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“Many were the wit-combats betwixt Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, which two I beheld like a Spanish great galleon and an English man-of-war. Master Jonson, like the former, was built far higher in learning ; solid, but slow in his performances. Shakespeare, with the English man-of-war, lesser in bulk, but lighter in sailing, could turn with all tides, tack about, and take advantage of all winds, by the quickness of his wit and invention.”—Fuller's Worthies (1662).
MONG the galaxy of great dramatic poets which adorned the age
of Elizabeth, Ben Jonson shines only less bright than Shakespeare.
was working on a building at Lincoln's Inn, and resulted in his being sent to Cambridge.
He spent a short time in military service in the Low Countries, but returning to London, attached himself to one of the minor theaters. He did not succeed as an actor, and got into serious trouble over a duel. He probably began his literary work by recasting old plays, and his first original piece, the comedy, “Every Man in His Humor,” probably appeared in 1596. It is said that it was only by the help of Shakespeare, and after being revised in accordance with his suggestions, that this play became a success. Thus was established the sincere and enduring attachment between Jonson and Shakespeare, of which many delightful anecdotes are told. From this time for a quarter of a century Jonson held high rank among literary men of his time. He was frequently employed to arrange the splendid masques which furnished entertainment to the Court, and in this work employed all his powers of invention and his profound and elegant scholarship. He became Poet Laureate in 1616, and remained in high favor until the death of James I, in 1625. Notwithstanding his high position, he became involved in debt; he was extravagant and given too much to drink, and gradually he lost his art of pleasing, and his later plays were not uniformly successful.
He died, in 1637, at the age of sixty-four, and was buried in an upright posture in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey.
The most complete edition of Jonson's works contains seventeen plays, and more than thirty masques and interludes, beside many miscellaneous pieces in prose and verse. Among the latter are a number of poems of exquisite beauty. His most important plays are, “Every Man in His Humor,” “Sejanus,” “Cataline, "Volpone, or the Foxe,” “Epicaene, or the Silent Woman,” and “The Alchemist.”
HYMN TO CYNTHIA.
Heaven to clear, when day did close
Bless us then with wished sight,
Goddess, excellently bright.
Lay thy bow of pearl apart,
And thy crystal shining quiver;
Give unto the flying heart
Space to breathe, how short soever :
Thou that mak'st a day of night,
Goddess, excellently bright.
I sent thee late a rosy wreath,
Not so much honoring thee,
As giving it a hope, that there
It could not withered be. The thirst that from the soul doth rise,
But thou thereon didst only breathe, Doth ask a drink divine ;
And sent'st it back to me; But might I of Jove's nectar sup,
Since when it grows, and smells, I swear, I would not change for thine.
Not of itself but thee.
ON LUCY, COUNTESS OF BEDFORD.
I thought to form unto my zealous muse, I meant each softest virtue there should meet,
To honor, serve, and love, as Poets use. Only a learned and manly soul
Of greatest blood, and yet more good than great ; | The rock, the spindle, and the shears control
Nor lend like influence from his lucent seat. Such, when I meant to feign, and wished to see,
JOHN MILTON. .
THE IMMORTAL AUTHOR OF “PARADISE LOST.”
AR above all the poets of his own age, and, in learning, inven
tion, and sublimity, without an equal in the whole range of English literature, stands John Milton. He was born in London, December 9, 1608. His father, who was a scrivener, or, as we would say, conveyancer, and who had suffered much for conscience' sake, doubtless infused into his son those principles
of religious freedom which made him, in subsequent years, the bulwark of that holy cause in England. He was also early instructed in music, to which may doubtless be attributed that richness and harmony of versification which distinguished him as much as his learning and imagination. His early education was conducted with great care. At sixteen he entered the University of Cambridge. After leaving the university, where he was distinguished for his scholarship, he retired to the house of his father, who had relinquished business, and had purchased a small property at Horton in Buckinghamshire. Here he lived five years, devoting his time most assiduously to classic literature, making the well-known remark that he “cared not how late he came into life, only that he came fit.” While in the university he had written his grand “Hymn on the Nativity,” any one verse of which was sufficient to show that a new and great light was about to rise on English poetry; and there, at his father's, he wrote his “Comus” and “ Lycidas,” his “L'Allegro
and “Il Penseroso," and his “Arcades."
In 1638 he went to Italy, the most accomplished Englishman that ever visited her classic shores. Here his society was courted by “the choicest Italian wits,” and he visited Galileo, then a prisoner in the Inquisition. On his return home, he opened a school in London, and devoted himself with great assiduity to the business of instruction. In the meantime he entered into the religious disputes of the day, engaging in the controversy single-handed against all the royalists and prelates ; and, though numbering among his antagonists such men as Bishop Hall and Archbishop Usher, proving himself equal to them all. In 1643 he married the daughter of Richard Powell, a high royalist; but the connection did not prove a happy one, his wife being utterly incapable of appreciating the loftiness and purity of the poet's character. In 1649 he was appointed foreign secretary under Cromwell, which office he held until the death of Cromwell, 1658.
For ten years Milton's eyesight had been failing, owing to the “wearisome studies and midnight watchings” of his youth. The last remains of it were sacrificed in the composition of his “Defensio Populi” (Defense of the People of England), and by the close of the year 1652 he was totally blind: “Dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon.” At the Restoration he was obliged to conceal himself until the publication of the act of oblivion released him from danger. He then devoted himself exclusively to study, and especially to the composition of “Paradise Lost.” The idea of this unequaled poem was probably conceived as early as 1642. It was published in 1667. For the first and second editions the blind
poet received but the sum of five pounds each! In 1671 he produced his “Paradise Regained” and “Samson Agonistes.” A long sufferer from gout, his life was now drawing to a close. His mind was calm and bright to the last, and he died without a struggle on Sunday, the 8th of November, 1674.
Milton has left to us a description of himself as he had been in early manhood and as he was later. He says:
My stature certainly is not tall; but it rather approaches the middle than the diminutive. Nor, though very thin, was I ever deficient in courage or in strength ; and I was wont constantly to exercise myself in the use of the broadsword as long as it comported with my habit and my years. Armed with this weapon, as I usually was, I should have thought myself quite a match for any one, though much stronger than myself. At this moment I have the same courage, the same strength, though not the same eyes. Yet so little do they betray any external appearance of injury, that they are as unclouded and bright as the eyes of those who most distinctly see. Though I am more than forty-five years old, there is scarcely any one to whom I do not appear ten years younger than I really am.”
Milton was a Puritan, but not of that narrow-minded, ascetic variety whose peculiarities we usually connect with the name. When Charles II came to the throne it was to be expected that Milton would be one of those for whom there would be no mercy. He had been accessory, both before and after the fact, to the execution of Charles I, and had filled an important post under Cromwell. His name, however, was not on the long list of those excluded from the benefits of the Bill of Indemnity, and when it was published, in August, 1660, he emerged from the hiding-place in which he had been for some time concealed.
His prose writings pertained to the political and theological questions of his time, and are now no longer read. His beautiful odes to mirth and melancholy, “L'Allegro” and “ Il Penseroso"; the “ Masque of Comus,” prepared for what we would call an amateur theatrical entertainment; his “Samson Agonistes "; his . “Hymn to the Nativity," and, above all, the “ Paradise Lost,” continue to be studied by every lover of noble literature.
We should not, however, allow our admiration for Milton's poetry to cause us to forget his services to the cause of civil and religious liberty. It is not to be expected that many people will ever read his tracts against the pretensions of the Church, justifying the execution of the king, or even the powerful argument by which he attempted to prevent the recall of the Stuarts and to perpetuate the Commonwealth after Cromwell's death. Their phraseology seems to us stilted and the style antiquated and verbose, but if we will remember the changes which two cen
turies and a half have caused in our manner of expression, we shall be able to appreciate the grace and force of the language, the vast learning and high purpose of the author, and we will understand their great influence on the thought of Milton's time. In 1644 he addressed to Parliament the most masterly of his prose writings, the “ Areopagitica; a Speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing." It is, perhaps, the most able argument ever produced upon the subject, and not only for this reason, but because of its noble statement of the value of good books, deserves to be read and reread by every thinking person.
EVE'S ACCOUNT OF HER CREATION.
PARADISE Lost, IV. HAT day I oft remember, when from sleep And I will bring thee where no shadow stays
I first awaked, and found myself reposed, Thy coming and thy soft embraces; he
Inseparably thine; to him shalt bear
But follow straight, invisibly thus led ?
Till I espied thee, fair indeed, and tall,
Than that smooth watery image : back I turn'd; Smooth lake, that to me seem'd another sky. Thou, following, criedst aloud,“ Return, fair Eve, As I bent down to look, just opposite
Whom fliest thou? whom thou fliest, of him thou A shape within the watery gleam appear'd.
art, Bending to look on me : I started back.
His flesh, his bone; to give thee being I lent It started back; but pleased I soon return'd, Out of my side to thee, nearest my heart, Pleased it return'd as soon, with answering looks Substantial life, to have thee by my side Of sympathy and love: there I had fix'd
Henceforth an individual solace dear. Mine eyes till now, and pined with vain desire, Part of my soul, I seek thee, and thee claim, Had not a voice thus warn'd me: “ What thou My other half." With that, thy gentle hand seest,
Seized mine : I yielded ; and from that time see What there thou seest, fair creature, is thyself; How beauty is excell'd by manly grace, With thee it came and goes; but follow me, And wisdom, which alone is truly fair.
INVOCATION TO LIGHT.
PARADISE Lost, III. YAIL, holy Light ! offspring of heaven first Before the heavens, thou wert, and at the voice born,
Of God, as with a mantle, didst invest
The rising world of waters dark and deep, May I express thee unblamed ? since God is Won from the void and formless infinite. light,
Thee I revisit now with bolder wing, And never but in unapproached light
Escaped the Stygian pool, though long detain'd Dwelt from eternity, dwelt then in thee,
In that obscure sojourn; while in my flight, Bright effluence of bright essence increate. Through utter and through middle darkness borne, Or hear'st thou rather, pure ethereal stream, With other notes than to the Orphean lyre, Whose fountain who shall tell ? Before the sun, I sung of Chaos and eternal Night;