66 Ben Jonson: Selected Epigrams and Poetry
“Benjamin Johnson, after Abraham van Blyenberch,” by unknown artist. Wikimedia Commons.
Benjamin Jonson (1572 – 1637) was an English playwright and poet, whose artistry exerted a lasting influence upon English poetry and stage comedy and “…is generally regarded as the second most important English dramatist, after William Shakespeare, during the reign of James I” (qtd. in “Ben Jonson”).
Jonson’s father lost his property, was imprisoned and suffered forfeiture under Queen Mary; having become a clergyman upon his release, he died a month before his son’s birth. Jonson’s mother married a master bricklayer two years later. Jonson attended school in St Martin’s Lane. Later, a family friend paid for his studies at Westminster School; on leaving Westminster School, Jonson was to have attended the University of Cambridge, to continue his book learning but did not, because of his unwilled apprenticeship to his bricklayer stepfather. He fled to serve with English regiments in the Netherlands and, upon his return to England, began his career as an actor and playwright (“Ben Jonson”).
In 1598 Jonson produced his first great success, Every Man in His Humour, with William Shakespeare was among the first actors to be cast. Jonson’s other work for the theatre in the last years of Elizabeth I’s reign was marked by fighting and controversy, especially between Jonson and a rival playwright, Thomas Dekker. At the beginning of the English reign of James VI and I in 1603 Jonson joined other poets and playwrights in welcoming the new king. Jonson quickly adapted himself to the additional demand for masques and entertainments introduced with the new reign and fostered by both the king and his consort Anne of Denmark. In addition to his popularity on the public stage and in the royal hall, he enjoyed the patronage of aristocrats such as Elizabeth Sidney (daughter of Sir Philip Sidney) and Lady Mary Wroth. This connection with the Sidney family provided the impetus for one of Jonson’s most famous lyrics, the country house poem To Penshurst.
In 1616 Jonson received a yearly pension of 100 marks (about £60), leading some to identify him as England’s first Poet Laureate. The period between 1605 and 1620 may be viewed as Jonson’s heyday. By 1616 he had produced all the plays on which his present reputation as a dramatist is based; in 1618 he was awarded an honorary masters’ degree from Oxford University. Jonson’s productivity began to decline in the 1620s, but he remained well known; he suffered a series of strokes but was still working on a play right up until his death, in 1637.
“Epigrams” (published in the 1616 folio) is an entry in a genre that was popular among late-Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences, although Jonson was perhaps the only poet of his time to work in its full classical range. The epigrams explore various attitudes, most from the satiric stock of the day: complaints against women, courtiers and spies abound. The condemnatory poems are short and anonymous; Jonson’s epigrams of praise, including a famous poem to Camden and lines to Lucy Harington, are longer and are mostly addressed to specific individuals. Although it is included among the epigrams, “On My First Sonne” is neither satirical nor very short; the poem, intensely personal and deeply felt, typifies a genre that would come to be called “lyric poetry.” It is possible that the spelling of ‘son’ as ‘Sonne’ is meant to allude to the sonnet form, with which it shares some features. A few other so-called epigrams share this quality. Jonson’s poems of “The Forest” also appeared in the first folio. Most of the fifteen poems are addressed to Jonson’s aristocratic supporters, but the most famous are his country-house poem “To Penshurst” and the poem “To Celia” (“Come, my Celia, let us prove”) that appears also in Volpone.
Underwood, published in the expanded folio of 1640, is a larger and more heterogeneous group of poems. It contains A Celebration of Charis, Jonson’s most extended effort at love poetry; various religious pieces; encomiastic poems including the poem to Shakespeare and a sonnet on Mary Wroth; the Execration against Vulcan and others. The 1640 volume also contains three elegies which have often been ascribed to Donne (one of them appeared in Donne’s posthumous collected poems).
“Ben Johnson,” Wikipedia, 21 Oct. 2020. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ben_Jonson Accessed 23 Oct. 2020.
- How does Jonson characterize his own writing style as evidenced in the epigram subtitled, “To my Book”?
- Epigram “XIV” is dedicated to William Camden. Who was he? And what influenced did he have on the writings and career of Ben Jonson?
- His epigram, “XXII” is an elegy dedicated to his daughter who died in her first year of life. Where else in our collection have we seen literature dedicated to lost children and how does this compare? Consider, for example, “Pearl” and Mary Wroth’s “On the Death of my first and Dearest Child, Hector Philips“?
- How do Jonson’s epigrams differ from his poetry?
- Though he was arguably the most acclaimed playwright of his day (second only to Shakespeare), Jonson is not nearly as remembered today. Why do you think this is?
- A quick video, featuring biographer Ian Donaldson, on Ben Jonson’s life
- An academic article on the “Honest Style” of Ben Jonson’s epigrams and poetry
- The British Library’s Ben Jonson webpage podcast
To my Book.
It will be look’d for Book, when some but see
Thy Title, Epigrams, and nam’d of me,
Thou shoul’d be bold, licentious, full of gall;
Wormwood, and sulphur, sharp, and tooth’d withall,
Become a petulant Thing, hurl Ink, and Wit
As Mad-men Stones: not caring whom they hit.
Deceive their Malice, who could wish it so.
And by thy wiser Temper, let Men know
Thou art not Covetous of least Self-Fame,
Made from the hazard of another’s Shame.
Much less, with leud, prophane, and beastly Phrase,
To catch the Worlds loose Laughter, or vain Gaze.
He that departs with his own Honesty
For vulgar Praise, doth it too dearly buy.
On Something, that Walks Somewhere.
At Court I met it, in Clothes brave enough,
To be a Courtier; and looks grave enough,
To seem a Statesman: as I near it came,
It made me a great Face, I ask’d the Name.
A Lord, it cried, buried in Flesh and Blood,
And such from whom let no Man hope least good,
For I will do none: and as little ill,
For I will dare none. Good Lord, walk Dead still.
X I I.
On Lieutenant Shift.
Shift, here in Town, not meanest amongst Squires,
That haunt Pickt-hatch, Mersh-Lambeth, and Whitefryers,
Keeps himself, with half a Man, and defrays
The Charge of that State, with this Charm, God pays.
By that one Spell he Lives, Eats, Drinks, Arrays
Himself: his whole Revenue is, God pays.
The quarter Day is come; the Hostess says,
She must have Money: he returns, God pays.
The Taylor brings a Suit home; he it ‘ssays,
Looks o’er the Bill, likes it: and says, God pays.
He steals to Ordinarys; there he plays
At Dice his borrowed Money: which, God pays.
X I V.
To William Camden.
Camden, most reverend Head, to whom I owe
All that I am in Arts, all that I know.
(How nothing’s that?) to whom my Countrey owes
The great Renown, and Name wherewith she goes.
Than thee the Age sees not that thing more grave,
More high, more holy, that she more would crave.
What Name, what Skill, what Faith hast thou in Things!
What Sight in searching the most antique Springs!
What Weight, and what Authority in thy Speech!
Man scarce can make that doubt, but thou canst teach.
Pardon free truth, and let thy modesty,
Which conquers all, be once over-come by thee.
Many of thine this better could, than I,
But for their Powers, accept my Piety.
X X I I.
On my first Daughter.
Here lies to each her Parents ruth,
Mary, the Daughter of their youth:
Yet all Heavens gifts, being Heavens due,
It makes the Father, less, to rue.
At six Months end, she parted hence
With safety of her Innocence;
Whose Soul Heavens Queen, (whose Name she bears)
In comfort of her Mothers Tears,
Hath plac’d among her Virgin-train:
Where, while that sever’d doth remain,
This Grave partakes the fleshly Birth.
Which cover lightly, gentle Earth.
X X I I I.
To John Donne.
Donne, the delight of Phœbus, and each Muse,
Who, to thy one, all other Brains refuse;
Whose every work, of thy most early Wit,
Came forth Example, and remains so, yet:
Longer a knowing, than most Wits do live,
And which no’ affection praise enough can give!
To it, thy Language, Letters, Arts, best Life,
Which might with half Mankind maintain a Strife;
All which I mean to praise, and, yet, I would;
But leave, because I cannot as I should!
L X X V I.
On Lucy Countess of Bedford.
This Morning, timely rapt with holy Fire,
I thought to form unto my zealous Muse,
What kind of Creature I could most desire,
To Honour, Serve, and Love; as Poets use.
I meant to make her Fair, and Free, and Wise,
Of greatest Blood, and yet more good than Great,
I meant the Day-star should not brighter rise,
Nor lend like Influence from his lucent Seat.
I meant she should be Courteous, Facile, Sweet,
Hating that solemn Vice of Greatness, Pride;
I meant each softest Vertue, there should meet,
Fit in that softer Bosom to reside.
Only a Learned, and a Manly Soul
I purpos’d her; that should, with even powers,
The Rock, the Spindle, and the Sheers controul
Of Destiny, and spin her own free hours.
Such when I meant to fain, and wish’d to see,
My Muse bad, Bedford write, and that was she.
L X X X I V.
To Lucy Countess of Bedford.
Madam, I told you late, how I repented,
I ask’d a Lord a Buck, and he denied me;
And, e’er I could ask you, I was prevented:
For your most Noble Offer had suppli’d me.
Streight went I home; and there most like a Poet,
I fancied to my self, what Wine, what Wit
I would have spent: how every Muse should know it,
And Phœbus-self should be at eating it.
O Madam, if your grant did thus transfer me,
Make it your Gift. See whither that will bear me.
X C V I I I.
To Sir Thomas Roe.
Thou hast begun well, Roe, which stand well too,
And I know nothing more thou hast to do.
He that is round within himself, and streight,
Need seek no other strength, no other height;
Fortune upon him breaks her self, if ill,
And what would hurt his Virtue, makes it still.
That thou at once, then nobly mayst defend
With thine own course the judgment of thy Friend,
Be always to thy gather’d self the same:
And study Conscience, more than thou would’st Fame.
Though both be good, the latter yet is worst,
And ever is ill got without the first.
Inviting a Friend to Supper.
To Night, grave Sir, both my poor House, and I
Do equally desire your Company:
Not that we think us worthy such a Guest,
But that your worth will dignifie our Feast,
With those that come; whose Grace may make that seem
Something, which, else, could hope for no esteem.
It is the fair Acceptance, Sir, creates
The Entertainment perfect: not the Cates.
Yet shall you have, to rectifie your Palate,
An Olive, Capers, or some better Sallad
Ush’ring the Mutton; with a short-leg’d Hen,
If we can get her, full of Eggs, and then,
Limons, and Wine for Sauce: to these, a Coney
Is not to be despair’d of, for our Money;
And, though Fowl, now, be scarce, yet there are Clarks,
The Sky not falling, think we may have Larks.
I’ll tell you of more, and lye, so you will come:
Of Partridg, Pheasant, Wood-cock, of which some
May yet be there; and Godwit if we can:
Knat, Rail, and Ruff too. How so ere, my Man
Shall read a Piece of Virgil, Tacitus,
Livy, or of some better Book to us,
Of which we’ll speak our Minds, amidst our Meat;
And I’ll profess no Verses to repeat:
To this, if ought appear, which I know not of,
That will the Pastry, not my Paper, show of.
Digestive Cheese, and Fruit there sure will be;
But that, which most doth take my Muse, and me,
Is a pure Cup of rich Canary Wine,
Which is the Mermaids, now, but shall be mine:
Of which had Horace, or Anacreon tasted,
Their Lives, as do their Lines, till now had lasted.
Tabacco, Nectar, or the Thespian Spring,
Are all but Luther‘s Beer, to this I sing.
Of this we will sup free, but moderately,
And we will have no Pooly’, or Parrot by;
Nor shall our Cups make any guilty Men:
But, at our parting, we will be, as when
We innocently met. No simple Word,
That shall be utter’d at our mirthful Board,
Shall make us sad next Morning: or affright
The Liberty, that we’ll enjoy to Night.
C X V I I I.
Gut eats all Day, and lechers all the Night,
So all his Meat he tasteth over, twice:
And, striving so to double his delight,
He makes himself a thorough-fare of Vice.
Thus, in his Belly, can he change a Sin,
Lust it comes out, that Gluttony went in.
C X X.
An Epitaph on S. P. a Child of Q. Eliz. Chappel.
Weep with me all you that read
This little Story:
And know from whom a Tear you shed
Death‘s self is sorry.
‘Twas a Child, that so did thrive
In Grace, and Feature,
As Heaven and Nature seem’d to strive
Which own’d the Creature.
Years he numbred scarce Thirteen
When Fates turn’d cruel,
Yet three fill’d Zodiacks had he been
The Stages Jewel;
And did act (what now we moan)
Old Men so duly,
As, sooth, the Parcæ thought him one,
He play’d so truly.
So, by Error to his Fate
They all consented;
But viewing him since (alas, too late)
They have repented;
And have sought (to give new birth)
In Baths to steep him;
But, being so much too good for Earth,
Heaven vows to keep him.
From: The Forest
II. — TO PENSHURST.
Thou art not, PENSHURST, built to envious show
Of touch, or marble ; nor canst boast a row
Of polish’d pillars, or a roof of gold :
Thou hast no lantern whereof tales are told ;
Or stair, or courts ; but stand’st an ancient pile,
And these grudg’d at, art reverenced the while.
Thou joy’st in better marks, of soil, of air,
Of wood, of water ; therein thou art fair.
Thou hast thy walks for health, as well as sport :
Thy mount, to which thy Dryads do resort,
Where Pan and Bacchus their high feasts have made,
Beneath the broad beech, and the chestnut shade ;
That taller tree, which of a nut was set,
At his great birth, where all the Muses met.
There, in the writhed bark, are cut the names
Of many a sylvan, taken with his flames ;
And thence the ruddy satyrs oft provoke
The lighter fauns, to reach thy lady’s oak.
Thy copse too, named of Gamage, thou hast there,
That never fails to serve thee season’d deer,
When thou wouldst feast or exercise thy friends.
The lower land, that to the river bends,
Thy sheep, thy bullocks, kine, and calves do feed ;
The middle grounds thy mares and horses breed.
Each bank doth yield thee conies ; and the tops
Fertile of wood, Ashore and Sydneys copp’s,
To crown thy open table, doth provide
The purpled pheasant, with the speckled side :
The painted partridge lies in ev’ry field,
And for thy mess is willing to be kill’d.
And if the high-swoln Medway fail thy dish,
Thou hast thy ponds, that pay thee tribute fish,
Fat aged carps that run into thy net,
And pikes, now weary their own kind to eat,
As loth the second draught or cast to stay,
Officiously at first themselves betray.
Bright eels that emulate them, and leap on land,
Before the fisher, or into his hand,
Then hath thy orchard fruit, thy garden flowers,
Fresh as the air, and new as are the hours.
The early cherry, with the later plum,
Fig, grape, and quince, each in his time doth come :
The blushing apricot, and woolly peach
Hang on thy walls, that every child may reach.
And though thy walls be of the country stone,
They’re rear’d with no man’s ruin, no man’s groan ;
There’s none, that dwell about them, wish them down ;
But all come in, the farmer and the clown ;
And no one empty-handed, to salute
Thy lord and lady, though they have no suit.
Some bring a capon, some a rural cake,
Some nuts, some apples ; some that think they make
The better cheeses, bring them ; or else send
By their ripe daughters, whom they would commend
This way to husbands ; and whose baskets bear
An emblem of themselves in plum, or pear.
But what can this (more than express their love)
Add to thy free provisions, far above
The need of such ? whose liberal board doth flow
With all that hospitality doth know !
Where comes no guest, but is allow’d to eat,
Without his fear, and of thy lord’s own meat :
Where the same beer and bread, and self-same wine,
That is his lordship’s, shall be also mine.
And I not fain to sit (as some this day,
At great men’s tables) and yet dine away.
Here no man tells my cups ; nor standing by,
A waiter, doth my gluttony envý :
But gives me what I call, and lets me eat,
He knows, below, he shall find plenty of meat ;
Thy tables hoard not up for the next day,
Nor, when I take my lodging, need I pray
For fire, or lights, or livery ; all is there ;
As if thou then wert mine, or I reign’d here :
There’s nothing I can wish, for which I stay.
That found King JAMES, when hunting late, this way,
With his brave son, the prince ; they saw thy fires
Shine bright on every hearth, as the desires
Of thy Penates had been set on flame,
To entertain them ; or the country came,
With all their zeal, to warm their welcome here.
What (great, I will not say, but) sudden chear
Didst thou then make ’em ! and what praise was heap’d
On thy good lady, then ! who therein reap’d
The just reward of her high huswifry ;
To have her linen, plate, and all things nigh,
When she was far ; and not a room, but drest,
As if it had expected such a guest !
These, Penshurst, are thy praise, and yet not all.
Thy lady’s noble, fruitful, chaste withal.
His children thy great lord may call his own ;
A fortune, in this age, but rarely known.
They are, and have been taught religion ; thence
Their gentler spirits have suck’d innocence.
Each morn, and even, they are taught to pray,
With the whole household, and may, every day,
Read in their virtuous parents’ noble parts,
The mysteries of manners, arms, and arts.
Now, Penshurst, they that will proportion thee
With other edifices, when they see
Those proud ambitious heaps, and nothing else,
May say, their lords have built, but thy lord dwells.
V. — SONG. — TO CELIA.
Come, my CELIA, let us prove,
While we may, the sports of love ;
Time will not be ours for ever :
He at length our good will sever.
Spend not then his gifts in vain.
Suns that set, may rise again:
But if once we lose this light,
‘Tis with us perpetual night.
Why should we defer our joys ?
Fame and rumor are but toys.
Cannot we delude the eyes
Of a few poor household spies ;
Or his easier ears buguile,
So removed by our wile ?
‘Tis no sin love’s fruit to steal,
But the sweet theft to reveal :
To be taken, to be seen,
These have crimes accounted been.
XV. — TO HEAVEN.
Good and great GOD ! can I not think of thee,
But it must straight my melancholy be ?
Is it interpreted in me disease,
That, laden with my sins, I seek for ease ?
O be thou witness, that the reins dost know
And hearts of all, if I be sad for show ;
And judge me after : if I dare pretend
To aught but grace, or aim at other end.
As thou art all, so be thou all to me,
First, midst, and last, converted One, and Three !
My faith, my hope, my love ; and in this state,
My judge, my witness, and my advocate.
Where have I been this while exiled from thee,
And whither rapt, now thou but stoop’st to me ?
Dwell, dwell here still ! O, being every where,
How can I doubt to find thee ever here ?
I know my state, both full of shame and scorn,
Conceived in sin, and unto labor born,
Standing with fear, and must with horror fall,
And destined unto judgment, after all.
I feel my griefs too, and there scarce is ground,
Upon my flesh t’ inflict another wound :
Yet dare I not complain, or wish for death,
With holy PAUL, lest it be thought the breath
Of discontent ; or that these prayers be
For weariness of life, not love of thee.
Reading: From Underwood
A Celebration of Charis: IV. Her Triumph
A Sonnet to the Noble Lady, the Lady Mary Wroth
My Picture Left in Scotland
To the Memory of My Beloved the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare
Ode to Himself [“Come leave the loathéd stage”]
And see his chariot triumph ’bove his wain.
Gifford, William, editor. The Works of Ben Jonson. George Routledge and Sons, 1879, is licensed under no known copyright.