The Magazine

In Shakespeare’s Shadow

A splendid life of rare Ben Jonson.

Mar 12, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 25 • By EDWARD SHORT
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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.