IT IS NOT KNOWN WHEN ROBERT HERRICK FIRST MET BEN JONSON. But it was apparently some time during the twenties that he became an informal member of that hard-drinking, scribbling, reverential crew of disciples known as the Tribe of Ben.
By 1623, the year in which Herrick entered holy orders, Ben Jonson had attained a public eminence that no one could have dreamed of in his unpromising youth. He started life as a slum boy and his longing for a university education was blocked by poverty. Instead of going to college he was apprenticed to a bricklayer, a project which failed as completely as Herrick's attempt to become a goldsmith. Jonson had no intention of spending his life laying bricks. He wanted to write, and he fought his way up in the world of the theatre until he became the most talked-of dramatist in London. In and out of prison, in and out of debt, he surged on to an increasing success both in court circles and with the general public, until he emerged in 1616 in the full glory of his collected works, with a forest of learned notes to decorate the pages and an engraving of his laurelled head as a frontispiece.
Success meant more to Ben Jonson than to most men, since he was not only a poet but a prophet. Back in his school days his mind had been lit by a vision of the glory of Rome, and he spent the rest of his strenuous life trying to bring literary England to the same vision. He argued, he harangued, he wrote vociferous introductions to his plays, and he quarreled fiercely with those of his fellow writers who did not agree with him. But he brought an increasing number of younger men under his spell, and by 1623 he was the most influential writer in England.