Benjamin Johnson is known as Ben Johnson in the literary world. He was born on 11th June in 1572, in Westminster, London. Sadly, his father died soon after his birth. His mother re-married a bricklayer to raise her children. He spent his early years in Westminster with his mother and stepfather. The poverty and problems he faced in the early years left a profound impact on his life.
Despite experiencing poverty, Ben attended St Martin’s Lane, followed by Westminster School, where the famous antiquary, William Camden, became his mentor and a friend. His friendship, combined with William’s intellectual ideas, peeps through Johnson’s literary style. After completing his graduation in 1589, Ben decided to attend Oxford University. However, he could not achieve his goal because his stepfather asked him to assist him in a bricklaying job. Ben joined to please his father but shortly left to pursue his interest in literature. Thus, though he failed to achieve higher education, he had mastered Latin and Greek.
Married Life and Tragedy
After being established as a dramatist, he married Ann Lewis in 1594 at a church near London Bridge. Although the union was unhappy, yet the couple had three children whom Johnson outlived. Their daughter, Mary Johnson, died in infancy in 1593. Later in 1603, their eldest son died of Bubonic plague. His son’s death inflicted a never-ending pain upon his life, which he expressed in his elegy, “On My First Son.” Sadly, after thirty-two years, another son lost the battle of life, leaving him in a state of despair.
Ben Johnson led a traumatic life. The early demise of his father and later his children made him experience the worst of his life. Though he survived all these obstacles, his health began to decline in 1620. It was during that time the “Tribe of Ben” was founded, but a series of setbacks affected his health. He overcame every obstacle and produced many plays in his lifetime. It was in the same year that he suffered strokes but did not give up on writing until his death. Even during his death, he was writing a play, The Sad Shepherd. After leading a successful life, he died on 16th August in 1637 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
Some Important Facts of His Life
- He is considered the second most important English dramatist after Shakespeare.
- His work, The Alchemist, is considered one of the three perfect plots in literature.
- Although he did not receive higher education, yet he is considered a leading figure in history.
Ben Johnson, a great literary figure, successfully pursued two careers in life, first as a bricklayer and later as a poet and writer. Initially, after graduation, he assisted his stepfather in his trade. He also served in the military and went to Flanders. After his return in 1594, he joined a theatrical company in London as an actor and playwright where he came up with a seditious play, The Isle of Dogs, in 1597, which disturbed the monarchs of that time. As a result, he was thrown into prison for a few months. After his release, he again wrote a scandalous play, Eastward Ho, which mocked the King James, knights, and the Scott.
Therefore, he, along with his co-playwrights, was imprisoned again. Unfortunately, his next play, Every Man out of His Humor, could not win the hearts. From 1605 to 1611, he produced many popular masques and comedies, including The Masque of Blackness, The Alchemist, Volpone, The Silent Woman, Bartholomew Fayre, and Caitlin His Conspiracy. From 1616 to 1625, he focused on writing masques to present in the court. He also wrote poetry which includes “On My First Son”, “Song to Celia”, “An Elegy” and “Song to Diana.”
Ben Johnson, a great influential poet, and dramatist inspired generations with his writing style and intellectual ideas. Marked with a sharp tongue, blunt style, and satire, his literary piece The Isle of Dogs brought troubles for him, followed by his obscene play, Eastward Ho. Despite facing these grave issues and problems, he continued to express his bold ideas in his plays, masques, poetry, and entertainment. His witty and intelligent ideas, coupled with literary and poetic devices, made him gain a place among great Shakespeare and Marlow.
Some Major Works of Ben Johnson
- Best Poems: Ben Johnson has produced many masterpieces. Some of his best poems include “On my First Son”, “An Elegy”, On Gut”, “On Spies”, “An Ode to Himself, “To Heaven” and “Slow, Slow, Fresh Fount.”
- Best Plays: Besides poetry, Ben wrote many plays. A few notable plays are Every Man in His Humour, Every Man Out of His Humour, The Sad Shepherd, The Devil is an Ass, The Alchemist, and The Staple of News.
Ben Johnson’s Impact on Future Literature
Ben Johnson, whose artistry exerted a profound impact on poetry and comedy, inspired many poets and playwrights of Jacobean and Caroline Eras. His distinctive writing approach and unique way of expression made him stand out even among the best English poets. Also, “Tribe of Ben” touted his worth before the civil war broke out. His thoughtful ideas influenced many great poets and writers, including John Aubrey. He successfully documented his ideas and feelings in his writings.
- Drink to me only with thine eyes,
And I will pledge with mine;
Or leave a kiss but in the cup,
And I’ll not look for wine. (Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes)
- Give me a look, give me a face,
That makes simplicity a grace;
Robes loosely flowing, hair as free,
Such sweet neglect more taketh me
Than all the adulteries of art:
They strike mine eyes, but not my heart. (Epicene, or The Silent Woman)
- Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy.
Seven years tho’ wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day. (On my First Son)