A Bizarre Well of Jacobean Gossip: Ben Jonson’s Conversations with William Drummond

Harry McNamara 1 December 2018
Image Credit: British Library

Ben Jonson led an outrageous, eccentric, bawdy, metropolitan, celebrity life in Jacobean London mingling with William Shakespeare, John Donne and the Court. He was a socialite, a phenomenal intellect, and yet an anxious man, uneasy with fame, and scared of literary extinction.

Jonson is wonderfully rich to study; he had a passionately eventful life and produced a canonical output of work. But here I wanted to write a little about a text, Conversations, by Scottish laird William Drummond, which documents Jonson’s visit to Drummond’s house, Hawthornden, in rural Scotland.

Jonson set out in the summer of 1618 to walk from London to Scotland, the land of his forefathers, returning after an elaborate journey up and down the Great North Road a year later. It has been suggested that the walk was done to fulfil a wager, an early sign of Jonson’s eccentric character. Considering that Shakespeare had died within two years and Jonson had carefully published his collected Works, he had a concern for preserving his work for posterity and was tuned in to the commercial world of literature, a concern to which Shakespeare appears to have been apathetic. He was a celebrity then, within the limited network of familiarity in early seventeenth century England. Outside Berwick up in north Northumberland, the locals came out to see Jonson pass on his walk, cheering his name and ringing the church bells in his honour.

The walk up to Scotland is a peculiar march away from his London life, a colossal excursion for a twenty stone man nearing his fiftieth year, in part, for a bet. It was an extravagant way to procrastinate. Jonson was walking in the footsteps of King James, who had travelled with ‘salmon-like instinct’, to use his own words, on the Great North Road up to Scotland on the pretence of returning homeward the previous year. A king’s homeward journey, fulfilling the most natural of instincts, is quite a beautiful idea, even if it was done more for political expedience than sincere childhood nostalgia: James was travelling on business, to deal with the Scottish Kirk. In characteristic Jacobean spectacle, James travelled in a party of five thousand attendees on horseback to Edinburgh.

When Jonson arrived in Scotland, he stayed for a while at Hawthornden Castle, in Midlothian, which if you look at photographs of the house now is typically Scottish, turreted and built from a light salmon pink stone. It is a fine home, and was then the home of William Drummond of Hawthornden. Drummond’s father had died in 1610, leaving his twenty-five year old son to live out his life as a laird. He abandoned his career in the law and settled down to a reclusive life in this rural Scotland dedicated to study. Drummond was struck by tragedy when his fiancé was burned to death before their marriage. To complete this sad life, prone to unfair events, Drummond died in December 1649, in the year of Charles I’s execution, which is said to have ‘killed his heart’.

For a man whose sensitivity was surely heightened by his self-imposed exile in remote Scotland, the visit of the vibrant and bawdy celebrity Ben Jonson must have been shocking, formative and edifying in equal part. Drummond recorded his life meticulously in diaries, and his notes on his conversations with Ben Jonson are a curious text. They are the basis of much biographical enquiry into the life of the poet, who despite his lively character eludes much factual record. Jonson was slippery: remember that he had escaped execution for the murder of Gabriel Spencer at the turn of the century, mischievously claiming the arcane benefit of clergy, effectively a test of literacy in which the defendant was required to recite Psalm 51. Jonson’s involvement in the social group surrounding the Gunpowder conspirators ought also be brought to mind (curiously, Jonson was likely the earliest user of ‘plot’ in the sense of literary terminology, his use of it was shadowed undoubtedly by the contemporary scandal).

Drummond’s accounts of his conversations are slippery too. The text is unstable, with a dubious history and intriguingly fragmented structure. It is a series of snippets, passing remarks dancing between topics with at a pace that refuses elucidation. In this way, its structure is remarkable, a private documentation of a long conversation with all its faults, moments of dullness, and  funniness.

The anecdotes Ben Jonson tells are wonderful. He was a fiery, hilarious guest, running through first, in a Jacobean Who’s Who of the London literary scene, the gossip about the other poets. ‘Samuel Daniel was a good honest man, had no children; bot no poet’, intoned there, sincerely, by a Scottish tongue. Jonson is unremitting and darkly funny: ‘Donne, for not keeping of accent, deserved hanging’. Pages then list the poets that love and hate him, and ‘S. P. Sidney was no pleasant man in countenance, his face being spoiled with pimples’. The most famous remark from the notes is a quick aside: ‘Shakespeare wanted Arte’. It dips the account into uncertainty, for Shakespeare, though a rival, was close to Jonson, who played a major role in the posthumous 1623 Folio, providing much of the prefacing verse, including the famous  ‘Not for an Age, but for All Time’. Much of what Jonson said was clearly a performance here, this troubled account an image of an exhaustingly dramatic man.

After gossip we have anecdotes, and these are the focus of this article, showing Jonson as a marvellous dinner guest. The pace lets us only glimpse the conversation’s bizarre triviality, ‘The Earl of Licester gave a bottle of liquor to his lady, which he willed her to use in any faintness, which she, after his returne from Court, not knowing was poison, gave him, and so he died.’ They refuse weight with trite thoughtfulness. Jonson’s comedy is channelled through Drummond the note-taker, with Jonson’s off-hand humour unintentionally, perhaps, heightened by Drummond’s plain style, which does not have much of a sense of humour.

The story about Jonson’s return to the Church is marvellous. Although brought up as a Protestant he had flirted with Catholicism much of his adult life, finally converting, perilously, near the turn of the century when tensions with Spain were particularly strained. He came back to the Church of England after the assassination of Henri in France, a little over a decade later, by a fanatic who claimed to act in the Pope’s name. Drummond notes, ‘After he was reconciled with the Church, and left of to be a recusant, at his first communion, in token of true reconciliation, he drank out of all the full cup of wyne.’ And the most bizarre story of all: ‘A packet of letters which had fallen over boord was devored of a Fish that was tane [caught] at Flushing, and the letters were safely delivered to him to whom they were written at London.’ Drummond’s tone of careful pragmatism mingles warmly with Jonson’s wit.

Rushing through these fierce stories, the conversation lingers momentarily at gaps in this profusion where we see a gentler Jonson, a sad man, part of that anxiety and sensitivity to the world seen throughout his life. ‘When the King came in England, at that tyme the pest [the plague] was in London, he being in the country at Sir Robert Cottons house with old Cambden, he saw in a vision his eldest sone (then a child and at London) appear unti him with the mark of a bloodie crosse on his forehead, as if it had been cutted with a sword, at which amazed he prayed unto God, and in the morning he came to Mr. Cambdens chamber to tell him, who persuaded him it was but ane apprehension of his fantasie at which he sould not ne disjected’. He then tells us, and it is moving, of Ben Jonson as the grieving father among all the bawdy humour, ‘in the meane tume comes there letters from his wife of the death of that boy in the plague. He appeared to him (he said) of a manlie shape, and of that grouth that he thinks he shall be at the resurrection.’

When Drummond sums up his times with Jonson he makes plain the poet’s alcoholism, ‘drink, which is one of the elements in which he liveth’, and the ferocity of his humour: ‘given rather to losse a friend than a jest’. It is a damning remark on an outrageous man, passionate and complicated. I think it would not be unwise to spend an afternoon, as I have done, reading Drummond’s account, if only for its portrait of a man who was much more than just a performer. But still a man with a wonderful pool of anecdotes, who, it is clear, must have been an awful lot of fun.