On my First Son by Ben Jonson is a poem about a father who has lost a young son, and he 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. By the final lines, the reader can see that 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.
Overall, in this poem, Jonson outlines a father’s desperation to free himself of grief that will impact the rest of his life.
On my First Son Analysis
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.
Through these first lines, the narrator details the basis for this poem, which is that 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.
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.
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 that 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 was a 16th century English poet who 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.