Whilst being known as a playwright and actor, Shakespeare’s contemporary Ben Jonson was also a poet – with several of his poems still well known today.
Legend has it that Ben Jonson, was eating and drinking with Shakespeare the week before the bard’s death. They met in London as young men and worked together for many years. One of the few things we know about Shakespeare the actor is that he performed in Jonson’s play, Every Man in His Humour, although we don’t know which role he took.
The London theatre world buzzed with activity, the young playwrights working hard to satisfy the Elizabethan and Jacobean hunger for dramas. Shakespeare and Jonson worked hard to make their living in the theatre too but, unlike most of their contemporaries, they were both poets at heart, and poetry writing was always in the background of their working life.
Ben Jonson’s poems are among the most famous English poetic works. It is difficult to single out any from such a glittering collection but Song To Celia, otherwise known as ‘Drink to me only with thine eyes’ is without doubt the most famous and celebrated of them. It was set to music in 1756 by Elizabeth Turner and has since been regularly sung, notably in Victorian parlours in England and America. It was the Victorian version of a ‘top of the pops’ song, but lasting on the ‘charts’ for much longer than modern songs do. During the 20th Century it was sung by countless recording artists, including Johnny Cash.
Other famous poems are The Hourglass, On My First Daughter, and various poems about his friend William Shakespeare. However, NoSweatShakespeare has awarded first prize to On My First Son, a most moving account of a father’s feelings on the death of his seven-year-old son. It is worth quoting in full:
Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy ;
My sin was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy.
Seven years thou wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
Oh, could I lose all father now ! For why
Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon ‘scaped world’s and flesh’s rage,
And if no other misery, yet age !
Rest in soft peace, and, asked, say, Here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.
For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such
As what he loves may never like too much.
Any other Ben Jonson poems we’ve missed?