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.

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.

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