In Ben Jonson's poem "On My First Son," how do various elements of the poem's structure help create sympathy both for the father and the son?



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Various elements of the structure of Ben Jonson's poem "On My First Son" help create sympathy both for the dead son and for the grieving father. Written to mourn and commemorate the death of young Ben Jonson when the child was only seven years old, Jonson's poem is both well written and well designed.

The poem's very first word -- "Farewell" -- is appropriate in a poem about a dead person, but it also implies that the boy lives on in heaven, where Jonson hopes he will "fare well." By calling his son the "child" of his "right hand," Jonson plays on the literal meaning of the boy's first name. Yet the phrase also implies a special closeness between this father and this son, and it is also appropriate in a poem written by a father who was proud of his status as a writer. This phrase, then, demonstrates the careful structure of the poem, since it foreshadows Jonson's later description of his son as his "best piece of poetry" (10), meaning the best thing he had ever made (since the word "poet" derives from a Greek word meaning "maker").

In Line 2, Jonson considers himself sinful for having had so many ambitions for his son, thereby assuming that his son really belonged to him, rather than to God. Line 2 also helps illustrate once again the careful structure of the poem, since it rhymes the word "boy" with the word "joy" from line 2. Jonson's "boy" was indeed his "joy," a fact underscored by the rhyme.

Careful design appears again in line 3, where Jonson balances the phrase "thou wert lent to me" with the phrase "I thee pay." This balance suggests the balanced, rational nature of Jonson's response to his son's death (at least so far).

It is in lines 5 and 6, however, that a major shift in the structure of the poem occurs. Up until this point, Jonson has behaved as good Renaissance Christians were taught to behave when faced with the death of loved ones: with calm acceptance of God's judgment. All this changes, however, in lines 5-6:

O could I lose all father now! For why

Will man lament the state he should envy [?]

Here the reasonable tone of the first four lines is replaced with impassioned pain and questioning. The sudden structural shift emphasizes the speaker's suffering. Jonson wishes he could "lose" (with a pun on "loose") the pain caused by the constricting feelings of a grieving father. Even the somewhat strange, unusual phrasing of the exclamation ("lose all father," a highly compressed version of "lose all feeling of fatherhood") suggests Jonson's passion here. Thus, even in the structures of the poem's phrases Jonson often implies real meaning.

Jonson wonders why he laments his son's death when he should envy his son's escape from

. . . the world's and flesh's rage,

And, if no other misery, yet age . . . [7-8]

Jonson's outburst, followed by this list of many potential causes of earthly pain, helps emphasize the speaker's own suffering, as does his gentle admonition to his dead son, "Rest in soft peace" (9) -- not merely "in peace" but in soft peace. In reading this poem, it is almost impossible not to sympathize with both the father and the son, and perhaps even more than father than with the dead boy. After all, Jonson manages to convince us that the boy's suffering has been forestalled and ended, while his own continues.

For an excellent overview of Jonson's poetry, see George Parfitt, Ben Jonson: Public Poet and Private Man (London: Dent, 1976).




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