On My First Son

by Ben Jonson

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 474

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,” differentiated from female children in dress for the first time by wearing breeches. Furthermore, the responsibility for their formal education would now transfer from the female household to the male. This symbolic transition may help to explain both the elegy’s delicate tonal modulation and Jonson’s apparent guilt and obsession with fatherhood, since he seems so concerned with confirming his relationship with his son that the mother is totally elided from the poem, which is not the case in his comparable epigram “On My First Daughter.”

Perhaps the most important of the Augustan social and ethical ideals is the one sought for here by the poet-father, which is the notion of “balance,” of the controlled fusion of form and meaning, of sense and emotion, of passion and equanimity, in order to create the integer vitae, the whole life of moral integrity that is necessary for “the good poet” who must also be a “good man.” Jonson’s elegy seems to be almost an exercise in this practical and aesthetic principle in the face of personal loss, the measured couplets balancing the complex disruptive allusions and emotions. Yet Jonson was fully aware of both the need to strive for this ideal and the impossibility of reaching it—his impresa, or personal emblem, was a broken compass. This poem apparently stages that never-ending human search for consolation and for completion, for what Jonson termed his “Center.”

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