Wednesday, 9 December 2009

On My First Sonne - Ben Johnson

This outpouring of a father's grief on the death of his young son, although written almost four hundred years ago, is so poignant that we can easily identify with the poet's experience.

The fact that the poem was written several hundred years ago means that the language is not always particularly easy to understand. We know from the title that the child that has died was the poet's first-born son, so losing him must have been an especially painful experience. The first line tells us that Johnson considered him to be the child of his 'right hand', signifying the importance of the role that the child would have played had he grown older. The second line reveals the idea that the poet had enormous hopes of his son. We begin to sense how religious a person Johnson was as he expresses the notion that having such great hopes was actually a sin.

The following line continues the religious theme, as Johnson considers that his son was actually lent to him by God: 'Seven yeeres tho'wert lent to me,' and we now know that the child died at the age of seven. Johnson thus believes that all life is a gift from God, and that he had to give his child back to God at this tender age. In line 5 Johnson pours out his grief in the phrase 'O, could I loose all father', wishing that he did not have to take on the role of a father who loves his son so dearly, because it is so painful to mourn a child. However, the poet then goes on to say 'For why / Will man lament the state he should envie?' meaning that it is strange to grieve over death, as death is something to be envied, something to look forward to. He explains this feeling in line 7 when he says that death is an escape from 'worlds, and fleshes rage', an escape from the turmoil and anger that we encounter throughout our lives. Then in line 8 Johnson says that even if there are no problems in life, death is at least an escape from age, in other words old age.

'Rest in soft peace' is a gentler version of the usual 'Rest in peace' that is inscribed on tombstones, expressing very tender feelings for a young child. Johnson goes on to say that if anyone were to ask who was buried in that grave, the answer should be that it is Ben Johnson's 'best piece of poetrie': the best thing that he ever created, better in actual fact than any of his poems. Johnson concludes his poem by making a vow that whatever or whoever he loves he will not become too attached to in future: 'may never like too much', meaning that he would not find it so painful to lose another person if he remained more detached from them. At that time in history of course infant deaths were far more common than they are now, and Johnson must have feared that if he were to have more children they too might not reach adulthood.

This is a concise twelve-line poem with six pairs of rhyming couplets. The middle section, from line 5, is the most emotional one, but Johnson tries to be philosophical about his grief, seeing death as an escape from a troubled world. A calmer atmosphere pervades in the last four lines, where the poet is in positive mood, seeing his son as his finest creation. We know from the final line that he never wishes to feel such intense pain again if another family member were to die. Here is the full text of the poem:

On my first Sonne

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;

My sinne was too much hope of thee, lov'd boy;

Seven yeeres tho' wert lent to me, and I thee pay,

Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.

Oh, I could loose all father, now. For why

Will man lament the state he should envie?

To have so soone scap'd worlds, and fleshes rage.

And, if no other miserie, yet age?

Rest in soft peace, and ask'd, say here doth lye

Ben. Johnson his best piece of poetrie.

For whose sake, hence-forth, all his vowes be such,

As what he loves may never like too much.

Ben Johnson


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