On My First Son

by Ben Jonson

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What is the tone in Ben Jonson's poem "On My First Son"?

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The tone of the poem is one of sadness. Jonson is expressing his grief at death of his oldest son, aged seven.

For all that he knows, his son is in a better place, but Jonson cannot shake his sense of loss. He calls his departed son his "joy" and his "lov'd boy." He says his "sin" was placing too much hope in this son. He is paying now for having a father's deep attachment to a child, and he wishes he could shed a father's strong feelings and gain a sense of detachment. At this point in the poem, his emotions reach a crescendo of grief, indicated by the "O" and the exclamation point: "O, could I lose all father now!"
Jonson shows his painful sense of loss overwhelming his rational mind, which tells him that he should not be sad. He tries to comfort himself that his son has gone to heaven, saying,
For why
Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon 'scap'd world's and flesh's rage,
And if no other misery, yet age?
Nevertheless, he does lament. He calls his beloved son his "best piece of poetry" and hopes that in the future, what he loves he never grows so attached to again.
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The tone of a poem is the speaker's attitude or the position they take toward the subject of the poem. In this poem, Ben Jonson at first adopts a melancholy and regretful tone as he bids "farewell" to the child he dubs "of my right hand." This phrase recalls the descriptions in the Bible of those who sit at the right hand of God: it indicates the esteem in which the lost child was held and underscores the depth of Jonson's regret at the loss of that son.

That the speaker feels at a loss, uncertain and questioning, because of what has happened is made evident through the use of rhetorical questions. However, as the poem goes on, the speaker's tone changes: he is wondering why he should be sad that his child has, at least, escaped the miseries of "age" and other difficulties. The tone becomes contemplative as the speaker questions whether he should, in fact, "envy" the fact that this child has been released from the world. Finally, he bids the child "rest in soft peace," and his tone has become increasingly resigned to the reality of what has happened. While the child's death was painful for him, he ultimately accepts that this was the best thing for his son, who was his best work.

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Before I answer that question, let's review the definition of "tone". 

Tone is a literary device that indicates the emotion the author intends to communicate in his/her work, conveyed through word choice, syntax, and figurative language. 

In "On my First Son" by Ben Jonson, the tone ranges from sadness to confusion to melancholy. He begins the poem by bidding farewell to his son and to happiness: "thou child of my right and, and joy." As he reveals, his son has died in his childhood at the age of seven, for only "seven years tho' wert lent to me." 

In line 5, Jonson's punctuation abruptly shifts to incorporate an exclamation, in which he cries out in anger and despair, "O, could I lose all father now!" With his son gone, he is no longer the father he once was, and his identity has also been affected by this loss. 

In the same line, Jonson begins to barrage himself with questions, asking himself why "man lament the state he should envy." Jonson goes on to discuss the many disadvantages of life that are avoided by an early death, implying that he finds his own sadness inappropriate to the situation and should instead feel pleased for his son. 

Finally, Jonson reverts to melancholy, noting that his son was his best piece of work, thereby tying his career into the death of his son as well. 

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Summarize Ben Jonson's poem, "On My First Son," in your own words.  

Ben Jonson (a contemporary of William Shakespeare) writes "On My First Son," speaking of the death of his seven year-old son.

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, lov'd boy.

The first two lines of this twelve-line poem, express Jonson's farewell to the son he loved so much. The reference to "my right hand" might be a Biblical allusion to Christ, God's beloved son who sits on God's right-hand side. The boy was his father's "joy." Jonson admits that his sin was to expect that the boy would have a long life because:

Seven years thou wert lent to me, and I thee pay.
Exacted by the fate, on the just day.

...Jonson says he believes that for seven years, the boy was his only on loan—we assume, from heaven—and payment was taken in the form of the boy's life on the day he died (of the plague, while Jonson was away).

Oh, could I lose all father now! For why
Will man lament the state he should envy?

The first sentence in the second quatrain (four-line stanza) could mean that Jonson no longer wants to feel the pain of being a parent and losing a child, or, wishes he could be like a child to express his grief without reservations: freely and "wildly" as a child would. The rest of this segment is the author's way of wondering why he should be sad ("lament") the state his son is now in—in heaven, without pain—which is something one should envy (as per the teachings of Christianity).

To have so soon 'scaped world's and flesh's rage,
And, if no other misery, yet age?

The second part of the second quatrain explains that the boy has escaped the ravages of time: old age. And is this not a blessing for the boy? The author is trying to now comfort himself in his grief, while he may also be doubting his faith a little: he has been taught that this rest—this peace—is to be sought after according to the Christian faith.

Rest in soft peace, and asked, say here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry;

In these first two lines of the third quatrain, Jonson addresses his son, wishing him "soft peace" as he rests; he also hopes that all who pass the grave can know that there lies what is left of Jonson— his "best piece of poetry:" his greatest work beyond all he has ever written or done.

For whose sake, henceforth, all his vows be such,
As what he loves may never like too much.

In this last part of the third quatrain, Jonson hopes that of all the promises he makes to himself, he hopes he can fulfill the one that swears he will never again allow himself to love another as much as he loved his son, so as to avoid feeling this kind of pain again.

 

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Summarize Ben Jonson's poem, "On My First Son," in your own words.  

Ben Johnson’s elegy “On My First Son” mourns the loss of his son who died at seven years old. For the most part, this is pretty straight forward. He says farewell in the first line. His only sin was too much hope and love for his son. He uses “sin” here to indicate that it was an overindulgent love which is not inherently bad. But he also uses “sin” to suggest that his son’s early death is a kind of punishment. In the next line, he completes this suggestion with the metaphor of “paying” for having his son lent to him for a short period. “To lose all father now” can indicate he must lose his sense of fatherhood to let his son go. It could also mean he has lost his sense of being the father since he is now more like a child overcome by the emotion of grief. A third interpretation of this line is that he has questioned God (father) in the wake of this tragedy.

But then, he suggests that he should not envy someone (his son) who has escaped the pain of living in the world. In other words, he has some solace in the fact that his son is no longer suffering and will not know the suffering of old age. He then says that his son is his best creation and that creating poems and other worldly possessions pale in comparison.

He begins to accept his son’s death but he concludes that these thoughts in this poem offer little consolation. I see a few ways of interpreting the last two lines:

For whose sake, henceforth, all his vows be such,

As what he loves may never like too much.

If “whose,” “his” and “he” refers to the speaker (Ben Johnson), then I would say that all Johnson’s subsequent vows, thoughts and creations will be a tribute to his son. And in the last line, he determines that he will never “like” something or someone he loves too much because the pain of loss is too much to bear.

On the other hand, if those pronouns refer to the son, then all the son’s vows would mean the memory of the son. So, if anyone reading the poem or praying for the son asks what Ben Johnson’s best creation was, the answer is his son (as if he or his son was answering). And the last line is interpreted the same.

I have read criticism which says that Ben Johnson is burying part of himself (metaphorically) with his son, so both of these interpretations could be correct. The pronouns could refer to both father and son. Even if one interpretation was not intended, the reader can add his/her own additional interpretation.

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