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English Literature

Ben Jonson
(1573-1637)

Benjamin Jonson (or 'Johnson' as it is sometimetimes spelt) was born in the first half of 1573, somewhere in England.  His father had been a Protestant minister who died very shortly before Ben's birth. At some point, Ben's mother moved to the city of Westminster and married a bricklayer. Ben attended the free parish school when he was very young, and later Westminster Grammar School. He tried for a scholarship, the only way he could possibly have continued his schooling....and failed. Ben's stepfather arranged for him to be apprenticed to another bricklayer for the seven years it would take for Ben to receive his guild membership and become a free, full citizen of London. There's no real record of his opinion of all this, but we do know that he read a lot. Pretty soon he could hold his own with any formally-educated person, though in Ben's own frequently-expressed opinion, he could more than hold his own with anybody.

Ben married a woman named Ann Lewis on 14 November 1594, which was odd because the wedding took place while Ben was still an apprentice and not really free to marry. Ann must have been an unusually tolerant woman, since she let Ben go into acting rather than bricklaying once his apprenticeship ended. Ben joined Henslowe's theatrical company as an actor and apprentice playwright. Soon, he and his company were arrested following his part play The Isle of Dogs being deemed rebellious. Later he, was jailed for the killing of a fellow actor after a brief skirmish, but escaped decapitation because of unusual "pardon" laws in those days. Subsequent arrests for additional arousing plays, prompted him to convert religions while jailed.

Ben Jonson's first original play, Every Man in His Humour, was performed in 1598 by Shakespeare himself. Jonson became a celebrity. Other plays include: Every Man Out of His Humour, Cynthia's Revels, The Alchemist, The Poetaster (1601), Catiline, The King's Entertainment, Sejanus, and many more. He was also a noted poet. Here is an example of one of his works:

An Elergy

Though beauty be the mark of praise,

 

  And yours of whom I sing be such

 

  As not the world can praise too much,

 

Yet 'tis your Virtue now I raise.

 

 

A virtue, like allay so gone

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  Throughout your form as, though that move

 

  And draw and conquer all men's love,

 

This subjects you to love of one.

 

 

Wherein you triumph yet—because

 

  'Tis of your flesh, and that you use

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  The noblest freedom, not to choose

 

Against or faith or honour's laws.

 

 

But who should less expect from you?

 

  In whom alone Love lives again:

 

  By whom he is restored to men,

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And kept and bred and brought up true.

 

 

His falling temples you have rear'd,

 

  The wither'd garlands ta'en away;

 

  His altars kept from that decay

 

That envy wish'd, and nature fear'd:

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And on them burn so chaste a flame,

 

  With so much loyalty's expense,

 

  As Love to acquit such excellence

 

Is gone himself into your name.

 

 

And you are he—the deity

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  To whom all lovers are design'd

 

  That would their better objects find;

 

Among which faithful troop am I—

 

 

Who as an off'ring at your shrine

 

  Have sung this hymn, and here entreat

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  One spark of your diviner heat

 

To light upon a love of mine.

 

 

Which if it kindle not, but scant

 

  Appear, and that to shortest view;

 

  Yet give me leave to adore in you

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What I in her am grieved to want!