Parfitt, George. Ben Jonson: Public Poet and Private Man. New
"ON MY FIRST SON" Ben Jonson (1616) As does another of Ben Jonson's elegies, "On My First Daughter," "On My First Son" draws its power from the stark purity of Jonson's emotions expressed with a simple clarity found in much of his work. The child died in 1604 of the plague, and Jonson noted he had a vision of the boy while in Paris with his mentor and friend William Camden at the time of young Benjamin's death. In his vision the boy had a mark on his forehead resembling a bloody cross.
The poet wears his heart on his poet's sleeve, hiding nothing from the reader as he addresses "thou child of my right hand, and joy," where "child of my right hand" represents the Hebrew meaning for the name Benjamin. He projects the raw guilt of a parent who wonders how he might have contributed to his child's death, as he writes, "My sin was too much hope of thee, loved boy." The speaker expresses contrition over his sin of pride in his son. "Seven years thou wert lent to me," the voice continues, adopting the formality of the pronoun thou to extend the religious sensitivity of the address. The speaker then declares that he wishes to shed himself of parental feelings: "O could I lose all
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father now!" Jonson employs the exclamation point to stop the reader before the end of his fifth line, so that he may lead through enjambment directly into the next thought, couched as a question. He asks why he should feel sad for death, a state that his Christian faith bids him anticipate as an escape from life's burdens, or perhaps, simply from the misery of growing old:
Will man lament the state he should envy,
To have so soon 'scaped world's and flesh's rage,
And, if no other misery, yet age?
one who excelled in effective use of punctuation, Jonson inserts two nouns with possessive apostrophes after an apostrophe representing a dropped letter, all calling attention to a masterful use of repetition of the persistent and seething s sound. As George Parfitt explains, Jonson often anchored abstract ideas, in this case, lamentation, envy, rage, and misery, through the presence of concrete imagery, here that of an impossible bid for escape from both microcosm, the corporeal prison of the flesh, and macrocosm, the world at large.
The speaker's voice lowers to say, "Rest in soft peace," and then he explains to his son that if asked, he should tell others, "'Here doth lie / Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.'" Jonson's use of poetry as a metaphor for his child proves especially poignant, if not original. However, his final two lines ring more strongly to echo the regret found in the first lines: "for whose sake henceforth all his vows be such / As what he loves may never like too much." He concludes with a paradox in declaring he should not in the future like that which he loves, ostensibly because its loss remains crushing. The sentiment is based on the thought expressed in his second line, that too much hope resulted in a sin, and perhaps the loss of his son represents God's punishment.
Jonson shared with others the thought that one should never consider life as anything other than something "lent," advice directly from Seneca. He was said to have marked such passages in his copy of Seneca's work. However, he did not restrict his own inquiry into the effects of death.
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