Wednesday 19 June 2019

Little Elegies

I've written before about the strange notion that in former times parents felt little or no grief at the loss of a child. There is plenty of evidence to the contrary in church monuments – and also, of course, in poetry.
Ben Jonson wrestles with his grief in his 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, 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.

In Shakespeare's King John, Constance, believing her son Arthur to be dead, is distracted by grief, and gives one of the great descriptions in literature of the first agony of grieving. In response to Cardinal Pandulph and King Philip, who both reproach her with being overfond of grief, she replies:

Grief fills the room up of my absent child, 
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me, 
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words, 
Remembers me of all his gracious parts, 
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form: 
Then have I reason to be fond of grief?
Fare you well: had you such a loss as I, 
I could give better comfort than you do...
O Lord! my boy, my Arthur, my fair son!
My life, my joy, my food, my all the world!

It's hard to believe Shakespeare didn't have the loss of his own 11-year old son, Hamnet, fresh in his memory when he wrote those lines.

And then there's this little elegy, which I came across the other day. It's by Katherine Philips, a 17th-century poet who was known as 'the Matchless Orinda' and highly thought of in her time. She wrote two poems in memory of her lost son, of which this, with its fine closing quatrain, is the better:

Epitaph. On her Son H.P. at St. Syth’s Church where her body also lies Interred
What on Earth deserves our Trust?
Youth and Beauty both are dust.
Long we gathering are with pain, 
What one Moment calls again. 
Seven years Childless Marriage past, 
A Son, A Son is born at last: 
So exactly limn’d and Fair, 
Full of good Spirits, Meen, and Aier, 
As a long life promised; 
Yet, in less than six weeks, dead. 
Too promising, too great a Mind 
In so small room to be confin'd: 
Therefore, fit in Heav'n to dwell, 
He quickly broke the Prison shell. 
So the Subtle Alchymist, 
Can’t with Hermes seal resist 
The Powerful Spirit’s subtler flight, 
But ’twill bid him long good night. 
And so the Sun, if it arise 
Half so Glorious as his Eye's, 
Like this Infant, takes a shroud, 
Bury'd in a morning Cloud.


  1. Of my dear son Gervase
    By Sir John Beaumont (1583–1627)

    CAN I, who have for others oft compil’d
    The songs of death, forget my sweetest child,
    Which, like a flow’r crusht, with a blast is dead,
    And ere full time hangs down his smiling head,
    Expecting with clear hope to live anew, 5
    Among the angels fed with heav’nly dew?…
    Dear Lord, receive my son, whose winning love
    To me was like a friendship, far above
    The course of nature or his tender age;
    Whose looks could all my bitter griefs assuage: 10
    Let his pure soul, ordain’d seven years to be
    In that frail body which was part of me,
    Remain my pledge in Heav’n, as sent to show
    How to this port at every step I go.

  2. That's wonderful, Anon. Thanks very much.