Brown was born at either Shifnal or Newport in Shropshire; baptismal records indicate he was christened on 1 January 1663. He took advantage of the free schooling offered in the county during his day by attending Adams' Grammar School, afterwards continuing his education at Christ Church, Oxford and there meeting the college's dean, Dr Fell.
Fell was well-known as a disciplinarian, and Brown throughout his life displayed a disdain for restrictions. The legend behind Brown's most recognized work is therefore plausible: it states that Brown got into trouble while at Oxford, and was threatened with expulsion, but that Dr Fell offered to spare Brown if he could translate an epigram from Martial (I, 33, 1):
Brown made a modest living from his writing in Latin, French and English, in addition to offering services of translation. He refrained however from ever attaching himself to a patron, and expressed contempt toward those who did so. He pursued a rather libertine lifestyle (not unusual for the times) and his satirical works gained him several enemies in their subjects.
His best-known works, apart from the quatrain, are probably Amusements Serious and Comical, calculated for the Meridian of London (published in 1700) and Letters from the Dead to the Living (1702), although his writings were quite prolific. Several works of the period whose author is unknown are suspected to be his.
Toward the end of his life he began to regret the licentiousness with which he had lived it, and on his deathbed he secured from his publisher (one Sam Briscoe) a promise that any posthumous works would be censored of "all prophane, undecent passages". The promise was promptly reneged upon.
Many of Brown's works went unpublished until his death, and the publication date of many is in question, as is his stature as a writer. Contemporary opinion was mixed; Jonathan Swift spoke quite highly of Brown's work, and indeed parts of Gulliver's Travels and other of Swift's works may have been significantly influenced by Brown's writings.
On the other hand, those such as John Dryden (whom he ridiculed in The Reasons of Mr Bays changing his Religion: considered in a Dialogue between Crites, Eu genius and Mr Bays) and others whom Brown mercilessly lampooned during his lifetime understandably did nothing to further his good reputation after his demise.
The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica gives this verdict: "He was the author of a great variety of poems, letters, dialogues and lampoons, full of humour and erudition, but coarse and scurrilous. His writings have a certain value for the knowledge they display of low life in London." Presently the best description of Brown's legacy may be that given to him by Joseph Addison, who memorably called him "T-m Br-wn of facetious Memory".
Brown was buried on the grounds of Westminster Abbey.