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Reference group
Sons of Ben [Tribe of Ben] (act. c.1620–c.1629) was a network of friends, associates, and literary apprentices linked to the poet and playwright Ben Jonson. It is difficult to be sure about membership of the circle, given the incomplete evidence and the accretions of biographical myth. The ‘sons of Ben’ were never a formal grouping, and were not limited to a clearly defined set of names. Nor were they all playwrights, or even all writers, as is frequently supposed: literary historians have carelessly associated many poets with the sons on no greater evidence than their imitation of Jonson's style. The symbolic nucleus seems to have been a dining club led by Jonson, which met on a regular basis in the 1620s at the Devil and St Dunstan tavern near Temple Bar, London. However, Jonson's circle went beyond this, and some sons attached themselves to him on the basis of admiration rather than dining rights. To be a son, then, was to claim affiliation with a highly regarded writer rather than membership of a distinct group. None the less, Jonson's association with a ‘family’ attests to his contemporary reputation as a literary figurehead, and to the culture of sociability that shaped the creative world of early Stuart London.

Jonson's towering literary achievement and magnetic personality drew around him many overlapping circles of friends. His acquaintances ranged from great courtiers—such as his patrons the third earl of Pembroke and Lord Aubigny—to intellectuals like the antiquary Robert Cotton and the lawyer John Selden, and to such poets and playwrights as John Donne and John Fletcher. His circle also took in the many ordinary men and women whose names are thickly scattered through his verse. His poetry focuses on the values of an emerging urban society, and uses ‘friendship’ as a key term. Many poems are conversations with acquaintances and discuss the good life, emphasizing intelligence and understanding, and rejecting narrow-mindedness, fanaticism, extremism, and snobbery. In his poem ‘Inviting a Friend to Supper’ Jonson imagines his friends as a self-selecting élite who enjoy good food and wine, conversation and books, and suppose themselves set apart from the stupidity of the mob and the envy of the great. Their ethos is pleasure enjoyed in moderation and without compromise to their civilized freedom.

Jonson's reputation as a man of letters also made him a model to younger writers. He exemplified the emerging role of the author as legitimate professional rather than hack, and his poetry and plays were widely imitated. Two playwrights in particular possessed quasi-filial ties to him, Nathan Field and Richard Brome. Jonson said that ‘Nid Field was his scholar, and he had read to him the satires of Horace and some epigrams of Martial’ (Herford, Simpson, and Simpson, 1.137). This suggests that some of Field's education took place under Jonson. However, Jonson does not call him son, and Field's own comedies are only incidentally Jonsonian in manner. Brome more explicitly imitated Jonson's style, especially his eccentrically humorous characters. Brome literally grew up under Jonson, for he worked in his house as servant, and may be the ‘man’ who, in ‘Inviting a Friend to Supper’, is commanded to read out Latin prose extracts at the table. Brome's career shows how easily friendship with Jonson could shade into rivalry. In 1629 his first play, The Lovesick Maid, was a big success at the Blackfriars playhouse in the same season that Jonson's The New Inn flopped disastrously. In a vitriolic ‘Ode to Himself’ the wounded poet poured scorn on the audience's taste, disparaging ‘Brome's sweepings’—the fragments that Brome (whose name was pronounced ‘broom’) had cleaned up from his table. Jonson later made amends with a poem praising Brome's first printed play, The Northern Lass. Even so, he calls him ‘my old faithful servant’, not ‘my son’.

It is sometimes suggested that the sons of Ben were the coming generation of playwrights who occupied the stage in the 1620s and 1630s. Few dramatists could ignore Jonson's presence, as his example helped to define the period's theatrical norms, and imitation of him was both liberating and inhibiting for those who came after. But the young playwrights who actively claimed the title ‘son’ tend to be comparatively minor figures. Aside from Thomas Randolph (see below), the three attested theatrical sons were William Cartwright, Shackerley Marmion, and Joseph Rutter. Cartwright was an academic and clergyman who spent his entire career at Oxford. He was admired as a poet, but of his four plays only one got beyond the college stage, and only the satirical comedy The Ordinary could be deemed Jonsonian. None the less, he has an elegy in the volume published to mourn Jonson's death, Jonsonus virbius (1638), and in 1651 the editor of his posthumous collected works boasted that Jonson had once remarked ‘My son Cartwright writes all like a man’ (Herford, Simpson, and Simpson, 11.459). Perhaps Jonson knew him through their common link to Westminster School. By contrast Marmion was more firmly embedded in London's literary culture. An impoverished gentleman, he wrote occasional verse and made ends meet by writing for the London theatres. His three comedies (1631–5), with their robust, not to say coarse style, come far closer to Jonsonian norms than do Cartwright's. He has an elegy in Jonsonus virbius ‘to the sacred memory of his thrice-honoured father Ben Jonson’, and in A Fine Companion (1633) the hero, Careless, recounts an evening spent drinking at the oracle of Apollo, ‘where the boon Delphic god / Drinks sack and keeps his bacchanalias’:
Thence do I come,
My brains perfumed with the rich Indian vapour,
And heightened with conceits: from tempting beauties,
From dainty music and poetic strains,
From bowls of nectar and ambrosiac dishes,
From witty varlets, fine companions,
And from a mighty continent of pleasure.
This is an exaggerated and fictionalized version of the Apollo club, but there is no answering evidence of the relationship from Jonson's side. Jonson did, though, write a poem praising Joseph Rutter's pastoral comedy The Shepherds' Holiday (1635), which called the author ‘my dear son and right-learned friend’, and Rutter too contributed to Jonsonus virbius. Rutter is a peripheral figure—his only other plays were two translations of Corneille—but Jonson probably knew him through his connection to his friend Sir Kenelm Digby, in whose household Rutter lived, perhaps as tutor to his children.

The full membership of the sons of Ben is to be found among the poets and gentlemen who joined Jonson in the life of intellectual conviviality that centred on London's taverns and eating houses. Drinking and dining clubs were important points of cultural contact, and Jonson was associated from about 1605 to 1611 with a group of wits who met at the Mermaid in Bread Street [see patrons of the Mermaid tavern]. After the civil war the poet Robert Herrick would cast back nostalgically to convivial evenings he had enjoyed with Jonson at other drinking houses:
Ah Ben!
Say how or when
Shall we thy guests
Meet at those lyric feasts
Made at the Sun,
The Dog, the Triple Tun?
Where we such clusters had
As made us nobly wild, not mad;
And yet each verse of thine
Outdid the meat, outdid the frolic wine.
(Poems, ed. L. C. Martin, 1965, 289)
But it was the Devil tavern, owned by the innkeeper Simon Wadloe, that in the 1620s Jonson made his own, holding court upstairs in the Apollo room. This was a space adorned with pseudo-Roman decorations and a bust of Apollo, god of poetry, by the sculptor Edward Marshall. Here Jonson presided over dinners in a raised chair, and wrote a set of Latin poetic rules to be painted on the wall, the Leges convivales (‘Sociable rules’): these commanded guests to be witty, avoid vain disputes, and keep their conversations private. The Leges existed by 1624, though the ‘poets' hall called Apollo’ is mentioned as early as 1620 (Buxton, 52–4); it is not clear whether these meetings went on beyond 1628, when Jonson suffered a stroke. Jonson celebrates his gatherings in an ‘Epistle Answering to One that Asked to be Sealed of the Tribe of Ben’ (1623), where he lays down that his friends must be trustworthy, loyal, and convivial, and that he would reject quarrellers, boasters, slanderers, careerists, and newsmongers, men who live ‘in the wild anarchy of drink’. Only applicants meeting these conditions would be sealed of the tribe. (As used in this poem, the phrase ‘tribe of Ben’ is a humorous scriptural play on his own name: Benjamin was one of the twelve tribes of Israel, and in Revelation 7, when the servants of God are sealed by four angels, ‘of the tribe of Benjamin were sealed ten thousand’).

Many must have joined Jonson in the Apollo, though the attested names comprise only a small group (and they were all men; there were no daughters of Ben). Herrick must have been there, on the evidence of the poem quoted above, and from another witty poem, ‘His Prayer to Saint Ben’, in which he presents his writings to Jonson on bended knee like a votive offering. Perhaps this preserves a trace of games or rituals played in the Apollo. Herrick's respect for Jonson and dependence on his model are strongly marked in the many echoes that resonate throughout his poetry. Another attested son was the historian and political writer James Howell, who was Jonson's neighbour in Blackfriars, and whose letters to the poet, printed in the Familiar Letters: Epistolae Ho-Elianae (1645), address him as ‘my father’. Several of Howell's epistles preserve traces of their conviviality. One thanks Jonson ‘for the last regalo [repast] you gave me at your Musaeum, and for the good company’. A second letter, addressed to another son, the Roman Catholic poet and translator of Caussin, Sir Thomas Hawkins, describes a ‘solemn supper’ Howell attended with Jonson and the poet Thomas Carew, at which Jonson embarrassed the diners by engrossing the conversation too much (Herford, Simpson, and Simpson, 11.419–20). Howell is not a reliable witness, as he often rewrote his letters long after the event, and a whiff of elaboration hangs around them, so this account may be exaggerated for effect. Even so, it points up how friendship with Jonson involved a combination of deference and competitiveness. As for Carew, he may have dined with Jonson and admired him, but he was never a slavish dependant. He never called himself a son, and he wrote a reply to Jonson's 1629 ‘Ode to Himself’ that, while treating the older man respectfully, implicitly rebuked him for his vanity.

A more positive poetic reply to the ‘Ode’, urging Jonson to ignore his critics, came from Thomas Randolph, a young poet and playwright who wrote for both the academic and London stages. Randolph's relationship to Jonson is very clear; indeed an anecdote survives supposedly recording the evening when he joined his sons. Randolph peered into the Apollo room and was called John Bo-peep for his timidity, but he impressed the diners and secured admission by composing an impromptu rhyme on the nickname. This is probably apocryphal, but it attests to the club's reputation, and Randolph's poem ‘A Gratulatory to Master Ben Jonson for his Adopting of him to be his Son’ shows that he gratefully cast Jonson in the role of literary father. He also left a pastoral eclogue that shadows Jonson and himself as the Virgilian friends Damon and Tityrus (Herford, Simpson, and Simpson, 11.390–96). Randolph died at the age of twenty-nine, but his attractive and witty plays suggest that he would have been well placed to carry the Jonsonian heritage forward on the Caroline stage.

Also to be counted in these ranks is Lucius Cary, second Viscount Falkland, who enshrined his friendship with Jonson in two poetic epistles to his ‘Noble Father’, and at Jonson's death commemorated him in a pastoral elegy. Cary was a key political and intellectual figure in the 1630s. He kept company in his house at Great Tew, Oxfordshire, with visiting poets and intellectuals [see Great Tew circle]. In the 1640s he led the moderates in the Long Parliament, and died in battle for the royal cause. It seems unlikely that Jonson's health ever allowed him to visit Great Tew, and Cary was probably too young to join the Apollo diners before Jonson's stroke. None the less, Jonson knew his circle. He wrote admiring verses to Cary's acquaintance the poet and historian Thomas May, and May and the poet Edmund Waller both have elegies on Jonson in Jonsonus virbius. In the autobiography of Cary's close friend the lawyer and historian Edward Hyde (later the first earl of Clarendon) Jonson and John Selden are both mentioned as dear companions. Hyde says that Jonson was one of those ‘worthy persons, who stood in want of supplies and encouragement’ to whom Cary gave financial help (G. Huehns, ed., Selections from Clarendon, 1978, 64). Here was one son who was as much benefactor as beneficiary.

Beyond these names, membership of the ‘tribe’ becomes more speculative. Probably some of the older contributors to Jonsonus virbius who do not explicitly call themselves sons had none the less been present at the Apollo, such as Henry King, William Habington, and George Donne (son of the poet). The editor of Jonsonus virbius, the academic and clergyman Brian Duppa, might qualify, though he probably knew Jonson through their common link to Christ Church, Oxford, where Jonson had once resided, rather than London. It is tempting to include Sir Kenelm Digby, as Jonson was a close friend towards the end of his life. Jonson wrote poems on his wife, the famous beauty Lady Venetia, and in one describes the couple reading his verses and passing them on to their friends. Digby eventually became Jonson's literary executor, but the relationship seems more equal than filial. So too one might perhaps include William Cavendish, first earl of Newcastle upon Tyne, who commissioned works from Jonson, helped him with money, and wrote his own comedies in Jonsonian style. He too was patron rather than son, though his admiration and imitation of the older poet is unusually overt.

Almost certainly others moved in and out of the network without acquiring the label ‘son’, and many must have unsuccessfully aspired to belong. Bennet Hoskins, son of the lawyer John Hoskins, whom Jonson himself held as a father figure, reported asking Jonson to adopt him as son. ‘No, said he, I dare not; 'tis honour enough for me to be your brother: I was your father's son, and 'twas he that polished me’ (J. Aubrey, Brief Lives, ed. O. L. Dick, 1962, 246). Less happy was the Welsh gentleman Sir Thomas Salusbury, who wrote an elegy on Jonson that complained of being left out from Jonsonus virbius, and compared himself to:
one of those,
The prophet's children, that in zeal arose
And climbed the hills, as if in hope t'have found,
By the advantage of the higher ground,
Their father soared to heaven.
(Herford, Simpson, and Simpson, 11.485–6)
Salusbury's sense of exclusion suggests how tantalizing London literary society must have looked to someone in the provinces. From Salusbury's perspective the sons were symptomatic of the increasingly metropolitan bias of contemporary culture.

After Jonson's death memories of his sons hardened into myth, and increasingly lost contact with the facts. Restoration writers looked back to them as precursors of their cosmopolitan society, but invoked the label to point up the greater ease and urbanity of their own times. In The Defence of the Epilogue (1668) John Dryden contrasted the previous generation's old-fashioned wits with the greater polish of his day, poking fun at ‘some few old fellows who … can tell a story of Ben Jonson, and perhaps had fancy enough to give a supper in Apollo that they might be called his sons’ (‘Of Dramatic Poesy’ and other Critical Essays, ed. G. Watson, 1962, 1.181). Thomas Shadwell's comedy Bury Fair (1689) satirizes just such a character in Oldwit, a ‘paltry old-fashioned wit and punner’, who boasts of having gone drinking with Fletcher and Randolph and claims that he ‘was a wit in the last age: I was created Ben Jonson's son in the Apollo’ (pp. 2, 6). None the less, both Dryden and Shadwell worked within the Jonsonian inheritance, and revered him as a literary father figure, albeit at one remove. As Dryden put it, ‘I know I honour Ben Jonson more than my little critics, because without vanity I may own I understand him better’ (‘Of Dramatic Poesy’, 1.188).

In the early eighteenth century Richard Steele continued to regard the Apollo as ‘a Place sacred to Mirth, temper'd with Discretion, where Ben Jonson and his sons us'd to make their liberal Meetings’ (The Tatler, ed. D. F. Bond, 3 vols., 1987, 2.5, no. 79, 9–11 Oct 1709), and the court-day odes of poets laureate were still rehearsed there. Increasingly, though, the memory was coarsened into a myth of ‘merry old Ben’, who presided over a drinking den and whose poetry was fuelled by alcohol—as in the verses ‘On Ben Jonson's Club-Room, called the Apollo’ (Miscellaneous Poems by Several Hands, ed. D. Lewis, 1726–30, 1.71). At the opposite pole is A. C. Swinburne, whose sonnet on ‘The Tribe of Benjamin’ extravagantly sentimentalizes the Apollo as a golden fantasy world, where Randolph, Cartwright, and Marmion ‘shared with that stout sire of all and thee / The exuberant chalice of his echoing shrine’ (Tristram of Lyonesse, 1882, 293). The Devil tavern itself disappeared in 1788, when it was demolished and replaced with a bank. However, the bust of Apollo still remains today at the premises of Child & Co. (now incorporated in the Royal Bank of Scotland) in Fleet Street, together with part of the original wooden panel bearing the Leges convivales. These are the last surviving material traces of the sons of Ben.

Martin Butler

Sources  

C. H. Herford, P. Simpson, and E. Simpson, eds., Ben Jonson, 11 vols. (1925–52) · P. Simpson, ‘Ben Jonson and the Devil tavern’, Modern Language Review, 34 (1939), 367–73 · J. Buxton, ‘The poets' hall called Apollo’, Modern Language Review, 48 (1953), 52–4 · K. A. Esdaile, ‘Ben Jonson and the Devil tavern’, Essays and Studies, 29 (1943), 93–100 · J. L. Davis, The sons of Ben: Jonsonian comedy in Caroline England (1967) · I. Donaldson, ‘Fathers and sons: Jonson, Dryden and Macflecknoe’, Jonson's magic houses: essays in interpretation, ed. I. Donaldson (1997), 162–79 · S. Achilleos, ‘The Anacreontea and a tradition of refined male sociability’, A pleasing sinne: drink and conviviality in seventeenth-century England, ed. A. Smyth (2004), 21–36 · M. O'Callaghan, The English wits: literature and sociability in early modern England (2007)