Ben Jonson: A Literary Life by W. David Kay

By W. David Kay

This concise biography surveys Jonson's profession and offers an advent to his works within the context of Jacobean politics, courtroom patronage and his many literary rivalries. Stressing his wit and inventiveness, it explores the recommendations in which he tried to take care of his independence from the stipulations of theatrical construction and from his buyers and introduces new proof that, regardless of his vaunted classicism, he many times appropriated the problem or varieties of different English writers on the way to display his personal inventive superiority.

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In the sixteenth century, these institutions not only provided chambers for barristers and legal education for aspiring lawyers, but they also served as the residence of many young gentlemen who participated in London society for a few years while acquiring a smattering of law. Jonson's ties with the Inns of Court are advertised in the Folio dedication of Every Man out of His Humour, where he addresses them as 'the noblest nurseries of humanity and liberty in the kingdom': 'I understand you, gentlemen, not your houses ....

28 However, Jonson's 'Ode to Desmond' was written before August 1600 and may well precede Drayton's The Emerging Classicist 41 odes. Addressed to an Irish earl imprisoned in the Tower of London, it employs the elevated style and elaborate stanza form of Pindar: Where art thou, genius? I should use Thy present aid: arise invention, Wake, and put on the wings of Pindar's muse, To tower with my intention High, as his mind, that doth advance Her upright head, above the reach of chance, Or the times' envy: Cynthius, I apply My bolder numbers to thy golden lyre: 0, then inspire Thy priest in this strange rapture; heat my brain With Delphic fire: That I may sing my thoughts, in some unvulgar strain.

Ll. 328-9), as he may well have 32 Ben Jonson done when arrested for debt in 1599. Some idea of his wide-ranging reading may be obtained from the catalogue of existing volumes containing his signature or his motto, 'Tanquam explorator' ('ever the scout/spy'), the younger Seneca's phrase for his habit of finding material for reflection in the works of philosophers who did not belong to his own Stoic school of thoughtP Many of Jonson's books have been lost to the 1623 fire or to the indifference of later times, but the two hundred surviving titles indicate that his library was strongest in Greek and Latin authors, including texts of the major poets and playwrights, historians and philosophers, and in contemporary scholarship on ancient language, literature and customs.

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