The Marmite Writer

If they’re not mistaking him for a disgraced Canadian sprinter or the guy who wrote the Dictionary, people tend to have a firm view on Jonson. Some people admire or even venerate him – James Joyce, for example, said he’d read every line of only three writers: Flaubert, Ibsen and Jonson. But for most, he’s Shakespeare’s jealous rival, the guy with an overinflated sense of himself, a cruel writer and a shameless flatterer who puffed the equally absurd King James VI and I in now unreadable poems and masques.

If you’re one of those people, I’m here to tell you that everything you think you know is wrong. I’ve come to believe that the sheer dominance of Shakespeare in our understanding of early modern literature in England has warped our sense of his contemporaries, and that this has had particularly serious effects on how we might read Jonson. What’s more, the fact that we treat Jonson with such familiarity – that we think we know him, even if we don’t really read him – is the lingering consequence of his status as one of the first English writers to become a legend in his own lifetime. Jonson was well aware of his reputation – his brand – and as a professional writer with no other source of social status to fall back on he worked it for all he was worth.

But this means that the looming figure of Ben himself can get in the way of our reading of his poems and his plays – which are often innovative, daring, brilliantly structured, sharply knowing and very funny. Contrary to the standard view, he knows the limits and pitfalls of taking yourself too seriously, and he shows us how to live in the gap between our hopes and dreams and the world in which we find ourselves.

Jonson Goes for a Walk

In the summer of 1618, Jonson undertook to walk more than 400 hundred miles from London to Edinburgh. It was an extraordinary undertaking, not least because to go on foot meant spurning the trappings of gentility which his literary success had brought him. It was a resonant journey, in lots of ways – an itinerary tying together the two capitals of James VI and I’s British kingdoms, a pilgrimage to the birthplace of Jonson’s most important patron, a peregrination through the estates and settlements of provincial England and southern Scotland.

During his stay in Scotland, Jonson spent some time with the poet and landowner William Drummond, at his home at Hawthornden, a few miles south of Edinburgh. There, Jonson outlined his plans to turn his experiences on his ‘foot pilgrimage’ into a poem, a work he would call ‘A Discovery’. But this poem was subsequently lost, in a fire that engulfed Jonson’s writing desk in 1623. Though we knew that Jonson had undertaken his walk, and a few scattered references survived from other sources, we lacked any of the detail of what he himself described as his ‘adventures’.

But in 2009, an intriguing catalogue entry led me to an unassuming manuscript in an obscure collection of family papers in the record office at Chester. To my astonishment, I found that I was looking at an eyewitness account of Jonson’s walk – which it described as his ‘Foot Voyage’ – written by a hitherto unsuspected travelling companion. It included a full itinerary of the journey, and information on what the travellers got up to along the way. There were some amazing details, vividly conjuring up a long lost Jacobean summer. It is, in fact, a unique source: a firsthand account of the day to day activities of one of the greatest writers of the English renaissance.

I teamed up with my brilliant colleagues Anna Groundwater and Julie Sanders, and we got to work on an edition of the account. Our research involved a huge trawl through local and national records all along the way from London to Edinburgh, and far beyond. The edition was published as a book in 2015, and has also been included in the wonderful online edition of the Cambridge Works of Ben Jonson. We also produced a website for the project, including a blog that accompanied our virtual reenactment of the walk, via social media, in the summer of 2013. The website features an interactive map of the journey, allowing you to see exactly where Jonson went and what he got up to (we even included details of what the weather was like, wherever the account gave us that information).

Dunfermline from the west, by John Slezer, from Theatrum Scotiae
Detail of Dunfermline from the west, by John Slezer, from Theatrum Scotiae. c. National Library of Scotland

Interesting as the account is for anyone studying or researching Jonson, or indeed early modern literature, it’s also full of insights about a huge variety of topics. It includes, incidentally, wonderful nuggets of detail about the economic, social and architectural history of the period – including what may well be the earliest known mention of ‘gin’. It attempts to capture the way in which Borderers talked to their bloodhounds. It recounts the stories that visitors to Edinburgh castle were then being told about Mons Meg, the great medieval cannon that is still on display there today. It’s an astonishing window onto the past, and I’m sure that there’s still a lot more it can tell us now it’s been retrieved from four centuries of obscurity.


Ben Jonson’s Walk to Scotland – book

The ‘Foot Voyage’ account in The Cambridge Works of Ben Jonson

Ben Jonson’s Walk to Scotland – website and blog