On the cover of Ian Donaldson’s new biography of Ben Jonson (1572-1637) there is a portrait of the poet and dramatist by the Flemish painter Abraham van Blyenberch showing him regarding the viewer with amused intentness, as if poised to make some choice rejoinder. Here is the man of the theater, the bon vivant, the exuberant conversationalist whose table talk William Drummond recorded with such zest. Here is also the controversialist, who delighted in taking courtiers to task as much as fellow wits, and paid for his barbs by being sent to prison again and again for sedition and disorderliness. Indeed, he was even locked up for manslaughter after killing a man in a sword fight.

But there is another portrait in this generously illustrated book, an engraving by Robert Vaughan showing Jonson looking disconsolate and world-weary. Here we see more of the private Jonson, the scholar, the convert, the affectionate father, the disappointed husband, the meditative, vulnerable, rueful man whose lyrics, epitaphs, odes, and epistles place him among our finest poets. In this magisterial biography, Donaldson does justice to all aspects of this fascinating figure.

Born in London in 1572, he was the son of a poor clergyman, probably from Carlisle, who died before Jonson was born, after losing his estate in the reign of Mary Tudor. When Jonson was still a child, his mother remarried a bricklayer. At Westminster School he studied under the famous headmaster William Camden, who gave him not only his lifelong love of Terence, Plautus, Horace, and Virgil but his passion for long-distance walking. Camden set his charges to write out their verses in prose before casting them in meter, which would become Jonson’s accustomed practice. George Herbert, Henry King, Abraham Cowley, and John Dryden all studied at Westminster after Camden left his legacy.

It is also from Camden that Jonson learned another useful lesson: “ready writing makes not good writing.”

After returning from St. John’s College, Cambridge, where he purportedly could not afford the fees, Jonson had no alternative but to enter the bricklaying trade, to which he would be periodically forced to return even after he had found success on the stage. Indeed, he could often be heard on building sites regaling his fellow laborers with swaths of Homer. However, in the 1590s, he left the trade to become a soldier in the Low Countries where, as he told Drummond, he “had, in the face of both camps, killed an enemy and taken opima spolia from him.” Once returned to civilian life, Jonson “betook himself to his wonted studies,” though the wolves were never far from the door. Early and late, poverty was one of his great themes. In “Epistle Mendicant,” addressed to the Lord Treasurer, he describes himself as a besieged city awaiting royal rescue.

Disease, the enemy, and his engineers

Want, and the rest of his concealed compeers,

Have cast a trench about me, now, five years;

And made those strong approaches, by faussebraies,

Redoubts, half-moons, horn-works, and such close ways,

The muse not peeps out one of hundred days;

But lies blocked up, and straitened, narrowed in,

Fixed to the bed and boards, unlike to win

Health, or scarce breath, as she hath never been,

Unless some saving honour of the crown

Dare think it, to relieve, no less renown

A bed-rid wit than a besiegèd town.

In his commonplace book, Discoveries, Jonson went further and insisted that “no great work, or worthy of praise, or memory, but came out of poor cradles. It was the ancient poverty that founded Commonwealths, built Cities, invented Arts; made wholesome Laws; armed men against vices; rewarded them with their own virtues; and preserved the honour, and state of Nations, till they betrayed themselves to Riches.” Jonson captured the betrayal of his own generation in this regard in his “Epistle to Elizabeth, Countess of Rutland,” in which he speaks of the power of money at court:

.  .  . whiles it gains the voice

Of some grand peer, whose air doth make rejoice

The fool that gave it; who will want, and weep,

When his proud patron’s favours are asleep;

While thus it buys great grace, and hunts poor fame;

Runs between man and man; ’tween dame and dame;

Solders cracked friendship; makes love last a day;

Or perhaps less: whilst gold bears all this sway

I, that have none (to send you), send you verse.

Sometime after his return to London in 1592, Jonson entered the theater, where he would write Every Man in His Humour (1598), Every Man out of His Humour (1599), Sejanus (1603), Volpone (1606), The Alchemist (1610), The Devil Is an Ass (1616), and Staple of News (1626), among others which have not survived. The last is a satire on the first stirrings of what would become journalism, which Jonson assessed with prescient wit, speaking of it as “the House of Fame”:

Where both the curious and the negligent,

The scrupulous and careless, wild and staid,

The idle and laborious, all do meet

To taste the cornupcopiae of her rumours

Which she, the mother of sport, pleaseth to scatter

Among the vulgar. Baits, sir, for the people!

And they will bite like fishes.

As a result of his lost play, The Isle of Dogs (1597), Jonson was imprisoned. A year later, he was nearly sent to the gallows for killing a man. In jail, he converted to Roman Catholicism after meeting with a Jesuit. In 1610, after 12 years as a papist, he rejoined the Church of England, though Drummond characterized his friend as “For any religion, as being versed in both.”

In 1594, Jonson married Anne Lewis, whom he described to Drummond with acerb succinctness as “a shrew yet honest.” In 1603, Jonson lost his son Benjamin, which inspired some of his most moving lines: Rest in soft peace, and, asked, say here doth lie / Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry. In 1633, when his good friend and patroness Venetia Digby was found dead of a cerebral hemorrhage, Jonson confessed, Twere time that I died too now that she is dead / Who was my muse, and life of all I said. Here is his usual eloquent economy combined with deep personal feeling that made Jonson so beloved of later poets, from Herrick and Dryden to Coleridge and Swinburne.

Then, again, no other English poet mines classical models as sedulously or as inventively. Tradition was never a set of oppressive precedents for him but a summons to rethink the past in terms of the present, and vice versa. This was the aspect of Jonson that made him so congenial not only to Eliot but Joyce, who read Jonson very closely. The author of Ulysses (1922), after all, used classical scaffolding to rear his vision of Edwardian Dublin in much the same way that Jonson used such scaffolding to rear his vision of Jacobean London, especially in Sejanus.

Eliot saw this before Joyce published Ulysses when he observed how “in order to enjoy [Jonson] at all, we must get to the centre of his work and .  .  . see him unbiased by time, as a contemporary. And to see him as a contemporary does not so much require the power of putting ourselves into seventeenth-century London as it requires the power of setting Jonson in our London”—or our Washington, as the case may be. Certainly, when we read Volpone in light of the dishonor that characterizes so much of our own age, it is not difficult to see the playwright as a very trenchant contemporary indeed, especially when he has Corvino exclaim, Honour? tut, a breath / There’s no such thing in nature; a mere term / Invented to awe fools.

Speaking of Jonson’s career as a whole, Swinburne was full of admiration: “There is something heroic and magnificent in his lifelong dedication of all his gifts and all his powers to the service of the art he had elected as the business of all his life and the aim of all his aspiration.” Proof of this is in the work itself. However, despite its range and power, it has not always been given the due it deserves.

Indeed, if after the death of Shakespeare, whom Jonson confessed to admiring “this side idolatry,” there was no poet in England who enjoyed greater esteem than Jonson, after his own death in 1637 his reputation began to decline. The 18th century found Jonson a sort of bungling Waller and the 19th only read him to compare him unfavorably with Shakespeare. It was not until Yeats, Pound, and Eliot paid him mind that he and his work began to receive renewed critical attention. Hugh Kenner added to this belated acclaim when he wrote of how Jonson

attached himself to a company of actors, began writing plays, got into trouble more than once with the law, even carried to his grave the hangman’s brand on his thumb; but never amid the twistings and turnings of a merely picturesque existence lost sight of his self-imposed obligation to reform the English stage according to the best models, and simultaneously to establish in his own person, the dignity of the profession of letters.

The new seven-volume edition of Jonson’s works that Cambridge University Press is publishing (of which Donaldson is an editor) will give this dignity a proper showcase.

In June 1618, at the peak of his success, Jonson set out on a “foot voyage” from London to Scotland on the Great North Road, arriving in Edinburgh in late August. He intended to fashion a first-rate travelogue out of these heroic peregrinations, but his draft was lost when his house burned down in 1623. Nevertheless, it was in Scotland that he met the bibliophile Drummond, who left behind the fullest record of Jonson’s life, even though Drummond appears to have skewered the record.

In this sense the Scottish Drummond was not unlike the Scottish Boswell in coloring his subject’s prejudices to suit his own. For example, Jonson’s great regard for Shakespeare was not one Drummond shared. After all, as Donaldson points out, when Jonson wrote of Shakespeare, “He was not of an age, but for all time,” he was not reaffirming “an uncontested truth” but venturing “a bold prediction.” Drummond may have attributed to Jonson so many slighting references to Shakespeare to try to qualify a prediction that he found unwarrantable.

From Donaldson’s scrupulous labors, Jonson emerges as witty and urbane, gregarious, combative, sworn to eternal truth without ever being unaware of the feverish fashions of his age, humorously self-effacing, and yet coolly proud. Both of the latter qualities are evident in a poem Jonson wrote on writer’s block, brought on by a few too many glasses of wine, which he addressed to one of

his friends:

Would God, my Burges, I could think

Thoughts worthy of this gift, your ink,

Then would I promise here to give

Verse that should thee and me outlive,

But since the wine hath steeped my brain,

I only can the paper stain;

Yet with a dye, that fears no moth,

But scarlet-like outlasts the cloth.

Although James I granted Jonson a royal pension in 1616—the writer called himself “the King’s Poet”—Jonson was not overly impressed by the honor, referring to the position as “A kind of Christmas engine: one that is used, at least once a year, for a trifling instrument of wit.” That he also declined a knighthood won him the everlasting respect of Robert Graves, who commended the great poet for referring to titles as “birdlime for fools” and poetry as “The Queen of Arts, which had her original from Heaven.” Ian Donaldson has written a splendid life of this extraordinary man, which all claimants to the “tribe of Ben” will savor and prize.

Edward Short is the author of Newman and his Contemporaries.

Next Page