Page images

"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 wishèd 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.'

[ocr errors]

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.


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

the speeches are adapted rather to show the ingenuity of the author than the passion of the lovers. In The New Inn, the lover rouses his mistress from cold good-will into a sudden and irrestrainable enthusiasm of devotion to him by a brace of sermons on courage and on love; which, however ill-adapted they may seem to secure this happy result, are fine laboured pieces of rhetoric, with thought and originality mingled somewhat largely with dullness. Indeed, Jonson, though utterly incapable of giving a dramatic representation to the most universal passion both of the real and the mimic stage, and ill-constituted in his own nature to experience its higher influences, could form a noble intellectual image of it, and express it in adequate language. Perhaps the finest and most imaginative piece of poetry he has written is the "Epode to deep Ears," as he calls it, in which he contrasts false and true love. We quote the introduction, as well as the finer lines to which we allude, because the former will serve as an example of the cumbrous mechanically translated prose of which the greater part of Jonson's so-called poetry consists.


Not to know vice at all, and keep true state,

Is virtue and not fate:

Next to that virtue, is to know vice well,
And her black spite expel.

Which to effect (since no breast is so sure,
Or safe, but she 'll procure

Some way of entrance), we must plant a guard
Of thoughts to watch and ward

At th' eye and ear, the ports unto the mind,
That no strange or unkind

Object arrive there, but the heart, our spy,
Give knowledge instantly

To wakeful reason, our affections' king:
Who, in th' examining,

Will quickly taste the treason, and commit
Close, the close cause of it.

'Tis the securest policy we have,

To make our sense our slave.

But this true course is not embraced by many:

By many! scarce by any.

For either our affections do rebel,

Or else the sentinel,

That should ring 'larum to the heart, doth sleep;

Or some great thought doth keep

Back the intelligence, and falsely swears

They 're base and idle fears

Whereof the loyal conscience so complains.

Thus, by these subtle trains,

Do several passions invade the mind,

And strike our reason blind:

Of which usurping rank, some have thought love
The first; as prone to move

Most frequent tumults, horrors, and unrests,
In our inflamed breasts:

But this doth from the cloud of error grow,
Which thus we over-blow.

The thing they here call love is blind desire,
Armed with bow, shafts, and fire;

Inconstant, like the sea, of whence 'tis born,
Rough, swelling, like a storm;

With whom who sails rides on the surge of fear,
And boils as if he were

In a continual tempest. Now true love
No such effects doth prove;

That is an essence far more gentle, fine,
Pure, perfect, nay divine;

It is a golden chain let down from heaven,
Whose links are bright and even,

That falls like sleep on lovers, and combines
The soft and sweetest minds

In equal knots: this bears no brands, nor darts,
To murder different hearts;

But in a calm and god-like unity

Preserves community.

O, who is he that in this peace enjoys
Th' elixir of all joys?

A form more fresh than are the Eden bowers,
And lasting as her flowers;

Richer than Time, and as Time's virtue rare;
Sober as saddest care;

A fixed thought, an eye untaught to glance.
Who, blest with such high chance,

Would, at suggestion of a steep desire,

Cast himself from the spire

Of all his happiness ?"

This must not be taken as an average specimen of the minor poems of Jonson. For the most part they are inexpressibly tedious reading. There is enough 'thought, harshly expressed, to require an effort to understand them; and not enough to reward the effort when read. They are weighed down by a sort of inert mass of mind which the imagination has not sufficient power to kindle. It might have sufficed a lesser body of intellect, but it is out of proportion to what it has to move. Struggling gleams of fire shine through a wellheaped mass of materials; but rarely does the whole burst into a clear blaze. Now and then, indeed, some exquisite poetical idea may be found, half hidden by the cumbrousness of its expression, as when he compares the serenity of his mistress's face to the calmness and life-renewing influence which pervade the air after tempest; an idea not easily suggested by the lines,

"As alone there triumphs to the life

All the good, all the gain, of the elements' strife." There is gold, and pure gold, in his writings; but mixed

with large lumps of clay. The worst of it is, the clay is as solemnly and carefully hammered out as the gold; and the author evidently refuses to acknowledge even to himself that it is of any inferior value. Labour Jonson never spared; he gave all his works the finish his best pains could afford, but he used material in itself incapable of taking a polish. He had a keen incisive wit; but it is an Andrea Ferrara rather than a rapier. A sort of native unwieldiness is apt to leave its impression in what he writes; and his rhythm is like his matter, it has a lumbering elephantine motion, full of stops and sudden charges. His epigrams are often sharp-pointed, and witty; but, like all epigrams, they are dull reading. They are moulded in the Latin type; and though some of them have point, many of them are only brief occasional poems on a single subject, mostly eulogistic of some particular person. Some of the satirical ones are also probably personal; but in general aimed at some vicious practice or moral deformity, set forth under an appropriate title, in which, as in the body of the poem, he loves to show his wit. We have epigrams to "Sir Annual Tilter," to "Don Surly," to "Sir Voluptuous Beast," to "Fine Grand," to "Captain Hungry," &c. That on Cheveril the lawyer may serve as a specimen of the best of them :

"No cause, nor client fat, will Cheveril leese:
But as they come, on both sides he takes fees,
And pleaseth both; for while he melts his grease
For this, that wins for whom he holds his peace."

The "Forest" and "Underwoods,"-names by which Jonson designated two collections of his minor poems,—consist, with some love-songs, chiefly of eulogistic epistles and addresses to his friends and patrons. It is usual to speak of these poems as abounding in profound thought and wise insight into human life. They certainly look as if they did. They have a grave sententious air which their matter really hardly warrants. There are good things in them, and even striking things; but such are rare. They are ingenious and laboured, while the body of thought in them is sufficiently commonplace. The same thing may be observed in his "Discoveries," a collection of his ideas on various disconnected subjects expressed in prose. Thoughts which occurred to him he wrapped up in large bundles of language, and put by here for posterity. For the most part, they are by no means "discoveries.' They are not such things as Bacon wrote in his essays, or Selden said at his table. They contain none of the subtle penetrating judgments of an original genius. They are weighty and often acute dicta; but always within certain limits of knowledge already established. Jonson can select true judgments to give his authority and sanction


« PreviousContinue »