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By W. David Kay

This concise biography surveys Jonson's profession and offers an advent to his works within the context of Jacobean politics, courtroom patronage and his many literary rivalries. Stressing his wit and inventiveness, it explores the suggestions wherein he tried to take care of his independence from the stipulations of theatrical construction and from his consumers and introduces new proof that, regardless of his vaunted classicism, he again and again appropriated the problem or different types of different English writers which will reveal his personal inventive superiority.

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In boasting of his 'strange poems' Jonson may also have been thinking of such early works as the 'Epode' (For. XI) and the Pindaric 'Ode to James, Earl of Desmond' (Und. P. 27 The 'Epode', at least, was a genuine innovation, its alternating five-foot and three-foot iambic lines forming a rough equivalent to the iambic couplets of Horace's Epodes. Michael Drayton was to include a section of odes, primarily of Horatian inspiration, in his Poems Lyric and Pastoral (1606), and on that basis he has been called 'the first proper ode writer in English' by one historian of the form.

645-7). In his great middle comedies, as we shall see, he aspired to surpass ancients and modems alike by recombining motifs from earlier comedy and satire into more intricate and more richly ironic plots. For the most part, however, his rivalry was directed at his fellow Elizabethans, with whom he was often at odds. 17 His strategy, in fact, often was to distinguish himself from his contemporaries by claiming to have realised a more authentic classicism or a higher standard of art even when working with forms that had been introduced by others.

328-9), as he may well have 32 Ben Jonson done when arrested for debt in 1599. Some idea of his wide-ranging reading may be obtained from the catalogue of existing volumes containing his signature or his motto, 'Tanquam explorator' ('ever the scout/spy'), the younger Seneca's phrase for his habit of finding material for reflection in the works of philosophers who did not belong to his own Stoic school of thoughtP Many of Jonson's books have been lost to the 1623 fire or to the indifference of later times, but the two hundred surviving titles indicate that his library was strongest in Greek and Latin authors, including texts of the major poets and playwrights, historians and philosophers, and in contemporary scholarship on ancient language, literature and customs.

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