Ben Jonson

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Ben Jonson : biography

c. 11 June 1572 – 6 August 1637

Other works

  • Epigrams (1612)
  • The Forest (1616), including To Penshurst
  • On My First Sonne (1616), elegy
  • A Discourse of Love (1618)
  • Barclay’s Argenis, translated by Jonson (1623)
  • The Execration against Vulcan (1640)
  • Horace’s Art of Poetry, translated by Jonson (1640), with a commendatory verse by Edward Herbert
  • Underwood (1640)
  • English Grammar (1640)
  • 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, a commonplace book
  • To Celia (Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes), poem

It is in Jonson’s Timber, or Discoveries… that he famously quipped on the manner in which language became a measure of the speaker or writer:

As with other English Renaissance dramatists, a portion of Ben Jonson’s literary output has not survived. In addition to The Isle of Dogs (1597), the records suggest these lost plays as wholly or partially Jonson’s work: Richard Crookback (1602); Hot Anger Soon Cold (1598), with Porter and Henry Chettle; Page of Plymouth (1599), with Dekker; and Robert II, King of Scots (1599), with Chettle and Dekker. Several of Jonson’s masques and entertainments also are not extant: The Entertainment at Merchant Taylors (1607); The Entertainment at Salisbury House for James I (1608); and The May Lord (1613–19).

Finally, there are questionable or borderline attributions. Jonson may have had a hand in Rollo, Duke of Normandy, or The Bloody Brother, a play in the canon of John Fletcher and his collaborators. The comedy The Widow was printed in 1652 as the work of Thomas Middleton, Fletcher and Jonson, though scholars have been intensely sceptical about Jonson’s presence in the play. A few attributions of anonymous plays, such as The London Prodigal, have been ventured by individual researchers, but have met with cool responses.Logan and Smith, pp. 82–92

Decline and death

Jonson began to decline in the 1620s. He was still well-known; from this time dates the prominence of the Sons of Ben or the "Tribe of Ben", those younger poets such as Robert Herrick, Richard Lovelace, and Sir John Suckling who took their bearing in verse from Jonson. However, a series of setbacks drained his strength and damaged his reputation. He resumed writing regular plays in the 1620s, but these are not considered among his best. They are of significant interest, however, for their portrayal of Charles I’s England. The Staple of News, for example, offers a remarkable look at the earliest stage of English journalism. The lukewarm reception given that play was, however, nothing compared to the dismal failure of The New Inn; the cold reception given this play prompted Jonson to write a poem condemning his audience (the Ode to Myself), which in turn prompted Thomas Carew, one of the "Tribe of Ben," to respond in a poem that asks Jonson to recognise his own decline.Maclean, p. 88

The principal factor in Jonson’s partial eclipse was, however, the death of James and the accession of King Charles I in 1625. Jonson felt neglected by the new court. A decisive quarrel with Jones harmed his career as a writer of court masques, although he continued to entertain the court on an irregular basis. For his part, Charles displayed a certain degree of care for the great poet of his father’s day: he increased Jonson’s annual pension to £100 and included a tierce of wine.

Despite the strokes that he suffered in the 1620s, Jonson continued to write. At his death in 1637 he seems to have been working on another play, The Sad Shepherd. Though only two acts are extant, this represents a remarkable new direction for Jonson: a move into pastoral drama. During the early 1630s he also conducted a correspondence with James Howell, who warned him about disfavour at court in the wake of his dispute with Jones.