Verse > Anthologies > William Stanley Braithwaite, ed. > The Book of Elizabethan Verse
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William Stanley Braithwaite, ed.  The Book of Elizabethan Verse.  1907.
 
Master Francis Beaumont’s Letter to Ben Jonson
By Francis Beaumont (1584–1616)
 
          Written before he and Master Fletcher came to London, with two of the precedent Comedies, then not finished; which deferred their merry meetings at the “Mermaid.”

THE SUN 1 (which doth the greatest comfort bring
To absent friends, because the self-same thing
They know they see, however absent) is
Here our best haymaker (forgive me this;
It is our country’s style): in this warm shine        5
I lie, and dream of your full Mermaid Wine.
  O, we have Winter mixed with claret lees,
Drink apt to bring in drier heresies
Than beer, good only for the sonnet’s strain,
With fustian metaphors to stuff the brain;        10
So mixed, that, given to the thirstiest one,
’Twill not prove alms, unless he have the stone:
I think with one draught man’s invention fades,
Two cups had quite spoiled Homer’s Iliads!
’Tis liquor that will find out Sutcliff’s wit, 2        15
Lie where he will, 3 and make him write worse yet:
Filled with such moisture, in most grievous qualms,
Did Robert Wisdom 4 write his singing Psalms;
And so must I do this: and yet I think
It is our potion sent us down to drink,        20
By special Providence, keeps us from fights,
Makes us not laugh, when we make legs 5 to Knights:
’Tis this that keeps our minds fit for our states;
A medicine to obey our Magistrates;
For we do live more free than you; no hate,        25
No envy at one another’s happy state,
Moves us; we are equal every whit; 6
Of land that God gives men, here is their wit,
If we consider fully; for our best
And gravest man will with his main-house-jest 7        30
Scarce please you: we want subtlety to do
The city-tricks; lie, Hate, and flatter too:
Here are none that can bear a painted show,
Strike, when you wince, and then lament the blow;
Who (like mills set the right way for to grind)        35
Can make their gains alike with every wind:
Only some fellows with the subtlest pate
Amongst us, may perchance equivocate
At selling of a horse; and that’s the most.
Methinks the little wit I had is lost        40
Since I saw you; for wit is like a rest
Held up at tennis, which men do the best
With the best gamesters. What things have we seen
Done at the Mermaid! heard words that have been
So nimble, and so full of subtle flame,        45
As if that every one (from whence they came)
Had meant to put his whole wit in a jest,
And had resolved to live a fool the rest
Of his dull life;—then when there hath been thrown
Wit able enough to justify the town        50
For three days past; wit that might warrant be
For the whole city to talk foolishly
Till that were cancelled; and, when we were gone,
We left an air behind us; which alone
Was able to make the two next companies        55
(Right witty; though but downright fools) more wise!
  When I remember this, and see that now
The country gentlemen begin to allow
My wit for dry bobs, then I needs must cry,
‘I see my days of ballating 8 grow nigh!’        60
I can already riddle, and can sing
Catches, sell bargains: and I fear shall bring
Myself to speak the hardest words I find
Over as oft as any, with one wind,
That takes no medicines. But one thought of thee        65
Makes me remember all these things to be
The wit of our young men, fellows that show
No part of good, yet utter all they know;
Who, like trees of the guard, 9 have growing souls,
Only strong Destiny, which all controls,        70
I hope hath left a better fate in store
For me, thy friend, than to live ever poor,
Banished unto this home. Fate once again,
Bring me to thee, who canst make smooth and plain
The way of knowledge for me, and then I        75
(Who have no good, but in thy company,)
Protest it will my greatest comfort be,
To acknowledge all I have, to flow from thee!
Ben, when these Scenes are perfect, we’ll taste wine!
I’ll drink thy Muse’s health! thou shalt quaff mine!        80
 
Note 1. This poem was appended, in both folios, to The Nice Valour, or The Passionate Madman; and reprinted among Beaumont’s Poems, 1653. Professor Charles Eliot Norton found among some MSS. of Donne’s Poems a transcript of two of Beaumont’s poems, his Ad Comitissam Rutlandi and The Letter to Ben Jonson. Both of the manuscript poems, said Professor Norton, were found to be improvements on the commonly known texts. “This is especially true,” he continues, “of the latter, the more important poem—a poem delightful and well-known to all the lovers of the poetry of the Elizabethan age.” A variant reading from Dyce’s text is given of the poem and the MS. (See Studies and Notes in Philology and Literature, 1896, vol. 5, pp. 19–22.) [back]
Note 2. Sutcliffe’s wit: Probably, as Dyce suggests, Dr. Matthew Sutcliffe, first Provost of King James’ College in Chelsea, of whom Fuller says (Church History, Bk. X. Lect. iii. 25–27), “Doctor Sutcliffe (was) a known rigid anti-remonstrant; and when old, very morose and testy in his writings against them.” (Norton.) [back]
Note 3. Lie where he will: i.e., in whatever place he lodges. [back]
Note 4. Robert Wisdom: He contributed to Hopkins and Sternhold’s Psalms, the xxv. psalm, and the hymn:
  Preserve us, Lord, by thy dear word,
From Turk and Pope, defend us Lord, etc.
He died in 1568. The quaintness of his name, as well as the poverty of his poetry, caused him frequently to be ridiculed. (Weber.) For a poem of Wisdom’s see No. 522. [back]
Note 5. Make legs: i.e., to make bows. [back]
Note 6. We are all equal every whit: Seward, at Sympson’s suggestion, pointed the passage thus:
  We are all equal: every whit
Of the land that God gives, etc.
and so his successors. But the old punctuation is right, the meaning of the line being—From the land which God gives men here, their wit comes. (Dyce.) [back]
Note 7. Main house jest, i.e., the chief standing family-jest, which has descended from father to son for some generations. (Heath, MS. Notes.) [back]
Note 8. Ballating: ballading. [back]
Note 9. Of the Guard. Dyce explains this as gard, equivalent to garden; a questionable interpretation. If the MS. reading be right, it is a jest at some guard which had no soul but the vegetative. (Norton.) [back]
 
 
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