David Riggs, in his fine biography of the playwright and poet Ben Jonson, Ben Jonson: A Life (1989) writes, ‘‘By the time of [Jonson’s] death . . . he had become the most celebrated poet of his age, a man who outshone even Shakespeare and Donne in the eyes of his contemporaries.’’ Jonson’s popularity in his own time was such that King James I made him the first poet laureate of England, providing him with a pension for his work as court poet.
While Jonson’s reputation has faded in subsequent centuries, any examination of the history of English poetry will reveal his considerable importance to the development of the short lyric. His influence was felt during his own lifetime; as Gamini Salgado, writing in the 1991 Reference Guide to English Literature, argues, ‘‘Contemporary practitioners of verse esteemed him so highly that a group of them, which included Herrick, Suckling, and Carew, styled themselves the Sons of Ben and produced a commemorative volume Jonsonius Virbius after his death in 1637.’’
His contemporaries and modern scholars hold something in common: the recognition that Jonson’s epigrams, in particular, demonstrate a shift in the style and structure of the short poem. Jonson inherited two very different traditions of poetry in English, and through his impressive learning, clear language, and deep understanding of the human condition, he was able to transform both traditions, melding them together into a style and vocabulary still recognizable today.
The first tradition that Jonson inherited is what the scholar Wesley Trimpi, in his seminal Ben Jonson’s Poems: A Study of the Plain Style (1962), and John Williams, in his introduction to the second edition of English Renaissance Poetry: A Collection of Shorter Poems from Skelton to Jonson (1990), identify as the native tradition. Williams argues that the native tradition in Elizabethan poetry is a direct descendent of medieval poetry. Further, he identifies several important characteristics of poetry written in this tradition: ‘‘The subject of the Native poem is usually broad and generic and of . . . persistent human significance; the purpose to which the subject is put is instructive or informative or judicial . . . the Native poet speaks from his own intelligence.’’
Thus, a poem such as John Skelton’s ‘‘Upon a Dead Man’s Head’’ offers a good example of this style. Written in the late fifteenth century, this poem addresses the most significant of all human concerns, the awareness of the inevitability of death. The situation of this poem is that of the poet contemplating a skull. Skelton describes in simple but graphic and dreadful terms the way the body disintegrates upon death. He informs his readers that death is universal, and will come to every human being; no one can escape the fate of bodily corruption. Finally, he instructs readers to set their thoughts on Jesus and the Virgin Mary, rather than on the things of the world. Only through steadfast belief in Jesus will the reader’s eternal soul be rescued from the horrors of bodily death. The style of the poem is straightforward, and not in the least sophisticated. Its content takes precedence over its style, and the very short lines bump along to the inevitable end rhyme.
Williams also notes that while the native tradition matures and finds fine voice in later poets such as Walter Raleigh, it retains some essential characteristics. According toWilliams, ‘‘the diction is deliberately plain, almost bare, and subservient to the substance or argument of the poem. The syntax moves toward simplicity, most units being straightforward and declarative.’’ In other words, poetry written in the native tradition tends to use a plain, not embellished, vocabulary; the words used in the poem are less important than the message of the poem; and the syntax, or word order, of the poem is straightforward and simple, written as declarative sentences, without embellishment. The second tradition that Jonson inherits goes by several names. Some scholars call it the Petrarchan style, others the courtly style, and still others, the gilded style. Petrarch was a fourteenth-century Italian poet who wrote, among other things, a series of beautiful sonnets about love. In the 1530s, the English courtier and poet Thomas Wyatt visited Italy, and brought Petrarch’s sonnets back with him to England, where he began translating them. The poems became very popular in England among the courtly class, and soon young poets were all emulating the style.
Unlike the native tradition, Petrarchan poetry is, according to Williams, ‘‘suggestive and indirect.’’ Further, in this style, it is the vocabulary and use of language that is paramount, rather than the message. They are filled with references to beautiful, idealized women, and elegant appeals to the Muses, Greek goddesses of the arts who were often invoked by artists, musicians, and writers. In addition, as Williams notes further, ‘‘The relationship between the syntactical unit and the poetic line is a great deal more flexible and varied, with syntactical units frequently running abruptly over the line and completing themselves at odd and unexpected positions.’’ What Williams notes here is that in the Petrarchan style, sentences and phrases are not necessarily attached to a particular line. Rather, a sentence can stop abruptly midline, or spill over into the next.
By the end of the sixteenth century, the conventions of Petrarchan poetry are so well-known, and so often badly executed, that poets such as Jonson’s contemporary William Shakespeare can parody the work in their own sonnets. For example, in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, ‘‘My Mistress’ Eyes Are Nothing Like the Sun,’’ Shakespeare juxtaposes the description of a real-life woman with the silly, idealized, and, by now, cliche´d descriptions of Petrarchan poetry.
Thus, by the very early years of the seventeenth century, Jonson has before him both the direct language of the native style and the flexibility and beauty of the Petrarchan style at his disposal. No other poet before him was able to meld so well the two traditions. Trimpi’s term for Jonson’s style is the classic plain style, referencing Jonson’s close familiarity with classical writers such as Seneca and Martial, while Williams calls it simply plain style. In either case, as Williams argues, Jonson’s poetry ‘‘is the first in English . . . that is really capable of comprehending the extreme range and diversity of human experience, without falsifying that experience or doing violence to it.’’
‘‘On My First Son’’ supports Williams’s arguments. Jonson’s vocabulary in this poem is largely based on Anglo-Saxon words, as opposed to Latinate forms. In addition, his diction, or word choice, is plain and simple, devoid of the artificiality that marks so much of the Petrarchan poetry. Like the best native poetry, ‘‘On My First Son’’ is instructive as well as informative. Jonson tells his reader that his son has died, that he is grieving, but that he can be consoled by knowing his son is in a better place and that he has been spared the ravages of age. By placing his own experience as a model, others might learn how to cope with extraordinary grief.
The flexibility introduced into English poetry by the incursion of the Petrarchan model is also evident in this poem. Although the poem is regularly metered, it does not have the heavy stresses of the native style. In addition, lines 5 and 6 illustrate both caesura (a break that occurs midline) as well as enjambment (the carrying over of a thought from one line to the next without a pause at the end of the line). Neither of these stylistic devices was available to a writer in the strictly native tradition.
Thus, while Jonson is also clearly referencing his training in the classical writings of the ancient Greeks and Romans in this poem, he is filtering it through the native sensibility as well as the stylistic devices of Petrarchan poetry. His subject and his style are in perfect balance, neither taking precedence over the other. Such a melding of styles allows for greater subtlety and sophistication than either tradition was able to accomplish on its own.
In addition, Jonson’s transformation of the traditions he inherited allow him to speak directly to the reader about his own personal experience in clear, economical, and moving phrases. As James Loxley writes in The Complete Critical Guide to Ben Jonson (2001), the poem is ‘‘a mapping of grief which traces the complexities of a psychological state claimed, unequivocally, for the poet himself. Guilt and shame mingle with the attempts at self-consolation.’’
Finally, in poems such as ‘‘On My First Son,’’ Jonson demonstrates his supreme balancing of not only subject and expression, but also of emotion and intellect. As Claude J. Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth note in their book Ben Jonson (1979), ‘‘On My First Son’’ ‘‘recognizes conflicting impulses in the response to loss. Again, there is tension between intellectual and emotional reactions.’’
It is a testament to Jonson’s great skill as a writer that he is able, in the twelve short lines of ‘‘On My First Son,’’ to express deeply felt grief directly to the reader, offer a form of consolation and instruction, and produce a beautifully worded poem. In the end, the tools Jonson used were those he inherited from both the native and Petrarchan traditions; the artistry of using those tools, however, was uniquely his own.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Ben Jonson, Volume 33, published by Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010.
Diane Andrews Henningfeld, Critical Essay on ‘‘On My First Son,’’ in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.