Wednesday, April 1, 2009

"O rare Ben Jonson"

One of my favorite professors always encouraged his students to regularly memorize a poem. Even before my younger son was born, I carried Ben Jonson's "On My First Sonne" around in my head...and in my heart. It has long been my inclination when walking through graveyards to study the number of young children that a family may have lost. The despair and power of human existence seem to float upward from the headstones. I find it at once tragic and inspirational. It was not a conscious decision to directly address my son (see the poem from March 28 post), it just seemed to flow out in first person. Now I realize, that I was composing my own joyous counterpoint to Jonson's heartbreaking elegy to his first born son who died on his 7th birthday. After reading just this poem, it is easy to appreciate the inscription marking Jonson's tomb in Westminster Abbey where he rests in Poets' Corner next to Chaucer: "O rare Ben Jonson"

The portrait is by Abraham Blyenberch, circa 1617.

On My First Son

FAREWELL, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, loved boy.
Seven years thou 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 'scaped world's and flesh's rage,
And, if no other misery, yet age?
Rest in soft peace, and asked, 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."


Rowan said...

I know little of Ben Johnson other than his name and that he is a literary figure. This poem is so sad, you can feel his grief. In that era many children died young and a lot of people think 'oh they must have been used to it' but I think that, however often it happened, it was still a devastating thing for the parents. Poor Ben Johnson, I hope he had other sons and daughters.

Derrick said...

Hello FireLight,

As Rowan says, it is a sad poem, but beautiful too.

I am currently reading about the Wars of the Roses and Edward IV (a son of York) has just taken the throne from the Lancastrian Henry VI. Edward was almost 19. The leader of the Lancastrian forces, Somerset, was 24. Age was regarded so differently then and life could be taken in a moment. Reaching old age was often the exception to the rule. Did people regard life and death differently? I think perhaps so. Sadness, yes, but their faith gave them the sure knowledge of something better. Perhaps we are the poorer.

FireLight said...

Derrick, I have often had my students point out that it must have been that closeness to the Church that helped people survive tragedies such as Jonson's as well as wars and the plague. We observed people turning to faith and religion first hand after 9/11.
Are you reading a particular book on the War of the Roses?

Derrick said...

Hello FireLight,

It is a paperback version of Alison Weir's book 'Lancaster and York, The Wars of the Roses' that I have had for years but am only just reading it!

It is very good, I think and, for me, helps fit people and places more firmly into our history.

Michael said...

Indeed.......a rare man indeed Firelight. Your students make some good points.

Dave King said...

A great choice of poem, especially for the occasion. And a superb blog, if I might say so. I shall return.

French Fancy said...

Hello there - I saw you over at Willow's and somehow guessed you'd be a poetry nut like me.
I don't know much of Johnson's work but I do like the poem you chose.

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Recreational scholar, former high school and junior college English teacher. Animal lover (especially horses, dogs, and people), live in the South, sometimes poet and essayist... "Ireland, Scotland, Britain, and Wales...I can hear those ancient voices calling..." Van Morrison from Celtic Heartbeat