Sometimes a poem encounters you and so resonates within you that it appears to nestle its way within the folds of your heart. It isn’t something which has to be remembered. Instead it is as if you’ve always known it and cannot forget it. Ben Jonson’s On My First Sonne is one such poem which encountered me and often comes to mind in the run up to the holidays.
It’s a painful poem. Its twelve lines offer a glimpse into the grief of a father’s heart broken by the death of his first born son- who in 1603 died of bubonic plague, aged seven.
Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy.
Seven years tho’ 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.
- Ben Jonson, On My FIrst Sonne, 1616
“What has grief to do with the holidays?”, you might ask.
It’s not the sense of grief which encountered me, which grasped a hold of me and has remained with me ever since. It was the sense of perspective found in the third line. ‘Seven years tho’ wert lent to me’. ‘Lent to me’; the life of Jonson’s son was, in all its seven years, a gift and a blessing to him from God. A blessing which he was privileged to be a part of, naming his son his ‘best piece of poetry’. I’ve always been blown away that amidst the weight of grief Jonson is able to hold on to an awareness that even the life of his pride and joy, his own son, has been a gift from God.
The grief lingers on, yet the perspective shapes a heart of gratitude rather than of resentment.
It echoes the sentiment found in the Christian Scriptures: “For all things come from Thee, and from Thine own have we given Thee.” These are the words of King David and he continues by saying: “For we are strangers before Thee, and sojourners, as were all our fathers; our days on the earth are as a shadow, and there is none abiding.” (1 Chronicles 29:14-15)
Here we have, as in Jonson’s poem, a profound awareness of both our own mortality and the sense that everything we have is only ours in as much as God has given it to us. Our human tendency is to resist this idea. “I worked 60 hours last week. I sold 500 units. I closed that deal. I earned my paycheck, I provided for my family and I deserve the life I have forged for myself.” That may well be, but tonight you could have a seizure and never wake up. What’s it all worth then? Hard work and discipline are to be lauded even while the work itself, and its rewards, should be framed as God’s blessing.
When we accept this perspective, we find that the holidays become something quite different. The materialism of the holidays – either the insincerity of casually giving or the anxiety of saving in order to stretch beyond our usual means – fades away. Gifts and giving are no longer acts of obligation but become opportunities for appreciation. I wonder how this perspective might change our own experience of the coming holidays?
Reflecting on Jonson’s grief at the loss of his dearest gift, his son which was lent to him for but seven years, offers us a telling insight into the heart of God the Father as at Christmas he gives to us his first born Son…
Samuel S. Thorp