She Shall Make The Old Man Young

Ben Johnson (1572 – 1637)

There never was a great genius without a touch of madness.

Ben Johnson

 

Doing, A Filthy Pleasure Is

by Gaius Petronius
Translated by Ben Johnson

 
Doing, a filthy pleasure is, and short;
And done, we straight repent us of the sport:
Let us not then rush blindly on unto it,
Like lustful beasts, that only know to do it:
For lust will languish, and that heat decay.
But thus, thus, keeping endless holiday,
Let us together closely lie and kiss,
There is no labour, nor no shame in this;
This hath pleased, doth please, and long will please; never
Can this decay, but is beginning ever.
 
 

Time has a way of white washing the past.    In Ben Johnson’s case what has lived on into the future are his words as a brilliant playwright and poet, not his murderous misdeeds.   On September 22nd, 1598, Johnson,  a young man of twenty-six, a former bricklayer turned playwright, his play Every Man in his Humour only recently debuted, got in an altercation with a young actor named Gabriel Spencer.  Both men had a history of violence and tempers quickly escalated. Spencer had previously publicly threatened to kill a boy who threw a candle stick at him and Johnson boasted among his drinking mates of killing a man when he was younger, which his friends could never discern if the tale was true or whether Johnson used it to polish his reputation.  What is not in dispute is that Spencer challenged Johnson to a duel and Johnson promptly ran him through with his sword, killing him instantly.  Johnson was arrested a week hence and thrown in Newgate Prison.   He was arraigned on October 6th and confessed to the crime of manslaughter for which the court had a reputation for sentencing the lower classes to death by hanging.  However, Johnson, who looked like a laborer,  made a calculated defense and called upon an obscure legal statute called “neck verse.”   It allowed for the trial to be made in front of the clergy as jury rather than a hanging judge.  During this alternative trial, the accused would be asked to sight-translate a random passage from the Latin Bible.  If the criminal could pass the test it was proof of his religious stature and advanced education.   In such cases, the court had the ability to grant clemency during sentencing,  considering the crime a reflection of  temporary insanity and not an indication of the accused true nature.   It worked, Johnson was exonerated.  He left Newgate Prison a free man, with only a brand upon his thumb to remind him of the blood he had spilled.  The brand was a “T” for Tyburn, the gallows, where he would have met his end.  Johnson no longer had to embellish his reputation,  he had the mark for life to prove he was a killer. 


A Celebration of Charis: I. His Excuse for Loving

by Ben Johnson
 
Let it not your wonder move,
Less your laughter, that I love.
Though I now write fifty years,
I have had, and have, my peers;
Poets, though divine, are men,
Some have lov’d as old again.
And it is not always face,
Clothes, or fortune, gives the grace;
Or the feature, or the youth.
But the language and the truth,
With the ardour and the passion,
Gives the lover weight and fashion.
If you then will read the story,
First prepare you to be sorry
That you never knew till now
Either whom to love or how;
But be glad, as soon with me,
When you know that this is she
Of whose beauty it was sung;
She shall make the old man young,
Keep the middle age at stay,
And let nothing high decay,
Till she be the reason why
All the world for love may die.