An Unruly Character

In his own time “Rare Ben Jonson”—sometime bricklayer, soldier, actor, dramatist, poet, critic, self-publicist, and personality—became a celebrity.  When, at the age of 46, and weighing about 280 pounds, he set off to walk from London to Edinburgh, the houses of the wealthy and fashionable were opened to him, and—as this biography tells us—even ordinary people in remote villages came out to welcome him and celebrate his passing.  By the time he died in 1637 quite a lot of the people who thought themselves qualified to judge considered him to be the most distinguished English man of letters of his own, or perhaps of any, time, a status to which Jonson, never reluctant to assert himself, had put in an early claim when he dramatized himself as the Roman poet Horace.  Later in the century, he and Shakespeare were paired as twin presiding geniuses of the English stage.

Popular opinion has drastically modified that verdict.  If we take The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations as a rough guide to literary fame, Shakespeare is represented by over 1,800 entries, Alexander Pope by 175, Jonson by a modest 54.  None of Jonson’s 18 known plays survives as part of the popular repertoire.  Only specialists read the court masques upon which he so prided himself, and, except for a small number of anthologized pieces, the same is true of his...

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