On My First Son by Ben Jonson

In ‘On My First Son’ by Ben Jonson, the speaker or the poet himself laments the death of his firstborn son. The poet and satirist Ben Jonson lost his seven-year-old child in 1603. In this poem, he mourns his death, but more than that, he examines his reactions to this seismic loss. The speaker is attempting to distance himself from the tragedy in numerous ways. One way is to treat the scenario as an almost mechanical prospect, devoid of all emotions from which he can shake free. Another is to try and approach the loss with the concept that the child is in a better situation now that he has passed, though this method seems to prove as fruitless as the concept of leaving behind his affection for the child.

On My First Son by Ben Jonson

 

Summary of On My First Son

‘On my First Son’ by Ben Jonson is a poem about a father who has lost a young son, and attempts to distance himself from the tragedy in numerous ways.

‘On My First Son’ by Ben Jonson is a verse lament on the dead son of the poet. The poet in the first few lines talks about his ill fate to wish too much from his child. He says he has been justly paid by the death of his son for such high expectations. Thereafter he asks himself, why men hate death. They should envy death as it helps one to escape “world’s and flesh’s rage”.

By the final lines, the narrator has come to accept that he cannot help but care deeply for the child, therefore making his attempts to not grieve uselessly, but he vows that he will attempt to keep his affections in lesser amounts to avoid such grief in the future.

 

Structure and Form of On My First Son

‘On My First Son’ by Ben Jonson can be described as an elegy or epitaph. Twelve lines long, it is written in iambic pentameter in rhyming couplets. These couplets could be indicative of the strong bond between father and son and the controlled form of the verse may be a means by which the poet tries to manage his grief.

There is extensive use of assonance to connect the rhyming couplets, and some enjambment which may allow for some contemplation of the weighty themes.

 

Rhyme Scheme of On My First Son

‘On My First Son’ by Ben Jonson has an interesting rhyme scheme. It is composed of both a regular rhyme scheme and an imperfect rhyme scheme. The poet employs the closed couplet form to rhyme the lines internally. However, there are certain areas where the rhyme breaks. It shows the state of mind of the poet while he was writing this poem. Likewise, in the first two lines, there is a use of regular rhyme. Here, “joy” rhymes with “boy”. In contrast, “why” and “envy” contains a slant rhyme. “Lie” and “poetry” also follow this rhyming pattern.

However, the overall rhyme scheme of the poem is AA BB CC and it goes on like this. Such a rhyme scheme shows the compactness of though invested in each line of the poem.

 

Metaphors in On My First Son

‘On My First Son’ by Ben Jonson makes use of metaphors to make the poet’s thoughts more lively to the readers. Likewise, “child of my right hand”, is a metaphor that portrays a child holding his father’s right hand while walking. In the third line, “Seven years tho’ wert lent to me…” the poet uses the metaphor of an object that was lent to him. He repaid the debt of his son by the remorse of his heart. The poet uses the word “father” as a metaphor in the poem. It refers to the fatherly emotions in the poet’s heart. Those emotions died on that “just day”.

The poet uses metaphors of worldliness and sin in the phrase, “world’s and flesh’s rage”. There is a metaphorical reference to “old age” in the poem. The poet uses the most important metaphor in the poem in the phrase, “best piece of poetry”. He refers to his son as a creation of mind rather than a creation of flesh. In this way, he immortalizes his son. His son might have died physically but he still lives in the poet’s heart.

 

Themes and Imagery in On My First Son

‘On My First Son’ by Ben Jonson contains several themes that are important concerning the subject matter of the poem. The most important theme of the poem is death. In the poem, the poet mourns his son’s early death. In the mood of grief, he suddenly realizes death is an envious state. It lightens the soul from its worldly and fleshy pain. Death somehow freed his son too from such pains. Another important theme of the poem is art. The poet focuses on the eternal quality of art through which a poet and his thoughts can live forever. He compares his son to “his best piece of poetry.” Thus he gives his son an eternal existence in this poem.

The poem is also vivid in the use of imagery. From the first line, the poet makes use of images to create a pictorial representation of his poetic words. The first line presents an image of a father holding his son’s hands while walking. There is an implicit image of the boy’s grave in the poem in the line, “Here doth lie…” As the poet wrote this poem on the death of his son, the main focus lies on him. For this reason, the poet doesn’t use any other image apart from that of the boy before his death and the grave where he sleeps eternally.

 

Tone of On My First Son

‘On My First Son’ by Ben Jonson presents the poet’s loss of his seven-year-old child. He is a father as well as an overlooker in the poem. As a father at first his tone is more sympathetic and grievous. Whereas in the penultimate section his tone turns objective. He comments on mortality by keeping a safe distance. His tone has a cold and calm outlook on the issue of his only son’s death. There is also firmness in his voice when he says, “Here doth lie/ Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.” It also reflects his passivity regarding death. However, the tone and mood of the poem are interesting enough to incite several questions. But at last, it highlights the effect of a child’s death on a father’s mind. The way his tone changes throughout the poem is a reflection of the poet’s actual mental state at that time.

 

Analysis of On My First Son

Lines 1–4

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.

‘On My First Son’ by Ben Jonson details the basis for this poem in the first four lines. He has lost his son who was only able to see “[s]even years” of life. The child, oddly, is treated as a transaction of sorts in that he is labeled as something that has been “lent” to the narrator, and now must be “pa[id]” back, as if the situation were a business contract. This creates an almost mechanical atmosphere to the poem, like any emotion present in the lines is slipping through the cracks of the narrator’s emotional barriers rather than being showcased as a primary concept. Given that the poem is about a child’s death, this choice of tone could be seen as hardhearted, though the reader is free to assume the narrator uses the approach as a method of coping with his grief. By thinking about the situation in such an inanimate manner, he has armored himself against the pain as best he can.

Despite trying to embrace that armor though, the father who has lost his son is incapable of leaving all of his emotions out of the equation, and that lack of ability is noted when he addresses his “lov’d boy” as his “joy.” This is evidence that the father’s love is too great, and he cannot fully pretend otherwise, even with his method of treating the scenario in a distanced way.

Evidence in these lines suggests as well that the narrator has taken this distanced quality a step farther by treating his previous affection for the child as a “sin.” Although it has already been noted that the care he feels for the child is too great to fully separate from, the labeling of his “hope” regarding that child as a “sin” is a clear indication that his “hope” is the aspect he blames for his mourning. This concept is understandable since one may not grieve over a person one does not care for, but directing the blame toward “hope” rather than the loss is his attempted method of coping with the child’s death.

 

Lines 5–8

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?

These lines take the poem to an even stranger plateau in that grief is the latest aspect that the narrator wants to relinquish. This is a concept that could feel curious to the reader, despite the narrator’s earlier desire for emotional separation. What parent, after all, could try to push aside grief in favor of “envy” of a child who has passed on?

Once more though, what could be taken as hardhearted could also be the narrator’s struggles to cope with his loss. Perhaps in his mind, rationalizing that the child is better off by having “‘scap’d world’s and flesh’s rage” is easier than fixating on the days the child will never see. Noting that the child will not “age” could be the narrator’s strategy to find peace with the loss, despite his pain. He does not, as it happens, state that he does “envy” the child, but that “he should envy” the child, which can be taken as an indication that while he believes such an approach would be simpler, he has not been able to accomplish it. In fact, the very first word of these lines, “O,” gives the impression that he is discouraged and cannot behave in the manner he has deemed acceptable, just as a person might exclaim, “Oh,” before proclaiming they cannot accomplish an everyday task.

Also in these lines, the notion of “los[ing] all father now” can be viewed as a proclamation of what has been noted as the very essence of the poem thus far. Despite the stressful “O” preceding it, the narrator is noting his fatherhood could be disposed of in the aftermath of this loss, and this is the culmination of the narrator’s mechanical approach and his note that “he should envy” rather than grieve the child’s death. By handing over the very basics of the human notions of love and grief, he has essentially handed over his fatherhood, so declaring that he “could…lose” it is putting the idea into words.

Worth noting though is that, once more, his wording shows that what he believes would be a better situation in managing his grief is an ideal rather than something he has managed to do. He “could” do this, but that does not mean he has.

 

Lines 9–12

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.

In contrast to the previous lines, this quartet is given as if spoken directly to the child. The narrator’s message to that child begins with the instruction to “[r]est in soft peace,” which is a variation of the standard “rest in peace” since the narrator has injected “soft” into the equation. This once more indicates that while the narrator wishes to distance himself from the situation and the grief, “soft[ness]” cannot help but creep into his emotions and reactions. Literally, the word surfaces in his message, just as it has shown up in his inabilities to maintain the emotional distance he has attempted to put between himself and the tragedy.

Beyond this simple instruction, he tells the child to answer those who “ask” that he is “Ben Jonson[‘s]…best piece of poetry.” By this notion, the reader learns that Jonson himself has been the narrator all along, therefore linking him irreparably to the lost child and that his feelings toward the child are “poet[ic].” Regardless of his tactics to force his emotions away, the narrator’s sentiments remain so strong that his child seems to have been labeled as his most prized possession, something he potentially has more pride in than anything else his life has offered.

Once Jonson essentially declares that his strategies to keep emotional distance have failed, he returns to the notion of keeping that distance with a future promise. What he could not do with his son, he is vowing to do in the future—that “what he loves [he will] never like too much.” He cannot help but love the child, but he will learn from the experience to stay apart from what he comes to appreciate to avoid the pain he has experienced through the loss of his son.

Notice though that even for these future instances, he seems to offer evidence that his attempts will fail on some level. He is not saying he will not “love” again, or even “like.” Rather, he says he will not “like [things] too much,” revealing that he expects appreciation will happen, but indicating he will try to manage its level. Will he achieve this? Only time would tell, but his pain makes him so desperate that he feels the need to try.

 

About Ben Jonson

Ben Jonson (1572 – 1637) was an English playwright, poet, and literary critic and was rumored to be a rival of William Shakespeare. ‘On My First Son’, with its heartfelt message of grief, is a marked departure from the scathing works of satire for which he was famed during his lifetime. Jonson was a controversial figure, who seemed to be forever getting into trouble and causing offense through his writing. In 1597 he was jailed for a short period after collaborating with the playwright Thomas Nashe on a satire, for which was withdrawn because of alleged anti-government sentiment. Jonson then killed a fellow actor in a duel, for which he was sent to Newgate Prison. It was here where he converted to Catholicism, despite being born into the Protestant faith. He later rejoined the Church of England, though some think that this more politically than spiritually motivated.

Apart from that Ben Jonson utilized various approaches in writing, such as poetry itself and essays. His career accomplishments also carried him into other fields, such as his time in the military, his experience at laying bricks, and his endeavors as an actor. Among the most notable poets of memorable history then, he could be seen as one of the primary jacks of all trades. Shockingly, he spent time in prison for murdering Gabriel Spencer, but he experienced writing notoriety through his patronage from King James I, “The Tribe of Ben” and fellow authors like Shakespeare during his lifetime. His was a unique life, no doubt, and his writing has led him to be a relevant name in modern times.

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  • Avatar Richard Stanmore says:

    You’ve transcribed the poem wrong. There should be an excellent use of Caesura in line 10 between the Ben and the Jonson. The whole poem hinges on that full stop!

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      The text would have been copied and pasted, I expect. I can’t find a copy with a full stop. Have you got a source, please?

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