein he flowed with that facility that sometime it was necessary he should be stopped. “ Sufflaminandus erat,” as Augustus said of Haterius. His wit was in his own power: would the rule of it had been so too. But he redeemed his vices with his virtues. There was ever more in him to be praised than to be pardoned.
SELECTION FROM “SEJANUS." SCENE: The Garden of EUDEMUS in Rome. Enter SEJANUS, Livia,
and EUDEMUS. Sejanus — Physician, thou art worthy of a province
For the great favors done unto our loves;
And but that greatest Livia bears a part
To give them worthy satisfaction.
A fit and full reward for his large merit.
To minister it to him ?
I say, Lydgus.
An eunuch Drusus loves.
Though I have loved you long, and with that height
Who's that? Eudemus, Look. 'Tis not Drusus, lady; do not fear.
[Exit EUDEMUS. Livia - Not I, my lord: my fear and love of him
Left me at once. Sejanus —
Illustrious lady, stay — Eudemus [within] — I'll tell his Lordship.
Who is it, Eudemus ? Eudemus — One of your Lordship's servants brings you word
The Emperor hath sent for you.
Oh, where is he?
[Escit. Eudemus —
Fortunate princess !
The Empire's life, and voice of Cæsar's world!
The bliss I have, with what I ought to owe
The means that wrought it. How do I look today? Eudemus — Excellent clear, believe it. This same fucus
Was well laid on. Livia
Methinks 'tis here not white.
Hath given some little taint unto the ceruse;
[Paints her cheek. Livia — Nay, now you've made it worse. Eudemus —
I'll help it straight-
To satisfy for any lady's honor.
Make a light fucus,
If't do not expiate ?
Here, good physician.
Of such a man, that comes not every hour
The trouble of his bed, and your delights,