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?

Benjamin Jonson by Abraham van Blyenberch.
Benjamin Jonson by Abraham van Blyenberch

Photograph courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Walt Whitman begins one of the most famous passages in American writing—some might say one of the most American passages—with his name:

Walt Whitman am I, a Kosmos, of mighty Manhattan the son,
Turbulent, fleshy and sensual, eating, drinking and breeding;
No sentimentalist—no stander above men and women, or apart from them;
No more modest than immodest. 

Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!

The thrilling ebullience about dismantling doors and doorjambs; the sly yet candid formula about modesty; the comical yet solemn proclamation of his own sensuality; the screwball erudition of “Kosmos”: All these exemplify our national poet. Also characteristic of a much different poet is the passage in Elizabeth Bishop, too— in a manner, and an outlook, as different from Whitman's as the two poets are different:

But I felt: you are an I,
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.
Why
should you be one, too?
I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was.
I gave a sidelong glance
—I couldn't look any higher—
at shadowy gray knees,
trousers and skirts and boots
and different pairs of hands
lying under the lamps.

Whereas Whitman is a Kosmos, Bishop, as a child three days short of 7 years old, as the preceding lines tell us, is silently telling herself her age and name as a means of remaining distinct from the cosmos: “I was saying it to stop/ the sensation of falling off/ the round, turning world/ into cold, blue-black space.”

The two nearly opposite passages share, along with the use of each poet's actual name, the quality of directness, as though meant to address the reader more personally, or even more intimately, than a conventional poem might do. In a way, these passages present a challenge to the modern academic terminology of “the speaker.” In this critical tradition, students may discuss the words not of John Donne but of “Donne's speaker,” and even (though this sounds more peculiar) not the words of Emily Dickinson but of “Dickinson's speaker.”

Useful though the notion of “the speaker” may be sometimes, it is challenged by certain poems. Among these, for me, is Ben Jonson's poem “On My First Son.” For me, the poem represents one of the most moving uses of a name — for each of us our own name, in a way, the word most difficult to hear as others do. “Benjamin,” I've learned, comes from the Hebrew for “son of the right hand,” an origin Jonson alludes to in the first line.