Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Playwright & Poet - Ben Jonson, Friend of Shakespeare

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. 

 It wasn’t until Shakespeare's death Ben Jonson become the leading literary figure of the Jacobean era  (  the reign of James I), and enjoyed popularity as writer of masques.  Citing Wikipedia,   the Masque was a form of courtly entertainment which flourished in the 16th and 17th century Europe. In England, Tudor court masques developed from earlier guisings, where a masked allegorical figure would appear and address the assembled company—providing a theme for the occasion—with musical accompaniment; masques at Elizabeth’s court emphasized  the concord and unity between Queen and Kingdom.  Ben Jonson wrote a number of masques.   His   works are usually thought of as the most significant in the form.   Jonson’s , Masque of Blackness  was written as the request of Anne of Denmark who wished the masquers to be disguised as Africans. For synopsis of Masque of Blackness visit

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.

I've read these verses many times, and always smile as I so easily picture two friends enjoying each other's company, sharing a meal and happy conversation in the comfort and warmth of home. Thinking well  of  one another, free to be themselves. 

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.



elizabethbrinton said...

This is so interesting! I love this blog because there are new treasures unearthed every week. I never think of Johnson, but now am intrigued. Thank you.

Patty said...

This article and your previous one promtpts me to learn more about these poets you hold in such regard! Very interesting!

Anonymous said...

Oh this is so good. I always find what you write so interesting. thank You