July – Ben Jonson: On my First Son

Shakespeare’s contemporary Jonson is best remembered as a playwright, but in this poignant and very personal piece his own feelings are laid bare.

He ponders on the paradox of faith and grief – why grieve for someone who has gone to glory? Is it ourselves we grieve for in the absence of a beloved one?

The poem also plays upon the fact that both father and son have the same name – Benjamin (Genesis 35: 18). So the line between the child Ben and his father Ben is blurred. The father’s pain at the lost diminishes him. But by drawing attention to the meaning of the name, ‘child of my right hand’, Jonson recalls the biblical parallels – not only with the youngest son of Jacob but also with that other Son who now sits at the right hand of his Father. And this reminds us that God has walked not only the path of pain before us, but also the path of agonising grief.

            Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
                My sin was too much hope of thee, lov’d 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 ‘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.

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