It has been said that having a child is the greatest gift in the World; therefore losing a child must be devastating. Both of the above poems describe the tragedy of a young child dying. In the poem ‘ On My First Sonne’ The author Ben Jonson speaks about the death of his son, at the age of seven; ‘ Seven yeeres thou wert lent to me’. Seamus Heaney however describes the death of his younger brother some time ago, when his brother was just four years old; ‘ A four foot box, a foot for every year’. Also, in an attempt to increase the reader’s sympathy, both poems reveal the child’s age later on in the poem.
Although there are various changes of mood throughout both poems, it is crystal clear that both poets want peace and gentleness for the dead child. Seamus Heaney describes how soft candlelight ‘ soothed’ the unfortunate child’s bedside, whereas Ben Jonson bids his child to rest in ‘ soft’ peace. Mood is also evoked through strong action and emotion. I personally was particularly moved when Seamus Heaney, on entering his house for his brother’s wake, noted his baby brother ‘ cooed and laughed and rocked the pram’ – a poignant contrast to the solemnity of the adults that greeted him.
It is also, I feel, a device to convey the tragedy of the death of a child – his innocent baby brother who knows nothing of tragedy- Seamus’ own feelings of awkwardness juxtaposed with the expressed sorrow of the elders albeit the necessity for whispers to inform strangers of his identity. The incident toyed with his mind and emotions. Ben Jonson also evokes powerful emotion; ‘ World’s and fleshes rage’. These, therefore create a cruel contrast to the solemn atmosphere. Seamus Heaney also uses it to add to the awkwardness. Furthermore, both poets avoid using the word death.
Instead euphemisms are used to supplement the harsh reality. Ben Jonson uses debt; ‘ for seven yeeres tho’wert lent to me, and I thee pay’ for example, as a metaphor of death, whereas in ‘ A Mid-Term Break’ the elders use the euphemism they were ‘ sorry for my trouble’. Although there is quite obvious evidence of the evasion of the world ‘ death’ it is ambiguous as to why the word is avoided. Could it be that both or one of the poets finds it too painful? Perhaps their motive was to build curiosity? It could also, perhaps have been to make an overwhelming grief more manageable.
I personally find that the latter is most comprehendible, at such an emotional time the last thing you want to do is remind yourself of the hurt and the suffering. Although both poets have agreed on most things thus far, one thing they did not agree on was how to face the public. Ben Jonson was confident in his plans of what to tell the world. It is as if Ben Jonson expects to be ‘ asked’ whose grave it is and almost instructs the public to say it is his ‘ best piece of poetrie’. He is saying that no poetry on earth means as much to him as his son, and that his son was his greatest creation.
For Seamus Heaney the unprecedented shift in social strata was an embarrassment: ‘ Old men standing up to shake my hand and tell me they were sorry for my trouble’ and to see his father publicly crying, when hitherto ‘ He had always taken funerals in his stride’. Both poems are: short, concise and simply structured. Seamus Heaney’s poem is made up of three-lined stanzas with seven paragraphs ending with a rhyming couplet whilst Ben Jonson’s poem is similarly short but slightly different; it has twelve lines in iambic pentameter and two rhetorical questions.
Seamus Heaney’s simply told poem has a profound impact and Ben Jonson’s ‘ On my first Sonne’ is simple but also very controlled; he is trying to find reasons for the tragedy. In continuation it is evident that both poets need time to seek meaning for the loss. Ben Jonson uses rhetorical questions like: ‘ Will man lament the state that he should envie? ‘ also; ‘ And if no other miserie, yet age? ‘, Seamus Heaney however does not question he situation. He seems to be a shell-shocked child in the first half of he poem, during the wake. It is the passage of time that enables him to find some new meaning for what has happened.
It is only the ‘ next morning’ when he realises what has happened: ” the copse’ becomes ‘ him’. Yet even after much reflection it seems neither poet, despite both coming to terms with the death ever really found meaning for it. Furthermore, although, I’m sure everyone who has ever read either of the poems has found them both sad, however it seems to me that Ben Jonson’s; ‘ On my first Sonne’ is more melancholic than that of Seamus Heaney’s; ‘ Mid-Term Break’ the very title of which portends a subject more cheery belying the sad reality.
Also Heaney’s poem is written in a factual manner describing events in a chronological order this for me shows a lack of pathos, perhaps because he was a child at the time? However it does give the reader a roller coaster of emotion and lends a greater shock factor – therefore equating with the emotions of the poet as a child confronted with death.
At no point does Seamus Heaney describe a love for his brother or seem to display any remorse, in the last stanza he compares his brothers’ fatal wound to ‘ a poppy bruise’, which I thought was a strange metaphor as poppies symbolize new life but more poignantly are synonymous with the battle fields of The Great War – now calling to mind so many unnecessary deaths that have already occurred, perhaps the poet is looking for some justification of the tragedy, trying to place it in ‘ the great scheme of things’.
It is obvious that Ben Jonson’s; ‘ On my first Sonne’ was written a lot earlier than Seamus Heaney’s poem because of his use of old English words like; ‘ thee’ and ‘ thou’ ‘ yeeres’ and ‘ poetrie’, it is written for a mature audience who could understand and share his feelings of grief for a lost child. Whereas Seamus Heaney’s poem is much more modern and written in simple terms, so much so that a five year old, I’m sure could read and understand the words in it, if not the meaning.
In Conclusion both poets end on a hurt note. Ben Jonson vows never to ‘ like too much’, as if to say he will never love so deeply again. He has put up a metaphoric wall as a defence mechanism. Whereas Seamus Heaney concludes by reflecting on the smallness and brevity of a child’s life. Yet still nothing is resolved and both poets convey their ongoing pain.