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New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Hardy, John. "Samuel Johnson." In Dryden to Johnson, edited by Roger Lonsdale, 279-312. New York: Penguin, 1993. Lindsay, David W., ed. English Poetry, 1700-1780; Contemporaries of Swift and Johnson. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1974. Redford, Bruce. Designing the Life of Johnson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
JONSON, BEN (1572-1637) Most probably born in Westminster, Ben Jonson would become one of the best-known poets and playwrights of his day. Educated at Westminster School, he may have spent some time learning bricklaying, his stepfather's craft. He wrote little of his childhood, so few facts are known. He may have wanted to distract attention from a family that held little status during his own day, but one that he believed had at one time enjoyed the favor of Henry VIII. As a Protestant Jonson's father had suffered under the rule of Mary Tudor, losing the family's fortune and dying before Jonson's birth, leaving his mother, a courageous and resourceful woman by Jonson's accounts, to care for her family. Her remarriage saved the family, but her choice of husband mortified her son. His stepfather's common labor would later embarrass Jonson as he attempted to lead the life of a member of the lettered social class.
Westminster proved the major force in developing Jonson's attitudes toward education and art, as well as in cementing his lifelong friendship with his teacher and mentor William Camden. Jonson would praise Camden in "To William Camden" and the teacher was most likely the subject for his poem "Inviting a Friend to Supper." Lacking a sponsor, Jonson would not follow the traditional path after Westminster to oxford, or other advanced schooling, a fact that added to his bitterness. Much of what is known regarding Jonson's attitudes is drawn from his correspondence with his lifelong friend the poet William Drummond of Haw-thornden. Jonson's poem "My Picture Left in Scotland" probably followed a visit to Drummond during which the poet apparently became attracted to an unidentified woman. The 1632 published notes of Drummond contain conversations with Jonson and reflect Jonson's prose style.
While details of Jonson's early life prove sketchy, he seems to have served in the military in Flanders and upon his return to England probably supported himself through the hated craft of brickwork. However, he continued his studies on his own and in 1594 married and later fathered children he adored. Not much is known of his wife, Anne Lewis, other than that Jonson once referred to her as a "shrew, yet honest." The couple would lose both their beloved daughter Mary and their son Benjamin, immortalized in Jonson's poignant epitaphs "On My First Daughter" and "On My First Son." His poetry was deeply affected by the publication of Sir Philip Sidney's Apology for Poetry (1595), a work that put into words many of Jonson's attitudes regarding art. He would later salute the Sidney family through the poem long considered the first of the estate poems, "To Penshurst."
Jonson attempted acting but was apparently unsuccessful and began to mingle his poetry writing with that of drama. In 1597 the theater manager Philip Henslowe mentions Jonson in his papers. Jonson would gain a reputation for a fiery temperament that may have landed him in prison along with other actors after a 1597 performance of The Isle of Dogs. That temper led him to kill a fellow actor, Gabriel Spencer, in a 1598 duel, although reports indicate it was in self-defense. He avoided execution by claiming benefit of clergy, a claim of clerical standing used to the advantage of many criminals.
With the staging in 1598 of his second play, a comedy named Everyman in His Humor, Jonson's reputation grew. A not so successful sequel, Every man out of His Humour, followed in 1599, along with Cynthia's Revels (1600), both satires that displayed the knowledge of classical language and literature of which Jon-son remained so proud. His elitist attitude caused him to become entangled in the popularly known "war of theaters," in which his poorly written The Poetaster (1601) was meant to answer playwrights who he felt had misused his reputation, most notably John Marston and Thomas Dekker. He characterized himself as Horace, making clear his great admiration for the classical writers whose work he would translate; his Horace's Art of Poetry appeared posthumously in 1640. Clashing with his reputation for a detached sense of privilege was a tenderness that emerged in elegies, not only in those for his own children but in works such as "Epitaph on S.P., A Child of Queen Elizabeth's Chapel," celebrating the brief life of a child actor. "Giles and Joan" well represented Jonson's not-so-celebrated ability to capture playful humor.
Jonson continued writing for the stage with Sejanus, His Fall (1603), which again drew him to the attention of the authorities. Although Jonson's political plays, such as Sejanus and the later Caitiline His Conspiracy (1611), lacked the grace of Shakespeare's political works, they still stood as political statements. Jonson had to reply to accusations of "popery and treason" before the Privy Council. Jonson had converted in 1598 to Catholicism, a practice not popular in the days of James I. Many critics have commented on the unwise choice of conspiracy and assassination as topics for Jonson's play during the same year that James I had agreed to sponsor a group of players, the King's Men. Jonson landed in trouble yet again through his part in the collaborative drama Eastward Ho (1604). That could have proved disastrous to the patronage he sought at James's court.
Jonson's bid to become a court writer improved with The Masque of Blackness (1605), which advanced his eventual reputation as the best of the masque writers. However, his combative nature again gained him an enemy, this time in the powerful Inigo Jones. His attitude toward the life of the courtier was sharply expressed in "On Something, That Walks Somewhere" (1616), reflecting his ambivalence over the fawning necessary to the courtly life. As many writers did, he felt pressured to seek patronage, and his poem "Lucy, Countess of Bedford," along with "A Sonnet to the Noble Lady, the Lady Mary Wroth" he wrote in hopes of gaining support. He continued to move in court circles until he felt drawn again to focus most of his energies on the stage in 1609.
In the world of drama Jonson's comedies did more to distinguish him than his tragedies. His best included Volpone (1605), Epicoene, or The Silent Woman (1609), The Alchemist (1610), and Bartholomew Fair (1614). They offered audiences sharp criticism of human nature, with greater emphasis placed on deception than honor and ethics. Even the minor devil Pug, title character for Jonson's The Devil is an Ass (1616), learns that humans can inflict more serious harm on one another than Satan.
Jonson had often employed his marked poetic talents in his masques and in songs for the stage, such as his "Song: To Celia," "Slow, Slow, Fresh Fount," "Queen and Huntress," and "Still to Be Neat." He was rewarded in a singular manner for his long service to the Crown in 1616 when James presented him not only a lifetime pension but the title of England's first poet laureate. That year Jonson published his collected verse in his famous Works, which included the collections Epigrams and The Forest, in which the majority of his best known poetry appears. More serious in tone than the poems included in Epigrams, the 15 works in The Forest included "To Penshurst" and the less successful "To Heaven." The year 1616 held an added significance with the death of Jonson's peer, William Shakespeare. Jonson contributed to a later first folio printing of Shakespeare's works "To the Memory of My Beloved, The Author, Mr. William Shakespeare, and What He Hath Left Us" (1623). In a later final return to the stage, Jonson did not repeat his earlier success. His rocky relationship with his audience is made apparent in "Ode to Himself," in which he castigates the public for its rejection of his comedy The New Inn (1629). Additional drama included The Staple of News (1625) and A Tale of a Tub (1633). Jonson's 1628 appointment as city chronologer would have allowed optimal use of his in-depth knowledge of London. unfortunately that year he suffered a stroke that weakened his ability to work. He maintained a devoted following until his death in 1637. Jonson was buried in honor in Westminster Abbey, and a collection of memorial elegies, Jonsonnus Virbius, was published in 1638. Jonson's posthumous Timber, or Discoveries made upon Men and Matter appeared in 1640, offering the public a valuable collection of Jonson's notes, observations, and short
essays, as well as adaptation of Latin works into English, further evidence of Jonson' place in history as England's first great critic. In 1641 an additional collection of poetry titled The Underwood appeared.
Although he made several enemies with his superior attitude, Jonson also attracted a strong following of young writers with whom he met regularly in pubs. The group included the poets William Browne, William Cartwright, Sir Lucius Cary, and Cary's best friend, Henry Morison. Jonson celebrated the latter pair in his "To the Immortal Memory and Friendship of That Noble Pair, Sir Lucius Cary and Sir H. Mori-son" (1629). The phrase Tribe of Ben is often applied to that group erroneously. They should be properly labeled the Sons of Ben, as should the poets who succeeded him, such as Thomas Carew, Robert Herrick, Richard Lovelace, and Sir John Suckling. Later playwrights specifically influenced by Jonson's writing, including Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, Richard Brome, Nathan Field, Philip Massinger, and James Shirley, are more correctly labeled Tribe of Ben. As those writers felt a debt to Jonson, he also realized his debts to predecessors, obvious in poems such as "To John Donne."
Surely one of the greatest forces in British literature, Jonson remains widely read and anthologized, supporting ongoing criticism. However, many critics believe he has yet to receive the attention due such a prolific genius.
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