situated in 16th-century London
on Bread Street (though possessing a side-entrance on Friday Street)
in the shadow falling to the east of St. Paul's Cathedral
, owned by one William Johnson
None of these details touch on why we remember this particular drinking establishment 500 years later. The heart of the matter is that it found itself hosting a regular gathering, convoked by Sir Walter Ralegh, of many of Elizabethan England's most celebrated literary talents, both in their heyday and mentoring from the older gentlemen as they began murmuring in iambic pentameter into the bottom of their ale mugs.
The regulars (variously described as the Mermaid Wits, Bread Street or Friday Night Club) at the night included most memorably two of the day's top writers, arch-rivals William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson who would tear into each other with the vigour only alcohol can fuel, as Thomas Fuller describes:
"Many were the wit-combats betwixt him and Ben Jonson; which two I behold like a Spanish great galleon and an English man-of-war; Master Jonson (like the former) was built far higher in learning; solid, but slow, in his performances. Shakespeare, with the English man-of-war, lesser in bulk, but lighter in sailing, could turn with all tides, tack about, and take advantage of all winds, by the quickness of his wit and invention."
Other regulars are documented as including Francis Beaumont
, John Fletcher
, John Selden
, John Donne (in more secular moments)
, and Robert Herrick (and the rest of his no-good Tribe of Ben sycophants)
. John Faed
rendered a painting in 1851 of what he felt the lauded assembly might have ressembled and produced the painting Shakespeare and His Contemporaries (aka Shakespeare and His Friends at the Mermaid Tavern)
, which is situated in the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Sandor Korein but viewable online at
Though the tavern was apparently destroyed in the Great Fire of London of 1666, it has been immortalised in lyric invocation by various writers both of its time and of ours, celebrated as follows by regular Francis Beaumont in his 1640 Master Francis Beaumont to Ben Jonson (aka "Letter of Ben Jonson"):
What things have we seen
Done at the Mermaid! heard words that have been
So nimble, and so full of subtle flame,
As if that every one from whence they came
Had meant to put his whole wit in a jest,
And had resolved to live a fool the rest
Of his dull life.
If Beaumont's not your style (the man was admittedly more of a playwright than poet by trade)
you may find more fitting memorials in John Keats
' Lines on the Mermaid Tavern
, Theodore Watts-Dunton
's Wassail Chorus at the Mermaid Tavern
, and even Don Marquis
' cockroach archy
's a roach of the taverns
and pete the parrot and shakespeare
It's further alluded to in the title of Alfred Noyes' 1913 collection Tales of the Mermaid Tavern and Hugh Abercrombie Anderson's dramatic treatment named simply The Mermaid Tavern and has in all achieved a place in the popular literary consciousness unparalleled by any bar until Marc Smith's 1987 invention of slam poetry at Chicago's the Green Mill lounge - but that's a whole other story.