Great Instructor

Charles Nicholl

  • Ben Jonson: A Life by David Riggs
    Harvard, 399 pp, £27.95, April 1989, ISBN 0 674 06625 1

Ben Jonson is remembered as a master of English comedy, but you would hardly think so from his portrait. The earliest dateable likeness is the engraving by Robert Vaughan, done in the mid 1620s, when Jonson was around fifty. The face is jowly, bearded, dour, heavily lived-in. The shadowed eyes remind me of photos of Tony Hancock. Comedy, they seem to say, is no laughing matter. It was one of Jonson’s sayings that ‘he would not flatter, though he saw death,’ and his look seems to challenge the artist not to flatter him either. You can see the glisten on his skin from too much canary wine, and the warts and blemishes which more malicious caricaturists like Thomas Dekker dwell on: ‘a face full of pockey-holes and pimples ... a most ungodly face, like a rotten russet apple when ’tis bruised’. You can confirm that, as Aubrey noted, he had one eye bigger and lower than the other. And you can guess at what was by then his vast bulk. In his youth he was tall and rangy, a ‘hollow-cheekt scrag’, but by middle age he had swelled to a corpulent 19 stone. In his poem ‘My Picture Left in Scotland’ (1619) he mocks his unwieldy frame –

So much waist as she cannot embrace
My mountaine belly and my rockye face

– yet seems also to celebrate its craggy solidity. This sense of solidity and stature is also conveyed in the portrait. Here, in every sense, is a big man.

Even his literary greatness seems sometimes more a bigness, a triumph of volume and stamina. His career spanned three reigns and four decades, from the first flexing of comic power in The Isle of Dogs (1597) to the last melancholy fragments of The Sad Shepherd, probably written in the final year of his life. During that time he wrote 18 plays, 37 masques and court entertainments, two volumes of poetry and a volume of epigrams. This list does not include the lost plays from his days as one of Henslowe’s hacks at the Rose, nor the mass of work unpublished at his death: over a hundred miscellaneous pieces of verse, a translation of Horace’s Ars Poetica, an English grammar, and the compendium of jottings, musings and mini-essays later collected under the title of Timber (or ‘Discoveries Made Upon Men and Matter’).

In an age when most writers burned out young, Jonson kept on going. Right at the end, embattled by debt and alcoholism, half-paralysed by a stroke, he was still at work. Among his last pieces was probably the English Grammar, published posthumously in 1640. It shows him still niggling away at the nuts and bolts of the language, purifying that ‘sterling English diction’ which Coleridge praised in him, involving himself in such orthographic minutiae as the superiority of the ‘serviceable k’ over ‘this halting Q, with her waiting-woman u after her’. Also among his papers were fragments of two plays: the pastorale called The Sad Shepherd, and a chronicle-play, Mortimer His Fall. The printed text of the latter concludes curtly, ‘He dy’d, and left it unfinished,’ furnishing an apocryphal vision of the aged maestro finally keeling over with the ink still wet on his quill. It was not probably like that, but Jonson encourages these vignettes.

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