Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
In “On My First Son,” Jonson addresses his first-born son, also named Benjamin, who died of the plague in 1603. The poem is an epigram, modeled on those of the Roman poet Martial. It starts as a valediction or farewell using a poetic apostrophe, but it quickly becomes apparent that the son’s departure is eternal and that the poet is lamenting his death.
Jonson’s ideas in the poem reflect the influence of his models. Classical epitaphs often reiterated the idea of life as a sort of borrowing from fate. The poet claims that his son has only been “lent” to him, and with the boy’s death, fate has merely exacted payment of the debt “on the just day.” Also classical in origin is the implicit notion that excessive good luck could kindle the jealousy of the gods, and that knowing this, a wise man should not be too fond of what he loves.
Despite these classical underpinnings, Jonson’s poem does not violate Christian orthodoxy. In attempting to console himself, the grieving father notes that death is an enviable state, free of the ravages of the world and the flesh and an escape from old age. Jonson says that his sin lay in placing too much “hope” in his son, implying that his grief arises from selfish and presumptuous expectations. The poet ends by vowing never to like too much that which he loves.
A compact poem, “On My First Son” consists of only twelve lines in the form of six rhymed couplets. It compresses its thought with great economy of statement and tightly controlled syntax. The poem even threads in a brief epitaph—“here doth lie/ Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry”—which in its simplicity and ironic understatement suggests a profound depth of feeling. Jonson’s reserve at this point quickly dissolves into a sincere and poignant reflection that is the thematic center for the whole piece.