Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Jonson’s brief but touching poem not only offers clear examples of his classical learning and his decorous mastery of form and emotion but also, when placed within the context of the Epigrams collection and Jonson’s other poetry, reveals the poet’s preoccupation with themes of identity, particularly his own self-fashioned identity as a public poet who must both represent and personify certain classical ideals of ethical behavior, ideals signaled in the poetry’s style and structure and described by Jonson in his prose works, notably Timber (1641). In addition, the moral importance of poetry, and the role of the poet himself as a secular priest that Jonson constructs throughout his writing, further underline here the father’s great tribute to his son as “his best piece of poetry.”

This elegy was published by Jonson next to a contrasting epigram about poor fatherhood, so Jonson seems here to be placing or staging himself as a model parent, who acknowledges his real feelings but balances them with stoic resilience and tough humor. However, this emphasis on control also betrays the need for such control. Jonson’s son was “seven years” old, a very important liminal point not only in the development of the boy’s own identity but also in his relationship with his father in a society based on laws of paternal authority and primogeniture. In early modern child development it was at this age that boys were “breeched,”...

(The entire section is 474 words.)