John Donne has faced Ben Jonson at the intersection of two opposing streams of literary influence ever since they were writing in the late Elizabethan era. Near contemporaries, the two men flaunted poetry of equal skill and influence, despite representing dramatically different aesthetics. One classical, generically conservative, dignified and pellucid; the other pioneering, piquant, and probingly curious.
During their lifetimes, Donne and Jonson lived on close and admiring terms. It seems their literary friendship was founded on the absence of rivalry; they embodied such dissimilar poetical styles that they had a deep appreciation of the other. It could be assumed that they each admired the poetry that they were not seeking to write themselves. Donne contributed a poem on the occasion of the publication of the Volpone quarto in 1607. Two of Jonson's Epigrams, are in praise of Donne.
It cannot be ignored that there are similarities between the writings of the two renaissance men; their epigrams, elegies, and verse letters resemble one another’s to such an extent that there was a long scholarly debate about the authorship of a group of poems. Jonson is considered to be primarily a dramatist and Donne exclusively a non-dramatic poet; however it is fascinating that the word "dramatic" has been regularly applied to Donne's poems, and "undramatic" on occasion to Jonson's plays. The two men fluctuated throughout their careers between this unison, founded on respect, and astoundingly divergent writings. For example, the contrast is shocking between Jonson’s pastoral, sycophantic ‘country house poem’ “To Penshurst”, and Donne’s mischievously erotic “The Flea”, both embodying some of the most acclaimed characteristics of each writers work.
Jonson’s non-dramatic poetry is often overlooked. It is in fact exemplary of the English neoclassicism that would influence the work of great English poets such as Milton and Dryden; Jonson was certainly an English Renaissance poet, heralding literary interest in the rediscovered classical sources. John Donne is celebrated as a “metaphysical” poet. Jonson famously used the term when describing Donne’s poetry, intending it to resound as an insult; today the term is used to categorise Donne’s entire output. Donne’s verse notoriously incorporates philosophical perplexity, emotional depth, and astonishing “conceits.” The idiosyncratic and intellectual intensity of his poetry is perceived as a response to his contemporary England, a world of profound social and cultural upheaval. Ultimately Donne was a modernist; his poetry can often be described as defiant and innovative, showcasing his vitality of language.
Two poems by these men that make for a fascinating comparison are Donne’s ‘Sonnet XVII’ and Jonson’s ‘On My First Sonne’. The obvious thematic link is the passing of close loved ones, and the speakers subsequent relationship with God. Both poems explore the impact of grief, and seem to be based on true life experience; these are intensely personal poems. However, the treatment of the subject is very different. Jonson’s “On My First Sonne” is characteristically lucid and uncomplicated, arranged into 6 heroic couplets of poised rhythmic elegance. Donne’s “Sonnet XVII” or “Since she whom I loved” is also typical of Donne in its syntactical confusion; the contorted sentences complicate the natural flow of the 14 lines and obscure the meaning of the poem. This structural difference anticipates the contrasts that these initially similar poems propound.
On My First Son, by Ben Johnson
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.
Sonnet XVII, by John Donne
Since she whom I lov'd hath paid her last debt
To nature, and to hers, and my good is dead,
And her soul early into heaven ravished,
Wholly in heavenly things my mind is set.
Here the admiring her my mind did whet
To seek thee, God; so streams do show the head;
But though I have found thee, and thou my thirst hast fed,
A holy thirsty dropsy melts me yet.
But why should I beg more love, whenas thou
Dost woo my soul, for hers off'ring all thine,
And dost not only fear lest I allow
My love to saints and angels, things divine,
But in thy tender jealousy dost doubt
Lest the world, flesh, yea devil put thee out.
‘On My First Sonne’ is an apostrophe to Jonson’s 7 year old son who has recently died. The poem opens with a elegiac “Farewell”, and the following lines adhere to this theme, creating a poignant requiem for the child.
‘Since she whom I loved’ initially appears to be an elegy for his late wife (Ann Donne), but it soon becomes apparent that the poem’s implied reader is “thee, God”. Donne, in a similar fashion to his other Holy Sonnets, is writing a love poem to his “three-personed God” (Sonnet XIV); the Sonnet form is of course an apt choice to express his “love to saints and angels, things divine”. This unexpected shift seems to reflect Donne’s solution to the pain of losing his wife; by grappling with a newfound spirituality. “Wholly in heavenly things my mind is set” marks a changed, pious Donne. He is suggesting that where once he felt sexual desire for his wife, God “has fed his thirst”.
Jonson’s poem does not echo this passionate piety; instead he explores the painful questions arising from his explicable grief. He seeks meaning in his loss of his “child of my right hand, and joy” by suggesting his son has arisen easily to heaven, and that he will “rest in soft peace”. There is a strong focus on the child and his state of innocence, which suggests the speaker is profoundly affected by his bereavement. It is clear that Donne’s poem does not focus on his wife to the same extent; if anything, he reduces her to something which was merely “loved” and “admired”, and little more.
Sonnet XVII is remarkably empowering. With lines such as “Wholly in heavenly things my mind is set”, the speaker surprises the reader with a drive and passion for God. The speaker seems to be paradoxically arguing that piety now overrules sexual, or romantic desire: This argument is undermined by his inability to escape sexual puns and concepts (“thou my thirst hast fed”). Donne, as in other poems, reveals himself to perceive God as of a sexual nature: “her soul… into heaven ravished”. Furthermore, the speaker gives God shockingly earthly qualities such as “tender jealousy”. We begin to wonder if the only terms in which Donne can express himself, or relate to meaning, are those of sexual desire or fulfilment. Jonson’s poem is a search for meaning in other terms; his poem seems less crafted, and therefore appears to be less secure in his personal understanding of God. The poem, in ambiguous lines such as the closing “what he loves may never like too much”, is more of an exploration. The argument does therefore appear less persuasive and committed; the rhetorical question “For why/Will man lament the state he should envy?” lends itself to be read as less assertive than Jonson may have intended. Emotion and confusion seem leak out from the contained heroic couplets in this poem, whether Jonson crafted it that way or not. Despite him arguing that it was not worth lamenting, as quoted earlier, this resolution is undermined by the powerful admission “here doth lie/Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry”. The entire poem then shifts in meaning, appearing now to be mourning the creation of which he was most proud. One cannot ignore that this presents a double entendre; perhaps Jonson felt the poem itself was of momentous achievement and value, due to its skill or emotion. It is in a similar way that Donne cannot escape the use of ‘wit’ in his poetry: in Sonnet XVII, Donne plays with puns such as “my mind did whet/To seek thee”. Furthermore, the use of argument pervades all Donne’s poetry. This particular sonnet is certainly more effective and cohesive in its focal argument than “On my first son”; Donne is invariably focused on his flirtatious allegiances to God himself, whilst Jonson fails to convince the reader with his suggestion that his son was in an enviable position.
In some ways, it seems that these poems show Donne’s face looking towards heaven and Jonson’s reflecting still in the material world. ‘On my first son’ has a subtle undertone that may explain the entire poem, that can be found in the line “O, could I lose all father now”. Of course, this phrase is interpretively difficult; Jonson could be referring to his own ‘loss of fatherhood’ through his child death, but it is plausible that it conceals a deep religious question. It seem too far to suggest apostasy, but it certainly seems as if this inward-looking lament is, at its lowest point, a questioning of faith. In conclusion, therefore, it appears that the controlled, classical form of Jonson’s poem masks a deep internal uncertainty; and Donne’s wild, explosive language reveals a truly devoted, reverent connection to God. These poems defy expectation and portray very disparate emotion in the face of bereavement and loss.