Ben Johnson was a distinguished English playwright and poet. His works are seldom mentioned without connecting them to Shakespeare, his great contemporary. However, they have merits and significance of their own. Johnson was a true man of Renaissance epoch. Although there is not much evidence about his life, especially his early years, there is his friendly but unflattering vivid portrait left by William Drummond. Johnson’s verses provide as much information of the contemporary society as of the author himself. They reveal to the reader a man of passions, opinions, education, and character. This essay will analyze the phenomenon of Ben Johnson as the reflection and provide explication of some of his most well known poems.
Ben Johnson was born in 1572, around July 11, in Westminster. His father died shortly before his birth, and his mother remarried a bricklayer. Though the family was poor, the young man received good education at Westminster school. The schoolmaster there was William Camden, who became Johnson’s lifelong friend. Johnson never received further academic education, but Oxford University granted him honorary degree later on. Brief introduction into his stepfather profession was not successful, and young man went to Flanders to serve in the English army. Johnson’s family life was not happy. As a young man, he married a woman whom he described as “curst, but honest.” He had three children, and survived them all.
When Johnson returned to London, he pursued theatrical career playing on stage and writing plays for Philip Henslowe. The only comedy that endured from that period is The Case is Altered. In 1958, Johnson’s comedy Every Man in His Humour enjoyed great success placing him among the best-known dramatists. The play set the example of the “comedy of humors” and marked the turn in English drama.He wrote tragedies, too, and was mentioned among “the six most excellent in tragedy”. However, only Sejanus and Catiline reached our time. Apparently, Johnson was a freelancer writing for different theatres, and different companies including the one of Shakespeare acted his plays.
Ben Johnson was a man of great temper and wit. His caustic remarks often led to trouble. Thus, in 1598, he killed his fellow actor on a duel. Johnson was imprisoned and narrowly escaped capital punishment, but not branding. Johnson did not hesitate to mock the upper classes as well. His previous imprisonment was in 1597 was for his satirical play The Isle of Dogs where he branded the powers. In 1604, he staged Eastward Ho! in response to Dekker’s and Webster’s Northward Ho! The playwrights mocked King James and his court and landed in prison for their lewd satire. Another strife where Johnson participated was the “War of the Theatres” of 1599-1602 where Johnson, Marston, and Dekker satirized one another. Johnson could be egoistic, boastful, self-confident, stinging, and contemptuous, but he was also fair and generous in recognition of his contemporaries.
Brought up in poverty, Ben Johnson appreciated luxury and fine things in life, such as good food and bodily comfort. His poems won him recognition from the court of James I. The period between 1603 and 1625 was the happiest and the most prosperous time of his life. Comedies Volpone (1605/06), The Silent Woman (1609), The Alchemist (1610), Bartholomew Fayre (1614), and tragedy Catiline (1611) are the samples of his superb mature works. He abandoned writing for theatres and engaged in creating masques. This entertainment genre combining speech, singing, and dancing was very popular at the court. Johnson wrote and staged over 20 masques, the most popular of which was The Masque of Blackness. In 1616,Ben Johnson became the first England’s Poet Laureate. Due to his sharp tongue, Johnson acquired friends as well as enemies at court. This period was over in 1625 with his strife with Inigo Jones.
The last years of Johnson’s life gave him much disappointment. His popularity declined, mostly because of the death of his royal patron. Charles I granted Johnson a pension, but did not restore his employment at court. His new comedies were not much success. In 1628, Johnson suffered a stroke that confined him to bed. The playwright died 1637 working on another play. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, and the inscription on his grave says “O Rare Ben Johnon!”.
Johnson has seen three monarchs on the throne of England, and his life was closely connected to the political perturbations of the time. In the time of Elizabeth I, he gained his early fame as a playwright; it was the time of formation of his talent and political views, and harsh criticism of aristocracy. The reign of James I started in 1603 when Johnson was 30, a mature personality and talent, and finished in 1625; it was the period of Johnson’s greatest fame and prosperity as a court masque writer. The rule of the next monarch, King Charles I, was the time of decline for the poet. Each sovereign laid an imprint on the British society, and Johnson’s life tightly followed the curves of history.
The Reformation marked the 16th-century Europe. The fight between Catholicism and Protestantism laid its imprint on England. The change of religions was not peaceful, and devote Catholics were not in favor. Protestantism challenged the authority of the Pope of Rome; in England, it became a political instrument of the British monarchs starting with Henry VIII in the fight for greater independence. Elizabeth I established Protestantism in England after Catholic revival attempted by Bloody Mary. Ben Johnson, although of Protestant origin and education, always showed interest in Catholicism. He adopted Catholicism in 1958 during his imprisonment for manslaughter, which helped him to avoid execution. He remained Catholic for 12 years and suffered oppression for his views. His Sejanus was banned for popery. He had to defend his faith in court because his conversion caused much confusion due to his fame. Johnson rejected Catholicism after assassination of King Henry IV of France purportedly in the name of Pope. However, his sympathy with the Roman Church persisted.
Another social issue where Ben Johnson was involved, was Gunpowder Plot of 1605. A group of Catholic gentry conspired to blow up the parliament and install the infant daughter of James I as a Catholic queen. Failure of the plot entailed investigation and persecutions. Johnson was closely acquainted with the conspirers and attended a supper party where they all were present. However, he escaped imprisonment by voluntary providing information for investigation.
Coronation of James I on the throne of England ruined the hopes of British Catholics for restoration. Although the Gunpowder Plot marked his early reign, it was relatively mild towards the Catholic minority. In spite of the heavy financial position of the state, James’ court lived in luxury and entertainments. The king sponsored many initiatives, such as translation of the Bible into English. He patronized arts and supported poets and artists, including Ben Johnson. English Renaissance flourished generously under the rule of this monarch.
“The Hour-Glass” is one of the best-known Johnson’s poems. At the first sight, this nine-line poem is a love lamentation; it is much more at a closer analysis. The poem starts with the image of hour-glass. It is highly symbolic as it stands for the flow of time, transiency of life, and vanity of effort. The impression is enhanced by the image of dust (not sand) that runs in it. The poet calls the reader to reflection:
Do but consider this small dust, here running in the glass,
By atoms moved.
He suggests that the dust could be ashes of a lover who died from unrequited love “in his mistress’ flame playing like a fly”. The merciless mistress had no compassion to him in life and in death. The poet concludes sadly: “even ashes of lovers have no rest”.
The meaning of the poem is the destructive power of unrequited love. Johnson as a great lover of life’s pleasures considered that life is complete and meaningful if it is filled with all kinds of achievements. Unrequited love bereaves the man of life forces and leaves no energy for other accomplishments. The life burned in the name of such love is wasted in vain.
Ben Johnson was a master of epigram. “On Poet-Ape” dated ca. 1599 is a perfect example of Johnson’s scornful language and stinging-irony. It reflects an aspect of his relationship with William Shakespeare. The reference to Shakespeare is unambiguous: “Poor Poet-Ape, that would be thought our chief”. Beyond any doubt, it mocks Shakespeare as a player. It should be mentioned that Johnson performed in the theatre when he was young but was not very successful as an actor. Johnson speaks of an actor who plays and mimics, and pronounces from stage the words of other poets as if they were his own:
To a little wealth, and credit on the scene,
He takes up all, makes each man’s wit his own,
And told of this, he slights it.
The author is also merciless to the indiscriminate unsophisticated public: “such crimes The sluggish, gaping auditor devours”.
The title of “A Farewell to the World” exactly describes the meaning of the poem. The poet gives vent to his disillusion while he reflects on his life. Despite his controversies, Johnson was a sincere person, and he saw much of the falseness during his life. He reflects on the cruelty of life that abused and betrayed the innocence of his youth. He sees that the life placed him in the surrounding “Where every freedom is betray’d, And every goodness tax’d or grieved”. He scathes the world full of envy, jealousy, ignorance, rumors, and evil. However, he admits the man’s helpless position: one should endure all conditions. He gives up vain hopes and finds courage to face his fate:
No, I do know that I was born
To age, misfortune, sickness, grief:
But I will bear these with that scorn
As shall not need thy false relief.
Ben Johnson’s legacy is huge and versatile. His contemporaries praised him as a great dramatist, second to Shakespeare. Due to Johnson, the ancestors have a shrewd and witty snapshot of the Jacobean and Caroline aristocracy and cultural life. Johnson left his insights into the theory of art. He turned the Elizabethan drama to classical standards and introduced realistic and satirical comedy. Johnson returned the theatrical action from the ancient times or a fairytale to the real London of his time, and his characters were real people. He nurtured a younger generation of poets. Even shadowed by Shakespeare in drama, Johnson exerted a great impact on his epoch.