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perfection. Here his imagination, which, in the peculiar line of comedy he cultivated, had but little scope for expansion, and was, in his tragedies, altogether repressed, by an undeviating adhesion to the letter of history, expatiated as in its native element.
No sooner," remarks Mr. Gifford, “ has he taken down his lyre, no sooner touched on his lighter pieces, than all is changed as if by magic, and he seems a new person. His genius awakes at once, his imagination becomes fertile, ardent, versatile, and excursive; his taste pure and elegant ; and all his faculties attuned to sprightliness and pleasure.'
No greater honour, however, has been paid to the memory of Jonson, than the proof which Mr. Godwin has brought forward of his being the favourite author of Milton, “ the predecessor that he chiefly had in his eye, and whom he seems principally to resemble in
* Gifford's Jonson, vol. i. Memoirs, p. ccxxx. After the passage which we have inserted in the text, follow these admirable observations:
“ Such were the Masques of Jonson, in which, as Mr. Malone says, the wretched taste of those times found amusement.' That James and his court delighted in them cannot be doubted, and we have only to open the Memoirs of Winwood and others to discover with what interest they were followed by the nobility of both sexes. Can we wonder at this? There were few entertainments of a public kind at which they could appear, and none in which they could participate. Here all was worthy of their hours of relaxation. Mythologues of classic purity, in which, as Hurd observes, the soundest moral lessons came recommended by the charm of numbers, were set forth with all the splendour of royalty, while Jones and Lanier, and Lawes and Ferrabosco, lavished all the grace and elegance of their respective arts on the embellishment of the entertainment.
« But in what was the taste of the times wretched ? In poetry, painting, architecture, they have not since been equalled; in theology, and moral philosophy, they are not even now surpassed; and it ill becomes us, who live in an age which can scarcely produce a Bartholomew Fair farce, to arraign the taste of a period which possessed a cluster of writers, of whom the meanest would now be esteemed a prodigy. And why is it assumed that the followers of the court of James were deficient in what Mr. Malone is pleased to call taste? To say nothing of the men, (who were trained to a high sense of decorum and intellectual discernment under Elizabeth,) the Veres, the Wroths, the Derbys, the Bedfords, the Rutlands, the Cliffords, and the Arundels
, who danced in the fairy rings, in the gay and gallant circles of these enchanting devices, of which our most splendid shows are, at best, but beggarly parodies, were fully as accomplished in every internal and external grace as those who, in our days, have succeeded to their names and honours.” — Memoirs, pp. CCXXX. CCXXX.
his style of composition.” * Among the numerous passages by which he has substantiated this fact, none are more conspicuous than those that breathe the spirit of the lyrical portion of the Masques ; for a Milton,” as he observes, “ will certainly be found to have studied his compositions in this kind more assiduously, than those of any of his contemporaries. — It would be strange indeed, if the poet, who in early youth composed the Mask of Comus, had not diligently studied the writings of Ben Jonson.” †. Can there be a test of merit more indisputable than this? for Comus, though by no means faultless as a Masque, has to boast of a poetry more rich and imaginative than is to be found in any other composition, save The Tempest of Shakspeare.
“ It is not however," proceeds Mr. Godwin, “ in lighter and incidental matters only, that Milton studied the great model afforded him by Jonson : we may find in him much that would almost tempt us to hold opinion with Pythagoras, and to believe that the
very spirit and souls of some men became transfused into their poetical successors. The address of our earlier poet to the two universities, prefixed to his most consummate performance, the comedy of The Fox, will strike every reader familiar with the happiest passages of Milton's prose, with its wonderful resemblance. — They were both
. of them emphatically poets who had sounded the depths, and formed themselves in the school, of classic lore.
“ The difference between them' may perhaps best be illustrated from the topic of religion. They had neither of them one spark of libertine and latitudinarian unbelief. But Jonson was not, like Milton, penetrated with his religion. It is to him a sort of servitude it is not the principle that actuates, but the check that controls him. But in Milton, it is the element in which he breathes, a part of his nature. He acts, • as ever in his Great Task-master's eye:' and this is not his misfortune ; but he rejoices in his condition, that he has
* Gifford's Jonson, vol. i. p. ccxcvii.
+ Ibid. vol. i. pp. ccciii.cccv.
so great, so wise, and so sublime a Being, to whom to render his audit.” *
The labours of Jonson closed with a species of dramatic poetry in which he had made no previous attempt, and we have only to regret that it was left in an unfinished state ; for had the Sad Shepherd been completed in the style of excellence in which it was commenced, it would have been superior not only to the Faithful Shepherdess of Fletcher, but perhaps to any thing which he himself had written.
When Jonson, in his noble and generous eulogium on Shakspeare, tells us, that
“ He was not of an age, but for all time,”
he seized a characteristic of which the reverse, in some degree, applies
a to himself; for had he paid less attention to the minutiæ of his own age, and dedicated himself more to universal habits and feelings, his popularity would have nearly equalled that of the poet whom he loved and praised. Yet his fame rests on a broad and durable foundation, and we point, with pride and triumph, to that matchless constellation of dramatic merit, where burn, with inextinguishable glory, the mighty, names of SHAKSPEARE, JONSON, FLETCHER, MASSINGER.
• Gifford's Jonson, vol. i. p. cccvii.
Various particulars relative to the personal history of Shakspeare, in addition to those which terminated his biography in the country, having been detailed in the chapters that record his commencement as an actor *, the composition of his poems t, and his first efforts as a dramatic writer I, we have now to collect the few circumstances of his life which time has spared to us, during the most active season of its duration, resuming our narrative at a period when the capital was under considerable alarm from the prevalence of the plague, and from the numerous conspiracies which were entered into against the life of the Queen. Shakspeare had been exposed, during the
year of his birth, to great risk from the plague at Stratford, and its recurrence in 1593 seems to have made so deep an impression upon him, that he has alluded to it in more than one of his plays; particularly in his Romeo and Juliet written in this very year, where he mentions the practice of sealing up the doors of houses, in which “ the infectious pestilence did reign.” Ş It is probable that the effect on his mind might have been rendered more powerful, by the recollected narrative of those who had tended his infancy, and who, no doubt, had often told him of the danger which threatened the dawn of his existence.
We have found that, on his arrival in London, his first employment was that of an actor, a profession which, we certainly know, he continued to exercise for, at least, seventeen years. That he was by no means partial, however, to this occupation, nay that he bitterly regretted the necessity which compelled him to have recourse to it, as a mode of procuring subsistence, may be fairly deduced from the language of his ninety-first sonnet:
* Vide Part II. Chap. 1. + Part II. Chaps. 2. & 5.
§ Act v. sc. 2. Vide Reed's Shakspeare, vol. xx, p. 236. men of Verona, act ii. sc. 1.
| Part II. Chap. 9. See also The Two Gentle
That did not better for my life provide,
It appears strongly indeed, from the best of all evidence, that of his own words, that his early progress in life was thwarted by many obstacles, and accompanied by severe struggles, by poverty, contumely, and neglect. This he has emphatically told us, not only in one, but in several places, and in terms so expressive as to make us sympathize acutely with his sorrows. Yet we perceive him bearing ир
under his difficulties with a noble and independent spirit, and contrasting the world's oppression with the solace of private friendship. Thus, in that beautiful sonnet, the twenty-ninth, which has been noticed in another place, the transition from despair to hope is finely painted :
“ When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my out-cast state,
and again, in sonnet the thirty-seventh, —
“ As a decrepit father takes delight
To see his active child do deeds of youth,