The Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland Volume I Part 19

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47.[6] Volpone, or the Fox, a Comedy, first acted in the year 1605; this is one of his acted plays.

48. Case is altered, a Comedy, acted and printed 1609.

49. Widow, a Comedy, acted at the private house in Black Fryars.

50. New Inn, or the Light Heart, a Comedy, acted 1629. This play did not succeed to his expectation, and Ben being filled with indignation at the people's want of taste, wrote an Ode addressed to himself on that occasion, advising him to quit the stage, which was answered by Mr. Feltham.

Thus have we given a detail of Ben Johnson's works. He is allowed to have been a scholar, and to have understood and practised the dramatic rules; but Dryden proves him to have likewise been an unbounded plagiary. Humour was his talent; and he had a happy turn for an epitaph; we cannot better conclude his character as a poet, than in the nervous lines of the Prologue quoted in the Life of Shakespear.

After having shewn Shakespear's boundless genius, he continues,

Then Johnson came instructed from the school To please by method, and invent by rule.

His studious patience, and laborious art With regular approach a.s.say'd the heart; Cold approbation gave the ling'ring bays, For they who durst not censure, scarce could praise.

[Footnote 1: Drummond of Hawthornden's works, fol. 224. Edinburgh Edition, 1711.]

[Footnote 2: Birch's Lives of Ill.u.s.trious Men.]

[Footnote 3: See Shakespear]

[Footnote 4: See Drummond's works.]

[Footnote 5: Wood.]

[Footnote 6: The Alchymist, the Fox, and the Silent Woman, have been oftner acted than all the rest of Ben Johnson's plays put together; they have ever been generally deemed good stock-plays, and been performed to many crowded audiences, in several separate seasons, with universal applause. Why the Silent Woman met not with success, when revived last year at Drury Lane Theatre, let the new critics, or the actors of the New Mode, determine.]


Was descended of a very ancient and reputable family of the Carews in Devons.h.i.+re, and was brother to Matthew Carews, a great royalist, in the time of the rebellion; he had his education in Corpus Christi College, but he appears not to have been matriculated as a member, or that he took a scholastic degree[1]; afterwards improving his parts by travelling, and conversation with ingenious men in the Metropolis, he acquired some reputation for his wit and poetry. About this time being taken notice of at court for his ingenuity, he was made Gentleman of the Privy Chamber, and Sewer in ordinary to King Charles I. who always esteemed him to the last, one of the most celebrated wits about his court[2]. He was much esteemed and respected by the poets of his time, especially by Ben Johnson. Sir John Suckling, who had a great kindness for him, could not let him pa.s.s in his session of poets without this character,

Tom Carew was next, but he had a fault, That would not well stand with a Laureat; His muse was hide-bound, and the issue of's brain Was seldom brought forth, but with trouble and pain.

The works of our author are,

Poems; first printed in Octavo, and afterwards being revised and enlarged, there were several editions of them made, the third in 1654, and the fourth in 1670. The songs in these poems were set to music, or as Wood expresses it, wedded to the charming notes of Mr. Henry Lawes, at that time the greatest musical composer in England, who was Gentleman of the King's Chapel, and one of the private musicians to his Majesty.

Coelum Britannic.u.m; A Mask at Whitehall in the Banquetting House, on Shrove Tuesday night February 18, 1633, London 1651. This Masque is commonly attributed to Sir William Davenant. It was performed by the King, the duke of Lenox, earls of Devons.h.i.+re, Holland, Newport &c. with several other Lords and n.o.blemen's Sons; he was a.s.sisted in the contrivance by Mr. Inigo Jones, the famous architect. The Masque being written by the King's express command, our author placed this distich in the front, when printed;

Non habet ingenium: Caesar sed jussit: habebo Cur me posse negem, posse quod ille putat.

The following may serve as a specimen of the celebrated sonnets of this elegant writer.


Mark how the bashful morn in vain Courts the amorous marigold With sighing blasts, and weeping rain; Yet she refuses to unfold.

But when the planet of the day Approacheth with his powerful ray, Then she spreads, then she receives His warmer beams into her virgin leaves.

So shalt thou thrive in love, fond boy; If thy tears and sighs discover Thy grief, thou never shalt enjoy The just reward of a bold lover: But when with moving accents thou Shalt constant faith and service vow, Thy Celia shall receive those charms With open ears, and with unfolded arms.

Sir William Davenant has given an honourable testimony in favour of our author, with which I shall conclude his life, after observing that this elegant author died, much regretted by some of the best wits of his time, in the year 1639.

Sir William Davenant thus addresses him,

Not that thy verses are so smooth and high As glory, love, and wine, from wit can raise; But now the Devil take such destiny!

What should commend them turns to their dispraise.

Thy wit's chief virtue, is become its vice; For every beauty thou hast rais'd so high, That now coa.r.s.e faces carry such a price, As must undo a lover that would buy.

[Footnote 1: Wood's Athen. Oxon. p. 630. vol. i.]

[Footnote 2: Wood's ubi supra.]


This great man was born in the year 1568, at Bocton Hall in the county of Kent, descended of a very ancient family, who distinguished themselves in the wars between the Scotch and English before the union of crowns. The father of Sir Henry Wotton, (according to the account of the learned bishop Walton,) was twice married, and after the death of his second wife, says the bishop, 'his inclination, though naturally averse to all contentions, yet necessitated he was to have several suits of law, which took up much of his time; he was by divers of his friends perswaded to remarriage, to whom he often answered, that if he did put on a resolution to marry, he seriously resolved to avoid three sorts of persons, namely,

Those that had children, law suits, were of his kindred:

And yet following his own law suit, he met in Westminster Hall with one Mrs. Morton, the widow of a gentleman of Kent, who was engaged in several suits in law, and observing her comportment, the time of her hearing one of her causes before the judges, he could not but at the same time compa.s.sionate her condition, and so affect her person, that though there were in her a concurrence of all those accidents, against which he had so seriously resolved, yet his affection grew so strong, that he then resolved to sollicit her for a wife, and did, and obtained her.'

By this lady he had our author, who received the rudiments of his education from his mother, who was it seems a woman of taste, and capable of inspiring him with a love of polite accomplishments. When he became fit for an academical education, he was placed in New College in Oxford, in the beginning of the year 1584, where living in the condition of a Gentleman Commoner, he contracted an intimacy with Sir Richard Baker, afterwards an eminent historian. Sir Henry did not long continue there, but removed to Queen's College, where, says Walton, he made a great progress in logic and philosophy, and wrote a Tragedy for the use of that college, called Tarroredo. Walton tells us, 'that this tragedy was so interwoven with sentences, and for the exact personating those pa.s.sions and humours he proposed to represent, he so performed, that the gravest of the society declared, that he had in a flight employment, given an early and solid testimony of his future abilities.'

On the 8th of June, says Wood, 1588, he as a member of Queen's College, supplicated the venerable congregation of regents, that he might be admitted to the degree of Bachelor of Arts, which desire was granted conditionally, that he should determine the Lent following, but whether he was admitted, or did determine, or took any degree, does not appear in any of the university registers; though Mr. Walton says, that about the twentieth year of his age, he proceeded Master of Arts, and at that time read in Latin three lectures de Ocello. During the time he was at the university, and gaining much upon mankind by the reputation of his abilities, his father, for whom he had the highest veneration, died, and left him a hundred marks a year, to be paid out of one of his manors of great value. Walton proceeds to relate a very astonis.h.i.+ng circ.u.mstance concerning the father of our author, which as it is of the visionary sort, the reader may credit, or not, as he pleases; it is however too curious to be here omitted, especially as the learned prelate Walton already mentioned has told it with great earnestness, as if he was persuaded of its reality.

In the year 1553, Nicholas Wotton, dean of Canterbury, uncle to our author's father, being amba.s.sador in France in the reign of queen Mary, dreamed, that his nephew Thomas Wotton, was disposed to be a party in a very hazardous project, which if not suddenly prevented, would issue in the loss of his life, and the ruin of his family; the dean, who was persuaded of the importance of his own dream, was very uneasy; but lest he should be thought superst.i.tious, he resolved to conceal the circ.u.mstance, and not to acquaint his nephew, or any body else with it; but dreaming the same a second time, he determined to put something in execution in consequence of it; he accordingly wrote to the Queen to send for his nephew Thomas Wotton out of Kent, and that the Lords of the Council might examine him about some imaginary conspiracy, so as to give colour for his being committed to Jail, declaring that he would acquaint her Majesty with the true reason of his request, when he should next be so happy to pay his duty to her. The Queen complied with the dean's desire, who at that time it seems had great influence with that bigotted Princess. About this time a marriage was concluded between the Queen of England, and Philip, King of Spain, which not a little disobliged some of the n.o.bility, who were jealous left their country by such a match should be subjected to the dominion of Spain, and their independent rights invaded by that imperious monarch. These suspicions produced an insurrection, which was headed by the duke of Suffolk and Sir Thomas Wyat, who both lost their lives in the attempt to prevent the match by seizing the Queen; for the design was soon discovered, easily defeated, and those two persons, with many more, suffered on a scaffold.

Between Sir Thomas Wyat and the Wotton's family, there had been a long intimacy, and Sir Thomas had really won Mr. Wotton over to his interest, and had he not been prevented by imprisonment, he afterwards declared that he would have joined his friend in the insurrection, and in all probability would have fallen a sacrifice to the Queen's resentment, and the votaries of the Spanish match.

After Sir Henry quitted the university of Oxford, he travelled into France, Germany and Italy, where he resided above nine years, and returned to his own country perfectly accomplished in all the polite improvements, which men of sense acquire by travelling, and well acquainted with the temper and genius of the people with whom he had conversed, and the different policy of their governments. He was soon taken notice of after his return, and became secretary to the famous Robert Devereux, earl of Ess.e.x, that unfortunate favourite, whose story is never exhibited on the stage, says Mr. Addison, without affecting the heart in the most sensible manner. With his lords.h.i.+p he continued in the character of secretary 'till the earl was apprehended for his mutinous behaviour towards the Queen, and put upon his trial. Wotton, who did not think it safe to continue in England after the fall of his master, retired to Florence, became acquainted with the Great Duke of Tuscany, and rose so high in his favour, that he was entrusted by him to carry letters to James VI. King of Scots, under the name of Octavio Baldi, in order to inform that king of a design against his life. Walton informs us, that though Queen Elizabeth was never willing to declare her successor, yet the King of Scots was generally believed to be the person, on whom the crown of England would devolve. The Queen declining very fast, both through age and visible infirmities, "those that were of the Romish persuasion, in point of religion, knowing that the death of the Queen, and establis.h.i.+ng her succession, was the crisis for destroying or supporting the Protestant religion in this nation, did therefore improve all opportunities for preventing a Protestant Prince to succeed her; and as the pope's excommunication of Queen Elizabeth had both by the judgment and practice of the jesuited Papists, exposed her to be warrantably destroyed, so about that time, there were many endeavours first to excommunicate, and then to shorten the life of King James VI."

Immediately after Wotton's return from Rome to Florence, which was about a year before the death of Queen Elizabeth; Ferdinand, the Great Duke, had intercepted certain letters, which discovered a design against the life of the King of Scots. The Duke abhorring the scheme of, and resolving to prevent it, advised with his secretary Vietta, by what means a caution should be given to the Scotch Prince. Vietta recommended Wotton as a person of the highest abilities of any Englishman then at his court: Mr. Wotton was sent for by his friend Vietta to the Duke, who after many professions of trust and friends.h.i.+p, acquainted him with the secret, and sent him to Scotland with letters to the King, and such antidotes against poison, as till then, the Scots had been strangers to. Mr. Wotton having departed from the Duke, a.s.sumed the name and language of an Italian, which he spoke so fluently, and with so little mixture of a foreign dialect, that he could scarcely be distinguished from a native of Italy; and thinking it best to avoid the line of English intelligence and danger, posted into Norway, and through that country towards Scotland, where he found the King at Stirling.

When he arrived there, he used means by one of the gentlemen of his Majesty's bed-chamber, to procure a speedy and private audience of his Majesty, declaring that the business which he was to negotiate was of such consequence, as had excited the Great Duke of Tuscany to enjoin him suddenly to leave his native country of Italy, to impart it to the king.

The King being informed of this, after a little wonder, mixed with jealousy, to hear of an Italian amba.s.sador or messenger, appointed a private audience that evening. When Mr. Wotton came to the presence chamber, he was desired to lay aside his long rapier, and being entered, found the King there; with three or four Scotch lords standing distant in several corners of the chamber; at the sight of whom he made a stand, and which the King observing, bid him be bold, and deliver his message, and he would undertake for the secresy of all who were present. Upon this he delivered his message and letters to his Majesty in Italian; which when the King had graciously received, after a little pause, Mr. Wotton stept up to the table, and whispered to the King in his own language that he was an Englishman, requesting a more private conference with his Majesty, and that he might be concealed during his stay in that nation, which was promised, and really performed by the King, all the time he remained at the Scotch court; he then returned to the Duke with a satisfactory account of his employment.

When King James succeeded to the Throne of England, he found among others of Queen Elizabeth's officers, Sir Edward Wotton, afterwards lord Wotton, Comptroller of the Houshold, whom he asked one day, 'whether he knew one Henry Wotton, who had spent much time in foreign travel?' Sir Edward replied, that he knew him well, and that he was his brother. The King then asked, where he was, and upon Sir Edward's answering that he believed he would soon be at Paris, send for him says his Majesty, and when he comes to England, bid him repair privately to me. Sir Edward, after a little wonder, asked his Majesty, whether he knew him? to which the King answered, you must rest unsatisfied of that 'till you bring the gentleman to me. Not many months after this discourse, Sir Edward brought his brother to attend the king, who took him in his arms, and bid him welcome under the mine of Octavio Baldi, saying, that he was the most honest, and therefore the best, dissembler he ever met with; and seeing I know, added the King, you want neither learning, travel, nor experience, and that I have had so real a testimony of your faithfulness and abilities to manage an emba.s.sage, I have sent for you to declare my purposes, which is to make use of you in that kind hereafter[1]. But before he dismissed Octavio Baldi from his present attendance, he restored him to his old name of Henry Wotton, by Which he then knighted him.

Not long after this, King James having resolved according to his motto of beati pacifici, to have a friends.h.i.+p with his neighbouring kingdoms of France and Spain, and also to enter into an alliance with the State of Venice, and for that purpose to send amba.s.sadors to those several States, offered to Sir Henry his choice of which ever of these employments best suited his inclination; who from the consideration of his own personal estate being small, and the courts of France and Spain extreamly sumptuous, so as to expose him to expences above his fortune, made choice of Venice, a place of more retirement, and where he could execute his, and at the same time indulge himself in the study of natural philosophy, in that seat of the sciences, where he was sure to meet with men accomplished in all the polite improvements, as well as the more solid attainments of philosophy. Having informed the king that he chose to be sent to Venice, his Majesty settled a very considerable allowance upon him during his stay there; he then took his leave, and was accompanied through France to Venice, says Walton, by gentlemen of the best families and breeding, that this nation afforded.

When Sir Henry Wotton arrived at Venice, there subsisted between the Venetians and the Pope a very warm contention, which was prosecuted by both parties with equal fury. The laity made many complaints against the two frequent practice of land being left to the church without a licence from the state, which increased the power of the clergy, already too great, and rendered their insolence insupportable. In consequence of this, the state made several injunctions against lay-persons disposing their lands in that manner. Another cause of their quarrel was, that the Venetians had sent to Rome, several articles of complaint against two priests, the abbot of Nervesa, and a canon of Vicenza, for committing such abominable crimes, as Mr. Walton says, it would be a shame to mention: Their complaints met with no redress, and the detestable practices of these monsters in holy orders still continuing, they seized their persons and committed them to prison.

The justice or injustice of such power exercised by the Venetians, produced debates between the Republic and Pope Clement VIII. Clement soon dying, Pope Paul the first, a man of unbounded insolence, and elated with his spiritual superiority, let loose all his rage against the state. He judged all resistance to be a diminution of his power, and threatened excommunication to the whole State, if a revocation was not instantly made, which the Venetians rejecting, he proceeded in menaces, and at last did excommunicate the Duke, the whole Senate, and all their dominions; then he shut up the churches, charging the clergy to forbear sacred offices to any of the Venetians, till their obedience should make them capable of absolution. The contention was thus fomented, till a report prevailed that the Venetians were turned Protestants, which was believed by many, as the English emba.s.sador was so often in conference with the Senate, and that they had made all their proceedings known to the King of England, who would support them, should the Pope presume to exercise any more oppressions. This circ.u.mstance made it appear plain enough to his Holiness, that he weakened his power by exceeding it; and being alarmed lest a revolution should happen, offered the Venetians absolution upon very easy terms, which the Republic still slighting, did at last obtain it, by that which was scarce so much as a shew of desiring it. For eight years after Sir Henry Wotton's going into Italy, he stood very high in the King's esteem, but at last, lost his favour for some time, by an accident too singular to be here omitted.

When he first went emba.s.sador to Italy, as he pa.s.sed through Germany he staid some days at Augsburgh, where having been in his former travels well known by many of the first reputation in learning, and pa.s.sing an evening in merriment, he was desired by Christopher Hecamore to write a sentence in his Alb.u.m, and consenting to it, took occasion from some accidental conversation which happened in the company, to write a pleasant definition of an emba.s.sador in these words. "Legatus est vir bonus, peregre-missus ad mentiendum Republicae causa;" which he chose should have been thus rendered into English: An Amba.s.sador is an honest Man, sent to lie abroad for the good of his Country; but the word lie, upon which the conceit turned, was not so expressed in Latin, as to admit a double meaning, or so fair a construction as Sir Henry thought, in English. About eight years after, this Alb.u.m fell into the hands of Gaspar Scioppius, a restless zealot, who published books against King James, and upbraided him for entertaining such scandalous principles, as his emba.s.sador had expressed by that sentence: This aspersion gained ground, and it became fas.h.i.+onable in Venice to write this definition in several gla.s.s windows. These incidents reaching the ear of King James, he was much displeased with the behaviour of his emba.s.sador on that occasion, and from an innocent piece of witticism Sir Henry was like to pay very dear, by losing his master's favour. Upon this our author wrote two apologies, one to Velserus, which was dispersed in Germany and Italy, and another to the King; both which were so well written, that his Majesty upon reading them declared, "that Sir Henry Wotton had sufficiently commutted for a greater offence."

Upon this reconciliation, Sir Henry became more in favour with his Majesty than ever; like friends who have been for some time separated, they meet again with double fervour, and their friends.h.i.+p increases to a greater warmth. During the twenty years which Sir Henry was amba.s.sador at Venice, he had the good fortune to be so well respected by all the Dukes, and the leading men of the Republic, that his interest every year increased, and they seldom denied him any favour he asked for his countrymen who came to Venice; which was, as Walton expresses it, a city of refuge for all Englishmen who were any way distressed in that Republic. Walton proceeds to relate two particular instances of the generosity, and tenderness of his disposition, and the n.o.bleness of his mind, which, as they serve to ill.u.s.trate his character, deserve a place here.

There had been many Englishmen brought by commanders of their own country, to serve the Venetians for pay, against the Turks; and those English, by irregularities, and imprudence, committed such offences as brought them into prisons, and exposed them to work in gallies. Wotton could not be an unconcerned spectator of the miseries of his countrymen: their offences he knew proceeded rather from wantonness, and intemperance, than any real principles of dishonour; and therefore he thought it not beneath him to become a pet.i.tioner for their releas.e.m.e.nt. He was happy in a successful representation of their calamities, they were set at liberty, and had an opportunity of returning to their own country in comfort, in place of languis.h.i.+ng in jails, and being slaves at the Gallies; and by this compa.s.sionate Interposition with the Republick, he had the blessings of many miserable wretches: the highest pleasure which any human being can enjoy on this side immortality.

Of the generosity and n.o.bleness of his mind, Walton gives this instance;

The Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland Volume I Part 19

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