Benjamin Jonson, invariably known as Ben, was educated at Westminster School. A big man, he became an apprentice bricklayer, then a soldier who served in Flanders, where he played the hero in single combat. Jonson then took to the stage as an actor. After killing a fellow-actor in a duel he avoided execution by pleading benefit of clergy and went on to write tragedies, most of which do not survive, satirical comedies, masques for the court of James VI and I, and lyrics, elegies and other poems. A friend of William Shakespeare, for whom he wrote memorial verses, he gathered around him a group of other poets, frequenters of the Mermaid Tavern, who became known as the "tribe of Ben". These included Robert Herrick and Sir John Suckling. He was the first poet to be accorded the perquisites of a Poet Laureate, and though he did not have the title, he performed the duties of commemorating royal events. He was buried in Westminster Abbey under a tombstone inscribed "O rare Ben Jonson". His poems continue to be anthologised and his plays produced, sometimes in adaptation.
Jonson's output was mainly of comedies. The best known of these are:
- Every Man in his Humour
- Every Man out of his Humour
- Volpone, or the Fox
- The Alchemist
- Bartholomew Fair
Jonson was a prolific writer of masques, entertainments for the Court or great nobles, combining words, music, and elaborate designs. He and Inigo Jones, who took on the design of sets and costumes for many masques, were frequently in conflict over the supremacy to be given to their part of the production.
Much of Jonson's poetry now reads as extravagant flattery of his patrons or people closely connected with them. He also wrote a considerable number of "epigrams", which at that time were thought of as short poems ending with a witty couplet. Both of these were normally written in heroic couplets, and in this respect he may be considered as the forerunner of Alexander Pope, who respected him. His lyrics are now better known and are still appreciated. "To Celia" is well known in its traditional song arrangement "Drink to me only with thine eyes" (the opening words).