On My First Sonne Essay
1 of my right hand: a pun on the meaning of his name: Benjamin in Hebrew means “son of the right hand”, something brought out in the Bible (Genesis 35: 18: “his father [Jacob] called him Benjamin, (that is, the son of the right hand)”. It suggests that he was his father’s help and support, someone essential to him.
2 too much hope of thee: i.e. too much hope that he would grow up, and too much hope that he would do great things.
3 Seven yeeres … me: i.e. you were lent to me by God for seven years. Benjamin died on his seventh birthday of the plague.
4 Exacted: fined.
just: appropriate, correct.
5 loose: give up, let go of.
7 scap’d: escaped.
worlds and fleshes rage: the passionate desires of earthly life (which must of their nature tend to remain unsatisfied).
8 age: i.e. old age. The misery of getting really old and frail.
10 Ben. Jonson his: i.e. Ben Jonson’s (an archaic form of the possessive).
poetrie: (in italics in the original) a pun on the Greek meaning of poetry, which is “making”: the “making” of children, the “making” of poems.
12 like: please (the active seventeenth-century sense).
In one sense this poem looks simple, yet this hides the depth of literary sophistication involved.
The events that led to it are terrible. Ben Jonson left London early in 1603, to stay at a country house, just as a bout of plague was about to envelop the city. He seems to have been worried about his eldest son, called Ben after his father, because he had a dream about him: “he saw in a vision his eldest son (then a child at London) appear unto him with the marke of a bloodie cross on his forehead as if it had been cut with a sword”. This was frightening, for the red cross was the sign put on houses struck by the plague. The 1603 epidemic turned out to be a very bad one, and shortly afterwards Jonson received a letter from his wife telling him that Benjamin had died.
In parts of London the death rate from plague was higher that 50 percent. The death of children was much more common than in first-world countries now, but parents felt it none the less deeply. Jonson’s epigram expresses his deepest grief at the death, yet it shows a remarkable poise and formality. Herein lies its greatness: a father’s terrible grief is contained and controlled, in some sense, by the elegant couplets of the poem.
Jonson would actually like to stop his emotions, to stop feeling like a father: “O, could I loose [i.e. get rid of] all father, now”, i.e. if only I could give up feeling this terrible grief for my son – but, of course, he cannot. If he could stop feeling like a father, then he might be able to see some faintly positive side to what has happened: his small son has escaped the “world’s, and fleshes rage” (7), i.e. the terrible passions and griefs we all experience, including, no doubt, the terrible pain that Ben Jonson now feels as a father. Jonson is urging himself to mourn in a selfless, unegoistic way. He senses that he may have had too much of his own pride invested in the little boy: now, terribly, the child just “lent” to him for a while by “fate”, has been “exacted” from him like a debt. He has had to pay him back to “fate” or heaven.
The end of the poem echoes an epigram by the Roman poet Martial (6.29), an epigram that Jonson loved. (The style of Jonson’s poem draws on Martial’s style.) The epigram was about a slaveboy’s death, and it ends, in Latin, with these words: “Who was more charming than he or who fairer, with his face like Apollo’s [for handsomeness]? For those unusually gifted, life is brief and old age rare. Pray that what you love has not pleased you too much!” Jonson perhaps felt about his son in a similar way, so that he reused the thought of Martial’s last line. He wants his own “vows” about life in the future to be such “As what he loves may never like [please] too much” (12). He may, in other words, continue to love things, but he’s never going to get overly attached, overly “pleased” or fond of them. You could call this a kind of stoicism, or a kind of Christian detachment. It is the thought of a passionate man desperately trying to get his bearings in his grief.
There is one other important thought in the poem, hinging on the idea of his son being “his best piece of poetrie” (10). There’s a hidden pun here, for poetry comes from the Greek word meaning “making”. In other words, there are two kinds of “making” in the poem: “making” (i.e. fathering) children, and “making” poems. A poet is a “maker” in that sense. It was a commonplace of Renaissance thought (and still a commonplace today) that an artist’s works are in some sense his or her “children”. Iris Murdoch, for example, who had no physical children, used to refer to her novels as her “children”. Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics, speaks of how poets “have an exaggerated affection for their own poems and love them as parents love their children” (9. 7. 3–4). Jonson refuses to console himself in that way. In lines 9–10 he says the opposite. His son Ben was the best thing he ever made, and his poems, clever as they are, seem small things by comparison. This passionate thought is contained within the gently balanced couplet.
Suggestions for teaching and appreciation
This poem hides its passionate grief behind its intense literary formality. It is one of several poems in the anthology about relationships, particularly parent-child relationships, and about grief. So, in “Mid-Term Break” Heaney writes about the death of his younger brother, the awkward youthful first experience of grief. Or, conversely, in dramatic form, Wordsworth’s “The Affliction of Margaret” is about a mother almost driven to madness by her grown-up son going missing and not knowing what has happened to him. “Ulysses”, though it is formally about the Greek hero, is actually about Tennyson’s sense of loss at Arthur Hallam’s death. One obvious way of getting near to “On my first Sonne” is to begin to think about poetry and the experience of grief and bereavement in this way.
In 1603, Ben Jonson had a dream, a very strange dream. He was visiting a friend (Sir Robert Cotton) outside of London. There, as one of Jonson's friends later recounted, "he saw in a vision his eldest son, then a child and at London, appear unto him with the mark of a bloody cross on his forehead, as if it had been cut with a sword; at which amazed he prayed unto God, and in the morning he came to Mr. Camden's [another friend of Jonson's who was with them] chamber to tell him, who persuaded him it was but an apprehension of his fantasy at which he should not be dejected."
See? We told you it was weird. Know what's weirder? Jonson's friend was wrong. Letters soon arrived, informing Jonson of the non-dream death of his eldest son at the hands of the plague (sometimes referred to as the "pest"). Bad times.
In response to his son's untimely death, Jonson composed this short poem "On My First Son." Nobody is entirely sure when he wrote the poem, but it must have been shortly after his son's death and burial. The poem laments the death of Jonson's son and expresses what appears to be Jonson's feelings of profound sadness. (A poem that commemorates a dead person and laments their death is called an elegy, and there are many famous elegies in English. See our module for "Lycidas" for one important example.)
Even though Jonson wrote the poem shortly after his son's death, he didn't publish it until 1616, when he issued a collection of his works. In that collection, he sorted his poems into smaller groups. "On My First Son" appears in a group of poems called Epigrams. (Epigrams are generally short and memorable little poems, usually only a few lines long.) Although it's not a very long poem, it deals in great depth with the poet's tremendous grief and loss. In just a few lines, Jonson packs a powerful punch.
Have you ever been to a funeral, or lost somebody close to you, or known somebody who lost someone close to them? Chances are you're nodding right now. When someone has died, it is common for people to say things like "he or she is in a better place now" or "it was just his or her time." These and similar comments are attempts to explain death or to find some meaning in it. We like to believe that after we die we go to a better place.
In the same way, we like to believe that everybody is given a certain amount of time on earth and that, when that time is up, that's it. It makes life easier to believe that when we die is somehow out of our hands—that there is some "fate" or destiny or logic governing the things that happen in the world, including death.
Ben Jonson's poem explores all of these issues. It's about the grief we feel when somebody close to us suddenly dies. It's also about how we like to think of death as something that is beyond our control, but also a transition to a better place. The speaker of "On My First Son" is working through his grief, and he does so in a way that is probably familiar to you if you've had, or known someone who's had, a brush with death. When the worst happens, we're left reeling, trying to make some sense out of death's finality. Jonson's doing the exact same thing here.
Check it out. It may be that his conclusions bring comfort to you, or maybe it's just comforting to read how others feel the same way you do, even if you're separated by hundreds of years.