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Witty, urbane, lyrical Shakespeare peer

As a huge Ben Jonson fan, I welcome the great Ben Jonson: A Life, a magisterial work by Ian Donaldson, perhaps the single most accomplished Jonson scholar.

From the book jacket
From the book jacketRead more

nolead begins A Life nolead ends

nolead begins By Ian Donaldson

Oxford University Press. 512 pp. $39.95

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Reviewed by John Timpane

As a huge Ben Jonson fan, I welcome the great Ben Jonson: A Life, a magisterial work by Ian Donaldson, perhaps the single most accomplished Jonson scholar.

This is a measured, comprehensive book written with style, sympathy for his subject, and scholarly balance. Other good Jonson bios are out there - I'll mention my dissertation adviser David Riggs' Ben Jonson, a Freudian approach, and a fine one - but for sheer reach, grasp, and panache, there may never be a better one than this.

Jonson's comedies (The Alchemist, Every Man in His Humor, Epicene, and the astonishing Bartholomew Fair) are some of the funniest in English, or most graceful (Volpone) or most politically knowing and trenchant (Sejanus, Cataline). Hilarious, somber, urbane, moralistic, pious, lyrical, and dirty, he's in the handful of the best, most versatile of poets.

He's been overshadowed - but who hasn't? - by his friend Will Shakespeare. Most of Ben's dramas haven't worn as well as Will's - although, go see them onstage and then tell me what you think. They move and sing and make you marvel at Ben's wit, teeming brain, and ear for dialogue. Anyway, he doesn't need me to argue for him. He lived at a time when a couple dozen of the best-ever poets, from Will to Mary Wroth, from Walter Raleigh to John Webster, were all alive and writing, and he is preeminent among almost all of them.

Also singular among them, in that his life is very well documented, the best-documented life of a Renaissance writer not of noble birth. He made sure, publishing a lot; writing a lot of letters, especially to scholars and other writers; getting into a lot of trouble; and working at the court of James I.

Attracting enemies, advisers, and followers - suggesting that he had charisma, energy, and occasional violent unreason - he became famous throughout the land during his own life, in a way Shakespeare does not seem to have done. After all, Shakespeare is buried in the town church at Stratford, and Ben is buried - vertically! - in Westminster Abbey. His funeral gathering in 1637 was reported as huge, nobles and gentles thronging to bid farewell to the best-loved poet of the city.

What a life, a hard life, a self-made (sometimes, self-unmade) life. He attended a good school and became an assiduous, self-taught scholar, one of the best classicists (just ask him!) in the realm. One day, he'd be given honorary degrees at Oxford and Cambridge. As a young man he went into the army, where he proved to be of such strength and courage that, in one man-on-man battle with the other army's best fighter (to avoid a bigger battle), Jonson was chosen for England's side and killed his man.

He killed another man in a duel - but escaped hanging by the common-law "benefit of clergy," which protected those who could read a particular passage from the Bible. He also landed in jail (he later claimed it was voluntary) because of a play - and then wrote letters to famous people to get himself sprung. He became a friend to many great and powerful men, including Francis Bacon and Walter Raleigh (to whose bratty son, Wat, Jonson was tutor). Ben was a great maker of friends, a man who wrote warmly, but with judicious insight, about friendship.

And he was an actor and playwright on the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage. His plays were big hits, but he was ever uneasy about the public stage (as Donaldson shows well) and was glad to become a writer of entertainments for the royal court. Some of these are among his most brilliant work.

The adage, only partly true, is that for 150 years after his death, he was the preeminent writer, and afterward, Shakespeare passed him up. It's truest for his plays, but he is still much read as a poet, exerting his influence down the ages. He became the sage and leader of a bunch called the Sons of Ben - but his touch extends through the 20th and 21st century, among poets that include Thom Gunn, J.V. Cunningham, Yvor Winters, Wendy Cope, and Dana Gioia.

Donaldson rightly warns us not to assume we can read Ben directly from his work. He did invest himself in his writing and his talk (people sometimes took notes, which still exist) - but he also hid and changed much. He appears - why, we don't know - to have been haunted by guilt. His conversion to Catholicism, and his reconversion 12 years later, mark an agonized religiosity coexisting with his hearty, bibulous verve.

Donaldson also argues against the idea that Jonson's writing trailed off precipitately later in life, in both quality and quantity. As spotty as Jonson's later dramas were, he remained a poet of vigor and originality almost down to the end.

I must say, the poetry pops right off the page, the grief ("Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy"), wit ("Ben's plays are works, when other works are plays"), praise (of Shakespeare: "He was not of an age, but for all time!"), sex ("Doing, a filthy pleasure is, and short"), dark religiosity ("Good and great God, can I not think on thee,/ But it must straight my melancholy be?"), love ("Drink to me only with thine eyes"), drink ("But that which most doth take my muse and me/ Is a pure cup of rich Canary wine"), and his great theme, friendship ("No simple word/ That shall be uttered at our mirthful board/ Shall make us sad next morning, or affright/The liberty that we'll enjoy tonight"). He's a great observer, a great London writer; the stuff is still fresh. He seems contemporary in his happy awareness of being part of a community.

We get to know Ben Jonson pretty well in this book, become yet another friend of his. I hope it helps reinvigorate interest in his plays and maintain the fame of his verse. Ian Donaldson, as a theorist of comedy and as a scholar, has worked up to this book for 30 years. Ben Jonson: A Life is the heart of a great, appreciative career.