Ben Jonson

English playwright, poet, and actor (1572–1637)

Benjamin Jonson (11 June 15726 August 1637) was an English Renaissance dramatist, poet and actor, most famous for his plays Volpone and The Alchemist, his lyrics, his influence on Jacobean and Caroline poets, his theory of humours, his contentious personality, and his friendship and rivalry with William Shakespeare.

Why should we defer our joys?
Fame and rumour are but toys.
Thy praise or dispraise is to me alike;
One doth not stroke me, nor the other strike.

Quotes edit

  • Art hath an enemy call'd ignorance.
    • Every Man out of His Humour (1598), Act I, scene 1
  • There shall be no love lost.
    • Every Man out of His Humour (1598), Act II, scene 1. Compare: "There is no love lost between us", Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, part ii, chapter xxxiii
  • Slow, slow, fresh fount, keep time with my salt tears:
    Yet, slower, yet; O faintly, gentle springs:
    List to the heavy part the music bears,
    Woe weeps out her division, when she sings.
    Droop herbs, and flowers,
    Fall grief in showers,
    Our beauties are not ours;
    O, I could still,
    Like melting snow upon some craggy hill,
    Drop, drop, drop, drop,
    Since nature's pride is now, a withered daffodil.
    • Cynthia's Revels (1600), Act I, scene i
  • Queen and huntress, chaste and fair,
    Now the sun is laid to sleep,
    Seated in thy silver chair,
    State in wonted manner keep:
    Hesperus entreats thy light,
    Goddess, excellently bright.
    • Cynthia's Revels (1600), Act V, scene iii
  • That old bald cheater, Time.
    • The Poetaster (1601), Act I, scene i
  • Of all wild beasts preserve me from a tyrant; and of all tame, a flatterer.
    • Sejanus (1603), Act I
  • The world knows only two, — that's Rome and I.
    • Sejanus (1603), Act V, scene 1
  • Calumnies are answered best with silence.
    • Volpone (1606), Act II, scene ii
  • You that would last long, list to my song,
    Make no more coil, but buy of this oil.
    Would you be ever fair and young?
    Stout of teeth and strong of tongue?
    Tart of palate, quick of ear?
    Sharp of sight, of nostril clear?
    Moist of hand and light of foot?
    (Or, I will come nearer to it)
    Would you live free from all diseases,
    Do the act your mistress pleases;
    Yet fright all aches from your bones?
    Here's a medicine for the nones.
    • Volpone (1606), Act II, scene ii
  • Preserving the sweetness of proportion and expressing itself beyond expression.
    • The Masque of Hymen (1606)
  • Still to be neat, still to be drest,
    As you were going to a feast.
    • Epicene, or The Silent Woman (1609), Act I, scene i; a translation from Bonnefonius
  • Still to be powder'd, still perfum'd,
    Lady, it is to be presum'd,
    Though art's hid causes are not found,
    All is not sweet, all is not sound.
    Give me a look, give me a face,
    That makes simplicity a grace;
    Robes loosely flowing, hair as free,
    Such sweet neglect more taketh me
    Than all the adulteries of art:
    They strike mine eyes, but not my heart.
    • Epicene, or The Silent Woman (1609), Act I, scene i
  • Subtle.
    No egg but differs from a chicken more
    Than metals in themselves.
    That cannot be.
    The egg's ordained by nature to that end
    And is a chicken in potentia.
    The same we say of lead and other metals,
    Which would be gold if they had time.
    ...for 'twere absurd
    To think that nature in the earth bred gold
    Perfect in the instant; something went before.
    There must be remote matter.
  • Thou look'st like Antichrist in that lewd hat.
    • The Alchemist (1610), Act IV, scene vii
  • Where it concerns himself,
    Who's angry at a slander makes it true.
    • Catiline His Conspiracy (1611), Act III, scene i
  • The dignity of truth is lost
    With much protesting.
    • Catiline His Conspiracy (1611), Act III, scene ii
  • Ambition, like a torrent, ne'er looks back;
    And is a swelling, and the last affection
    A high mind can put off; being both a rebel
    Unto the soul and reason, and enforceth
    All laws, all conscience, treads upon religion,
    and offereth violence to nature's self.
    • Catiline His Conspiracy (1611), Act III, scene ii
  • So breaks the sun earth's rugged chains,
    Wherein rude winter bound her veins;
    So grows both stream and source of price,
    That lately fettered were with ice.
    So naked trees get crispèd heads,
    And coloured coats the roughest meads,
    And all get vigour, youth and spright,
    That are but looked on by his light.
    • The Irish Masque at Court (1613)
  • I will eat exceedingly, and prophesy.
    • Bartholomew Fair (1614), Act I, scene vi
  • Reader, look,
    Not at his picture, but his book.
    • To the Reader [On the portrait of Shakespeare prefixed to the First Folio] (1618), lines 9-10
  • Truth is the trial of itself
    And needs no other touch,
    And purer than the purest gold,
    Refine it ne'er so much.
    • The Touchstone of Truth (1624), lines 1-4
  • Courses even with the sun
    Doth her mighty brother run.
    • The Gipsies Metamorphosed, reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919)
  • Underneath this sable hearse
    Lies the subject of all verse,—
    Sidney's sister, Pembroke's mother.
    Death, ere thou hast slain another,
    Learn'd and fair and good as she,
    Time shall throw a dart at thee.
    • Epitaph on the Countess of Pembroke, reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919). This epitaph is generally ascribed to Ben Jonson. It appears in the editions of his Works; but in a manuscript collection of Browne's poems preserved amongst the Lansdowne MS. No. 777, in the British Museum, it is ascribed to Browne, and awarded to him by Sir Egerton Brydges in his edition of Browne's poems.
  • What gentle ghost, besprent with April dew,
    Hails me so solemnly to yonder yew?
    • Elegy on the Lady Jane Pawlet, reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919); comparable to "What beckoning ghost along the moonlight shade / Invites my steps, and points to yonder glade?", Alexander Pope, in To the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady.

Every Man in His Humour (1598) edit

  • It was a mighty while ago.
    • Act i, Scene 3
  • Hang sorrow! care'll kill a cat.
    • Act i, Scene 3. Comparable to "Hang sorrow! care will kill a cat", George Wither, "Poem on Christmas"
  • As he brews, so shall he drink.
    • Act ii, Scene 1
  • Get money; still get money, boy,
    No matter by what means.
    • Act ii, Scene 3. Compare: "Get place and wealth,—if possible, with grace; If not, by any means get wealth and place", Alexander Pope, Horace, book i. epistle i. line 103
  • Have paid scot and lot there any time this eighteen years.
    • Act iii, Scene 3
  • It must be done like lightning.
    • Act iv, Scene v

Eastward Hoe (1605) edit

  • In the meantime, to all suits, to all entreaties, to all letters, to all tricks, I will be deaf as an adder, blind as a beetle, lay mine ear to the ground, and lock mine eyes i' my hand against all temptations.
    • Act v, scene ii, lines 68-70

The Devil Is an Ass (performed 1616; published 1631) edit

  • The burnt child dreads the fire.
    • Act I, scene 2
  • The Devil is an Ass! fool'd off! and beaten!
    • "Pug"; Act II, scene 6
  • If he were
    To be made honest by an act of parliament
    I should not alter in my faith of him.
    • Act IV, scene 1
  • The Devil is an Ass, I do acknowledge it.
    • "Pug"; Act IV, scene 4

The Works of Ben Jonson, First Folio (1616) edit

Epigrams edit

There's reason good, that you good laws should make:
Men's manners ne'er were viler, for your sake.
  • Pray thee, take care, that tak'st my book in hand,
    To read it well: that is, to understand.
    • I, To The Reader, lines 1-2
  • If all you boast of your great art be true;
    Sure, willing poverty lives most in you.
    • VI, To Alchemists, lines 1-2
  • There's reason good, that you good laws should make:
    Men's manners ne'er were viler, for your sake.
    • XXIV, To The Parliament, lines 1-2
  • He that fears death, or mourns it, in the just,
    Shows of the resurrection little trust.
    • XXXIV, Of Death, lines 1-2
  • 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 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 Jonson his best piece of poetry:
    For whose sake, henceforth, all his vows be such,
    As what he loves may never like too much.
    • XLV, On My First Son, lines 1-12
  • Thy praise or dispraise is to me alike;
    One doth not stroke me, nor the other strike.
    • LXI, To Fool, or Knave, lines 1-2 (complete epigram)
  • The ports of death are sins; of life, good deeds:
    Through which our merit leads us to our meeds.
    How willful blind is he then, that would stray,
    And hath it in his powers, to make his way!
    This world death's region is, the other life's:
    And here, it should be one of our first strifes,
    So to front death, as men might judge us past it.
    For good men but see death, the wicked taste it.
    • LXXX, Of Life and Death, lines 1-8
  • Thus, in his belly, can he change a sin,
    Lust it comes out, that gluttony went in.
    • CXVIII, On Gut, lines 5-6
  • Underneath this stone doth lie
    As much beauty as could die;
    Which in life did harbor give
    To more virtue than doth live.
    • CXXIV, Epitaph on Elizabeth, Lady H—, lines 3-6

The Forest edit

Drink to me only with thine eyes,
And I will pledge with mine;
Or leave a kiss but in the cup
And I'll not look for wine.
  • Come my Celia, let us prove,
    While we can, the sports of love;
    Time will not be ours forever,
    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 rumour are but toys.
    • Song, To Celia, lines 1-10.
  • Follow a shadow, it still flies you;
    Seem to fly it, it will pursue:
    So court a mistress, she denies you;
    Let her alone, she will court you.
    • That Women Are But Men's Shadows, lines 1-4
  • Drink to me only with thine eyes,
    And I will pledge with mine;
    Or leave a kiss but in the cup
    And I'll not look for wine.

    The thirst that from the soul doth rise
    Doth ask a drink divine;
    But might I of Jove's nectar sup,
    I would not change for thine.
    I sent thee late a rosy wreath,
    Not so much honoring thee
    As giving it a hope that there
    It could not withered be.
    But thou thereon didst only breathe,
    And sent'st it back to me;
    Since when it grows and smells, I swear,
    Not of itself, but thee.
    • Song, To Celia, lines 1-16; this poem was inspired by "Letter XXIV" of Philostratus, which in translation reads: "Drink to me with your eyes alone…. And if you will, take the cup to your lips and fill it with kisses, and give it so to me".
  • Not to know vice at all, and keep true state,
    Is virtue, and not fate:
    Next to that virtue is to know vice well,
    And her black spite expel.
    • Epode, lines 1-4
  • Whilst that for which all virtue now is sold,
    And almost every vice — almighty gold.
    • Epistle to Elizabeth, Countess of Rutland, lines 1-2. Comparable to "The flattering, mighty, nay, almighty gold", John Wolcot, To Kien Long, Ode iv; "Almighty dollar", Washington Irving, The Creole Village.

To the Memory of My Beloved, the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare (1618) edit

He was not of an age, but for all time.
  • Soul of the age!
    The applause, delight, the wonder of our stage!

    My Shakespeare, rise; I will not lodge thee by
    Chaucer or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lie
    A little further, to make thee a room;
    Thou art a monument, without a tomb,
    And art alive still, while thy book doth live,
    And we have wits to read, and praise to give.
    • Lines 17 - 24; this was inspired by a eulogy by William Basse, On Shakespeare:
"Renowned Spenser, lie a thought more nigh
To learned Chaucer, and rare Beaumont lie
A little nearer Spenser, to make room
For Shakespeare in your threefold, fourfold tomb...
  • For if I thought my judgment were of years,
    I should commit thee surely with thy peers,
    And tell how far thou didst our Lily outshine,
    Or sporting Kyd, or Marlow's mighty line.
    And though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek,
    From thence to honour thee, I will not seek
    For names…
    • Lines 27 - 33
  • 'Triumph, my Britain, thou hast one to show
    To whom all Scenes of Europe homage owe.
    He was not of an age, but for all time!
    And all the muses still were in their prime,
    When, like Apollo, he came forth to warm
    Our ears, or like a Mercury to charm!
    Nature herself was proud of his designs,
    And joy'd to wear the dressing of his lines!
    Which were so richly spun, and woven so sit,
    As, since she will vouchsafe no other wit.
    • Lines 41 - 50
  • Yet must I not give nature all: thy art,
    My gentle Shakspeare, must enjoy a part.
    For though the poet's matter nature be,
    His art doth give the fashion. And that he
    Who casts to write a living line, must sweat
    (Such as thine arc) and strike the second heat
    Upon the muses anvil; turn the fame,
    And himself with it, that he thinks to frame;
    Or for the laurel, he may gain a scorn,
    For a good poet's made, as well as born.
    And such wert thou.
    Look how the father's face
    Lives in his issue, even so the race
    Of Shakspeare's mind and manners brightly shines
    In his well-turned, and true filed lines:
    In each of which he seems to shake a lance,
    As brandish'd at the eyes of ignorance.
    • Lines 55 - 70
  • Sweet swan of Avon! what a sight it were
    To see thee in our water yet appear,
    And make those flights upon the banks of Thames,
    That so did take Eliza, and our James.
    But stay, I see thee in the hemisphere
    Advanc'd, and made a constellation there!
    Shine forth, thou star of poets, and with rage,
    Or influence, chide, or cheer the drooping stage,
    Which, since thy flight from hence, hath mourn'd like night,
    And despairs day, but for thy volumes light.
    • Lines 71 - 80

The Works of Ben Jonson, Second Folio (1640) edit

Underwoods edit

  • I now think, Love is rather deaf, than blind,
    For else it could not be,
    That she,
    Whom I adore so much, should so slight me,
    And cast my love behind.
    • IX, My Picture Left in Scotland, lines 1-5
  • Where dost thou careless lie,
    Buried in ease and sloth?
    Knowledge that sleeps, doth die;
    And this security,
    It is the common moth,
    That eats on wits and arts, and oft destroys them both.
    • XXIII, An Ode, to Himself, lines 1-6
  • Rhyme, the rack of finest wits,
    That expresseth but by fits,
    True conceit,
    Spoiling senses of their treasure,
    Cozening judgement with a measure,
    But false weight.
    Wresting words from their true calling;
    Propping verse, for fear of falling
    To the ground.
    Jointing syllables, drowning letters,
    Fastening vowels, as with fetters
    They were bound!
    • XXIX, A Fit of Rhyme Against Rhyme, lines 1-12
  • Still may syllabes jar with time,
    Still may reason war with rhyme,
    Resting never!
    • XXIX, A Fit of Rhyme Against Rhyme
  • Those that merely talk and never think,
    That live in the wild anarchy of drink.
    • XLVII, An Epistle, Answering to One That Asked to Be Sealed of the Tribe of Ben, lines 9-10. Comparable to: "They never taste who always drink; They always talk who never think", Matthew Prior, Upon a passage in the Scaligerana.
  • It is not growing like a tree
    In bulk, doth make man better be;
    Or standing long an oak, three hundred year,
    To fall a log, dry, bald and sere:
    A lily of a day,
    Is fairer far, in May,
    Although it fall, and die that night;
    It was the plant and flower of light.
    In small proportions we just beauties see,
    And in short measures life may perfect be.
    • LXX, To the Immortal Memory of Sir Lucius Cary and Sir Henry Morison, lines 65-74
  • The voice so sweet, the words so fair,
    As some soft chime had stroked the air;
    And, though the sound were parted thence,
    Still left an echo in the sense.
    • LXXXIV, Eupheme, part 4, lines 37-40

Timber: or Discoveries edit

  • Opinion is a light, vain, crude, and imperfect thing.
  • It is as great a spite to be praised in the wrong place, and by a wrong person, as can be done to a noble nature.
  • A cripple in the way out-travels a footman or a post out of the way.
  • It is an art to have so much judgment as to apparel a lie well, to give it a good dressing.
  • I remember the players have often mentioned it as an honor to Shakespeare, that in his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, "Would he had blotted a thousand".
  • I loved the man and do honor his memory, on this side idolatry, as much as any.
  • They say princes learn no art truly, but the art of horsemanship. The reason is, the brave beast is no flatterer. He will throw a prince as soon as his groom.
  • Greatness of name in the father oft-times overwhelms the son; they stand too near one another. The shadow kills the growth: so much, that we see the grandchild come more and oftener to be heir of the first.
  • Though the most be players, some must be spectators.
  • Talking and eloquence are not the same: to speak, and to speak well, are two things. A fool may talk, but a wise man speaks...
  • One, though he be excellent and the chief, is not to be imitated alone; for never no imitator ever grew up to his author; likeness is always on this side truth. Yet there happened in my time one noble speaker, who was full of gravity in his speaking; his language (where he could spare or pass by a jest) was nobly censorious. No man ever spake more neatly, more pressly, more weightily, or suffered less emptiness, less idleness, in what he uttered. No member of his speech but consisted of his own graces. His hearers could not cough, or look aside from him, without loss. He commanded where he spoke, and had his judges angry and pleased at his devotion. No man had their affections more in his power. The fear of every man that heard him was lest he should make an end.

The New Inn, or The Light Heart (licensed 19 January 1629; printed 1631) edit

  • Lady: How do's it fit? wilt come together? Prudence: Hardly. Lad: Thou must make shift with it. Pride feels no Pain.
    • Act II, Scene I
  • I never thought an angry person valiant:
    Virtue is never aided by a vice.
    • Lovel, Act IV, Scene iii

Conversations with William Drummond of Hawthornden (1711) edit

In the winter of 1618–1619, Jonson made a walking tour of England and Scotland. At one point he spent two weeks as a guest of author William Drummond of Hawthornden. Jonson's often contentious talk was recorded in notes by Drummond, who quoted Jonson in third-person form.
  • He cursed Petrarch for redacting verses to sonnets, which he said were like that tyrant's bed, where some who were too short were racked, others too long cut short.
  • That Donne himself, for not being understood, would perish.
  • Shakespeare, in a play, brought in a number of men saying they had suffered shipwreck in Bohemia, where there is no sea by some 100 miles.
  • He saw in a vision his eldest son (then a child and at London) appear unto him with the mark of a bloody cross on his forehead, as if it had been cutted with a sword, at which amazed he prayed unto God, and in the morning he came to Mr. Camden's chamber to tell him, who persuaded him it was but an apprehension of his fantasy at which he should not be disjected; in the meantime comes there letters from his wife of the death of that boy in the plague. He appeared to him (he said) of a manly shape, and of that growth that he thinks he shall be at the resurrection.
  • He hath consumed a whole night in lying looking to his great toe, about which he hath seen Tartars and Turks, Romans and Carthaginians, fight in his imagination.
  • His opinion of verses.
    That he wrote all his first in prose, for so his master Camden had learned him.

    That verses stood by sense without either colours or accent; which yet other times he denied.

  • A gentleman reading a poem that began with

    Where is that man that never yet did hear
    Of fair Penelope, Ulysses' queen?

    [Jonson] calling his cook, asked if he had ever heard of her, who answering "No," demonstrate to him

    Lo, there the man that never yet did hear
    Of fair Penelope, Ulysses' queen.

Quotes about Jonson edit

  • When Ben Jonson presented a masque entitled "News from the New World," his new world was not the newly found continent of North America, but the new world of science, the world revealed by the telescope of Galileo.
    • I. Bernard Cohen, The Triumph of Numbers: How Counting Shaped Modern Life (2005)
  • Those who have most deeply studied Jonson and most truly felt his power, will hesitate the longest before pronouncing a decisive judgment on the place he occupies among the foremost poets of our literature. One thing, however, can be considered as certain in any estimate which we may form. His throne is not with the Olympians but with the Titans; not with those who share the divine gifts of creative imagination and inevitable instinct, but with those who compel our admiration by their untiring energy and giant strength of intellectual muscle. What we most marvel at in his writings, is the prodigious brain-work of the man, the stuff of constant and inexhaustible cerebration they contain. Moreover, we shall not be far wrong in saying that, of all the English poets of the past, he alone, with Milton and Gray, deserves the name of a great and widely learned scholar.
  • To make a proper estimation of his merits as a dramatic writer, we are to consider what was the state of the drama and the usual practice of the stage-writers in those early times; and what alterations and improvements it received from the plays of Jonson. Shakespear, and Beaumont and Fletcher, are the only contemporary writers that can be put in competition with him; and as they have excellencies of genius superior to those of Jonson, they have weaknesses and defects which are proportionably greater. If they transcend him in the creative powers, and the astonishing flights of imagination, their judgment is much inferior to his; and if he doth not at any time rise so high, neither perhaps doth he sink so low as they have done.

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