In ‘‘On My First Son,’’ Jonson provides a glimpse into deep, fatherly grief over the loss of his first child, Benjamin, who died from the plague on his seventh birthday. Through simple, straightforward language, Jonson expresses this grief while, at the same time, attempting to assuage it. In the first two lines of the poem, Jonson addresses the boy as if he is present, and says goodbye to him, telling him that he was his pride and joy. Indeed, it is as if Jonson blames himself in line 2, saying that it was sinful of him to have so much pride and hope in the boy.
In lines 3 and 4, Jonson turns away from the outright expression of grief in an attempt to explain why the boy has been taken. He uses a financial metaphor, referring to the boy’s life as a loan. Thus, Jonson attempts to comfort himself with the knowledge that God had only temporarily loaned the boy to his father, and that now, because it is the boy’s time to return to God, the father must repay the debt.
However, no sooner does Jonson make this assertion than the full force of his grief emerges. In line 5, he exclaims that if he could, he would not be the boy’s father. He does not mean in this line that he truly would not want to be Benjamin’s father, but rather, he does not want to feel the pain a father necessarily feels upon the death of his child. Again, after this outburst, Jonson tries to assuage his own grief by wondering why a person should be so grief stricken when he knows, as a Christian, that his son will be in heaven. He further attempts to comfort himself by saying that his son will not be subject to all the pain and misery the world heaps upon a person, including that of growing old. In other words, his son, having died young, will never know how difficult life can be. He will have gone directly from a young and joyful life to heaven, a place where he will be happy for all eternity.
Jonson seems to come to terms with his grief through the writing of the poem. Yet the very last line suggests perhaps otherwise, depending on the reading. In this line, Jonson says that he is promising on the life of his son that in the future; he will not be overly attached to that which he loves. While this is the apparent meaning of the poem, that one should never love another person more than one loves God, there is also the sense that Jonson intends to use the memory of his grief for his son to harden himself against future losses. By refusing to ‘‘like’’ what he loves, he can perhaps save himself the pain of future grief.
Death is one of the great mysteries of humankind. It can come slowly, or suddenly, but come it will, to every living creature. In act 3, scene 1 of Hamlet, written by Jonson’s great contemporary William Shakespeare, Hamlet calls death ‘‘the undiscover’d country from whose bourn / No traveler returns.’’ This, of course, is the issue: since no one survives death, there is no one to return to tell people what to expect.
This gap in human knowledge is one that people have tried to fill for millennia, through religion, art, and literature. Jonson, in ‘‘On My First Son,’’ does his best to come to terms with the death of his seven-year-old son by relying on standard Christian consolation. In lines 3 and 4, he reports that his child’s death has been required by fate, another way saying that the child’s death is a part of God’s divine providence. Jonson must try to console himself by admitting that his child’s life was really only on loan to him, from God, and that it is God’s prerogative to call the loan in. These lines, then, suggest that Jonson sees death as not only inevitable, but that each death comes at its own time, no matter how painful it is for those who are left.
The second feature of standard Christian consolation can be found in lines 6 through 8. In these lines, Jonson questions why someone should be unhappy over the death of a child, when through that death, the child not only achieves heaven, he or she also escapes all of the trials and tribulations of living. Such thoughts were common in Jonson’s time; Shakespeare gives voice to something similar in Hamlet’s act 3, scene 1 soliloquy: ‘‘To die, to sleep— / No more, and by a sleep to say we end / The heartache and the thousand natural shocks / That flesh is heir to; ’tis a consummation / Devoutly to be wish’d.’’ Death, then, becomes the passage out of a painful life and into eternal bliss. And yet, for Jonson, this explanation does not seem to sit comfortably. In the last line of the poem, he suggests that he will have to guard his feelings so that he does not have to suffer so much pain in the future at the death of a loved one. While he pays lip service to Christian consolation, it appears that he remains unconsoled.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Ben Jonson, Volume 33, published by Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010