The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 611

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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 was absent when his son died of the plague), believing perhaps that, rather than loving the son in the present according to the teachings of Saint Augustine and others, he instead invested too much in “hope of thee” for the future. The commonplace theological imagery of monetarism, in which the child is lent by a “just” God and must be paid back on the “just day,” is combined with the Christian doctrine of children being born innocent and gaining sin through bodily existence as they “age,” another traditional elegiac trope that is expanded in the next quatrain.

However, the second quatrain begins with an emotional outburst, in which the opaque syntax reveals the tension between control and grief. To “lose all father” could mean either to “lose” or relinquish willingly all feelings of fatherhood and thus freely give up the child, but it could also mean that the “poet” might unleash or “loose” (Jonson’s original spelling) the manly control of being the adult and instead become an emotional child by expressing his wild grief. Such connotations show the poet’s ambivalence, and his emotional subtext also disrupts the verse form, displacing the caesura and providing the first dramatically enjambed line in the poem.

After this outburst, though, the rhetorical questions of the second quatrain argue for acceptance of death, and the final quatrain begins with an easeful transliteration of the Latin epitaphs Requiescat in pace and hic iacet. This apparent acceptance introduces both the poet’s punning tribute to his son, “his best piece of poetry,” in which he equates procreation with poetic creation, and a moral lesson, which counsels the reader (and the poet) not to invest emotionally in these worldly possessions, and which is translated from the Roman poet Martial, Jonson’s chief model in his Epigrams.

Yet even in this closure the linguistic instability of the “quibbles” or puns may not only highlight Jonson’s distinction between paternal “love” and the nonmaterial, Christian “like” in the final line, but also undermine the consolation that the poem offers as a whole. Through the “natural” pun of the shared name, Jonson the poet apparently buries not only his son in the grave but also himself, as well as his future hopes for his other “creations”—his poems, such as this one.