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.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Jonson’s neoclassical aesthetic is possibly shown at its height in his varied Epigrams, which he terms “the ripest of my studies” in his dedication to the Earl of Pembroke. The poems’ range of subject, feeling, and style displays Jonson’s skilled imitation and adaptation both of the Roman poets, notably Martial and Horace, and of classical Augustan ideals of balance, stoic self-sufficiency, urbanity, and, most crucial, decorum. Stylistically, these ideals translate into a mastery of versification and an economy of expression, which became known as the English “manly” or “plain” style. Each poem must be an organic unity, with form carefully integrating with meaning. In terms of his epigrams, Jonson’s neoclassicism appears in his witty conciseness, his subtle use of irony and implication, and his occasionally elliptical density.

These qualities are readily apparent in this elegy in both the sincere, conversational mode produced by the precisely selected iambic couplets (typical of classical epigrams and the Horatian style—the classical elegy’s alternating lines of hexameter and pentameter are here anglicized into the indented second pentameter lines) and in the intricate multilingual puns and allusions, which belie the surface simplicity. The first line offers examples of both these devices in Jonson’s appositive construction “child of my right hand,” which quibbles on his son’s name. “Benjamin” means...

(The entire section is 450 words.)