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Ben Jonson

1572–1637

The poet, essayist, and playwright Ben Jonson was born on June 11, 1572 in London, England. His father, a minister, died shortly before his birth and his mother remarried a bricklayer.

Jonson was raised in Westminster and attended St. Martin's parish school and Westminster School, where he came under the influence of the classical scholar William Camden. He left the Westminster school in 1589, worked briefly in his stepfather's trade as a bricklayer, then served in the military at Flanders, before working as an actor and playwright for Philip Henslowe's theater company.

In 1594, Jonson married Anne Lewis and began to work as an actor and playwright. Jonson and Lewis had at least two children, but little else is known of their marriage.

In 1598, Jonson wrote what is considered his first great play, Every Man in His Humor. In a 1616 production, William Shakespeare acted in one of the lead roles. Shortly after the play opened, Jonson killed Gabriel Spencer in a duel and was tried for murder. He was released by pleading "benefit of clergy" (i.e., by proving he could read and write in Latin, he was allowed to face a more lenient court). He spent only a few weeks in prison, but shortly after his release he was again arrested for failing to pay an actor.

Under King James I, Jonson received royal favor and patronage. Over the next fifteen years many of his most famous satirical plays, including Volpone (1606) and The Alchemist (1610), were produced for the London stage. In 1616, he was granted a substantial pension of 100 marks a year, and is often identified as England's first Poet Laureate.

His circle of admirers and friends, who called themselves the "Tribe of Ben," met regularly at the Mermaid Tavern and later at the Devil's Head. Among his followers were nobles such as the Duke and Duchess of Newcastle as well as writers including Robert Herrick, Richard Lovelace, Sir John Suckling, James Howell, and Thomas Carew.

Jonson was also friends with many of the writers of his day, and many of his most well-known poems include tributes to friends such as Shakespeare, John Donne, and Francis Bacon.

Ben Jonson died in Westminster on August 8, 1637. A tremendous crowd of mourners attended his burial at Westminster Abbey. He is regarded as one of the major dramatists and poets of the seventeenth century.

By This Poet

10

My Picture Left in Scotland

I now think love is rather deaf, than blind,
	For else it could not be,
		That she,
Whom I adore so much, should so slight me,
   And cast my love behind:
I'm sure my language was as sweet,
		And every close did meet
		In sentence of as subtle feet
			As hath the youngest he,
	That sits in shadow of Apollo's tree.

Oh, but my conscious fears,
	That fly my thoughts between,
	Tell me that she hath seen
   My hundreds of gray hairs,
   Told seven and forty years,
   Read so much waist, as she cannot embrace
   My mountain belly and my rock face,
As all these, through her eyes, have stopt her ears.

Song to Celia

Drinke to me, onely, with thine eyes,
    And I will pledge with mine;
Or leave a kisse but in the cup,
    And Ile not looke for wine.
The thirst, that from the soule doth rise,
    Doth aske a drinke divine:
But might I of Jove's Nectar sup,
    I would not change for thine.
I sent thee, late, a rosie wreath,
    Not so much honoring thee,
As giving it a hope, that there
    It could not withered bee.
But thou thereon did'st onely breath,
    And sent'st it back to mee:
Since when it growes, and smells, I sweare,
    Not of it selfe, but thee.

His Excuse for Loving

Let it not your wonder move, 
Less your laughter, that I love.
Though I now write fifty years,
I have had, and have, my peers.
Poets, though divine, are men;
Some have loved as old again.
And it is not always face, 
Clothes, or fortune gives the grace,
Or the feature, or the youth;
But the language and the truth, 
With the ardor and the passion, 
Gives the lover weight and fashion.
If you then would hear the story,
First, prepare you to be sorry 
That you never knew till now
Either whom to love or how;
But be glad as soon with me
When you hear that this is she
Of whose beauty it was sung,
She shall make the old man young,
Keep the middle age at stay,
And let nothing hide decay,
Till she be the reason why
All the world for love may die.