Ben Jonson had recently turned 46 when he set out on his walk. He’d been planning it for at least a year, perhaps inspired by King James’s own voyage north in 1617. But whereas the King travelled with all the pomp expected of the first monarch to unite the crowns of Britain, Jonson chose to make his journey on foot, accompanied by a travelling companion who kept a detailed record of their adventures.
The journey, though, was not a solitary one. Jonson was at the height of his fame: from relatively humble beginnings, growing up as the stepson of a builder in the streets of Elizabethan Westminster, he’d risen to become the unquestioned literary star of his age. Though his progress had been far from smooth, involving a conviction for killing an actor in a duel and at least two clashes with the authorities over his provocative writing, he was now established as a firm favourite of the court, the public theatre, and the private reader. Plays such as Volpone (1606), Epicene (1609), The Alchemist (1610) and Bartholomew Fair (1614) had given him a reputation as a writer of razor-sharp, dramatically daring comedy. The masques he devised in a long-running, if heated, collaboration with the brilliant architect Inigo Jones established new forms for courtly entertainment, impressing a range of aristocratic taste-makers from the King and Queen downwards. And in his poetry he had forged a striking new voice for English writing, adapting classical styles and genres in order to showcase the energies, rhythms and idioms of his native language.
In 1616, his accomplishments had been made concentratedly visible in a grand, large format edition of his Works. This extraordinary volume highlighted a further achievement: Jonson’s creation of a multi-faceted, contradictory, larger-than-life persona, the figure of ‘Ben Jonson’ himself. This character muscles his way into the encounter between readers or audiences and his writing. It’s a performance of authorial personality the like of which had never been seen in English before, and which proved to be just as compelling as any of his works.
So when Jonson set off on his walk in 1618, ‘Ben Jonson’ went with him. The walk was a public spectacle, a chance for everyone to meet ‘the Author’ at the height of his fame. The years afterwards have often been seen as something of a decline, but Jonson continued to innovate in his plays – sometimes to the puzzlement of his audience – and experiment in his poems; he continued to write masques for the King and aristocratic patrons, and to plan a second volume of his works. He continued, too, to develop the authorial persona which was one of his greatest creations, figuring himself now as ‘father’ to a ‘tribe of Ben’, younger writers inspired by his example. When he died in August 1637, he was buried in Westminster Abbey – typically, though, in a manner entirely unlike any writer before or since. ‘O Rare Ben Jonson’ was inscribed on the stone marking the grave. Rare indeed.