On August 17, 1637, the corpse of a man was buried in Westminster Abbey, with impressive ceremony. It was the corpse of no ordinary man, and it was no ordinary burial. For some reason—possibly the danger of overcrowding a hallowed space—the coffined corpse was lowered into the ground vertically, not horizontally, and it went in head first. As the grave was being closed a visitor, we learn from the historian and gossip-writer John Aubrey, gave the workman eighteen pence to carve “a pavement square of blue marble about 14 inches square” with which to cover the opening. It bore a simple epitaph: “O RARE BEN JONSON.” What is apparently a replacement stone (the name spelled “Johnson”) can still be seen in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey. The opening scenes of the masterly new biography of Jonson by Ian Donaldson are set not at the cradle but at the grave of its subject, as he attempts to sort out the often gruesome myths and legends surrounding Jonson’s headlong descent to eternity and the fate of his mortal remains—especially his skull, which may have been lost or stolen.
Ben Jonson was one of the most versatile and productive of all English men of letters. He was also one of the most colorful figures of his time, as many-sided and complex a character as, later, were Samuel Johnson, Lord Byron, and Charles Dickens. A slightly younger contemporary, friend, and rival of Shakespeare, he wrote in a far wider range of genres. He is best known today for a handful of lyrics, most famously those beginning “Drink to me only with thine eyes” and “Have you seen but a white lily grow?” (both inseparable from their exquisite musical settings), and for the two great satirical comedies Volpone (circa 1605) and The Alchemist (1610).
But he also wrote many more comedies, a couple of ambitious Roman tragedies, a pastoral play, numerous court masques and other formal entertainments, epigrams and other poems of many different kinds, both secular and religious, translations (including one of Horace’s Art of Poetry), an English grammar, and an illuminating commonplace book known as Timber, or Discoveries made upon men and matter, as they have flowed out of his daily readings, or had their reflux to his peculiar notion of the times. His racy conversations with the Scottish poet and landowner William Drummond of Hawthornden during an extended visit to Scotland were respectfully recorded by his host and provide a rich fund of literary and other gossip.
Jonson was a scholar, a product (like William Shakespeare) of a grammar school education that he received at Westminster School in London, where he grew up, but he was also an autodidact who acquired at least a working knowledge of French, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Italian. He went on reading and learning throughout his life and was awarded honorary degrees by, as Drummond reported it, “both the universities, by their favour, not his study” in his middle years. Like other writers, including Thomas Nashe and Shakespeare, at this time when the English language was exploding like a galaxy of firework displays, he was a linguistic innovator, coining many new words on the basis both of his knowledge of the classics and of his alert responsiveness to the life around him. To give only one example, writing of the loads of sewage on their malodorous way to the Thames, he asked in his mock-heroic poem “On the Famous Voyage”: “Who shall discharge first his merd-urinous load?” “Merd-urinous,” defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “composed of dung and urine” with only one other recorded instance (from Jonson’s contemporary John Taylor the Water Poet), is worthy of James Joyce—who, incidentally, felt such affinity with Jonson that he read his works “from beginning to end.”
Jonson was a man of action as well as of letters, proud of having killed an enemy in single combat and stripping him of his armor and weapons while serving as a soldier in the Netherlands. In his early years he combined literary activity with employment as an actor and, following in his stepfather’s footsteps, as a bricklayer. In 1597 he, along with two of his fellow actors, was imprisoned for six weeks for his part in writing a play (now lost), called The Isle of Dogs, which appears to have been a satire on the court. Soon afterward one of these actors, Gabriel Spencer, challenged him to a duel. Jonson killed him and escaped hanging only through the technical loophole that permitted convicted criminals to escape the full rigor of the law by proving their literacy through reading a passage from Psalm 51, known as the “neck-verse.” But his goods were confiscated and he was branded on the hand with a hot iron.
While he was awaiting trial a visiting priest converted him to Roman Catholicism, and he remained in this religion, by his own account, for the next twelve years. This resulted in charges against both him and his wife that they refused to accept the authority of the Church of England. When he returned to the Protestant fold he celebrated, “in token of true reconciliation,” by quaffing a full cup of communion wine—as, in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, Petruccio does at his own wedding. “In the Catholic church at this time,” Donaldson writes, “the cup was not offered to lay communicants; Jonson’s gesture enthusiastically celebrated one significant difference between the two faiths.” He was always a heavy drinker: “Drink,” wrote Drummond, “is one of the elements in which he liveth.”
Jonson was imprisoned again in 1605, along with John Marston and George Chapman, because in their coauthored comedy Eastward Ho! they had made fun of the Scots and satirized King James’s practice of raising funds by selling knighthoods. The three men were threatened with having their ears and noses slit, but Jonson and Chapman wrote distressed letters from prison appealing to, among others, the Earl of Pembroke and the King’s cousin Lord D’Aubigny, and eventually the collaborators received a pardon from the Lord Chamberlain. Always ready for a party, Jonson celebrated by giving a banquet for all his friends, including his former headmaster William Camden and the fledgling antiquarian John Selden.
Among the guests was his mother, whose action during the meal suggests that he inherited his strength of character from her:
At the midst of the feast his old mother drank to him, and show him a paper which she had, if the sentence had taken execution, to have mixed in the prison among his drink, which was full of lusty strong poison. And that she was no churl, she told she minded first to have drunk of it herself.
Whether her son would have preferred death by poison administered by his mother to the slitting of his ears and nose is not recorded. As Donaldson writes, this “report of the occasion to Drummond, with its vivid cameo of his formidable mother, underscores the gravity of the situation from which the men had narrowly escaped.”
In 1594 Jonson married Anne Lewis—“who was a shrew yet honest.” She is “almost invariably” absent from Jonson’s writing. Their first son, another Ben, was born in 1596. The marriage had periods of instability. Ben and Anne lived apart for some years early in the seventeenth century, but came together again around 1605. Like Shakespeare’s only son Hamnet, who was born the year before little Ben and lived to the age of eleven, the boy had a tragically short life, dying when he was only seven years old. Jonson’s epitaph “On My First Son,” on which Donaldson comments with sensitive skill, is among his most touchingly personal writings:
Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, loved boy.
Seven years thou wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
Oh, could I lose all father now! For why
Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon ’scaped world’s and flesh’s rage,
And, if no other misery, yet age?
Rest in soft peace, and, asked, say here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry;
For whose sake, henceforth, all his vows be such,
As what he loves may never like too much.
But Jonson was a congenital amorist and a serial adulterer, father to illegitimate children, and not above playing tricks on the women he seduced. He told Drummond that, in an exploit that might have come from one of his own plays, he, with the connivance of a friend,
cozened a lady with whom he had made an appointment to meet an old astrologer in the suburbs, which she kept; and it was himself disguised in a long gown and a white beard at the light of [a] dim-burning candle, up in a little cabinet reached unto by a ladder.1
Whether this happened before or after his marriage is unknown.
Ever restless, he was an unconventional adventurer. In 1612, presumably for money (Donaldson does not make this clear), he agreed to act as tutor to the nineteen-year-old Wat Ralegh, son of the great Sir Walter, on a year-long grand tour of the Continent. His blasphemous pupil, who wore
favours of damsels on a cod-piece…, caused him to be drunken and dead drunk, so that he knew not where he was; thereafter laid him [Jonson] on a car [some sort of cart] which he made to be drawn by pioneers [workmen] through the streets, at every corner showing his governor stretched out, and telling them that was a more lively image of the crucifix than any they had; at which sport Ralegh’s mother delighted much, saying, his father young was so inclined; though the father abhorred it.
Jonson made dramatic capital out of these exploits in the figure of Humphrey Wasp in his comedy Bartholomew Fair.
Cantankerous and self-assertive, Jonson frequently berated the playgoers of his time for what he saw as their inadequate appreciation of his genius. He quarreled with many of his colleagues, most publicly the great architect and designer Inigo Jones, his collaborator on a long series of court masques. In “An Expostulation with Inigo Jones,” he complained that Jones was more interested in spectacle than in content:
O shows! Shows! Mighty shows!
The eloquence of masques! What need of prose,
Or verse, or sense, t’express immortal you?
In 1618, in his mid-forties, when he turned the scales at almost twenty stone (280 pounds) and was “laden with belly,” he embarked on an arduous walking trip to Scotland, arriving in Edinburgh after two months and ten days. “Until now,” writes Donaldson, “it has always been assumed that Jonson undertook this long walk alone, or perhaps in the company of a ser- vant who carried his bags and helped him along the way.” But Donaldson is Jonson’s first biographer to be able to make use of an exciting, anonymously written manuscript, as yet largely unpublished, headed “my Gossip Joh[n]-son his foot voyage and mine into Scotland,” which was recently discovered by an Edinburgh scholar, James Loxley. It provides fascinating information about the journey, recording details of some of the grand personages who entertained them along the way.2