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This guide is written for students and teachers who are preparing for GCSE exams in English and English literature. This guide gives a general introduction to the AQA Anthology, which is a set text for the AQA's GCSE syllabuses for English and English Literature Specification A, from the 2004 exam onwards.

Ben Jonson: On my first Sonne

About the poet

Ben Jonson (1572-1637) was an actor, playwright and a poet. He wrote his plays around the same time as Shakespeare, whom he outlived. (According to an eccentric and almost certainly false theory, someone else wrote Shakespeare's plays - and Jonson is the chief suspect.) In his own time, Jonson was more highly regarded than Shakespeare. In 1598 he was convicted of murdering a fellow actor, Gabriel Spencer, but escaped the hangman by claiming benefit of clergy (he proved he was in holy orders, and so not liable to trial in the ordinary courts). His work is closer in style to the classical dramatists of the ancient world. He published two collections of poems and translations.

About the poem

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The poem records and laments (expresses sorrow for) the death of the poet's first son. We call such poems elegies or describe them as elegiac. Jonson contrasts his feelings of sorrow with what he thinks he ought to feel - happiness that his son is in a better place.

The death of a child still has great power to move us - Seamus Heaney records a similar experience in Mid-Term Break. It would have been a far more common event in 17th century England, where childhood illnesses were often fatal. The modern reader should also be aware of Jonson's Christian faith - he has no doubt that his son is really in a “state” we should envy, in God's keeping. Sometimes poets write in the first person (writing “I”) but take on the identity of an imagined speaker (as Yeats does in The Song of the Old Mother and Browning does in My Last Duchess). Here we can be sure that Jonson is speaking for and as himself.

The poem in detail

Jonson writes as if talking to his son - and as if he assumes that the boy can hear or read his words. He calls him the child of his “right hand” both to suggest the boy's great worth and also the fact that he would have been the writer's heir (the image comes from the Bible - it reflects ancient cultures and the way Jesus is shown as sitting at God's right hand).

The poet sees the boy's death as caused by his (the father's, not the boy's) sin - in loving the child too much - an idea that returns at the end of the poem. He sees the boy's life also in terms of a loan, which he has had to repay, after seven years, on the day set for this (“:the just day”). This extended metaphor expresses the idea that all people really belong to God and are permitted to spend time in this world.

Jonson looks at the contradiction (or paradox) that we “lament” (cry over) something we should really envy - escaping the hardships of life and the misery of ageing. The writer suggests that “his best piece of poetry” (the best thing he has ever made, that is) is his son. Remembering his sin (of loving too much) he now expresses the hope or wish that from now on, whatever he loves he will not do so “too much”.

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The poet's method

The poem uses the line that Shakespeare, Jonson and others rely on for most of the dialogue in their plays (the technical name is the iambic pentameter - as it has five [penta] poetic “feet”, each of which has two syllables, of which the second [usually] is stressed). Jonson arranges the lines in rhyming pairs, which we call “couplets”.

The poem is written in the form of an address to the dead child - but really shows us Jonson's own meditations. The short lyric contains one striking metaphor - that of the boy's being “lent” for “seven years”, and paid back “on the just day”. (When the poet develops an image in this way, we may call it an extended metaphor.)

The last two lines are memorable - a quite complex idea is packed neatly into two rhyming lines, an effect we call an epigram. (The poem is at the same time both epigram and epitaph!)

A note on the text

Unlike the poems by Blake and Whitman, the text here has not been changed to modern standard UK English spelling. It also uses some words that are no longer common - such as “tho” (“:thou”) for “you”. You might find it helpful to “translate” or update the poem, so that you understand it more easily.

Responding to the poem

What do we say when sad things happen? Compare this poem to other poems or songs written to mark the death of some loved person - you could use Seamus Heaney's Mid-Term Break or examples from outside the Anthology like Elton John's and Bernie Taupin's song Candle in the Wind (this exists in two versions - one written in 1973 for Marilyn Monroe, and a more famous version re-written in 1997 for Princess Diana).

Where do our loved ones go? Despite supposed falling attendance in some places of worship, most people in the UK, when asked, say that they believe in some kind of God or spiritual existence. When people die, we often find that we do believe, or want to believe, that death is not the end. What is your belief about such things? Say how far you agree with the ideas that Ben Jonson has about what has happened to his son.

Writing your own elegies

Few of us can write things that are good enough to be published, and that express universal or general experiences. But it may be important for our own private grief to put our feelings down on paper. If you have had a very sad experience - it may be a loss or separation, the death of a pet or something as serious as the death of a friend or relative - then you might wish to write your own elegy in prose or verse. You must decide whether you want to show it to anyone else. (A teacher who asked students to write in this way would not be so insensitive as to read out or display the results, unless the writer wanted this to happen.)

Parents and children

This poem is very much written from the viewpoint of the father. Students in schools will all be someone's child, but most will not have your own children yet. Does this affect the way we read the poem? Do you see it from the poet's point of view, or identify with the child who has died?

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