‘‘On My First Son’’ is a poem of twelve lines, written in response to the death of Jonson’s first son, Benjamin, a victim of plague. The poem is written in couplets, with the following rhyme scheme: aabbccddeeff. The poem is also written in regular iambic pentameter. Iambic simply means that an unaccented syllable is followed by an accented one, and pentameter means that there are five such pairs (called feet) of one unaccented syllable followed by an accented syllable in each line of the poem. Iambic pentameter can be represented as follows: da DUH da DUH da DUH da DUH da DUH. This is a fairly natural rhythm in English, often used in oratory.
In the first two lines of the poem, Jonson addresses his dead son and says goodbye to him. He affirms that this son had great value for him and gave him happiness. Moreover, the name Benjamin, both the name of the writer and the dead child, means ‘‘right hand.’’ Thus, in line one, Jonson is referring to the child’s name indirectly by creating this pun. At the same time, the reference to the right hand also reminds readers that as a writer, Jonson’s right hand would be very important to him.
In line 2, Jonson chastises himself for having too many ambitions and wishes for the boy. Jonson has invested himself in his son’s future to the extent that he now believes he was sinful in doing so. While it is admirable to want good things for one’s child, Jonson seems to be saying that he was overly involved in thoughts of his son’s future. While modern audiences might not find this sinful, in Jonson’s time, putting the love of any human, even a first son, before the love of God would be considered sinful. In addition, the line adds significant poignancy to the poem. Jonson seems to be saying that his grief is all the greater because he loved his son so much.
In line 3, the reader discovers that Jonson’s son was only seven years old at the time of his death. In this line, Jonson introduces a financial motif into the poem. He tells his son that the boy was only on loan to his father. That is, although the boy was the father’s son, he did not belong to him. And, as with any loan, Jonson must pay back the principle, in this case, the son’s life. The last three words of line 3 might seem confusing, as it sounds as if Jonson is saying to his son that he (Jonson) will be repaying the loan to his son. This is not the case. Word order and meaning in early modern English is more flexible than in the English of the twenty-first century; thus, the line actually means ‘‘You were loaned to me for seven years, and now I must pay back the loan with your life.’’
Line 4 continues the sentence begun in line 3. Jonson states that it is providence, or destiny, that requires payment of the loan. Furthermore, Jonson also lets readers know that the day of his son’s death was also his son’s birthday. The word ‘‘just’’ in this line has multiple meanings. In the first place, it means ‘‘exact,’’ as in the expression ‘‘just so.’’ So the repayment comes on the exact day of the son’s birth. In addition, ‘‘just’’ also carries with it the connotation of justice, as in a just law. Thus, Jonson sees in the coincidence of the child’s death on his birthday a kind of divine justice in action.
Line 5 begins with a outcry from Jonson, as if he is overcome with grief. He wishes that he could somehow not be the child’s parent at this moment. But this is an expression of grief, not of reality. The point here is that if he could somehow not be the child’s father, he would not feel so much pain. The interjection of the heartfelt exclamation juxtaposed with the previous line’s financial motif makes the outpouring of grief all the more painful. Immediately after the exclamation point, however, Jonson rounds out the line with two words that begin a new sentence completed in line 6. In this sentence, Jonson asks why it is that people feel grief when they know that the loved one will be in a better place.
He continues this thought in lines 7 and 8. Not only will his son be in a better place, he will also escape the pains and sorrow visited upon the body in life. Jonson further asserts in line 8 that even if someone is fortunate enough to escape most of the illnesses and misfortune life offers, there is still the misery of old age. A child who dies young does not have to experience the loss of physical or mental function due to aging.
Line 9 contains two phrases often found in epitaphs. Indeed, lines 9 and 10 read as if they could be carved onto the boy’s tombstone. In these lines, Jonson wishes for his son peaceful rest. In addition, he asserts that his child is the best of all of his creative works. Line 10 also presents an interesting detail of early modern English. In present-day English, possession is marked by an apostrophe followed by the letter ‘‘s.’’ For example, in present-day English, the phrase ‘‘the book of Ben Jonson’’ could also be written ‘‘Ben Jonson’s book.’’ In early modern English, the same phrase could be correctly written ‘‘Ben Jonson his book.’’ (The apostrophe in present-day English stands in for the missing part of the word ‘‘his.’’) Poets in Jonson’s time had a choice between using ‘‘his’’ or the apostrophe, depending on what they needed in order to maintain their meter.
Jonson concludes the poem with a promise that he will never indulge himself by caring for another human being as much as he has his son. The lines suggest that Jonson wants to protect himself against future pain, although it is also possible that he is attempting to correct the sin noted in line 2, of having too much hope for his son. In either case, as a reader, it is difficult to imagine Jonson being successful in keeping this vow. The rest of the poem points to a person who experiences grief and life deeply.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Ben Jonson, Volume 33, published by Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010