About the author
Ben Jonson (11 June 1572 – August 1637), poet and dramatist, was one of the leading literary figures of his day. He was born and raised in London, the son of a poor church minister. Jonson began a career as a bricklayer, served with English companies in the Low Countries (1591–2), before returning to London to pursue a career in writing (and, at first, acting) for the stage.
About the text
First published posthumously in 1641, some four or five years after Jonson's death, Timber is a collection of meditations and commentaries upon a range of issues, from the nature of fortune, fame, opinion and wisdom to observations on dramatic theory and poetics. The work, a type of commonplace book written late in Jonson's life, is a repository of miscellaneous quotations, translations and opinions. Jonson draws heavily on authorities such as Plutarch, Pliny and Quintilian, but also discusses influential early modern writers such as Vives, Machiavelli, Montaigne, Spenser, Sidney and Heinsius, as well as, most infamously, Shakespeare (‘would he had blotted a thousand [lines]’). As the alternative print title discloses, these are ‘discoveries made’ by Jonson ‘upon men and matter’ drawn from his extensive reading and experiences. The autobiographical verve of much of Jonson's apparent commentary in Timber can be misleading. Jonson inserts first-person pronouncements in passages that are translated almost entirely from the works of others. Elsewhere in the work, adapting a passage from Quintilian's Institutiones, Jonson proposes that for a man to write well, he needs to read the best authors, observe the best speakers and exercise his own style. Insisting upon the importance of learning from others, Jonson writes that ‘the mind and memory are more sharply exercised in comprehending another man's things, than our own’ (P4r).
The arts of memory
In Conversations (written c. 1619), the Scottish poet William Drummond's gossipy first-hand account of Jonson's opinions upon poetics and contemporary poets, he reveals that Jonson advises him to read the works of Quintilian. Drummond also notes that Jonson was able to readily recite parts of works by Donne (verse of the ‘Lost Chaine’), Wotton (‘verses of a happie lyfe’), Chapman (‘translation of the 13 of the Illiad’) and Spenser (Shepherd's Calendar) ‘by heart’. In Timber (N2r), Jonson observes Seneca's self-proclaimed mnemonic powers, before lamenting his own fading memory as he ages.