On My First Son

by Ben Jonson

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What is the meaning and theme of "On my First Son" by Ben Johnson?

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This is a very sad poem, lamenting the loss of a child. Jonson indicates in the title that it is his first son, a "lov'd boy" who was "lent" to him for seven years only, who has died. Jonson bids him farewell, describing him as his "joy" and suggesting, through the semantic field of money and lending, that he has been forced to return his boy as a kind of repayment of a debt -- possibly the debt incurred by his own sin.

However, Jonson goes on to suggest that, perhaps, he should not be sad, but should instead envy the state his boy is now in. He has escaped the "rage" of the world, not least the pain of having to grow old. He commends his child to rest in peace, and hopes that others will think of him as Jonson's best creation, his best "piece of poetry." He finally vows that for the sake of his son, he will try not to become too attached to the things he loves, suggesting that then he will be able to give them away to a better place with God.

The themes of the poem are relatively straightforward. It is a poem about parental love for a child, and especially about the grief that can be incurred when a parent loses a child. However, Jonson's love for his child does not end with the child's death. He still thinks of him, addressing this poem to him and imagining him as a great creation, "poetry," even though he is now lost to the rest of the world.

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In "On My First Son" by Ben Jonson, what is the theme?

In this moving poem, Ben Jonson writes about his son, Benjamin, who died on his seventh birthday of the plague. Thus the poem begins as you might expect with the farewell to a dead son. The speaker regrets having forgotten that the child was merely lent to him by God. He consoles himself with the thought that his son is now free of the pains of living and of growing old. In the last lines, the speaker offers an epitaph for his son, calling him "his best piece of poetry":

Rest in soft peace, and asked, say, "Here doth lie

Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry;

For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such

As what he loves may never like too much."

He concludes with a vow never again to "like too much" what he loves.

Interestingly, the central ideas of death that are presented in this poem are quite depressing. Jonson concludes that since all are to be taken from him, he must hold himself back from loving "too much" so that when the inevitable happens and death claims them, he is not so sad and grief-stricken as he was with his son. Yet at the same time his comparison of his son with a poem suggests that non of his work could ever be as wonderful as his son was to him, and indicates perhaps a new perspective on life, showing Jonson that family is more important than his work. Thus one of the central themes of this memorable poem to my mind is how we cope with death and how it changes us. Jonson seems to recommend not loving "too much" in the poem, yet at the same time his epigram suggests an emphasis on the family that clearly indicates enjoying and loving them greatly, in spite of the fear of death.

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