‘He was not of an age, but for all time!’ That’s what Shakespeare’s friend Ben Jonson wrote in memory of him, a mere seven years after he died, and long before some kind of posterity had had a chance to show its hand. Such claims were not that uncommonly made for poets of the period; but in Shakespeare’s case, almost uniquely, they’ve so far proved true.
What kind of stature is this? For Jonson it’s the capacity to transcend the narrow interests of an era, of a particular time and place – to have the more universal appeal of the great classical authors. We take all this as read, of course, now, in Shakespeare’s case. Yet we’re often reminded, too, that Shakespeare also has a more local habitation.
Over the last year we’ve been putting together a series of five short films about Ben Jonson’s walk from London to Edinburgh in the summer of 1618 (about which you can read more here). Rather than tackle the story of the whole adventure, we decided to focus just on one stretch of the journey – the perambulation taken by Jonson and his companion through the English midlands. So what made us choose that section?
An actor personating Ben Jonson in a risible film. The surviving portrait of the poet suggests a young Tom Baker or Rory McGrath would make a better likeness
Each year, on August 6, the world stops to commemorate Ben Jonson’s death. Well, that’s obviously overstating it, but a few ‘on this day’ tweets go round; likewise, we get the odd mention in almanacs and lists of memorable anniversaries. Westminster Abbey, where Jonson is both buried and commemorated in Poets’ Corner, gets in on the act too. Thing is, this work of mourning also takes place – to a much lesser extent – on August 16 each year, and it would surely be beyond the extravagance even of big Ben to have had two deaths. Indeed, there’s long been confusion over exactly when the most celebrated poet of his age closed his account – and when I say ‘long’, I mean right from the month it actually happened.
I spent two ridiculously busy days last week helping out with the only slightly impossible task of filming Ben Jonson’s 1618 walk from London to Edinburgh. We weren’t going for the whole thing – we had decided to focus on one of several detours the walkers took from the route of the old or great north road. This one took the form of two arcs – out to Belvoir and Bottesford before touching base again at Newark, and then off westwards again via Rufford and Welbeck to reach as far as Bolsover. We spent a lot of time criss-crossing what had seemed, from the map, like a little corner of – mostly – Nottinghamshire, but which wasn’t quite so compact once we got out there.
Up on the hill at Belvoir
We were trying not only to retrace Jonson’s footsteps, but to indicate some of the ways in which his 400 year old piece of performance art might be grasped at such a great distance in time. It is all very well tracing out a journey as a line on the map, but unless you can get some sense of the peaks, troughs, plateaux and vistas you won’t get a feel for its rhythm, or even the sequence of sights and views it presents you with. Slogging up to Belvoir, then struggling to get your breath back while you pick out your next destination by its spire in the vale below, brings home just how much of a bodily effort it all was.