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On My First Sonne
1 of my right hand: a pun on the meaning of his name: Benjamin in Hebrew means “son of the right hand”, something brought out in the Bible (Genesis 35: 18: “his father [Jacob] called him Benjamin, (that is, the son of the right hand)”. It suggests that he was his father’s help and support, someone essential to him.
2 too much hope of thee: i.e. too much hope that he would grow up, and too much hope that he would do great things.
3 Seven yeeres … me: i.e. you were lent to me by God for seven years. Benjamin died on his seventh birthday of the plague.
4 Exacted: fined.
just: appropriate, correct.
5 loose: give up, let go of.
7 scap’d: escaped.
worlds and fleshes rage: the passionate desires of earthly life (which must of their nature tend to remain unsatisfied).
8 age: i.e. old age. The misery of getting really old and frail.
10 Ben. Jonson his: i.e. Ben Jonson’s (an archaic form of the possessive).
poetrie: (in italics in the original) a pun on the Greek meaning of poetry, which is “making”: the “making” of children, the “making” of poems.
12 like: please (the active seventeenth-century sense).
In one sense this poem looks simple, yet this hides the depth of literary sophistication involved.
The events that led to it are terrible. Ben Jonson left London early in 1603, to stay at a country house, just as a bout of plague was about to envelop the city. He seems to have been worried about his eldest son, called Ben after his father, because he had a dream about him: “he saw in a vision his eldest son (then a child at London) appear unto him with the marke of a bloodie cross on his forehead as if it had been cut with a sword”. This was frightening, for the red cross was the sign put on houses struck by the plague. The 1603 epidemic turned out to be a very bad one, and shortly afterwards Jonson received a letter from his wife telling him that Benjamin had died.
In parts of London the death rate from plague was higher that 50 percent. The death of children was much more common than in first-world countries now, but parents felt it none the less deeply. Jonson’s epigram expresses his deepest grief at the death, yet it shows a remarkable poise and formality. Herein lies its greatness: a father’s terrible grief is contained and controlled, in some sense, by the elegant couplets of the poem.
Jonson would actually like to stop his emotions, to stop feeling like a father: “O, could I loose [i.e. get rid of] all father, now”, i.e. if only I could give up feeling this terrible grief for my son – but, of course, he cannot. If he could stop feeling like a father, then he might be able to see some faintly positive side to what has happened: his small son has escaped the “world’s, and fleshes rage” (7), i.e. the terrible passions and griefs we all experience, including, no doubt, the terrible pain that Ben Jonson now feels as a father. Jonson is urging himself to mourn in a selfless, unegoistic way. He senses that he may have had too much of his own pride invested in the little boy: now, terribly, the child just “lent” to him for a while by “fate”, has been “exacted” from him like a debt. He has had to pay him back to “fate” or heaven.
The end of the poem echoes an epigram by the Roman poet Martial (6.29), an epigram that Jonson loved. (The style of Jonson’s poem draws on Martial’s style.) The epigram was about a slaveboy’s death, and it ends, in Latin, with these words: “Who was more charming than he or who fairer, with his face like Apollo’s [for handsomeness]? For those unusually gifted, life is brief and old age rare. Pray that what you love has not pleased you too much!” Jonson perhaps felt about his son in a similar way, so that he reused the thought of Martial’s last line. He wants his own “vows” about life in the future to be such “As what he loves may never like [please] too much” (12). He may, in other words, continue to love things, but he’s never going to get overly attached, overly “pleased” or fond of them. You could call this a kind of stoicism, or a kind of Christian detachment. It is the thought of a passionate man desperately trying to get his bearings in his grief.
There is one other important thought in the poem, hinging on the idea of his son being “his best piece of poetrie” (10). There’s a hidden pun here, for poetry comes from the Greek word meaning “making”. In other words, there are two kinds of “making” in the poem: “making” (i.e. fathering) children, and “making” poems. A poet is a “maker” in that sense. It was a commonplace of Renaissance thought (and still a commonplace today) that an artist’s works are in some sense his or her “children”. Iris Murdoch, for example, who had no physical children, used to refer to her novels as her “children”. Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics, speaks of how poets “have an exaggerated affection for their own poems and love them as parents love their children” (9. 7. 3–4). Jonson refuses to console himself in that way. In lines 9–10 he says the opposite. His son Ben was the best thing he ever made, and his poems, clever as they are, seem small things by comparison. This passionate thought is contained within the gently balanced couplet.
This poem hides its passionate grief behind its intense literary formality. It is one of several poems in the anthology about relationships, particularly parent-child relationships, and about grief. So, in “Mid-Term Break” Heaney writes about the death of his younger brother, the awkward youthful first experience of grief. Or, conversely, in dramatic form, Wordsworth’s “The Affliction of Margaret” is about a mother almost driven to madness by her grown-up son going missing and not knowing what has happened to him. “Ulysses”, though it is formally about the Greek hero, is actually about Tennyson’s sense of loss at Arthur Hallam’s death. One obvious way of getting near to “On my first Sonne” is to begin to think about poetry and the experience of grief and bereavement in this way.