Ben Jonson’s Autograph Fair Copies of Two Poems - MSS 1, Articles 135 and 136

MSS 1, Articles 135 and 136 (MSS-1/Article-135/01r MSS-1/Article-136/01r)

Peter Beal

Martial. /

The Thinges that make the happier life, are these,

Most pleasant Martiall; Substance got wth ease,

Not labour’d for, but left thee by thy Sire;

A soyle, not barren; a continewall fire;

Neuer at Law; seldome in office gown’d;

A quiet mind; free powers; and body sound;

A wise simplicity; Freindes alike=stated;

Thy table wthout art, and easy=rated;

Thy night not dronken, but from cares layd wast;

No sowre, or sollen bed=mate, yet a Chast;

Sleepe, that will make the darkest houres swift pac’t.

Will to bee, what thou art; and nothing more:

Nor feare thy latest day, nor wish therfore. /

How happy is he borne, or taught,

That serueth not anothers will!

Whose armor is his honest thought;

And silly truth his highest skill.

Whose passions not his Masters are,

Whose soule is still prepar’d for death,

Vntied vnto the world, wth care

Of princes grace, or vulgar breath.

Who hath his life from rumors freed,

Whose conscience is his strong retreate,

Whose state can neyther flatterers feed,

Nor ruine make accusers great.

Who envieth none, Whome chance doth rayse;

or Vice: Who neuer vnderstood

How swordes giue sleighter wounds, yn prayse;

or rules of state, but rules of good.

Who God doth late, & early pray

More of his grace, then guifts to lend;

And entertaynes the harmelesse day

Wth a well=chosen booke, or freind.

This Man is free from seruile bandes

Of hope to rise, or feare to fall;

Lord of himselfe, though not of landes:

And hauing nothing, yet hath all.

This page shows two sets of verses copied out, presumably for Edward Alleyn, by his friend Ben Jonson (1572-1637), who was one of the most celebrated dramatists and poets of the early modern period. Jonson apparently had a personal and professional friendship with Alleyn and, at least, an economic relationship with his father-in-law Philip Henslowe as an actor and dramatist.

Henslowe’s first record of any dealings with Jonson come on July 28, 1597 when Henslowe loaned ‘Bengemen Johnson player’ £4 ‘to be payd yt agayne when so euer ether I or any for me shall demande yt’. At the same time, Jonson paid Henslowe 3s 9d pence for his undefined ‘Sharre’ (Henslowe's Diary, MSS-7/024r). As E. K. Chambers noted, these financial transactions were made on the same day that the theatres were temporarily closed due to the scandalous play, The Isle of Dogs, of which Jonson evidently was a co-author with Thomas Nashe.[1] Whether Jonson used all or only part of the loan of £4 to defend himself against imminent prosecution for his participation in that play, or simply to borrow enough money to buy a share in the Admiral’s Men, is not clear.

However it was not the last time that Jonson would depend on both Alleyn and Henslowe to sustain him, artistically or financially. As his Diary makes clear, Henslowe contracted Jonson to write or co-write a number of plays, including Hot Anger Soon Cold, beginning in December 1597. On September 26, 1598, in MSS 1, Article 24 (MSS-1/Article-024/01r), a grief-stricken Henslowe reported to Alleyn, ‘I haue loste one of my company wch hurteth me greatley that is gabrell [Spenser] for he is slayen in hoges den fylldes by the hands of benge[men] Jonson bricklayer’. Henslowe did not sever his professional relationship with Jonson as a result of his murder of the actor Gabriel Spenser in a duel in Hoxton, London, for Henslowe continued to contract Jonson to write or collaborate in such plays as The Lamentable Tragedy of Page of Plymouth and Richard Crookback, i.e., Richard III, as well as additions to ‘Geronymo’ (probably The Spanish Tragedy) for the Admiral’s Men, among other companies, in August and September 1599, September 1601, and June 1602. Perhaps it was at Alleyn’s request, or that of his fellow actors, that Henslowe continued his professional relationship with Jonson, who acted with Alleyn not only in plays over the years, but in entertainments such as that at Salisbury House in 1608 in front of James I. In fact, Alleyn frequently spoke Jonson’s words, as in The Magnificent Entertainment (1604) in front of the king.

This enduring collaboration between Jonson and Alleyn is certainly celebrated in this manuscript, one of only a handful of surviving works in Jonson’s distinctive and stylish Italic handwriting. His autograph copies of The Masque of Queens (1609) and the opening speech of The Entertainment of the Two Kings at Theobalds (1606) survive, as well as a recently discovered scribal manuscript of Entertainment at Britain's Burse (1609) in which his hand may be present. Otherwise only nine of his poems (including the present manuscript) are known to survive in his own hand. Even so, this seemingly meagre toll of surviving autograph manuscripts is rich by comparison with that for any of his fellow-dramatists, few of whose original manuscripts are extant. This toll also stands in contrast to the considerable number of his verse and dramatic works that survive in multiple scribal copies of various kinds, which make Jonson the dramatist of his period most widely represented in manuscript circulation.

The present manuscript of verse is of interest for several other reasons. The first poem, ‘The Thinges that make the happier life are these’– which exists in manuscript copies but was not published until 1841 (from this autograph original)--is Jonson’s English version of an epigram (Book X, No. 47) by the Latin poet Martial (c.40-103 AD). A celebration of what constitutes a happy life, it shows the Roman poet in a somewhat sunnier, if reflective, mood than does the acerbic and biting wit that informs so many of his more characteristic satirical epigrams. That Martial’s epigrams were very much to Jonson’s taste and that he was one of Jonson’s favourite Latin poets is well-attested. Not only do we have his recorded references to Martial in his conversations with William Drummond in 1619, but also the survival of at least three editions of Martial’s poems from Jonson’s library (all now in the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC), one of which he has annotated heavily with remarks fiercely defending the Roman poet against his detractors.

In his invocation to ‘the Ghost of Martial’ Jonson praises him as a poet who gave ‘farre nobler Epigrammes’ to his sovereign than Jonson ever could to his--a rare example of modesty on Jonson’s part acknowledging anyone’s superiority to himself. Martial was, in effect, a role-model. In defending his own sharp satire in plays such as Volpone, Jonson identified with Martial’s conception of the proper role of the poet. Martial was also the principal model for Jonson’s own epigrams, some of which--such as the present one--are direct translations of Martial, and highly accomplished ones at that.

The second poem on this page comprises the first twelve lines of a 24-line poem, which continued overleaf and is written along similar lines, not as a direct translation of Martial or Horace but very much in the Stoical spirit of certain of their poems. It is usually entitled ‘The Character of a Happy Life’. It is a version composed, however, not by Jonson himself but by Sir Henry Wotton (1568-1639), the diplomat, author and Provost of Eton, who is perhaps best remembered for incurring the wrath of James I by writing that ‘an ambassador is one who lies abroad for the good of his country’. ‘How happy is he borne, or taught’ was one of Jonson’s favourite poems, which, according to his friend and confidant William Drummond, he ‘hath by heart’.

Jonson’s personal, elegantly written copy of it directly after one of his own poems confirms his respect for Wotton’s composition, which was published first in 1614 but widely circulated for many years in manuscript copies. As evidence of Jonson’s taking the trouble to copy other men’s verse on certain occasions, it also helps to explain why at least three poems by other authors managed to be erroneously included in the posthumous edition of his Works, edited in 1640 by Sir Kenelm Digby and Thomas Walkeley. The three poems (Underwoods, xxxix, lxxx and lxxxi) included yet another by Sir Henry Wotton (on the King’s birthday), as well as an elegy by the one contemporary poet Jonson revered ‘this side of idolatry’: John Donne. The poems had evidently been mistaken by his editors as Jonson’s own compositions because they found them among his papers, written in his own hand.

This manuscript is a notable instance of the historical, as well as in this case literary, riches contained in the Henslowe-Alleyn Archive, embodying, as it does, a rare surviving autograph composition by one of the truly major poets and dramatists of the Elizabethan-Jacobean period, and a friend and rival of Shakespeare. It is also a document that throws exciting light on Jonson’s poetical sources, taste and inspiration, on his relationship with Alleyn, and on the nature and editing of his papers after his death.


  1. E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, 4 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1923), 3:352-3. Back to context...