On My First Son

by Ben Jonson

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The Poem

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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.

(This entire section contains 611 words.)

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Forms and Devices

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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 “fortunate” or “dexterous” in Hebrew. Through a trilingual pun on the Latin “dexter,” meaning “right,” Jonson simultaneously displays his learning and explores the connotations of the phrase, both as the English idiom “right-hand man,” suggesting comfort and support, and as the biblical son sitting “on the right hand” in heaven. Furthermore, the nostalgic addition “and joy” offers an ironic subtextual biblical allusion to Rachel’s name for her son Benjamin, which was Ben-oni, or “child of sorrow.”

A similarly dense etymological pun appears in line 10 in “poetry,” which depends upon the classical Greek derivation of poet meaning “creator” or “maker,” the latter also being the Middle English term for poet. Jonson is “maker” both of poetry and of his son, both children “of my right hand.” Buried within this wordplay is also the pervasive early modern pun on the word “pen” as “penis,” which further aligns Jonson’s different creations. His somewhat surprising humor here seems to express the beginnings of stoic acceptance in the face of death.

This semantic play, produced by puns, classical allusions, and occasionally elliptical syntax, threads throughout the poem, disrupting the surface calmness and the closure that the couplet form seems to suggest and conventional Christian doctrine advises. Instead, the multiple significations and allusive meanings stage, and parallel, the thematic struggle between the “poet’s” feelings of grief and the wish for consolation or emotional balance.