Ben Jonson is far probably far better known today for his career as a contemporary rival of the Bard for the hearts and minds of Elizabethan Era theatergoers. Indeed, his big hit as a dramatist—Every Man in His Humour—actually featured a young actor named Will Shakespeare. That success was followed by other stage works which are still performed today including Volpone, Barthlomew Fair, and The Alchemist. However, the period in which Jonson lived was not known as the Renaissance for nothing and true to his time, Jonson was something of a Renaissance Man himself, producing verse covering a wide range of style and genres.
For instance, To Penshurt is invariably connected with Aemilia Lanyer’s Description of Cooke-ham as the two seminal work that gave birth to incredibly popular “country-house” poetic genre. His inextricable interconnecting with that other famous dramatist resulted in one of his most well-known examples of lyric poetry, “To My Memory of my Beloved, Master William Shakespeare.” Although other examples such as “Celia” and “It is Not Growing Like a Tree” manifest a talent within that genre nearly—if not quite—the equal of its unparalleled master Robert Herrick, his gentle lyrical verse should not be taken as the genre that best exemplifies his literary career. Jonson could be a brutally honest and singularly incisive observer of the best and worst aspects palpitating from the human heart and possessed a pugnacious personality infamously at odds with those sweet songs to Celia.
The poetic genre that more typifies the qualities and nature of Jonson were two others in which he also excelled: epigrams and epitaphs. While consideration of the epigram today is usually reserved for very short, pithy and witty sayings that end with an unexpected emotional or intellectual twist, in Jonson’s hands epigrammatic verse becomes longer, more precise and controlled and willing to trade a certain bitterly ironic invective for a sincere exclamation of gracious praise.
Any collection featuring a selection of poems by Ben Jonson is bound to reveal his ability to work within a number of different genres that call upon a variety of different emotional tenors and tonal register. Like his contemporary, Shakespeare, he worked equally diligently in writing verse to be spoken by others as well as read by a single individual seeking solitary refinement in the classic literature of the past.