I’m sure many today are familiar with the quote, Drink to me only with thine eyes, And I will pledge with mine, but I wonder how many know it was written by Ben Jonson in the 17th century. It is the opening line of his poem , Song: To Celia.
Or this from Catiline. Act III. Sc. I , Bad men excuse their faults, good men will leave them.
And in his poem , To the Memory of My Beloved the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare, Jonson wrote, He was not of an age, but for all time ! These many centuries later we still recognize Jonson’s words referring to Shakespeare as being profound, and true.
Perhaps the same could easily be said of Jonson, if his notoriety had been more acclaimed throughout the years. Or if he hadn’t been overshadowed by the great Bard. Jonson , best known for his plays Volpone, and The Alchemist, was a contemporary of Shakespeare —both were poets, playwrights, satirists. They were friends, but according to biographers, it was a complicated friendship . No doubt, Jonson being Shakespeare’s biggest rival, there was competition between them.
Jonson’s name is once again making news as Science Daily reports , Literary Detectives Unravel Famous Ben Jonson Mystery (October 25, 2011) . According to the internet source a manuscript hidden among papers in an ancient family archive sheds new light on Ben Jonson , detailing his famous walk from London to Scotland in 1618, written by his unidentified companion. According to the article, the newly discovered , 7,500 word manuscript helps reconstruct a large missing piece of Jonson’s life story. Until now, it was thought Jonson made the trek alone. Julie Sanders, professor of English Studies at the University of Nottingham says, “ His encounters with the regional and cultural geographies of England and Scotland had a profound impact on what he went on to write afterwards and the manuscript allows us new insight into his work and the society of his time.”
One of my favorite Jonson poems , Inviting a Friend to Supper is included in Elizabethan and Jacobean POETS Marlowe to Maxwell, edited by W.H. Auden and Norman Holmes Pearson. It begins,
Tonight, grave sir, both my poore house , and I
Doe equally desire your companie:
Not that we thinke us worthy of such a ghest,
But that your worth will dignifie our feast,
With those that come; whose grace may make that
Something, which, else, could hope for no esteeme.
The ending reads,
Nor shall our cups make any guiltie men:
But, at our parting, we will be, as when
We innocently met. No simple word,
That shall be utter'd at our mirthful boord,
Shall make us sad next morning: or affright
The libertie, that wee'll enjoy to night.
On a bookshelf at my mother’s house is a copy of an old worn book that had been in her grandmother's family for a long time, Poetical Album of Choice Reflections of Poetry and Song, copyright 1893. It is where I first read Jonson's poem, Song: To Celia when I was just a young girl. One of the entries is a short biographical sketch of Ben Jonson that seems more an epitaph on a grave side marker, “Rare Ben Jonson” born in England 1574. Died 1637. Man of marked ability and strong character, not displaying any finished style in writing, yet infusing a rugged strength, and showing a masterly grasp of the subject which made him one of the famous authors of his time. His drama and tragedies were popular, and he received a pension from the crown, but on account of his prodigal habits he died in poverty.