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Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Ben Jonson: An Epitaph on S. P.


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


Susan Kay Anderson said...

I see that brave slob, Peter, his catatonia, in a different light. He was already dead, his hair continuing to grow, his fingernails too long. To trim things and have them be neat is to stimulate life like in a tree or hedge. People are not hedges or trees but wow, did we enjoy swinging around in them once with our extra long arms, reaching, so beautiful up in the canopy. Yes, maybe we should have stayed up there forever, free. We wouldn't feel so homesick then, or would we endlessly long for the ocean?

TC said...

The pathos in the story of the "drafted" child actors of the Queen's Company, or Children of the Chapel as they were called, gives pause for reflection.

Remarkably, Nathaniel Giles, as the Queen's Choirmaster (a position he held from 1597 onward), possessed legal entitlement to conduct these forcible recruiting activities. Though technically the license to abduct children of the streets into the Queen's service only covered recruitment of the Chapel choristers, the high-handed Giles applied the license somewhat more liberally.

In any case, Ben himself, whose common origins were never completely concealed beneath his learning (and his bravado), seems to have been much affected by this particular lad's death.

The world of plays and players was a world in which he had served a difficult and sometimes dangerous apprenticeship of his own. His sympathy for the boys in the company -- Nathan Field was another -- was well known. The feeling here feels real and unforced.

This little storie

Death's selfe is sorry.

The Fates have been made to bethink themselves. But it's too late now.

Susan Kay Anderson said...

What is the point to the absurd
except to ponder it
passing and bless
kiddie wranglers
with kind intent
in entertainment's cruel

The crowd was loud
and crying like babies
I knew my stuff
gave it
but then saw past
as they waited
for failure
for death
to shut them up.
I was already dead.
That was so funny
to me. It ended.
They would have more
where I came from
until sick
with the stench.

Susan Kay Anderson said...

It was a destination to which
I did not belong.
The Innovations, ultimately,
did not help me. Even with
somewhat skewed results, they were
set aside or beside themselves.
Quaint at first, out of hand
became a nuisance.
It was a terrible time and a distant plot
I became increasingly a part of.

They took poison--
not necessarily killing them,
it was all done as an invention
experienced as freedom.
It did not match their surroundings
but they were trying to change
their surroundings--
an impossible situation at its core.
Nothing matched up
even when scrambled or unscrambled.
Even put together sideways
the brutes their constructions
remained in charge of things by force.

I remained "true to myself"
helped others when I could.
It was the end of the world
where death was never so in charge.
I ran for awhile but then
my mind did not help me to survive
another day. My mind decided
to choose a freedom that was static.

Wooden Boy said...

Death's selfe, struggling to set the mask aside from the living face, believing in the game the way children sometimes do.

Jonson's tenderness keeps the thing mezzo-piano. No grandeur, only helpless and near-sighted fates.



I will "weepe with [Ben]" for poor Sall Pavy, poor little boy, "old before his time, his life . . . a performance" as David Riggs sweetly puts it -- a poem to go along with Jonson's epitaphs for his two too-soon departed children, one of whom is fortunate, the poem would have us believe, "To have so soone scap'd worlds, and fleshes rage,/ And, if no other miserie, yet age."


light coming into fog against invisible
top of ridge, towhee calling from field
in foreground, sound of wave in channel

no evidence to show whether,
inscribed upper right

appearance, happens in that
that, action in light

clouds reflected in motionless channel,
pelican flapping across toward horizon

TC said...

Indeed WB we do sense the tender side of the man here, emerging quietly from the large shadow of the great bluff public figure.

Steve, Yes, this poem always does recall "On My First Sonne" -- writ some thirteen years later on the death of Ben's son Benjamin Jonson ("Thou child of my right hand, and joy), aetat 7.

O, could I loose all father, now. For why
Will man lament the state he should envie?
To have so soon scap'd worlds and fleshes rage,
And, if no other miserie, yet age?
Rest in soft peace, and, ask'd, say here doth lye
Ben. Johnson his best piece of poetrie.
For whose sake, hence-forth, all his vowes be such,
As what he loves may never like too much.