Ben Jonson 1572?–1637
English dramatist, poet, masque writer, and critic.
A prolific Elizabethan playwright and man of letters, Jonson is among the greatest writers and theorists of English literature. Highly learned in the classics, he profoundly influenced the coming Augustan age through his emphasis on the precepts of Horace, Aristotle, and other early thinkers. In his day, Jonson's professional reputation was often obscured by that of the man himself: bold, independent, aggressive, fashioning himself an image as the sole arbiter of taste, standing for erudition and the supremacy of classical models against what he perceived as the general populace's ignorant preference for the sensational. While he is now remembered primarily for his satirical comedies, he also distinguished himself as a seminal figure in English literary criticism, as a preeminent writer of courtly masques, and as a poet. Among his most enduring contributions to the latter form are the classically influenced lyrics of his Epigrams (1616) and the pastoral poem "To Penshurst" contained in his collection The Forest (1616).
Jonson was born in London shortly after the death of his father, a minister who claimed descent from Scottish gentry. Despite a poor upbringing, he was educated at Westminster School under the renowned antiquary William Camden. He apparently left his schooling unwillingly to work with his stepfather as a bricklayer, and later served as a volunteer in the Low Countries during the Dutch war with Spain. Returning to England by 1592, Jonson married Anne Lewis about three years later. Although it appears that the union was unhappy, it produced several children, all of whom Jonson outlived. In the years following his marriage he became an actor, and wrote respected emendations and additions to Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy (1592). By 1597 he was writing for Philip Henslowe's theatrical company. That year, Henslowe employed Jonson to finish Thomas Nashe's satire The Isle of Dogs (now lost), but the play was suppressed for alleged seditious content and Jonson was jailed for a short time. In 1598 the earliest of his extant works, Every Man in His Humour, was produced by the Lord Chamberlain's Men. That same year he was again jailed for killing actor Gabriel Spencer in a duel. In 1602 he separated from his wife and was imprisoned a third time in 1605 for his work with John Marston (a former rival playwright) and George Chapman on East-ward Hoe. He wrote all of his major comedies between 1606 and 1616, the later date marking the publication of
his Workes, which, in addition to the plays, included the poetic collections Epigrams and The Forest, as well as his early masques produced with the collaboration of designer/architect Inigo Jones. That same year he was also named Poet Laureate, and for the next decade focused his energies on the production of masques at the court of King James I. Fire destroyed his library in 1623, and when James I died in 1625, Jonson lost much of his influence at court. In 1628 he suffered the first of several strokes that would later incapacitate him. Jonson died in 1637 and was interred at Westminster Abbey. His third collection of poems, Underwood, appeared posthumously in the 1640 edition of his Workes.
Jonson's major poetic works combine the classical forms of lyric, epistle, ode, elegy, and epithalamion with the native English sense of affect or feeling. Many of them are poems of praise and written within the obligatory confines of the patronage system. From Epigrams, the short poems influenced by the verse of the Roman poet Martial, "On My First Daughter" and "On My First Son" are personal lyric consolations. This collection also contains the tender "Epitaph on S. P., a Child of Q. Elizabeth's Chapel." The Forest includes the pastoral "To Penshurst," Jonson's country house poem celebrating the poetic and political largesse of the Sidney family; the work is regarded as a model of the topographical form. In The Forest are two versions of "Song: To Celia," one dramatizing the carpe diem sentiment expressed by Volpone in Jonson's play of the same name, the other known by its first line, "Drink to me only with thine eyes." Underwood contains "A Celebration of Charis in Ten Lyric Pieces," an experiment in voice and the transformative power of language, and the Pindaric Ode dedicated "To the Immortal Memory and Friendship of that Noble Pair, Sir Lucius Cary and Sir H. Morison." The plays Sejanus His Fall (1603) and Catiline His Conspiracy (1611) established Jonson's reputation as a political tragedian; he is perhaps best known, however, for his satiric comedies Volpone (1606), Epicoene (1609), The Alchemist (1610), and Bartholomew Fayre (1614), which are portraits of the greed and hypocrisy Jonson saw in contemporary London. His Timber; or, Discoveries (1641), is considered the first formulation of applied literary principles in English, and predates the critical works of John Dryden.
Jonson's immediate poetic reputation is traceable to the highly imitative works of his literary followers, known as the "Sons" or "Tribe of Ben," which included Robert Herrick, Thomas Carew, and the later Cavalier poets. His works were highly regarded during his lifetime, although his later plays, "dotages" as Dryden called them, were not well received. His controlled lines were models for the eighteenth century verse of writers such as Alexander Pope, who once observed that Jonson "brought critical learning into vogue." The nineteenth century Romantics decried his lack of passion and thought his comedies better than his tragedies. In the twentieth century the New Critical movement overlooked Jonson's poems in favor of the work of the Metaphysicals. His work, including his long neglected poetry, has, however, enjoyed a renaissance of critical attention in the late twentieth century from new historical theorists interested in the material issues of patronage and censorship that inform his poetics.