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Man in his Humour made its appearance, at The Rose theatre, in 1596, and, with material alterations and improvements, at The Globe, in 1598. This was followed, at various periods, and almost to the very close of his life, by thirteen more pieces in the same department; of which ten are comedies, and the remaining three, as their author chose to designate them, comical satires.
That these productions, though in the line peculiarly adapted to his genius, should be equally excellent, it would be extravagant to expect. The best, and, we may add, the most incomparable in their kind, are the play just mentioned, Volpone, or The Fox, Epicene, or The Silent Woman, and The Alchemist. As much inferior to these, but yet possessed of considerable merit, we may next enumerate The Case is Altered, The Devil is an Ass, and The Staple of News; and lastly, though not devoid of interesting and well written passages, Bartholomew Fair, The New Inn, The Magnetic Lady, and A Tale of a Tub. The comical satires, entitled Every Man out of his Humour, Cynthia's Revels, and The Poetaster, are, especially the last, composed in a tone of indignant strength ; and, as their appellation might lead us to suppose, are personal and severe; but probably not more so than the occasion warranted.
The fair fame of Jonson which, both in a moral and dramatic light, has, for more than a century, been overwhelmed by a cloud of ignorance and prejudice, now brightens with more than pristine lustre, through the liberal and generous efforts of some accomplished scholars of the present day; and if ever it be permitted to departed spirits to witness the transactions of this sublunary sphere, with what delight and gratitude must the spirit of the injured bard look down upon the labours of his learned friends, upon the noble and disinterested protection of a Gilchrist, a Godwin, and a Gifford !
Under such circumstances, and with such a triumvirate in his support, it were needless, and, indeed, it were unjust, to do more than repeat in this place their own summary of his merit as a comic poet, to which we will now add, once for all, however unimportant it may be, the expression of our conviction of the general
justness of their sentiments with regard to his writings, and of the unanswerable nature of their defence with regard to his moral character; a tribute which we are, beyond measure, gratified in paying, as whilst they have impartially brought forward the great talents of Jonson, they have paid a full and frank acknowledgment to the superior comprehensiveness of the genius of Shakspeare; and have, at the same time, placed in a striking point of view the steady friendship which subsisted between these two luminaries of the dramatic world.
It is, however, only with the literary character of Jonson that we are now occupied; and on the topic immediately before us, the consideration of his comic powers, Mr. Godwin has cursorily, but very justly remarked, that “these, perhaps, compose his strongest claim to the admiration of all posterity. He excels every writer that ever existed, in the article of humour ; and it is a sort of identical proposition to say, that humour is the soul of comedy. Even the caustic severity of his turn of mind aided him in this. He seized with the utmost precision the weaknesses of human character, and painted them with a truth that is altogether irresistible. Shakspeare has some characters of humour marvellously felicitous. But the difference between these two great supporters of the English drama, in the point of view we are considering, lies here. Humour is not Shakspeare's mansion, the palace wherein he dwells ; there are many of his comedies, where the humorous characters rather form the episode of the piece; poetry, the manifestation of that lovely medium through which all creation appeared to his eye, and the quick sallies of repartee, are the objects with which his comic muse more usually delights herself. But Ben Jonson is all humour ; and the fertility of his muse, in characters of this sort, is wholly inexhaustible.” *
With a fuller elucidation of the subject, which laid more directly before him, Mr. Gifford, after commenting on the inutility of the
* Jouson's Works by Gifford, vol. i. pp, ccxcix. ccc.
common practice of contrasting the two poets, and after observing that “
Shakspeare wants no light but his own ; 'for' as he never has been equalled, and in all human probability never will be equalled, it seems an invidious employ, at best, to speculate minutely on the precise degree in which others fell short of him,” proceeds to state, that “ the judgment of Jonson was correct and severe, and his knowledge of human nature extensive and profound. He was familiar with the various combinations of the humours and affections, and with the nice and evanescent tints by which the extremes of opposing qualities melt into one another, and are lost to the vulgar eye: but the art which he possessed in perfection, was that of marking in the happiest manner the different shades of the same quality, in different minds, so as to discriminate the voluptuous from the voluptuous, the covetous from the covetous, &c.
“ In what Hurd calls picturing,' he was excellent. His characters are delineated with a breadth and vigour, as well as a truth, that display a master hand ; his figures stand prominent on the canvas, bold and muscular, though not elegant ; his attitudes, though sometimes ungraceful, are always just ; while his strict observation of proportion, (in which he was eminently skilled,) occasionally mellowed the hard and rigid tone of his colouring, and by the mere force of symmetry, gave a warmth to the whole, as pleasing as it was unexpected. Such, in a word, was his success, that it may be doubted whether he has been surpassed, or even equalled, by any of those who have attempted to tread in his steps.
“ In the plots of his comedies, which were constructed from his own materials, he is deserving of undisputed praise. Without violence; without, indeed, any visible effort, the various events of the story are so linked together, that they have the appearance of accidental introduction ; yet they all contribute to the main design, and support that just harmony which alone constitutes a perfect fable. Such, in fact, is the rigid accuracy of his plans, that it requires a constant, and almost painful attention, to trace out their various bearings and dependencies. Nothing is left to chance : before he sat
down to write, he had evidently arranged every circumstance in his mind; preparations are made for incidents which do not immediately occur ; and hints are dropped, which can only be comprehended at the unravelling of the piece. The play does not end with Jonson, because the fifth act is come to a conclusion; nor are the most important events precipitated, and the most violent revolutions of character suddenly effected, because the progress of the story has involved the poet in difficulties from which he cannot otherwise extricate himself. This praise, whatever be its worth, is enhanced by the rigid attention paid to the unities; to say nothing of those of place and character, that of time is so well observed in most of his comedies, that the representation occupies scarcely an hour more on the stage, than the action would require in real life.” *
Mr. Gifford then goes on to explain, why Jonson, “ with such extraordinary requisites for the stage, joined to a strain of poetry always manly, frequently lofty, and sometimes sublime," should not have retained his popularity; accounting for this result by the assignment of three causes, of which the first was, his dismissing “ the grace and urbanity which mark his lighter pieces whenever he approached the stage, putting on the censor with the sock;” the second sprung from the circumstance, that “ Jonson was the painter of humours, not of passions," and aiming less to excite laughter in his hearers, “ than to feast their understanding, and minister to their rational improvement,” he frequently brought forward unamiable and uninteresting characters, pests which he wished to extirpate from society, not only by rendering them ridiculous, but by exhibiting them in an odious and disgusting light; and the third was, “a want of just discrimination. He seems to have been deficient,” observés Mr. Gifford, “ in that true tact or feeling of propriety which Shakspeare possessed in full excellence. He appears to have had an equal value for all his characters, and he labours upon the most
* Gifford's Jonson, vol. i. Memoirs of Jonson, pp.
Memoirs of Jonson, pp. ccxiii.--ccxy.
unimportant, and even disagreeable of them, with the same fond and paternal assiduity which accompanies his happiest efforts." * This laboured and indiscriminate finishing may be termed; indeed, one of the prominent characteristics of Jonson’s composition; and has, perhaps, more than any thing else, contributed to obscure his reputation.
The genius of Jonson seems to have forsaken him, when he touched the tragic chords. Neither pity nor terror answered to his call, and Sejanus and Catiline are valuable, principally, for their correct, though cold and hard, delineations of Roman character and costume. It is remarkable, that, in the construction of these tragedies, Jonson has deserted his Athenian masters, and, adopting the licence of the Romantic school, he has laid aside the unities of time and place; but without acquiring that breadth and freedom in the execution of his subjects, with which such deviations ought to have been accompanied. · The devotion of the poet to this high department of his art was not confined, however, to these two Roman dramas; he had planned a tragedy on the Fall of Mortimer, of which only a small fragment remains; and we find, from the Dulwich Manuscripts, that, the year preceding the first performance of Sejanus, he had actually been engaged in writing a play on the subject of Richard the Third:-“ Lent unto Benjemy Johstone,” says Henslowe's memorandum, “ at the appoyntment of E. Alleyn and Wm. Birde the 22 June 1602, in earnest of a boocke called Richard Crook-back, and for new adycions for Jeronymo, the some of xlb.” † The Richard of Jonson, and the Macbeth of Milton !—would that time had spared the one and witnessed the execution of the other ! How delightful, how interesting might have been the labour of comparison !
If Jonson failed, as he must be allowed to have done, in communicating pathos and interest to his tragic productions, he has made us ample amends by the unrivalled excellence of his numerous Masques, a species of dramatic poetry, to which he, and he alone, put the seal of
* Gifford's Jonson, vol. i. Memoirs, pp.ccxvi.—ccxix.
+ Reed's Shakspeare, vol. iii. p. 394. VOL. II.