Pedants’ Corner: When did Ben Jonson die?

Not actually a picture of Ben Jonson. As accurate an image as the Cobbe portrait is of Shakespeare, though.

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.

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Taking a Roundabout Way

Cranach opening 1 detail

Hamlet greets the travelling players – Edward Gordon Craig, from the Cranach Press Hamlet, 1930

The experience of theatrical touring has long been woven from contrasts. On the one hand, there’s the undeniable romance of the road, the fun of exploring new places, but on the other – well, there are the sometimes grim discomforts of being stuck for weeks on end in transit or deeply dodgy accommodation, surviving on an unbalanced diet of pot noodles and gallows humour. Something of these indignities was captured beautifully in Ben Jonson’s evocation of the travelling player in Poetaster: the player Histrio there has the prospect of success as a poet dangled before him, with the singular benefit that he will ‘not need to travail [meaning both ‘travel’ and ‘labour’] with thy pumps full of gravel any more, after a blind jade and a hamper, and stalk upon boards and barrel heads to an old cracked trumpet.’

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How to Live in the Past

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

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.

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