May 2 is the birthday of that great antiquarian, teacher, and scholar, William Camden (1551-1623), the man we can fairly give credit for the mind and career of Ben Jonson. Camden was the usher of The Westminster School when Jonson was a pupil there, and probably sponsored the bright bricklayer’s stepson as a scholarship boy. Camden took on the huge task of surveying all England for his monumental Britannia, which combined history, topography, and description to create a deep understanding of his beloved native land. He was a chronicler of his own time as well as an enthusiastic student of myth and folklore. Jonson remained devoted to Camden for the historian’s entire life, as the myriad exclamation points in his Epigram XIV demonstrate.
CAMDEN! most reverend head, to whom I owe
All that I am in arts, all that I know;
(How nothing’s that?); to whom my country owes,
The great renown, and name wherewith she goes!
Than thee the age sees not that thing more grave,
More high, more holy, that she more would crave.
What name, what skill, what faith hast thou in things!
What sight in searching the most antique springs!
What weight, and what authority in thy speech!
Men scarce can make that doubt, but thou canst teach.
Pardon free truth, and let thy modesty,
Which conquers all, be once o’ercome by thee.
Many of thine, this better could, than I;
But for their powers, accept my piety.