Nineteenth Friend: Thomas Randolph, “Upon his Picture”

Thomas Randolph was born in 1605 and was another member of the Tribe of Ben. I normally like to write a little about our friends’ “day jobs,” but unfortunately Randolph died young, at twenty-nine years old in 1635. Fortunately, he did see a good deal of success in his own lifetime primarily as a dramatist but also as a poet, as one would expect of a friend of Ben Jonson and his circle, and many expected him to eventually become poet laureate. His short life had its other excitements, though; my personal favourite poem of his is “Upon the Loss of his Little Finger,” which loss occurred during a fight in a tavern.

Those interested in American history may be interested to know that he also has a tangential connection to our country as the uncle of William Randolph, the influential Virginian colonist.

In any case, like some other poems of this era we’ve covered I don’t think “Upon his Picture” requires a great deal of explanation. It’s just solid, classic English poetry:

When age hath made me what I am not now,
And every wrinkle tells me where the plow
Of time hath furrowed; when an ice shall flow
Through every vein, and all my head wear snow;
When death displays his coldness in my cheek,
And I myself in my own picture seek,
Not finding what I am, but what I was,
In doubt which to believe, this or my glass:
Yet though I alter, this remains the same
As it was drawn, retains the primitive frame
And first complexion; here will still be seen
Blood on the cheek, and down upon the chin;
Here the smooth brow will stay, the lively eye,
The ruddy lip, and hair of youthful dye.
Behold what frailty we in man may see,
Whose shadow is less given to change than he!

The main, ironic thrust of the poem is clear enough.

The first half of the poem feels very cold, with its “snow,” “ice,” “coldness,” and “glass” (specifically meaning a mirror, in this case). I would’ve expected to see more warm imagery in the second half for contrast, but he doesn’t do that. Even the imagery he does use isn’t very vivid; “blood on the cheek,” “smooth brow,” “lively eye,” “ruddy lip,” and “hair of youthful dye.”

Whether this is a weakness per se, I’m not sure. It does make the picture, the imitation of his younger self, less of a focus than the narrator’s older self.

Of course, there’s also the notable irony to this poem aside from the contrast between his mirror and his painting. Randolph here speaks speculatively of “When age hath made me what I am not now,” but unfortunately he did not live to see old age, a great loss to his friends and to the world of English poetry.

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