Ben Jonson was one of the literary giants of his time, in both poetry and drama. William Shakespeare even acted in some of his plays; and Jonson worked on an edition of Shakespeare’s plays upon that poet’s death. Often the two are contrasted with Shakespeare the image of natural genius and Johnson the representation of learning and study. I hope you enjoy this minuscule sample of his work:
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 asked 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.
Ah! 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.
Ah, 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.
Ah! do not steep them in they tears,
For so will sorrow slay me;
Nor spread them as distraught with fears,—
Mine own enough betray me.
To John Donne
Donne, the delight of Phoebus 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 meant to praise, and yet I would,
But leave, because I cannot as I should.
On My First Daughter
Here lies, to each her parents’ ruth,
Mary, the daughter of their youth;
Yet all heaven’s gifts being heaven’s due,
It makes the father less to rue.
At six months’ end she parted hence
With safety of her innocence;
Whose soul heaven’s queen, whose name she bears,
In comfort of her mother’s tears,
Hath placed amongst her virgin-train:
Where, while that severed doth remain,
This grave partakes the fleshly birth;
Which cover lightly, gentle earth!
On My First Son
Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, loved boy:
Seven years thou wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
O could I lose all father now! For why
Will man lament the state he should envy,
To have so soon ‘scaped world’s and flesh’s rage,
And, if no other misery, yet age?
Rest in soft peace, and asked, say, “Here doth lie
Ben Johnson his best piece of poetry.”
For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such
As what he loves may never like too much.
An Ode to Himself
Where dost thou careless lie
Buried in ease and sloth?
Knowledge that sleeps doth die;
And this is security,
It is the common moth
That eats on wits and arts and oft destroys them both.
Are all the Aonian springs
Dried up? lies Thespia in waste?
Doth Clarius’ harp want strings,
That not a nymph now sings?
Or droop they as disgraced
To see their seas and bowers by chattering pies defaced?
If hence thy silence be
(As ‘tis too just a cause),
Let this thought quicken thee:
Minds that are great and free
Should not on fortune pause;
‘Tis crown enough to virtue still, her own applause.
What though the greedy fry
Be taken by false baits
Of worded balladry,
And think it posy?
They die with their conceits
And only piteous scorn upon their folly waits.
Then take in hand thy lyre,
Strike in thy proper strain,
With Japhet’s line aspire
Sol’s chariot for new fire
To give the world again:
Who aided him, will thee, the issue of Jove’s brain.
And since our dainty age
Cannot endure reproof,
Make not thyself a page
To that strumpet the stage,
But sing high and aloof,
Safe from the wolf’s black jaw and the dull ass’s hoof.
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 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 raped, now thou but stoopst to me?
Dwell, dwell still here 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 that breath
Of discontent; or that these prayers be
For weariness of life, not for love of thee.