/ The London Traveler
London — By Andrea Kirkby on June 9, 2010 at 1:55 pm
Filed under: history, Monuments & Memorials

England’s meanest poet

“O rare Ben Johnson!” That’s an epitaph fit for a poet. Succinct, elegant, ambitious, and… misspelt.

England's other Bard - Ben Jonson

You’ll find Ben Jonson (correct spelling) in the north aisle of Westminster Abbey [map], under a small square stone with this epitaph carved on it.

He was a contemporary of Shakespeare, who he famously said had ’small Latin and less Greek’; his plays were as wide-ranging as Shakespeare’s, with comedies set in the City of London, tragedies of Ancient Rome, and a number of masques (plays with dancing and music) written for the courts of James I and Charles I in which he collaborated with architect and set-designer Inigo Jones to create a spectacle of illusion and magnificence.

And he employed a certain Will Shakespeare as an actor in one of his plays.

Now, Jonson had a long and unruly life, including getting off a murder charge by being able to recite the ‘neck verse’ which showed he was literate and let him claim ‘benefit of clergy’, or a trial by the court rather than civil court. (He’d killed a fellow actor, apparently in a duel.) He had his great successes, and he had his complete failures, and he was one of those people who never seems to have any money on them, no matter how well they’re doing.

So, according to which of two stories you believe, he begged a little land from Charles I for his burying place – and the King gave him just two square feet in the Abbey. Or, asked by the Dean to pay for a regular sized plot, he said “two feet by two feet will do for all I want” – and was buried standing up. (And that’s true; when diggings for a subsequent grave disturbed his burial place, his two leg bones could be seen still sticking up.) So Jonson may not have been the poorest poet in England, but I reckon that story makes him definitely the stingiest.

It may not be Jonson who came up with that wonderful epitaph. He certainly would have approved of it. Some people have attributed it to William Davenant, a poet and playwright of the younger generation and Jonson’s successor as Poet Laureate. Whether Davenant came up with the original inscription or not, it didn’t stop him pinching it for his own – look in Poet’s Corner and you will find ‘O Rare Will Davenant’…

Related places:
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    The Collegiate Church of St Peter at Westminster, Westminster, London SW1P 3
    The Collegiate Church of St Peter at Westminster, Westminster, London SW1P 3, UK
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Tags: history, Monuments & Memorials


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