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!


Our Friend from the South

So what happened next? The writer of the ‘Foot Voyage’ clearly thought his journey and his job were done once Jonson had been invested with the honour of burgess of Scotland’s capital city at the banquet on September 26. The account is brief about this, despite the suggestion that the companion was himself present. And he appears unmoved, too, by the fact that this was the end of his spectacular summer holiday. As he puts it:

I lay at Effy Wilson’s, her husband is called Thomas Robinson, from Saturday till the Monday sevenight after, which was the fifth of November, at what time I parted from Edinburgh, and at Leith took boat for Brunt Island, where I met with a ship bound for England, the master whereof was John Gadd, and his brother mate. I lay at Robert Clerke’s.

He means ‘October’, of course; and what he did during that week in Edinburgh at the house of Euphemia Wilson (we can note here the Scottish tradition by which wives retained their surnames rather than taking their husbands’) remains entirely unknown. That he should choose to return home by boat makes perfect sense – it was the quickest way of travelling between English and Scottish ports, and he’d covered enough ground already that year. When he steps aboard John Gedd’s ship at Burntisland he shimmers out of view – back into an historical obscurity from which we’ve not, alas, yet been able to retrieve any more of him. What did he do?  He was returning home just in time for the start of Michaelmas term – if he was a young man, as seems at least possible, might he have been heading to one of the Inns of Court or a university? And if he lived for many years after 1618, did he look back with warmth and fondness on his adventures that summer? What stories might he have told of them?

Lamb's House, Leith

Lamb’s House, a 16th century merchant’s dwelling in Leith – perhaps similar to the house in which Jonson stayed

For Jonson, the picture is unsurprisingly clearer. Anna Groundwater has found a previously neglected further reference to him in the city records, dated October 6, concerning expenses paid to civic officials for a visit to him at Leith. So it seems that he returned to his comfortable lodgings with John Stuart down by the Shore, and continued to entertain a range of visitors. Later evidence suggests that he made firm friends with the Edinburgh-based members of families linked to James’s court and with such eminent local dynasties as the Nisbets of Dean. He probably travelled within lowland Scotland, too, perhaps as far west as Loch Lomond – about which he planned to write – and possibly again into Fife, maybe even up to St Andrews. He pursued an interest in the artistic and educational life of the country, and seems to have been particularly taken with the cultural patronage of Alexander Seton, Earl of Dunfermline and Lord Chancellor of Scotland, whom he’d met in Fife on his initial trip there in September. Unlike a rancorous minority of English visitors, who felt compelled to sneer at Scotland in terms still drearily familiar today (I’m looking at you, Simon Heffer), Jonson was impressed: Edinburgh, he said, was ‘Britain’s other eye’ – a bright place, or intellectual centre – and he took an interest in the curricula of the university at St Andrews and of the new ‘King’s College’ or ‘Toun College’ in the capital – my own university, founded by the authority of King James in 1583.

Hawthornden castle

A view of Hawthornden Castle from the North Esk

Most famously, he spent some time at the end of the year at the wonderful Hawthornden castle in Midlothian, which still stands high over the North Esk river. It was substantially improved by its then owner and Jonson’s host, William Drummond, who also had the foresight to take notes of his guest’s often pungent conversation. The forthright opinions and voluble sociability of the understandably expansive Jonson seem to have irked Drummond on occasion during the visit – perhaps especially when the modishness of his own poetry was called into question – since his notes conclude with some pungency of their own: a brief pen portrait, in which Ben’s faults are sharply delineated in terms borrowed, to some extent, from Jonson. So this might, in fact, be a moment of Jonsonian self-criticism, too, or at least take its cue from stories Jonson told against himself.

Anyway, correspondence and other evidence shows that this was neither the first nor only encounter between Jonson and Drummond, and that for the most part their relationship was warm, respectful and friendly. It is to Drummond, too, that we owe our knowledge of the date of Jonson’s departure south – apparently walking again, at least some of the way, but now in the depths of winter:

He went from Leith homeward the 25 of January 1619, in a pair of shoes which, he told, lasted him since he came from Darnton, which he minded to take back that far again; they were appearing like Coryat’s: the first two days he was all excoriate. If he died by the way, he promised to send me his papers of this Country, hewn as they were.

Jonson here compares himself to the ‘Obcombian legstretcher’, Thomas Coryate, whose grand rambles through Western Europe and then much further afield were legendary. Drummond confirms, too, that Jonson’s enquiring mind had been busily accumulating material for further works on ‘this Country’ – i.e., Scotland – which were then in some kind of draft or note form.

But none of this survives. No doubt Jonson had all sorts of plans and ideas that never came to fruition – most writers do. He also lost some of his writings to a 1623 fire in his study – a conflagration perhaps confined to his desk, though no less damaging for that – in which a number of works were consumed irreparably. Among these was his own account of the 1618 walk, ‘my journey into Scotland sung, with all the adventures’. To me – a researcher of early modern literature and culture, a Jonson fan, a Londoner by upbringing who has made his home in Edinburgh – this has long seemed the most infuriating and tantalising loss. The ‘Foot Voyage’ isn’t really a substitute for this vanished hymn to a Jacobean summer, of course. For now, though, it’ll do.