First Thing in the Mourning: How Two Great Poets Coped with Great Loss

First Thing in the Mourning: How Two Great Poets Coped with Great Loss

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Each of us is defined to some degree by our suffering. When we experience a great loss, the grief can be overwhelming. We can become crippled by our emotions, plagued by questions, our faith is challenged. “On My First Son” by Ben Jonson describes a father’s tortuous conflict caused by the death of his firstborn son. John Milton searches for answers and self worth after he becomes blind in his sonnet [When I consider how my light is spent]. Both poems are powerful messages of pain and affirmation that address our universal need for connection. Each work is as relevant today as it was when it was written in the seventeenth century. Although they differ in form and the nature of their losses, each poem asks the same question: What is the purpose of my suffering?
Both poems are written in iambic pentameter. [When I consider how my light is spent] is an Italian sonnet with the rhyme structure abbaabbacdecde. Milton’s sonnet is very formal in tone and the words are gently delivered, as if he had already spent much time considering and coping with his loss of sight. “On My First Son” is written in heroic couplets. Line 3 is two beats longer than the rest of the lines, as Jonson laments the too short time that he had with his son. He thrashes about from loving memories to rage and confusion. His thoughts and emotions come across as a fresh wound, raw and painfully wrought.
Milton wonders what his purpose is now that he can no longer write words on a page, “that one talent which is death to hide” (line 3) “lodg’d with me useless,” (line 4). His work has been to serve God through his writing for most of his life up until he became blind. He fears that he will spend the next half of his life in darkness, with nothing of...

... middle of paper ... something differently. In this society, we tend to hide our weaknesses and pillory those who don’t pull their own weight. When we lose the ability to work, we sometimes lose our identity and our sense of purpose. It can be even worse to lose a loved one; we wonder how we could possibly survive without them. We can find ourselves through a renewed faith in a higher power, we can console ourselves by seeking out others who understand our plight, and we can restore ourselves by connecting with the wonderful abundance of fine art and great literature. “On My First Son” and [When I consider how my light is spent] are timeless snapshots of the human condition. We suffer because we have the ability to love and to serve and to lose. We suffer because we realize our fondest wishes and our worst nightmares. We suffer simply because we have the capacity to suffer.

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