Poet's Pick April 23
Ben Jonson:
"On My First Son"

Selected by Joanne Diaz
National Poetry Month 2013

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Joanne Diaz's Poetry Month Pick, April 23, 2013

"On My First Son"
by Ben Jonson (1572–1637)

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
   My sin was too much hope of thee, lov'd boy.
Seven years tho’ wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
   Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
O, could I lose all father now! For why
   Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon ‘scap’d world’s and flesh’s rage,
   And if no other misery, yet age?
Rest in soft peace, and, ask’d, say, “Here doth lie
   Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.”
For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such,
   As what he loves may never like too much.


* Joanne Diaz Comments:
The possibility of losing one’s child is unutterable because of the sheer terror of its possibility. Even so, the greatest of poets confront and explore the profundity of this kind of loss in deeply moving ways. Last year, Poetry Daily featured Dana Gioia’s “Majority”, a poem that continues to astonish me after dozens of readings. In his poem, Gioia meditates on the death of his infant son on what would have been his twenty-first birthday. He imagines the child at each quotidian stage of a young life that he never had, until, on the child’s twenty-first birthday, the child moves away “into [his] own afterlife.” The miracle of Gioia’s poem is that he views this loss with a profound calm and even joy (Gioia refers to other living children as “those joyful proxies,” perhaps with an awareness of the sound of his own name in the word “joy”).

When I read Gioia’s poem, I am completely disarmed by its apparent simplicity and honesty. I also can’t help but think of a similar poem written over four hundred years earlier: Ben Jonson’s “On My First Son.” Jonson was a great satirist, legendary self-promoter, convicted felon, popular playwright, and an all-around cantankerous individual.1  It might be surprising to read his epigram in light of his life and work, but in 1603, Jonson’s son, also named Benjamin (the Hebrew name means “son of the right hand”), died of plague, and his death left Jonson inconsolable.

Jonson’s poem attempts—and fails—to find the appropriate expression for the poet’s grief. I do not mean that the poem is a failure. Rather, I mean that even for this prolific and gifted writer, there is no one rhetorical stance that is appropriate for the intensity of his grief.

It is precisely because Jonson “cannot lose all father now” that he feels compelled to speak in couplets that draw from a variety of rhetorical traditions. In the opening lines, he deploys the rhetoric of confession to admit that he sinned by hoping for too much from his child. In the next couplet, Jonson borrows his language of lending and payment from the Book of Deuteronomy, suggesting that his child’s death was fated by an all-powerful Old Testament God.2  Jonson quick shifts from the language of debt and payment into his persona as an actor and dramatist. One could easily imagine a tragic character uttering these next few lines on the Renaissance stage:

O, could I lose all father now! For why
   Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon ‘scap’d world’s and flesh's rage,
   And if no other misery, yet age?

Here, Jonson shifts from sorrow to bitterness, and envies his son who will never experience the world’s rage and its fleshly betrayals. This contempt for the world’s mutability is softened by the next lines: “Rest in soft peace, and, ask’d, say, “Here doth lie/ Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.” These lines create a kind of epitaph that emphasizes the finality of the child’s death and create a formal distance between father and son. The final couplet, which borrows its Stoicism from an epigram by Martial, suggests a shift toward calm acceptance of his son’s death, and a more guarded approach toward love in the future. Perhaps, in his seemingly hopeless rhetorical shifts, Jonson provides not a description of grief, but the experience of grief itself.

1 Jonson murdered a fellow actor named Gabriel Spencer and, as part of his punishment, had an “M” for murder branded onto his right thumb.

2 Kathryn Walls, ‘The Just Day’ in Jonson’s ‘On My First Sonne.’ Notes and Queries 24 (1977): 136.

About Joanne Diaz:
Joanne Diaz is the recipient of fellowships from the Illinois Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts. She is the author of The Lessons (Silverfish Review Press) and My Favorite Tyrants (forthcoming from the University of Wisconsin Press ). She teaches in the English Department at Illinois Wesleyan University.

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