On My First Son

by Ben Jonson

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Explain the poem "On My First Son" by Ben Jonson.

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Ben Johnson wrote a beautiful elegy lamenting the death of his son.  “On My First Son” was also written as an epigram.  This was style of poetry begun during the ancient Greek time which a short poem, often expressing a single idea that usually has a witty ending.

The narration is first person point of view with the poet as the narrator.  Ben Jonson was a grieving father whose seven year old son died.  He talks to the child because he loves him and wants to keep him alive in his memory.  The narrator further addresses the readers as he shares his thoughts on death.  Even more, the speaker is writing for himself.  He tries to make sense of the worst thing that can happen to a parent: the death of a child.

Jonson writes as if his dead son can hear or read his words. He calls him the child of his “right hand. This represents the great value of the boy to the poet and indicates that he would have been his heir.  The idea comes from the Bible.  It indicates the reference to Jesus, who sat on the right hand of God.

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy:

My sin was too much hope of thee, loved boy:

Seven yers thou'wert lent to me... 

For seven years, God loaned this beautiful child to the poet.  The use of the symbolic loan is an extended metaphor which  expresses the idea that ultimately everyone belongs to God. God allows human beings to spend time on earth; then, he takes them back to be with him. The sin of the father is visited on the son.  He loved the son so much that maybe it was too much. 

In the last half of the poem, the poet refers to a paradox.  Man cries over the loss of the loved one; however,  if the boy is returning to God,  man should envy the one who has died.  The young boy will escape the hardships of life and the despair of growing old. 

Jonson, poet and father, wants to place on the tombstone of his son that the boy was the best of all the work that the poet has every done. In addition, the poet suggests that he will never surrender himself so much to love. He will never allow himself to get so attached to anyone or anything.

The death of a child brings so many emotions.  The great loss to the parents, the unfinished life, and the unknown future—all of these aspects of the child’s death settle on the spirit of the mourners. Death is beyond the control of man. 

The ones who have lost someone look desperately to find some meaning.  Placing himself in the place of the dead one, man hopes that he too will go to a better place. Because death is inevitable it is accepted as a part of life.  The death of a child does not seem the same as an adult.  Too much is left undone. 

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Disscuss the language usage and metaphorical reference within the poem "On My First Son" by Ben Jonson.

The first quatrain tells us that the poet, Johnson, has lost his son at seven years old. Johnson’s son died of the plague. The narrator opens the poem with an apostrophe which is when the speaker speaks directly to an imaginary person or abstract idea. Here, “Farewell,” indicates that he is speaking to his son, perhaps at his gravestone, or just to his spirit.

Beginning with “Oh, could I lose all father now” – this is ambiguous or it simply has a double or triple meaning. This could be the poet saying he’s about to emotionally lose it, grief-stricken. And/or it means that the poet is losing his child and the child is losing his father. And/or the child is speaking (or the poet imagines this) and the child says he is losing his life and escaping from the “world’s and flesh’s rage,” which is of some comfort to both father and son because the son is not physically suffering anymore.

“Here doth lie Ben Johnson his best piece of poetry.” Note that it does not say Ben Johnson’s, so here could also be a double-meaning. One meaning is that his son is his best creation; his best poetry. The second meaning is that Ben Johnson lies in the grave as well. Interpret this how you wish: part of him died when his son did, they are blood-related so physically as well as spiritually connected and Johnson (the poet/narrator) will never forget his son, his best creation. Therefore, all his poetry and all his best creation will be for his son; a lasting tribute and to keep his memory alive. “For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such.”

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