‘‘On My First Son’’ is included in Jonson’s 1616 collection Epigrams, and is a good example of the genre of epigrams. The word ‘‘epigram’’ comes from two Greek words that mean ‘‘to write on’’ or ‘‘to inscribe.’’ In the Classical world of Greece and Rome, an epigram was literally an inscription, often serving as an epitaph for the dead. The greatest writer of epigrams in the Classical world was Martial, a Roman writer who lived during the first century CE. His work in Latin was well-known among English writers of the Renaissance.
By Jonson’s time, an epigram meant a pithy saying, characterized by precision, economy of language, balance, wit, and polish. It could also be a short poem with the same characteristics. Jonson used Martial’s work as a model, and most scholars cite Jonson as the greatest writer of epigrams in English.
Epigrams are often satiric or humorous, and Jonson wrote many such epigrams. However, Jonson also expanded the genre, and used the epigram to write invitations, epistles, reflective poems, compliments, and eulogies. He also used the epigram in its original sense, that of the epitaph.
While not humorous, ‘‘On My First Son’’ meets the requirements of the genre: it is short, highly polished, and tightly constructed. In addition, it is witty without being funny. Jonson uses puns throughout the poem, including the allusion to his son as his right hand—Benjamin means ‘‘right hand’’ in Hebrew. In addition, when he calls his son a piece of poetry, he is punning on the Greek word for poetry, poesis, a word that originally meant ‘‘making.’’ A poet, then, is a maker, and his poem is something he made, just as a father makes a son.
Another characteristic of Jonson’s epigrams and of later epigrams in English is the use of closed, rhyming couplets. Couplets are simply two contiguous lines of poetry that rhyme at the end. This, and the regular use of iambic pentameter in ‘‘On My First Son’’ provides a tightly controlled structure through which Jonson can express his grief.
Elegy and Epitaph
The word ‘‘elegy’’ comes from the Greek elegos meaning ‘‘lament.’’ Usually, an elegy is a reflective meditation on a particular death, although in English, elegies can also be meditations on death in general, or on war or love. Indeed, the Elizabethans frequently called their love poems elegies. Later, however, elegy came to be strongly identified with mourning.
A second word associated with writing that concerns death is ‘‘epitaph.’’ An epitaph is generally an inscription on a burial marker, and often begins with the words ‘‘here lies.’’ The purpose of an epitaph is to name the person who is buried, and provide some pithy information about the person. Jonson’s epitaph on his tomb in Westminster Abbey reads simply, ‘‘O Rare Ben Jonson.’’ (Visitors to Westminster will note that Jonson’s name is spelled incorrectly on his grave as ‘‘Johnson.’’) Jonson’s epitaph illustrates particular economy and wit. Many scholars assert that it is a pun; orare in Latin means ‘‘pray for.’’ ‘
‘On My First Son’’ demonstrates the characteristics of the elegy in that it is a reflective poem about a death that meditates on the nature of death itself. At the same time, it closes with what is clearly an epitaph, in that it uses the words ‘‘here lies,’’ referring to the burial of Jonson’s son. In addition, the epitaphic ending provides closure to the earlier meditation on the nature of death.
Thus, Jonson’s poem ‘‘On My First Son’’ qualifies as an epigram, an elegy, and an epitaph. Jonson’s skillful use of these literary forms demonstrates keen wit, careful use of language, and the balanced phrases he pioneered in the early seventeenth century.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Ben Jonson, Volume 33, published by Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010