The Italian Comedy: Jean-Antoine Watteau, c. 1716, oil on canvas, 37 x 48 cm (Staatliche Museen, Berlin)
Weepe with me all you that read
This little storie:
And know, for whom a teare you shed,
Death's selfe is sorry.
'Twas a child, that so did thrive,
In grace, and feature,
As Heaven and Nature seem'd to strive
Which own'd the creature.
Yeeres he numbred scarse thirteene
When Fates turn'd cruell,
Yet three fill'd Zodiackes had he beene
The stages jewell;
And did act (what now we mone)
Old men so duely,
As, sooth, the Parcæ thought him one,
He plai'd so truely.
So, by error, to his fate
They all consented;
But viewing him since (alas, too late)
They have repented;
And have sought (to give new birth)
In bathes to steepe him;
But, being so much too good for Earth,...Heaven vowes to keepe him.
Ben Jonson: Epitaph on S.P., a child of Q. El. Chappel, from Epigrammes, 1616
Salomon Pavy, a thirteen-year-old boy who had acted in [Jonson's] Cynthia's Revels and Poetaster, died in July 1602, and Jonson commemorated his passing in his epitaph "Upon Sall Pavy, a Boy of 13 Years of Age and One of the Company of the Revels to Queen Elizabeth". Like many of the Chapel children, Salomon Pavy had been kidnapped by Nathaniel Giles, the Queen's choirmaster, who forcibly abducted him into the company at the age of ten. The children and their parents had no legal redress -- the boys were impressed on the authority of the Queen -- and Jonson took an interest in their welfare... Young Pavy was not well educated, and must have spent much of his tenth year learning to read and memorize long passages of dramatic dialogue. In the Induction to Cynthia's Revels Jonson has Pavy play the part of Sall, a mischievous, good-natured boy who prides himself on his newly acquired ability to read and pointedly addresses himself to the literate Blackfriars spectator "that hath hope to bee saved by his booke" -- just as Jonson himself had once been saved.
"Upon Sall Pavy" [as the poem is titled in Jonson's early manuscript version] eulogizes a puer senex who spent his childhood pretending to be an adult. Jonson depicts his death as a kind of cosmic joke: Sall payed the parts of "Old men so Dulie" that "the Destinies thought him to be one, / He faind so truely." This extravagant compliment disguises (even as it alludes to) the painful truth that hovers around the edges of this epitaph. Sall was old before his time; his life was a performance wherein he was doomed to play a part devised by cynical adults. When the destinies realize their mistake, they try to bring the boy back to life, but it is too late. Because Sall is "much too good for earth. / Heaven vowes to keepe him." [Quotations from ms. version.] This form of consolation, which holds that it is better to die young since heaven is preferable to earth, crops up frequently in Jonson's funereal verse. Its recurrence suggests that he could only come to terms with death by rejecting life and that his piety was inextricably bound with his melancholy.
-- from David Riggs: Ben Jonson: A Life, 1989