Ben Jonson's “On My First Son”: Does the Speaker of a Poem Matter?

What makes them great.
July 17 2012 6:30 AM

A Poet by Any Other Name

Who is “the speaker” and does it matter?

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From that opening line, with its oblique allusion to the given name of child and father, the poem concentrates on a powerful conflict: between learning and feeling, reason and reality, and between Christian resignation on one side and parental grief on the other. I admire how Jonson honors both, without resting in either. That is, he doesn't pretend to “lose all father,” as though the “just” day and the enviable state alleviated his grief. But he doesn't repose in the grief, either: The “vows,” the desire to love only the child's immortal soul, not the actual joy of having the child near, is heartfelt and sincere—and unattained. In the poem, Jonson is faithful to both his pain and his reason: a trembling middle state evoked powerfully in very few words.

I have heard the poem described as offensive—selfish and patriarchal—precisely for the phrase “here doth lie/ Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.” For some readers, those words, with the poet's name, neglect the child and efface the child's mother, emphasizing the poet's self-regard and his art. But poetry means making, and the infant's body, what “here doth lie” is that making—a mortal thing, and though a source of parental joy not the child's immortal soul, that Jonson vows to love. The final line (paraphrasing the Latin of a poem by Martial) involves the difference between being loving and taking pleasure. (The English verb “to like” was once an active verb meaning “to please,” as does Martial's placere or Spanish gustar.) I admire Jonson for not claiming to have reached, yet, a state where he can separate the two feelings.

(To include the mother's grief would change the subject, and require a different poem. In fact, Jonson wrote such a poem, “On My First Daughter.”)

I'm moved by Jonson's “On My First Son” in what might be called a personal way: The first-person pronouns and his name make me feel that the poet is speaking personally, about his child's death. Quite aside from reference books that tell me the death did happen, from the plague, in 1603, the poem has the quality of—I won't write sincerity—conviction. Maybe even more than with the examples from Bishop and Whitman, I'd find it weird to speak of Jonson's “speaker” in “On My First Son.” That terminology would provide a way of discussing the poem as a work of art, or a work of rhetoric (it is both)—but that would be true of any editorial, any reporter's story in the political, or sports section. In a way, I suppose anything anybody ever writes or says is a “dramatic monologue” to different degrees. We all use a “persona” or mask, to some degree, all the time. Doesn't a poet, at least sometimes, have the right to express herself as not just (in Bishop's terms) “an Elizabeth” but a particular Elizabeth, on a particular occasion? I think that in this poem, “Ben Jonson” means Ben Jonson.

Click the arrow on the audio player below to hear Robert Pinsky read Ben Jonson's poem "On My First Son." You can also download the recording or subscribe to Slate's Poetry Podcast on iTunes.

“On My First Son”

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.

Former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky is Slate's poetry editor. His Selected Poems is now available.