Ben Jonson’s first son died of the plague in 1603, aged seven. This for me is one of the great English poems, an elegy for a lost child that resonates as powerfully now as it must have done four centuries ago. Where does that power come from? One is tempted to say that this is one time, perhaps the only time, when clever Ben Jonson, classically educated Renaissance man, contemporary and not entirely uncritical admirer of Shakespeare, lays down all defences of wit and irony and lets the words come directly from the heart. But this would not be wholly true: there is wit and conceit enough in the poem: in the concept of a child being a debt to fate that must be repaid, in the paradox that really the child’s state is to be envied, in the idea, expressed in the somewhat tortured syntax of the last two lines, of never again risking too great an attachment to an object of love. Yet here, as is not always the case with Jonson and other Elizabethan poets, the wit and conceits seem perfectly harnessed in the service of a heartfelt emotion.
Note: Jonson’s son was also called Benjamin, which in Hebrew means ‘fortunate’ or ‘dexterous’, a meaning echoed in the phrase ‘child of my right hand’.
On My First Son
Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy.
Seven years tho’ wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
O, could I lose all father now! For why
Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon ‘scap’d world’s and flesh’s rage,
And if no other misery, yet age?
Rest in soft peace, and, ask’d, say, ‘Here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.’
For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such,
As what he loves may never like too much.
I am grateful to the poet Michael Cullup for drawing my attention to this tender love poem by Terence Hards (1922-1991); I vaguely knew the name but had never seen any of his work. He thought I’d like it, and I do, very much: a gift to remember for my 73rd birthday today!
At first I was a bit puzzled by the word ‘desecration’ in the second line and even queried whether it should be ‘decoration’, but no, ‘desecration’ is what the man wrote, and thinking about it harder one sees that the idea here is that the preoccupation with the exchange of material gifts at Christmas desecrates – deconsecrates – the real meaning of the festival, and that goes with the idea of allowing the season’s ‘unaccustomed plenty’ to deflect us from the true ‘expectations of the nativity’.
Terence appears to have published only one book of poetry, ‘As It Was’, in 1964; he spent his last years in the Dorset village of Morcombelake, where his retirement was tragically cut short when he was knocked down by a car as he crossed the street.
We are too penniless this year to buy
A desecration for festivity,
To lay out gifts or bouquets and rely
On unaccustomed plenty to withstand
The expectations of nativity.
And so I wake you from your Christmas sleep
To see the vapour of our breath
Hang on the morning, motionless with frost,
And pause in the air above us like a debt.
I bring no presents, love, to scatter at your feet
But come more gently than the growth of moss,
And on my lips the blessing of your name
Is surely festival enough to keep.
Back from holiday last week. At a certain age it is natural to start to wonder just how many more times you will come over the brow of a hill to see the wide curve of a beach below and a tall sea glittering, or look out of a window at night to see a bright half-moon riding above a dark headland. For Molly Holden, diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, the curtailment of her adventuring, as she poignantly relates in this poem, came all too early.
How can I bear it
that journeying’s over
while still the heart’s un-
still longs to visit
strange hamlet, strange river,
to feel at view’s width
the authentic shiver?
Now I must practise
good grace at parting,
to wish others joy
though I am not starting
the ride through the sunrise
to valleys of vision.
I fix on my smile now
with summer precision.
Another of my favourite Hopkins poems, which considering the date of its composition (1881) seems remarkably prophetic of our current concern for habitat loss and the ever-diminishing role of wild nature in our lives.
This darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam
Flutes and low to the lake falls home.
A windpuff-bonnet of fawn-froth
Turns and twindles over the broth
Of a pool so pitchblack, fell-frowning,
It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.
Degged with dew, dappled with dew,
Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,
Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,
And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
Gerard Manley Hopkins