On My First Son by Ben Jonson
Note to the teacher: As an introduction, students should be made aware that Benjamin (Ben for short) means “child of my right hand” in Hebrew, and that poetry, or poiesis in Greek, means creation. Both translations are necessary for proper understanding of the poem.
Summary of On My First Son By Jonson
‘On My First Sonne’ is an apostrophe to Jonson’s 7-year-old son who has recently died. The poem opens with an elegiac “Farewell”, and the following lines adhere to this theme, creating a poignant requiem for the child.
‘Since she whom I loved’ initially appears to be the elegy of his late wife (Ann Donne), but it soon becomes apparent that the poet’s implicit reader is ‘thee, God.’ Donne, in the same manner as his other Holy Sonnets, is composing a love poem to his “three-person God” (Sonnet XIV); the Sonnet form is, of course, an appropriate choice to express his “love of saints and angels, things divine.” This sudden change seems to reflect Donne’s response to the pain of losing his wife, struggling with a newfound spirituality. “Wholly in heavenly things my mind is set” marks a transformed, pious Donne. He suggests that once he felt a sexual desire for his wife, God “has fed his thirst.”
Jonson’s poetry does not echo this ardent piety; however, he addresses the painful questions that emerge from his explainable sadness. He seeks meaning in his loss of his “child of my right hand and joy” by suggesting that his son had easily ascended to heaven and that he would “rest in soft peace.” There is a heavy emphasis on the child and his state of innocence, which indicates that the speaker is greatly influenced by his sorrow. It is clear that Donne’s poetry does not reflect on his wife to the same extent; if anything, it reduces her to something that was simply “loved” and “admired” and nothing more.
In response to his son’s untimely death, Jonson wrote this short poem “On My First Son.” No one is exactly sure when he wrote the poem, but it may have been soon after his son’s death and burial. The poem laments the death of Jonson’s son and expresses what seems to be Jonson’s feelings of deep sorrow. (The poem that commemorates a deceased person and mourns his death is called an elegy, and there are several popular elegies in English.)
At some point in everyone’s life, there will be a situation that requires full attention to commit to a decision that the hope will be right in the end. As certain cases can appear sad at first, with further examination, a light will always be seen at the end of the tunnel, and no matter the result, the individual can emerge with a different viewpoint. A significant example of this can be seen in Ben Jonson’s poem, vaguely titled, “On My First Son.” In this poem, Jonson describes his guilt after the death of his eldest son and ends he resolves his grief through alternate logic.
Initially, Jonson struggles with feelings of sorrow and guilt. He is sorrowful because he is afflicted and depressed by the death of his son. He feels guilty because he was away at the time, and he felt that he loved his son too much, and that’s why he was taken away from him. He goes so far as to question his own credibility as a father. The line, “O, could I lose all father now! (Line 5)” reveals the nature of Jonson’s emotional pain.
He feels that his son was loaned to him for seven years and the death served as payment for the time spent with him. The following lines represent Ben Jonson’s feelings in respect to repaying his heavenly loan: “Seven years thou’wert lent to me, and I thee pay/ Exacted by thy fate on the just day.” Jonson uses enjambment, the running on from line to line of a poem without a syntactical break, to express the internal tension he felt.
In lines five and six Jonson poses a rhetorical question. “For why/ Will man lament the state he should envy?” he asks. In other words, ‘What is my reason for being sad when I know that my son has moved on to a place coveted by many?’ Since his son “‘scaped the world’s and flesh’s rage” at such an early age, he will not experience the evils of the world or, if nothing else, old age.
This part of the poem serves to console Jonson that his son’s death was not entirely a bad thing. It also serves as a turning point in his thinking. He realizes that no amount of mourning will bring his son back so he should just be happy that his boy is in a better place now and he’ll never experience the bad things in the world.
In line nine, he displays his final affection for his son when he makes a comparison between his best work and his deceased son. At the conclusion of the poem, Ben Jonson makes a vow that he will never love anything that he wants to keep again. He feels this will save him from the same sorrow and guilt that he suffered when his son died.
Every experience a person has shapes him in some way either causing the person to grow stronger and more able to face similar adversity or causing the person to shy away from or even shut‐out experiences similar to it. The event of Jonson’s son being taken from him caused him to shy away from ever loving something too much again.
Questions and Answers
1. To whom is the speaker addressing his remarks?
The speaker, Ben Jonson, is addressing his son Benjamin who died when on his seventh birthday.
2. What does Jonson say is enviable about his son’s death?
In line seven, the speaker says he envies that his son escaped the “rage” and “misery” people must experience while living on Earth.
3. Explain in your own words what Jonson means in the last two lines of this lyric: “…henceforth, all his vows be such,/As what he loves may never like too much.”
Answers may vary. Example: Jonson seems to be making a vow to himself that in the future he will still love, but not come to like what he loves too much. This is to spare him the pain of loss he feels now with the passing of his son.