Poetry Review, Ben Jonson, On My First Son

11 Mar

Alas and alack–I really wish people would appreciate Ben Jonson with half the enthusiasm that Shakespeare gets, because Jonson can be damned good.  While Shakespeare certainly has more scope and brilliance, Jonson comes from a personal place that we cannot really give Shakespeare (considering that 500 years have passed and we still don’t know that much about Shakespeare  tells you something about how non-personal his works are.)

“On My First Son” is a grief poem, and one which is beautiful and so sweetly sad.  Jonson talks about “his sin” as being the cause of his son’s death, by which he means he was too proud of his son, and because of his pride, God took him away.   It’s really indicative of the feelings people have when they’ve lost someone very very close–they feel like it’s their fault.  I don’t know why people come to this conclusion, or that this conclusion would be comforting, but it’s part of the process of dealing with loss.

He then imagines death to be a better state than life–his son no longer has to deal with sickness, or pain, or old age.  He chides himself for mourning, thinking of his son in a better place.    Ok, so we’re to this reasoning–God took Jonson’s son away to teach him a lesson, but the son is in a better place (this is Jonson trying to “learn the lesson.”)  Again, it’s trying to find meaning in a tragedy, and all the tender words Jonson had for his son “loved boy,” “best piece of poetry,” “O I could lose all father now” (meaning he does not want to be a father to anybody.)

“For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such/As what he loves may never like too much.”  So he’s promising to never get overly proud or attached to anything lest he lose it.

What amazes me about this poem is that thinking  of people 500 years ago, it’s hard to imagine their feelings–a lot of the language is different enough to cause some distance, and the style at the time was much more formal, which often takes away from emotional resonance.   Jonson’s poem is as real and fresh as if it were written yesterday, the level of negotiating with God here is intense and desperate, and amazingly personal.   It takes a lot of guts to put feelings this deep onto paper and present them to the public.   Also this seems to be at the height of grieving,  where the lesson he learns is probably a false one, but he’s not in a place to see the sunshine yet, and remember, around that time grieving too much was considered sinful because it was doubting God’s providence.

Sometimes I wonder at our inability to really connect with lives from the past, because we think of their pain as over.  However, there exists a moment in time where Jonson’s grief held him like a noose and would not let go–is that moment any the less true now than it was then?

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