Ben Jonson (1572–1637)

English essayist, poet, and playwright. The stepson of a London bricklayer, Jonson rose from childhood poverty to become England’s first poet laureate. Irascible, vain, and deeply learned, he courted a life of controversy that included barbed attacks on fellow poets and playwrights, imprisonment for “leude and mutynous” behavior, the murder of an actor in a duel, and a Privy Council trial for allegations of “popery and treason” in his play Sejanus. He was best known in his own time for popular comedies such as Every Man in His Humour (1598), Volpone (c. 1605), and The Alchemist (1610). The twenty-four masques that Jonson produced to entertain the court of King James I are considered the pinnacle of this now-extinct art form. The 1616 publication of Jonson’s Works confirmed his renown as a professional author, perhaps the first in England to earn his living solely by his pen. See also poets.org.