Изображения страниц
PDF
EPUB

the best means of disinheriting Dauphine. The young man casts a bait to catch his uncle in his own wiles. He introduces a boy dressed up in woman's clothes into the neighbourhood, who pretends to be almost incapable of speech. So rare a prodigy attracts Morose's notice. He marries Epicone; but when the ceremony is completed, she finds her voice, welcomes all her noisiest acquaintances to a wedding feast, and drives her unfortunate bridegroom to distraction. The slow degrees whereby Morose is reduced to grant his nephew a fair allowance and the reversion of the estate, and the final discovery of Epicone's real sex, constitute the plot and denouement of the comedy. In The Alchemist we return from farce to the graver ground of satire; but the satire is not so caustic as in Volpone. Jonson has here chosen for his theme the gullibility of human nature. His alchemist is a vulgar sharper who, aided by confederates, works upon the avarice and vanity of dupes. Blinded by their own greed, the lawyer's clerk, the petty shopman, the county squireen, the sanctimonious Puritan, and the blustering city knight, fall into the meshes of his coarsespun net. Imposture practising on folly is so universal a feature of human society that, although alchemy has ceased to delude the world, this largely-planned and powerfully-executed comedy remains an allegory of the deepest moral significance. Bartholomew Fair does not take the same high rank in art. Yet to my mind it is of Jonson's works he one which I could least

afford to spare. It is a pure farce of the broadest and most genial humour, photographically true to the London life which Jonson had observed from boyhood. With strong Hogarthian brush he dashed upon his canvas a motley crowd of the knaves, fools, hawkers, sharpers, showmen, cooks, bum-bailiffs, costermongers, silly women, designing men, loose-livers, lovers, simpletons, onlookers, cockneys, and country folk of all descriptions, who were wont to jostle together when the Bartlemas fair was held in Smithfield. From the midst of this rabble emerges into clear prominence the inimitable portrait of the Puritan, Rabbi Busy. This I hope to detach from its surroundings, and to present it to the readers of my selections.

Catiline, like Sejanus, is a Roman tragedy, studied with minute care from the original texts of Sallust and Cicero. In spite of long-winded orations, tedious monologues, and dry choruses, it has more sustained interest than Sejanus; and its characterisation is masterly. The whole play is stretched out with robust and Roman touches; and the colouring is sombre, in harmony with the grim subject. The first act, which I purpose to include in the specimens of Jonson's dramatic work, can easily be separated from the rest. It presents a vivid picture of the various passions which move conspirators against social order, according to their several characters and temperaments. At the same time, a comparison of these scenes with the opening of Volpone will enable students to understand how Jonson treated the tragic as different

6*

from the comic style of metre and of diction. Like Milton, he held that tragedy should abound in weighty sentences; and he clearly aimed at loftier imagery and more laboured elocution than befitted the comic Muse.

After 1614 Jonson's powers declined in vigour. The Devil is an Ass, which was produced in 1616, already shows some signs of failing inspiration. It is based upon the old Italian fable of Belphegor, and tends to prove that human craft and folly can teach the imps of darkness something in their own line. The special foible here selected is that mania for speculation which in another century possessed France and England at the time of the South Sea Bubble. Dryden called the last comedies of Ben Jonson his "dotages ;" and this name must be given to The Staple of News (1625), The New Inn (1629), The Magnetic Lady (1632), and The Tale of a Tub (1633). To bestow criticism upon each of these pieces, in the narrow room allowed me, would be superfluous. Yet some passing observations may be made. In The Staple of News Jonson combined an Aristophanic allegory, borrowed from the Plutus, with satire upon the town's avidity for printed gossip. A trifle more of inspiration might have made this play symbolic for the future. In certain daily papers of the present day, we have our Staple of News, pretending deep and moral doctrine, but really pandering o morbid curiosity. The Magnetic Lady is only noteworthy, because in this comedy Jonson closed his cycle of the humours. He made his bow of

[graphic]

The

exit to the public he had so long served. Tale of a Tub attempts in vain to recapture the rollicking enthusiasm of Bartholomew Fair. It is meant to be a screaming farce. But it fails, and falls flat. And now, for antiquarians, it is chiefly interesting, because the author strove to vent an old grudge against Inigo Jones in some of its interpolated scenes. The quarrels of artists are so despicable that I do not care to dwell upon this warfare between the author of Volpone and the builder of Whitehall. Both were to blame, in the course of a long companionship of art together. Jones dealt Jonson cruel blows, when he thought the old lion was asleep upon his death-bed. Jonson roused himself to fury, parrying his foeman's thrust. But for us, the squabble is ignoble. We can pass it by. Of Jones remains the fragment of Whitehall; of Jonson the immortal row of five comedies and one good tragedy. The New Inn deserves a separate commentary. Jonson wrote it when his health had failed, and his particular vein of fancy was exhausted. He strove to give the public something in the kind they cared for. It was meant to be a romantic comedy; and the plot was so superfluously imaginative as to exceed the romantic measure. The habits of a lifetime were not, however, easily cast off. Taking his improbable, deliriously accidental plot to work upon, he delved deep lines for all the characters, introduced horse-play of out-worn humours, and upon this slender basis raised a superstructure of solid poetry. It is not difficult to excavate that vein

of poetry from the unsuccessful play; and those who have taken the pains to do so, will perceive that, even to the last, the fire of genius burned in Jonson's brain. Yet the comedy was justly damned, on account of its absurd fable, frigid jokes, and ponderous declamatory passages. Indignation at this reception of his play called forth that haughty 66 Ode to Himself" which will be read among his lyrics.

Returning to the facts of Jonson's biography, it is worth notice that in 1618 he took a walking journey into Scotland, where he spent several weeks. Part of this time was passed at Hawthornden, with the poet William Drummond, to whose notes of the conversations they held on this occasion we owe one of our best sources of information regarding his life and opinions. In England he visited his noble friends and patrons in the country during part of every summer. But it was in the purlieus of Cheapside and Fleet Street that his burly figure might most frequently be seen, rolling from the Mermaid to the Dog, or Sun, or Triple Tun. Like his great namesake, Samuel Johnson, he felt himself nowhere so much at home as on the pavement of London, or in the sanded parlours of its taverns. Not that we have any right to think of Jonson as a sot or toper. It is true that he indulged too much in drink. The Laureate's famous butt of sherry dates from Ben's known partiality for sack. Many of the tales he told against himself to Drummond owe their point to a certain weakness for the bottle in his nature.

« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »