(To steal a title from one of Peter Kreeft’s favorite lines.)
My theory of yesterday to the contrary notwithstanding, it is important not to imagine that previous generations were too unlike our own.
There is an old canard the goes around some academic departments that parents of the medieval and Renaissance eras did not particularly care about their children. Probably influenced by Lawrence Stone’s tremendous tome on the topic of family relations (whether they have read it or not) some students of the periods tend to assume that a peculiar combination of social relations and extremely high infant mortality combined to detach parents from their children at birth. Let the baby grow for a few years, learn to mind his manners, and prove that he wasn’t going to fall dead from the plague, the toothache, or a random marsh fever, and THEN we might consider thinking about him with a smidgen of affection.
If that all sounds rather heartless, it is; if it sounds incredible, it is that too. There is a fair amount of documentary evidence, in fact, to indicate that many parents did love their children, even their fragile newborns, intensely (sorry, L. Stone). One of my professors liked to use two of Ben Jonson’s poems as exhibit A in the case for early modern parental affection.
“On My First Daughter”
Here lies, to each her parents’ ruth,
Mary, the daughter of their youth;
Yet all heaven’s gifts being heaven’s due,
It makes the father less to rue.
At six months’ end she parted hence
With safety of her innocence;
Whose soul heaven’s queen, whose name she bears,
In comfort of her mother’s tears,
Hath placed amongst her virgin-train:
Where, while that severed doth remain,
This grave partakes the fleshly birth;
Which cover lightly, gentle earth!
“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 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.
A considerable amount of restraint is exhibited in both these poems—and that is, after all, consistent with Jonson’s style in general: he tended to exhibit classicism more deliberately and overtly in his plays than many of his contemporaries, and in his poetry he rarely if ever flew to the extremes of the Petrarchan metaphors of the sixteenth century or the metaphysical conceits of the seventeenth. Jonson appears to have been a careful and deliberate craftsman, one eminently conscious of his own hard work (he was the first playwright to issue a complete works in his own name, an act which coming from a playwright of the time was considered evidence of an absurd degree of hubris). But those facts make it all the more difficult to imagine a more heartfelt and tender epitaph than that contained in the antepenultimate line:
“‘Here doth lie / Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.’”