David Riggs, in his fine biography of the playwright and poet Ben Jonson, Ben Jonson: A Life (1989) writes, ‘‘By the time of [Jonson’s] death . . . he had become the most celebrated poet of his age, a man who outshone even Shakespeare and Donne in the eyes of his contemporaries.’’ Jonson’s popularity in his own time was such that King James I made him the first poet laureate of England, providing him with a pension for his work as court poet.
While Jonson’s reputation has faded in subsequent centuries, any examination of the history of English poetry will reveal his considerable importance to the development of the short lyric. His influence was felt during his own lifetime; as Gamini Salgado, writing in the 1991 Reference Guide to English Literature, argues, ‘‘Contemporary practitioners of verse esteemed him so highly that a group of them, which included Herrick, Suckling, and Carew, styled themselves the Sons of Ben and produced a commemorative . . . Read More
‘‘On My First Son’’ is included in Jonson’s 1616 collection Epigrams, and is a good example of the genre of epigrams. The word ‘‘epigram’’ comes from two Greek words that mean ‘‘to write on’’ or ‘‘to inscribe.’’ In the Classical world of Greece and Rome, an epigram was literally an inscription, often serving as an epitaph for the dead. The greatest writer of epigrams in the Classical world was Martial, a Roman writer who lived during the first century CE. His work in Latin was well-known among English writers of the Renaissance.
By Jonson’s time, an epigram meant a pithy saying, characterized by precision, economy of language, balance, wit, and polish. It could also be a short poem with the same characteristics. Jonson used Martial’s work as a model, and most scholars cite Jonson as the greatest writer of epigrams in English.
Epigrams are often satiric or humorous, and . . . Read More
In ‘‘On My First Son,’’ Jonson provides a glimpse into deep, fatherly grief over the loss of his first child, Benjamin, who died from the plague on his seventh birthday. Through simple, straightforward language, Jonson expresses this grief while, at the same time, attempting to assuage it. In the first two lines of the poem, Jonson addresses the boy as if he is present, and says goodbye to him, telling him that he was his pride and joy. Indeed, it is as if Jonson blames himself in line 2, saying that it was sinful of him to have so much pride and hope in the boy.
In lines 3 and 4, Jonson turns away from the outright expression of grief in an attempt to explain why the boy has been taken. He uses a financial metaphor, referring to the boy’s life as a loan. Thus, Jonson attempts to comfort himself with the knowledge that God had only temporarily loaned the boy to his father, and that now, because it is the boy’s time . . . Read More
‘‘On My First Son’’ is a poem of twelve lines, written in response to the death of Jonson’s first son, Benjamin, a victim of plague. The poem is written in couplets, with the following rhyme scheme: aabbccddeeff. The poem is also written in regular iambic pentameter. Iambic simply means that an unaccented syllable is followed by an accented one, and pentameter means that there are five such pairs (called feet) of one unaccented syllable followed by an accented syllable in each line of the poem. Iambic pentameter can be represented as follows: da DUH da DUH da DUH da DUH da DUH. This is a fairly natural rhythm in English, often used in oratory.
In the first two lines of the poem, Jonson addresses his dead son and says goodbye to him. He affirms that this son had great value for him and gave him happiness. Moreover, the name Benjamin, both the name of the writer and the dead child, means ‘‘right hand.’’ . . . Read More
The main unanswered question about Bronte¨’s ‘‘The Old Stoic’’ is how it is to be understood in relationship to Gondal, the fantasy realm created by Emily and her sister Anne. The problem concerns all of her poetry, the bulk of which comes from two manuscript notebooks in which she made fair copies in 1844 of older poems that she wished to preserve. One she headed ‘‘Gondal Poems’’ and the other simply with her initials, E. J. B. ‘‘The Old Stoic,’’ however, comes from neither source, but from a single sheet datedMarch 1, 1841, now in the Honresfeld collection kept in private hands by the Law family.
The first critic to seriously consider the Gondal background of Emily’s writing was Fannie Ratchford in two studies published in the 1940s and 1950s, especially in Gondal’s Queen. Since it was acknowledged that even Wuthering Heights grew out of Gondal material, she naturally took all of Emily’s poetry as related to the cycle of material about . . . Read More
As positively as Stoicism was viewed by the educated middle class of nineteenth century Britain, that culture was nevertheless a deeply Christian one, and it was quite usual for Christian ideas to insinuate themselves into Victorian endorsements of the ancient philosophy. Bronte¨ does an excellent job of avoiding this temptation, but she moves in that direction in her apparent conception of Stoic salvation when she speaks about death. Her narrator prays for the same indifference to circumstance he knew in life to persist in death. If the moment of death is meant, so that the end of life can be met fearlessly, that is not incompatible with Stoicism. But some contemporary readers may not resist the temptation to read the contrast drawn between life and death as being between life and death as the afterlife (which is not a factor in Stoicism). The passionless existence of the Stoic sage was often taken as the model of the existence of . . . Read More
In three stanzas, Bronte¨’s ‘‘The Old Stoic,’’ also known by its first line, ‘‘Riches I hold in light esteem,’’ briefly invokes several commonplaces about Stoicism (a form of Greek philosophy popular in the Hellenistic and Roman eras), appeals for the grace of Stoic liberty, and seeks to find a type of salvation within Stoicism. The entire text is a quotation from an unnamed speaker, whom Emily’s sister Charlotte, when she edited the poem for publication, chose to call an old Stoic, from his central philosophical ideas and his evident nearness to death. However, it is worth noting that there are no clues in the poem as to the gender of the narrative voice.
Stanza 1 lists a number of ordinary human desires that Stoicism considers to be worthless. The first line addresses the love of wealth. The narrative voice of the poem expresses a complete lack of interest in wealth. The moral perfection and happiness . . . Read More
A birth myth or birth tale is a story about the often miraculous birth and infancy of a hero or, in some cases, an entire race of people or a nation. In the case of a hero, the baby is deprived of his true parents and heritage and is cast by fate into a different environment, many times a lowly one, in which he must struggle to survive. The hero is frequently of royal or aristocratic birth but is raised by humble people. This can be seen as giving him a more complete view of the world than he would have had if he had never left his privileged birthright, as well as exposing him to unusual trials that help form his character and prove his worth. In time, the hero comes of age and reclaims his true heritage and high position in society.
The Biblical stories of Jesus Christ and of Moses are examples of such birth tales, as is the story of the Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, and of Krishna, the god-child of Hinduism. In the case of Jesus Christ, the Bible tells that he was . . . Read More
The Women’s Rights Movement
Plath wrote ‘‘Mushrooms’’ in post-World War II England. During the war, both in England and the United States, many men of working age went away to fight in the war and women were left to run businesses and work in industry. Furthermore, many men died in combat, so women were needed in greater numbers in the workforce after World War II than they had been before it. These historical events were a major spur for the growth of the feminist movement during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. It was argued that as women were doing the same work as men, they should be paid the same and enjoy equal rights.
During the 1960s in the United States, several federal laws were passed that were designed to improve the economic status of women. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 mandated equal wages for men and women doing equal work. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination against women by any company with over . . . Read More
In 1958 Plath attended Robert Lowell’s poetry seminar in Boston, where she met fellow poet Anne Sexton and became familiar with her work. Plath later identified Lowell and Sexton as poets whose work she admired for what became known as the confessional mode of poetry that they pioneered. The three poets are frequently linked by critics.
Confessional poetry engages in the unabashed exploration of the less salubrious aspects of the poet’s life, such as marital difficulties, mental illness, fascination with death, and addiction. It has to do with self-disclosure, without the usual societal filters of discretion or modesty.
While several of Plath’s poems fit this mold, the self-disclosure of ‘‘Mushrooms’’ takes a somewhat different form. This is best expressed by Ted Hughes (quoted by Kathleen Margaret Lant in her essay, ‘‘The Big Strip Tease: Female Bodies and Male Power in the Poetry . . . Read More