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little exaggeration, to be absolutely destitute both of passion and feeling; but they contain powerful pictures of vice, and most witty pillorying of the prevailing absurdities in conduct and manners-the
"Folly and brainsick humours of the times."
In the advertisement to the reader prefixed to The Alchymist, he sets forth very clearly, and somewhat more modestly than is his wont, the relation in which he conceives himself to stand towards his contemporaries :
"TO THE READER.
If thou beest more, thou art an understander, and then I trust thee. If thou art one that takest up, and but a Pretender, beware of what hands thou receivest thy commodity: for thou wert never more fair in the way to be cosened than in this age, in Poetry, especially in Plays wherein, now the concupiscence of dances and of antics so reigneth, as to run away from Nature, and be afraid of her, is the only part of art that tickles the spectators. But how out of purpose, and place, do I name art? When the professors are grown so obstinate contemners of it, and presumers on their own naturals, as they are deriders of all diligence that way, and, by simple mocking at the terms when they understand not the things, think to get off wittily with their ignorance. Nay, they are esteemed the more learned, and sufficient for this, by the many, through their excellent vice of judgment. For they commend writers, as they do fencers or wrestlers; who, if they come in robustuously, and put for it with a great deal of violence, are received for the braver fellows; when many times their own rudeness is the cause of their disgrace, and a little touch of their adversary gives all that boisterous force the foil. I deny not but that these men, who always seek to do more than enough, may sometime happen on something that is good and great, but very seldom; and when it comes it doth not recompense the rest of their ill. It sticks out, perhaps, and is more eminent, because all is sordid and vile about it: as lights are more discerned in a thick darkness, than a faint shadow. I speak not this out of a hope to do good to any man against his will; for I know, if it were put to the question of theirs and mine, the worst would find more suffrages because the most favour common errors. But I give thee this warning, that there is a great difference between those that, to gain the opinion of copy,* utter all they can, however unfitly; and those that use election and a mean. For it is only the disease of the unskilful, to think rude things greater than polished; or scattered more numerous than composed."
The new style did not at once gain favour; but Jonson was not the sort of man to have any hesitation where the fault lay. He was always "the first best judge in his own cause." No man ever believed more implicitly in himself, or insisted
i. e. copia, to gain credit for fertility.
more pertinaciously that others should do so too. He extravagantly over-estimated the orderly, classical, sensible side of art, to which both his nature and his studies drew him; and being here clearly unapproached, he measured his relations to other men by his own rule, and set himself far above them. He was wont in his pleasant hours to call himself "the poet." He told Drummond "he was better versed, and knew more in Greek and Latin than all the poets in England, and quintessence their brains." So far was he from submitting his plays to the judgment of the public, that he exactly reversed the process, and regarded an unhesitating approbation of what he had written as the test of intellect in his audience. A competent critic was one who praised him. If you did not like what he wrote, it was a proof you did not comprehend him, and were therefore not capable of judging him. To hiss him off the stage, was to be below the beasts in understanding. Censure did not humble him or affect him otherwise than as an irritation, because he had a genuine heartfelt contempt for the capacity of any person who thought he wrote amiss.
A few extracts from his prologues will show that we have not overstated his own self-estimate, or his scorn for popular criticism. In the prologue to The Alchymist he boldly asks for mere justice:
"Fortune, that favours fools, these two short hours
We wish away, both for your sake and ours,
Judging spectators; and desire i' th' place
To th' author justice."
For the Staple of News (a very indifferent play) he makes a much bolder claim:
"Great noble wits, be good unto yourselves,
"Tis you have left to judge-not he to write."
Both the dedication to the Earl of Pembroke and the address prefixed to the tragedy of Catiline are worth quoting as specimens of the eye with which the author regarded his own work, and the temper in which he approached the public:
"MY LORD,-In so thick and dark an ignorance, as now almost covers the age, I crave leave to stand near your light, and by that to be
read. Posterity may pay your benefit the honour and thanks, when it shall know that you dare, in these jig-given times, to countenance a legitimate poem. I call it so against all noise of opinion; from whose crude and airy reports I appeal to the great and singular faculty of judgment in your lordship, able to vindicate truth from error. It is the first of this race, that ever I dedicated to any person; and had I not thought it the best, it should have been taught a less ambition. Now it approacheth your censure cheerfully, and with the same assurance that innocency would appear before a magistrate.
Your Lordship's most faithful honourer,
TO THE READER IN ORDINARY.
The Muses forbid that I should restrain your meddling, whom I see already busy with the title, and tricking over the leaves: it is your own. I departed with my right when I let it first abroad; and now, so secure an interpreter I am of my chance, that neither praise nor dispraise from you can affect me. Though you commend the two first acts, with the people, because they are the worst, and dislike the oration of Cicero, in regard you read some pieces of it at school, and understand them not yet: I shall find the way to forgive you. Be any thing you will be at your own charge. Would I had deserved but half so well of it in translation, as that ought to deserve of you in judgment, if you have any. I know you will pretend, whosoever you are, to have that, and more: but all pretensions are not just claims. The commendation of good things may fall within a many, the approbation but in a few; for the most commend out of affection, self-tickling, uneasiness, or imitation: but men judge only out of knowledge. That is the trying faculty and to those works that will bear a judge, nothing is more dangerous than a foolish praise. You will say, I shall not have yours therefore; but rather the contrary, all vexation of censure. If I were not above such molestations now, I had great cause to think unworthily of my studies, or they had so of me. But I leave you to your exercise. Begin.
TO THE READER EXTRAORDINARY.
You I would understand to be the better man, though places in court go otherwise to you I submit myself and work. Farewell. BEN JONSON."
Often he invents critics of his own to stand on the stage, and to rebuke and inform those in the body of the theatre. Thus in many of his plays he introduces a special set of personages, who appear in the intervals of the acts, and discuss what has gone before. These either wisely applaud, or are brought to condign ridicule for their censures. They form a sort of modern chorus, not uncommon in the plays of the time, and used generally for the explication of the story; but by Jonson devoted to his own vindication and glorification.
In The Magnetic Lady we have an "induction" continued in this manner through the play. The stage is occupied by Master Probee and Master Damplay, who are represented as a sort of delegates from the people, and are met by a boy of the house, who engages to stand for the poet, and tells the others he will venture the play, so they will undertake for the hearers "that they shall know a good play when they hear it, and will have the conscience and ingenuity [ingenuousness] beside to confess it." The poet, he says, The poet, he says, "careless of all vulgar censure, as not depending on common approbation, is confident it shall super-please judicious spectators." The boy is learned in the forms of comedy, and a thorough-going advocate of the cause intrusted to him. When poor Master Damplay-who exists only to be confuted, and is created only for the humiliating confession that "the boy is shrewd and has him every where' -when he ignorantly objects to the first act, that there is "nothing done in it, or concluded," he is instantly extinguished by his young antagonist. "A fine piece of logic!" cries he; do you look, Master Damplay, for conclusions in a protasis? I thought the law of comedy had reserved them to the catastrophe; and that the epitasis, as we are taught, and the catastasis, had been intervening parts to have been expected. But you would have it all come together, it seems; the clock should strike five at once with the acts." So the learned young gentleman goes on with his confutations of all adverse criticism. Master Damplay, in spite of his angry claim to take out his twoshillings admittance-money in censure, is contemptuously bidden to limit himself to so much, and not talk twenty-shillings worth; his ignorance is exposed, his remonstrances peremptorily silenced, and himself condemned to a miserable minority. "Good Master Damplay, be yourself still without a second; few here are of your opinion to-day, I hope; to-morrow I am sure there will be none, when they have ruminated this." So in The Staple of News we have gossips, Mirth, Tattle, Censure, and Expectation, "four gentlewomen ladylike attired," who appear in the same way, and are made to minister to the author's credit by the folly of their criticisms; and for this purpose they vent such a mass of dull old women's twaddle as must have tried the most patient audience, whatever their opinion of the play itself. At other times criticisms are interspersed in the body of the play, which, under a certain veil of generality, are in reality special vindications of the author's skill and judgment. IIe never believed he deserved censure; but his temper would not allow him to bear even undeserved strictures with equanimity. He chafes under any arraignment, however contemptible, and is goaded to fury by
the hooting of the despised and ignorant multitude. Neither the universal applause of his great plays, nor the well-merited condemnation of his bad ones, softened this impatience of spirit, which grew stronger as he grew older, and was strengthened probably by the remembrance of old successes, and the secret conviction that his powers were impaired. It is in his later plays more especially that he uses his prologues to anticipate judgment, and assert a scornful independence of the spectators in the theatre or the readers in private. As an angry opponent says,
"Calling us fools and rogues, unlettered men,
Poor narrow souls that cannot judge of Ben."
The arrogance of temper and impatience of control which display themselves in his writings, cast their shadow also over his private relations and personal character. In 1618, about the time of his greatest reputation, he made a journey to Scotland, walking the whole way there and back on foot. During his stay, he passed some days with Mr. William Drummond of Hawthornden, the poet, who made a note of his conversations, which, long known in an abbreviated form, has of late years been discovered and published in extenso. It is certain that he made no very favourable impression on his Scotch entertainer. They seem to have parted, indeed, with mutual professions of friendship; and some letters passed between them, full of somewhat overdue protestations on Jonson's side, but cold and guarded enough on Drummond's; and their intimacy seems soon to have died out. Indeed, we can well understand how this huge roistering poet from London, in his wayworn shoes and slovenly garments,-for Jonson we know was no great student of appearances,-must have jarred on the nerves of the retired and musing sonneteer of Hawthornden. Moreover, Drummond's wine seems to have been good, and that was a temptation Jonson never could withstand, and in his cups he spoke the worser part of the veritas which was in him, as men's wont is; and worst of all, he criticised his host's poems in a curt and somewhat contemptuous manner, telling him they were all good, in a manner which showed he valued none of them at sixpence. So we have no doubt Drummond was heartily glad when his boisterous visitor, with his magisterial opinions, his boastings, his broad jests, his unruly temper, and his drunkenness, was fairly off the premises, and on his way back from Leith to Darnton (wherever that may be), in the same shoes he had brought with him. And when he was quite gone, the half Italian half canny Scotchman set down his private impressions of him in a few pithy words which have since come to day (though it does not appear he ever meant them