Job’s question, the Death of a Child and Ben Jonson’s poetry

Job asking “Why?” Asking “How much more?”

Last year, a friend of my sister had a 4-year old child drown in a neighborhood swimming pool.  One would think that was enough for any parent to bear.

Last week, the very same woman’s 4-month old baby died in her crib—a case of SIDS.

This is a Job-like battering.   How much more can two people take?  How much more? They can’t be looking to sense, or reason, or “God’s plan.”  None of that can help, certainly not at the moment.

Lately, I have had a number of friends and relatives  who have lost aging parents. Sad as that is, it is reasonable and acceptable—part of the pattern of life.  But the death of a child?  No.

And there are thousands of children all over the world who die every day of disease, mal-nourishment, war, violence, and mere accident.

Statue of Father and Son
Vatican Museums. ©1999 A. Jokinen.

I used to teach a poem by Ben Jonson. If Shakespeare had not come along the era would have probably been known as “the Age of Jonson.”  He was much more successful, much more popular than Shakespeare was during his life.  And yet, he is not really part of the common culture today.  Shakespeare has pushed him aside.  But he is good and he is important. Here is the poem in which Jonson tries to deal with the death of his son: 

On My First Son
by Ben Jonson

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.
Oh, could I lose all father now ! For why
    Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon ‘scaped world’s and flesh’s rage,
    And if no other misery, yet age !
Rest in soft peace, and, asked, 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.

Jonson’s first son—also named Benjamin, which in Hebrew means “Son of My Right Hand”—died when he was seven years old. Jonson, renowned and celebrated for his poetry and drama, puts it all in perspective and rates this dead son as the best thing he has ever created.  One can feel the father’s pain in the final two lines–the fear of “liking too much” that which one loves.


10 thoughts on “Job’s question, the Death of a Child and Ben Jonson’s poetry

  1. Jonson also lost his daughter at age of six months – there is a less well known poem of his entitled ‘on my first daughter’. A Job-like suffering indeed. I know that infant deaths were more common in those days, but I wonder, did that make any difference to the pain and grief? I doubt it.

    I also think of Rudyard Kipling, who had a tragic parallel with Jonson — he lost his eldest daughter, Josephine, at the age of 6 to pneumonia and then lost his son, John, at the age of 18 in the first world war. so tragic, and such great writing has come out of all these losses, and the love that preceded them. Kipling’s famed Just So Stories were a devotion to his beloved are the Kipling epitaphs if you’re interested — I find the Merrow down poem particularly moving as he had to distance himself from his grief through this fictional character of ‘taffy’.

    The agony of parenthood is in many ways a desperately beautiful thing when committed to paper.

    • Isobel, thank you reading and for your comment. Thankfully I can only imagine the heart wrenching pain of such a loss. And the literature gives us a glimpse into it. Thanks again.

  2. My deepest compassion for the family John…
    Life is tough…Truth is :WE DON’T WANT TO KNOW HOW MUCH WE CAN TAKE from this life…
    Let’s hope we will never be forced to find out… 😦
    God help us all.

      • No John, thank YOU for posting! I’m reading, of course I’m reading ! 🙂
        I don’t think I am good, I could have been better in the past and I should be better now…
        Life is tough and sad and what I find really precious is to have good friends. Even if tragedies like this happen, it is still a great comfort to have support. It can even feel like God’s hand on your shoulder sometimes…

      • My humble thought about this sort of tragedies is that they happen for a reason.The reason is to give those suffering from the loss a very tough lesson about love and life. I’ve lived my share of tragedy too. I do believe in God and in my mind that is the only explanation. In my mind God is love, so I think that we did not lose for eternity the souls of the loved ones, in fact we never lost them, we will meet them again on the other side, in a different life or dimension.

  3. A very tough subject John. My parents lost their first daughter at age 6. Once I became a parent, I had a different perspective and just wondered how the managed that and 6 more kids. I think they did great marching forward with wounds that could never heal. Also hoping I never have that experience. Wow! T

  4. I felt like my breath was held for two minutes reading this…probably life’s most crushing pain…I think all of your readers’ hearts are aligned with that poor family…words can soothe, time will hopefully heal…

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