I know to whom I write.
Jonson, “An Epistle to Master John Selden”
It is always astonishing to read the thumbnail sketch provided by William Drummond of the poet who has generally come to be recognized as England’s first great Neoclassicist: Ben Jonson—without the “h.” His grandfather, so the Dickensian sounding narrative begins,
came from Carlisle, and he thought from Annandale to it; he served Henry VIII, and was a gentleman. His father lost all his estate under Queen Mary; having been cast in prison and forfeited, at last turned minister…. He himself was posthumous born a month after his father’s decease; brought up poorly, put to school by a friend (his master Camden), after taken from it, and put to another craft (I think was to be a wright [workman] or bricklayer), which he could not endure. Then went he to the Low Countries, but returning soon he betook himself to his wonted studies. In his service in the Low Countries he had, in the face of both the camps, killed an enemy and taken opima spolia from him; and since his coming to England, being appealed to the fields, he had killed his adversary, which had hurt him in the arm, and whose sword was ten inches longer than his; for the which he was imprisoned, and almost at the gallows. Then took he his religion by trust of a priest who visited him in prison. Thereafter he was twelve years a papist. 1
This depicts anything but serenity incarnate—hardly what we expect of the author of such supremely finished and thoroughly enchanting lines as the following:
Queen and huntress, chaste and fair,
Now the sun is laid to sleep,