Analysis of Ben Jonson’s On My First Son

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Ben Jonson was a 17th century British poet and playwright; his works, including comedies and masques, were greatly influential to other literary composers of the period. His seminal poem, On My First Son, is a lamentation of the loss of his first born son, Benjamin, at the age of seven; he fell ill from the plague and died as a result. Jonson expresses grief and sadness over his passing, wishing that he had never become a father as to avoid these terrible feelings; “O, could I lose all father now!” states this in a hyperbolic fashion. He does find some solace in Benjamin’s death, suggesting that he at least no longer suffers from the ills of mortality:

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?

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In this regard the work can be considered a poetic elegy to his son.
The poem is comprised of six heroic couplets in iambic pentameter, which means that rhymes are made every two sentences and each sentence must contain ten syllables with accentuation on each odd numbered syllable. It is mostly commonly used to give a narrative an epic or, eponymously, heroic notion; this may immediately seem to be in contradiction to the fact that the poem is a lament but it may represent an attempt by Jonson to deify his son’s life. As Jonson states, “Rest in soft peace, and, ask’d, say, ‘Here doth lie / Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry'”; he would wish for his son to be remembered this way. There is also the use of assonance in the poem to convey his melancholy through onomatepeia, mostly notably in the line “O, could I lose all father now! For why”, the explicit ‘O’ sound representing the poet’s groans of anguish.

Typically for the Elizabethan era, Christian beliefs and concepts run through the entire poem. Firstly there is the direct comparison of their relationship to the connection between the Father and Son of the holy trinity; he says of Benjamin “Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy” in the same way that Jesus was of the right hand of God. Also, Jonson feels as though Benjamin was “lent” to him and was aware that he would have to reimburse God eventually, as he states “Seven years tho’ wert lent to me, and I thee pay / Exacted by thy fate, on the just day”. He accepts the situation as the will of God, further stating that he committed the sin of “too much hope of thee”, wishing his son were here despite his religious destiny. Jonson even goes so far to suggest that death is a good thing since it signifies the ascent to heaven and offers “soft peace” to the deceased. He recognises the hypocrisy in this line of thought, “O, could I lose all father now! For why / Will man lament the state he should envy”, which only further demonstrates his grief and emotional confliction.

The poet is evidently struck with a plethora of contradicting feelings. He knows that the passing of his son is the will of God that he believes in, but this clearly does little to assuage his feelings. This clash causes Jonson to come to a conclusion on how he will resolve his problem, as he makes an oath to never love someone as much as he did Benjamin, for fear that these feelings ever arise again. This is expressed in the final two sentences as an epigram to summarise his experience: “For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such, / As what he loves may never like too much”.

In conclusion, On My First Son is a heartfelt speech by Jonson to convey the emotional and religious difficulties he is suffering from as a result of losing his first child Benjamin. He wishes to deify his son and ensure he is forever remembered by all in the rose-tinted, paternal way that Jonson saw him but doesn’t want his love for his son to affect his Christian beliefs and ideologies; God decreed his son’s fate and to want his son back is to defy God. Though he comes to some level of reconcilliation with himself it is as equally forlorn as his predicament, as he states he shall never love again. As such he wrote this as an elegy to both his son’s life and part of his own. On My First Son acts as a literary monument to a significant time in his life, addressing both the need for a eulogy in memory of his son and a method of rumination for his own troubles. Whilst he may not find peace in himself, he can at least find solace knowing that his son was taken only by the grace of God, and will not have to suffer either the ravages of age or the horrors of the plague that eventually took his life. As Jonson writes, “To have so soon ‘scap’d world’s and flesh’s rage, / And if no other misery, yet age?”.

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