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.