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Five Fascinating Facts about Ben Jonson

Fun facts about the poet and playwright

1. Ben Jonson courted controversy on a number of occasions during his writing career. Jonson (c. 1572-1637), the adopted son of a bricklayer, was originally apprenticed to his stepfather’s trade, before going off to enlist in the English army (he later claimed he had killed a Spanish champion in single combat). He started writing for the London theatre in his mid-twenties, and his first play to make a real splash was The Isle of Dogs, in 1597. However, this play – co-authored with Thomas Nashe – made its mark for the wrong reason. The play was suppressed for its seditious content, all copies of it were ordered to be burned, and so it was never printed. Nobody at the time recorded the precise nature of the ‘sedition’ contained in the play, so we can only speculate. In 1598, the following year, Jonson killed an actor, Gabriel Spenser; he escaped execution by pleading ‘benefit of clergy’, i.e. he could read and write so he was allowed to get off with a branding on his thumb rather than a noose round his neck. Jonson landed in trouble again in 1605 for co-writing Eastward Hoe!, a play containing seven lines which King James I appears to have found offensive to the Scots. Read the rest of this entry

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Five Fascinating Facts about Gallus

A short biography of one of ancient Rome’s lost poets

1. The poetry of Gallus inspired a whole raft of famous Roman poets, but none of his work survives. Author of the Metamorphoses, Ovid (pictured below right), praised Gallus alongside the Greek writers Homer and Sophocles (the author of the classic play Oedipus the King), and the celebrated Roman author Virgil. Virgil himself includes Gallus in two of his pastoral poems known as the Eclogues. Indeed, the tenth Eclogue is dedicated to Gallus. Propertius called him one of Rome’s first great love poets. Yet none of Gallus’ work survived antiquity.

2. Only one line of Gallus’ work has endured, but it isn’t particularly inspiring. In a book on geography, the writer Vibius Sequester quotes Gallus’ line ‘uno tellures dividit amne duas’. This line translates as nothing more poetic than ‘it is divided by one river into two lands’. Not exactly Ovid’s Amores, is it? Read the rest of this entry

Five Fascinating Facts about John Bunyan

Fun facts about the Christian writer

1. He was nearly shot in the head while on guard duty one night – but fortunately, another soldier had taken his place. This narrow brush with death helped to convince John Bunyan (1628-88) that he was one of the ‘Elect’ – the chosen few – and to start spreading the word. He most famously did this in The Pilgrim’s Progress, which brings us on to our second John Bunyan fact…

2. His most famous book has a claim to being the first English novel. Others have argued that The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), Bunyan’s masterpiece, is less a ‘novel’ and more a religious allegory – which it certainly is. Bunyan the book while imprisoned in Bedford gaol (for preaching without a licence and refusing to attend the Anglican church service). Read the rest of this entry