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 …