On My First Son by Ben Jonson

In this poem the speaker laments the death of his first born 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.

 

Structure and Form

This poem 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.

 

On My First Son Analysis

Lines 1-4

At first the title is ambiguous, because we do not automatically assume that the child has died and  expect perhaps a hopeful poem. It is therefore a shock when the first line begins, ‘Farewell,’ as we realise that this is a poem about mourning. The father’s grief is immediate from the outset, as he declares what his son meant to him. His son obviously meant all to him and more, as he calls him ‘thou child of my right hand, and joy!’ The use of exclamatory punctuation here adds pathos as he clearly adored the child. There is Biblical allusion as Jesus is said to sit ‘at the right hand of the Father’. Benjamin too, in Hebrew, means ‘son of right hand’. This immediately shows us the esteem in which this child was held by his father.

The second line suggests that Jonson’s sin was loving his son too much, and he seems to think that he is being punished for this. In the Renaissance period, the childhood mortality rate was very high and life expectancy was low. For one to live into their fifties was seen as a good innings. Here, the poet seems to chastise himself for loving his son too much. He once again calls him ‘loved boy’ so we are in doubt as to the strength of his feelings.

Over the next two lines we see the use of monetary imagery. The poet suggests that the boy was only ‘lent’ to him, and now the lease has expired, he has to ‘pay’ back the debt. God is clearly the lender and Jonson is simply returning what he owes. While the verb ‘exacted’ seems harsh and cruel, it is mitigated by the adjective ‘just’ which suggests that this is right and fair. Perhaps this metaphor of giving back what he owes softens the tragedy a little- that he is simply returning to God what was his to begin with.

 

Lines 5-8

In the exclamatory tone of the fifth line we see the Speaker lament that he could give up all his fatherly duties now. Clearly this bereavement has been so intense that he never wants to feel anything approaching this anguish again. The use of ‘O’ at the start of the sentence is known as a literary apostrophe which is used to convey strong emotion. Here, the poet tries to reason with himself. As a Christian, he believes that his son is now at rest and safe from all the ‘world’s and flesh’s rage’. His sense of injustice at the cruelty of life is acute in this line, which makers use of personification to show how even the flesh itself seems to revolt, and turn against the soul inside. We sense his inner turmoil, because his rational mind is in conflict with his emotions of absolute grief and loss. Even if one survives the general harshness of life, he concludes, man must still face the indignities of age. He can find no solace at this moment. We feel him agonise as he tries to reconcile these warring emotions, but his struggle is immense.

 

Lines 9-12

The tone changes and becomes softer and become more accepting in the final lines of the poem. In a deeply emotive metaphor, he says ‘here doth lie…’ He therefore refers to his son as his best ever piece of work. He cannot though it seems, refrain from reprimanding himself again at the end, and reminding himself never to ‘like too much’ again, lest he be punished further.

 

Biography

Ben Jonson, (1572 – 1637) was an English playwright, poet and literary critic and was rumoured to be a rival of William Shakespeare. This poem, with its heart-felt 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 offence 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.

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