Deadly Dramatist & Pugnacious Poet: Ben Jonson

In spite of the fact that in modern times Ben Jonson has been overshadowed by Shakespeare, Jonson enjoyed tremendous success as a writer in his own era.  He rather quickly worked his way from bricklayer to soldier to actor to author with a royal pension.  In fact, many identify Jonson as England’s 1st poet laureate, though the position had not yet been officially designated.  His mastery of direct, colloquial dialogue and delivery of pointed social critique earned him renown as a dramatist.  By the time of Volpone‘s success in 1606, the argumentative Jonson had managed to rise above his rival playwrights, Dekker and Marston, and the fact that he killed an actor during a fight in 1598–a crime for which he was branded and temporarily jailed.

The pension allotted to Jonson beginning in 1616 by James I allowed Jonson to turn his attention from drama to poetry and eventually court masques.  Jonson himself saw this period as the zenith of his career; that others did, too, is attested to by the formation of “the Tribe of Ben,” a group of younger poets whom Jonson mentored in the 1620’s.  When James I died in 1625, however, Jonson returned to the stage, but his plays never again experienced the successful reception they once had around the turn of the century.  Jonson did not take this poor reception well, and on the occasion in 1629 when his play The New Inn was hissed off stage, he responded to his audience-critics with the poem, “Ode to Himself,” excerpted below.  The often-heated conversation between artists and critics that we see today is nothing new.  Given Jonson’s high-minded, classical notion of the artist, however, it’s doubtful he would have deigned to use today’s most common forums, the internet and blogosphere, to do so.

From “Ode to Himself” (1631) (RTWTH)

Come leave the loathed stage,

And the more loathsome age,

Where pride and impudence, in faction knit,

Usurp the chair of wit:

Indicting and arraigning every day

Something they call a play.

Let their fastidious, vain

Commission of the brain

Run on, and rage, sweat, censure, and condemn:

They were not made for thee, less thou for them.


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