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Ben Jonson, Feltham, and Randolph

BEN JONSON, like most celebrated wits, was very unfortunate in conciliating the affections of his brother writers. He certainly possessed a great share of arrogance, and was desirous of ruling the realms of Parnassus with a despotic sceptre. That he was not always successful in his theatrical compositions is evident from his abusing, in their title-page, the actors and the public. In this he has been imitated by Fielding. I have collected the following three satiric odes, written when the reception of his “New-Inn, or The Light Heart,” warmly exasperated the irritable disposition of our poet.

He printed the title in the following manner:

New-Inn, or The Light Heart; a Comedy never acted, but most negligently played by some, the King’s servants; and more squeamishly beheld and censured by others, the King’s subjects, 1629. Now at last set at liberty to the readers, his Majesty’s servants and subjects, to be judged, 1631.”

At the end of this play he published the following Ode, in which he threatens to quit the stage for ever; and turn at once a Horace, an Anacreon, and a Pindar.

“The just indignation the author took at the vulgar censure of his play, begat this following Ode to himself:

             “Come, leave the loathed stage,
               And the more loathsome age;
Where pride and impudence (in fashion knit)
               Usurp the chair of wit!
Inditing and arraigning every day
               Something they call a play.
            Let their fastidious, vaine
            Commission of braine
Run on, and rage, sweat, censure, and condemn;
They were not made for thee,—less thou for them.
             “Say that thou pour’st them wheat,
               And they will acorns eat;
’Twere simple fury, still, thyself to waste
               On such as have no taste!
To offer them a surfeit of pure bread,
               Whose appetites are dead!
            No, give them graines their fill,
            Husks, draff, to drink and swill.
If they love lees, and leave the lusty wine,
Envy them not their palate with the swine.
             “No doubt some mouldy tale
               Like PERICLES,1 and stale
As the shrieve’s crusts, and misty as his fish-
               Scraps, out of every dish
Thrown forth, and rak’t into the common-tub,
               May keep up the play-club:
            There sweepings do as well
            As the best-ordered meale.
For who the relish of these guests will fit,
Needs set them but the almes-basket of wit.
             “And much good do’t you then,
               Brave plush and velvet men
Can Feed on orts, and safe in your stage-clothes,
             Dare quit, upon your oathes,
The stagers, and the stage-wrights too (your peers),
             Of larding your large ears
            With their foul comic socks,
            Wrought upon twenty blocks:
Which, if they’re torn, and turn’d, and patch’d enough,
The gamesters share your guilt, and you their stuff.
             “Leave things so prostitute,
               And take the Alcæick lute,
Or thine own Horace, or Anacreon’s lyre;
               Warm thee by Pindar’s fire;
And, tho’ thy nerves be shrunk, and blood be cold,
               Ere years have made thee old,
            Strike that disdainful heat
            Throughout, to their defeat;
As curious fools, and envious of thy strain,
May, blushing, swear no palsy’s in thy brain.2
             “But when they hear thee sing
               The glories of thy King,
His zeal to God, and his just awe o’er men;
               They may blood-shaken then,
Feel such a flesh-quake to possess their powers,
               As they shall cry like ours,
            In sound of peace, or wars,
            No harp ere hit the stars,
In tuning forth the acts of his sweet raign,
And raising Charles his chariot ’bove his wain.”

This Magisterial Ode, as Langbaine calls it, was answered by Owen Feltham, author of the admirable “Resolves,” who has written with great satiric acerbity the retort courteous. His character of this poet should be attended to:—

An Answer to the Ode, Come leave the loathed Stage, &c.
             “Come, leave this sawcy way
               Of baiting those that pay
Dear for the sight of your declining wit:
               ’Tis known it is not fit
That a stale poet, just contempt once thrown,
               Should cry up thus his own.
            I wonder by what dower,
            Or patent, you had power
From all to rape a judgment. Let’t suffice,
Had you been modest, y’ad been granted wise.
             “’Tis known you can do well,
               And that you do excell
As a translator; but when things require
               A genius, and fire,
Not kindled heretofore by other pains,
               As oft y’ave wanted brains
            And art to strike the white,
            As you have levell’d right:
Yet if men vouch not things apocryphal,
You bellow, rave, and spatter round your gall.
             “Jug, Pierce, Peck, Fly,3 and all
               Your jests so nominal,
Are things so far beneath an able brain,
               As they do throw a stain
Thro’ all th’ unlikely plot, and do displease
               As deep as PERICLES,
            Where yet there is not laid
            Before a chamber-maid
Discourse so weigh’d,4 as might have serv’d of old
For schools, when they of love and valour told.
             “Why rage, then? when the show
               Should judgment be, and know-5,
ledge, there are plush who scorn to drudge
               For stages, yet can judge
Not only poets’ looser lines, but wits,
               And all their perquisits
            A gift as rich as high
            Is noble poesie:
Yet, tho’ in sport it be for Kings to play,
’Tis next mechanicks’ when it works for pay.
             “Alcæus’ lute had none,
               Nor loose Anacreon
E’er taught so bold assuming of the bays
               when they deserv’d no praise.
To rail men into approbation
               Is new to yours alone:
            And prospers not: for know,
            Fame is as coy, as you
Can be disdainful; and who dares to prove
A rape on her shall gather scorn,—not love.
             “Leave then this humour vain,
               And this more humorous strain,
Where self-conceit, and choler of the blood,
               Eclipse what else is good:
Then, if you please those raptures high to touch,
               Whereof you boast so much:
            And but forbear your crown
            Till the world puts it on:
No doubt, from all you may amazement draw,
Since braver theme no Phœbus ever saw.”

To console dejected Ben for this just reprimand, Randolph, one of the adopted poetical sons of Jonson, addressed him with all that warmth of grateful affection which a man of genius should have felt on the occasion.

An Answer to Mr. Ben Jonson’s Ode, to persuade him not to leave the Stage.
             “Ben, do not leave the stage
               ’Cause ’tis a loathsome age;
For pride and imptuience will grow too bold,
               When they shall hear it told
They frighted thee: Stand high, as is thy cause;
               Their hiss is thy applause:
            More just were thy disdain,
            Had they approved thy vein:
So thou for them, and they for thee were born;
They to incense, and thou as much to scorn.
             “Wilt thou engross thy store
               Of wheat, and pour no more,
Because their bacon-brains had such a taste
               As more delight in mast:
No! set them forth a board of dainties, full
               As thy best muse can cull;
            Whilst they the while do pine
            And thirst, midst all their wine.
What greater plague can hell itself devise,
Than to be willing thus to tantalize?
             “Thou canst not find them stuff,
               That will be bad enough
To please their pallates: let ’em them refuse,
               For some Pye-corner muse;
She is too fair an hostess, ’twere a sin
               For them to like thine Inn:
            ’Twas made to entertain
            Guests of a nobler strain;
Yet, if they will have any of the store,
Give them some scraps, and send them from thy dore.
             “And let those things in plush
               Till they he taught to blush,
Like what they will, and more contented be
               With what Broom6 swept from thee.
I know thy worth, and that thy lofty strains
               Write not to cloaths, but brains:
            But thy great spleen doth rise,
            ’Cause moles will have no eyes;
This only in my Ben I faulty find,
He’s angry they’ll not see him that are blind.
             “Why shou’d the scene be mute
               ’Cause thou canst touch the lute
And string thy Horace? Let each Muse of nine
               Claim thee, and say, th’ art mine.
’Twere fond, to let all other flames expire,
               To sit by Pindar’s fire:
            For by so strange neglect
            I should myself suspect
Thy palsie2 were as well thy brain’s disease,
It they could shake thy muse which way they please.
             “And tho’ thou well canst sing
               The glories of thy King,
And on the wings of verse his chariot bear
               To heaven, and fix it there;
Yet let thy muse as well some raptures raise
               To please him, as to praise.
            I would not have thee chuse
            Only a treble muse;
But have this envious, ignorant age to know,
Thou that canst sing so high, canst reach as low.”

1 This play, Langbaine says, is written by Shakspeare.

2 He had the palsy at that time.

3 The names of several of Jonson’s Dramatis Personæ.

4 “New Inn,” Act iii. Scene 2, —Act iv. Scene 4.

5 This break was purposely designed by the poet, to expose that singular one in Ben’s third stanza.

6 His man, Richard Broome, wrote with success several comedies. He had been the amanuensis or attendant of Jonson. The epigram made against Pope for the assistance W. Broome gave him appears to have been borrowed from this pun. Johnson has inserted it in “Broome’s Life.”

Editor’s Notes

The author of the third ode is Thomas Randolph (1605-35), who was a dramatist as well as a poet.

 ¶ This article is repeated verbatim—except that its title was formerly just ‘Ben Jonson’— from its original appearance in early (1790s) editions of the Curiosities.