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.