Ben Jonson (1572-1637) was England’s first poet laureate. He is, arguably, the most versatile writer in the history of English poetry. Nobody has written about food and drink with the same gusto. Witness, for example, “Inviting a Friend to Supper”. And there are few elegies as poignant as “On My First Sonne” written in 1603 following the death of his son, Benjamin, at the age of seven. As Edmund Bolton put it in 1722, “I have never tasted English more to my liking, nor more smart, and put to the height of use in poetry, than in the vital, judicious, and most practicable language of Benjamin Jonson’s poems.” It is little wonder that he had such a devoted band of followers, the “sons of Ben”, those Cavalier poets who tried to emulate his style, poets as diverse as Robert Herrick, Thomas Carew, Richard Lovelace and Sir John Suckling.
Jonson’s life was turbulent, tough and beset by numerous adversities. Born in London a month after his father’s death, he began work as a bricklayer apprenticed to his step-father. He joined the army and fought in Flanders where he killed an enemy soldier in single combat. On his return to England he worked as an actor during which time (in 1598) he killed a fellow actor with a rapier and only escaped hanging by pleading “benefit of clergy”. He was quarrelsome, a mood probably exacerbated by heavy drinking. (According to John Aubrey, “Canarie was his beloved liquor.”) He was jailed for insulting the Scottish nation. He lived and wrote in the shadow of Shakespeare about whom he wrote his wonderful tribute, “To the Memory of My Beloved the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare and What He Hath Left Us“. He was constantly in debt and suffered several strokes in the 1620’s. Jonson died on 6 August 1637 and was buried in Westminster Abbey, with the inscription “O Rare Ben Johnson” (sic) set in the slab over his grave. The fact that he was buried in an upright position was an indication of his reduced circumstances at the time of his death, although it has also been written that he asked for a grave exactly 18 inches square from the monarch and received an upright grave to fit in the requested space
The Cambridge History of English and American Literature does not think much of Jonson’s epigrams. Their tone is sniffy:
In his non-dramatic poetry, Jonson rarely attains high excellence. A large portion belongs to the class headed “miscellaneous” in collected editions, and is of interest rather for the information which it supplies as to his friends and patrons, and for its satirical pictures of contemporary life, than for any charm of verse. Few of the odes, epistles and epigrams show aught but careful writing, but there are also few that can be praised unreservedly or read with delight. The Epigrams (1616) are characteristically coarse; and some of the satirical sort recall the persons of his comedies; as those on alchemists, Lieutenant Shift, Court Worm, Sir Voluptuous Beast, or Lady Would Be.
Thom Gunn, in his selection from Jonson’s poetry, is much more astute and acute:
He is probably the best epigrammatist in English because he does not intend his statements to be light commendations or dismissals, but witticisms (however elegant) placed in the context of a society’s whole experience. Understanding them means taking them to heart, means – ultimately – acting on them.
It is true, as you can see below, that some of the epigrams are coarse, some are slight and some are nasty. But they are all governed by a wonderful sense of style.
I hope you like them.
Brief Poems by Ben Jonson
I. — TO THE READER.
PRAY thee, take care, that tak’st my book in hand,
To read it well—that is, to understand.
VI. — TO ALCHEMISTS.
If all you boast of your great art be true ;
Sure, willing poverty lives most in you.
X. — TO MY LORD IGNORANT.
Thou call’st me POET, as a term of shame ;
But I have my revenge made, in thy name.
XIX. — ON SIR COD THE PERFUMED.
That COD can get no widow, yet a knight,
I scent the cause : he wooes with an ill sprite.
XX. — TO THE SAME.
[SIR COD THE PERFUMED.]
The expense in odors, is a most vain sin,
Except thou could’st, sir Cod, wear them within.
XIX. — ON SIR VOLUPTUOUS BEAST.
Than his chaste wife though BEAST now know no more,
He’adulters still: his thoughts lie with a whore..
XXXIV. — OF DEATH.
He that fears death, or mourns it, in the just,
Shews of the Resurrection little trust.
XXXIX. — ON OLD COLT.
For all night-sins, with other wives unknown,
COLT now doth daily penance in his own.
XLVII. — TO SIR LUCKLESS WOO-ALL.
Sir LUCKLESS, troth, for luck’s sake pass by one ;
He that wooes every widow, will get none.
XLVIII. — ON MUNGRIL ESQUIRE.
His bought arms MUNG not liked ; for his first day
Of bearing them in field, he threw ’em away :
And hath no honor lost, our duellists say.
L. — TO SIR COD.
Leave, COD, tobacco-like, burnt gums to take,
Or fumy clysters, thy moist lungs to bake :
Arsenic would thee fit for society make.
LVII. — ON BAWDS AND USURERS.
If, as their ends, their fruits were so, the same,
Bawdry and Usury were one kind of game.
LXI. — TO FOOL, OR KNAVE.
Thy praise or dispraise is to me alike;
One doth not stroke me, nor the other strike.
LXIX. — TO PERTINAX COB.
COB, thou nor soldier, thief, nor fencer art,
Yet by the weapon liv’st! thou hast one good part.
LXXI. — ON COURT PARROT.
To pluck down mine, POLL sets up new wits still,
Still ’tis is luck to praise me ‘against his will.
LXXVIII. — TO HORNET.
HORNET, thou hast thy wife drest for the stall,
To draw thee custom: but herself gets all.
LXXXII. — ON CASHIERED CAPTAIN SURLY.
Surly’s old whore in her new silks doth swim:
He cast, yet keeps her well! No, she keeps him.
LXXXIII. — TO A FRIEND.
To put out the word, Whore, thou dost me wo,
Throughout my book, ‘Troth put out woman too.
C X V I I. — ON GROIN.
Groin, come of age, his state sold out of hand
For his whore: Groin doth still occupy his land.
The Wikipedia page on Ben Jonson.
The poems and plays of Ben Jonson
A collection of Ben Jonson epigrams.
Portraits of Ben Jonson from the National Portrait Gallery.
Images of Ben Jonson’s grave.