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.
Apparently Benjamin (the child not the father) died on his seventh birthday, which gave Jonson the idea of a fixed-term debt? I’m not a fan of all the poem’s wit. Is Jonson sometimes resorting to (forced) wit as a desperate attempt to escape immediate grief?
I don’t myself see the wit as being at all forced in the sense of being gratuitous. Forced, maybe, in the sense of a man trying to defend himself with the only weapon he has, a fencing-master bludgeoned by grief.