Hooked on Ben Jonson

A guest post by John Newton

Christmas browsing in my local book shop, my eyes settled on a portrait of a bearded, middle aged man and I pondered on the words: Ben Jonson – A Life. (Ian Donaldson) . Ever since turning the first pages of that book, I have been like a fish on a line. Why? What’s been the attraction of Ben Jonson?

First it was the bobbing float: who was he, this contemporary of Shakespeare? As I read on, I was amazed at how much seemed to be recorded of Ben’s life and personality (complex, paradoxical) compared to his shadowy friend Will. And then I wondered why it was that his life and work was not more generally well known?

Then came the bait: the drama of his life – from bricklaying to Kings Poet, from prison to palace, from murder to marriage, from Protestant to Catholic and back again.

Then a hook sunk itself in, drawing me along the Jonson road. I learnt of his extraordinary walk from London to Edinburgh. This led me to meet up with James Loxley who discovered in 2009 the long lost document of Jonson’s 71 day journey – his ‘Foot Voyage’ from London to Edinburgh in 1618. I was by now literally tracing many of Jonson’s steps and becoming creatively involved on Ben Jonson-associated projects.

Then the hook twisted, and pierced my publishing skin. Having worked for some years for the publisher of Dr Johnson’s dictionary (Longman) I was fascinated by Ben Jonson’s outrageous assertion (in his day) of his intellectual property rights as a playwright (a word he perhaps created!) with the publication of his Works in 1616. This was a groundbreaking publishing milestone that needed to be celebrated – which this year, 400 years later, I am doing in a concert at Sutton House, the National Trust Elizabethan house in London. (Please come!)

And finally, I was hauled in by some enchanting writing. Some of Jonson’s work has been a revelation to me: to read and see performed some of his plays which I think have relevance to today’s world of greed, corruption and deception.; to enjoy some poems of love and death; to become aware of his masques (like Jacobean corporate events with gigantic budgets!) and some other writings which are often beautiful in themselves or interesting from a historical or biographical point of view.  I’ve just begun, scratched the surface if you like, but ‘Fie how I have been fishified!’ (Sorry Will). I’m just wondering what lies ahead when I’m thrown back in!

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James Loxley

Professor of Early Modern Literature, Department of English Literature, University of Edinburgh; Principal Investigator, Ben Jonson's Walk to Scotland

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