The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Written around 1603, Ben Jonson’s deceptively plain elegy, “On My First Son,” consists of one twelve-line stanza of iambic pentameter rhyming couplets. Taking the form of a “classical” consolatio expressing the Christian-Platonic-Stoic reasons to celebrate the child’s release from the pains of human life, the poem poignantly stages the tension between the “poet’s” wish for this intellectual consolation and his emotional expressions of paternal grief. By seeking reasons for the death of his “loved boy,” the father reveals his own religious doubts, which test and contradict both the Christian teachings of acceptance and the literary decorum of the elegiac form.

The “poet” ends by incorporating into the poem a formal epitaph, narrated by the boy himself, which punningly equates the boy with the father’s other “creative” work, his poetry. However, rather than finding closure, the poet’s final moral lesson or “turn” masterfully expresses the complexity of his response and the painful coexistence of bitterness alongside Christian wisdom.

The opening line’s apostrophe to the dead son ironically both acknowledges his passing while calling him back into existence for this final paternal address, a circular structure completed by the boy’s speaking his own epitaph at the poem’s end. The remainder of the first quatrain then contains the father’s attempted explanation for the boy’s early death and his assumption of blame (Jonson...

(The entire section is 611 words.)