Friday, August 6, 2010

Ben Jonson

Ben Jonson is believed to be of Scottish descent, through the Johnstones of Annandale, though he was born and grew up in London.  Jonson's career as a playwright was marked by controversy, and his plays sometimes garnered him an arrest warrant.  Jonson died on August 6, 1637.  A note in Sir Walter Scott's "Life of Dryden" describes him thus:

'Jonson is described as wearing a loose coachman's coat, frequenting the Mermaid tavern, where he drunk seas of Canary, then reeling home to bed, and, after a profuse perspiration, arising to his dramatic studies. Shadwell appears, from the slight traits which remain concerning him, to have followed, as closely as possible, the same course of pleasure and of study. He was brutal in his conversation, and much addicted to the use of opium, to which, indeed, he is said finally to have fallen a victim.


I observe, the ingenious editor of the late excellent edition of Jonson's Works, expresses some indignation at the charge brought against that eminent author in this note, and denies the authority of the letter-writer, who characterises Jonson as indulging in vulgar excess. Few men have more sincere Admiration for Jonson's talents than the present writer. But surely that coarseness of taste, which tainted his powerful mind, is proved from his writings. Many authors of that age are indecent, but Jonson is filthy and gross in his pleasantry, and indulges himself in using the language of scavengers and night-men. His Bartholomew-fair furnishes many examples of this unhappy predilection, and his " Famous Voyage" seems to have disgusted even the zeal of his editor. But, in marking these faults, I was far from meaning to assail the well-earned reputation of " Rare Ben Jonson," who could well afford to be guilty of these sins against decorum, while his writings afford so strong and masculine a support to the cause of virtue and religion. [Sir Walter Scott argues this question with Mr Gilford more at length in his Essay on Hawthornden, in the "Provincial Antiquities." '

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