Epigrams: On my First Son by Ben Jonson

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Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy.
Seven years tho’ wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
O, could I lose all father now! For why
Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon ‘scap’d world’s and flesh’s rage,
And if no other misery, yet age?
Rest in soft peace, and, ask’d, say, “Here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.”
For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such,
As what he loves may never like too much.

Short Biography of Ben Jonson

Ben Jonson was born in 1572. He was an English play writer and a poet. He was a colorful character of early theater history. His father, who was a clergyman, died a month before Jonson’s birth. His mother married Robert Brett, a master bricklayer. He was educated at Westminster School where he took intellectual inspiration from his master, William Camden. After school, he joined an apprenticeship and also served as a soldier for a brief time.

Around 1594 he married. Soon after his marriage, he started writing and also performed as an actor. He wrote his first play “The Isle Of Dogs” but now lost. In 1598, he produced one of his highly successful plays “Every Man in His Humour.” During this time he killed a man in a duel and escaped hanging due to the fact that he was a writer. In prison, he became a Catholic but later on changed to the protestant faith.


He was basically a writer of satirical plays and got famous in this genre. However, he was also a good poet and has produced some excellent poetry. In 1616 he was given a royal pension that was similar, in today’s terms, to being granted the post of “poet laureate” in England.

Thereafter he regarded himself as “the King’s Poet.” Jonson’s poetry includes his “Epigrams” and a collection called “The Forests”. They were published in his collected “Works” of 1616. Another collection of verses called “Underwoods” was published in 1640. This also incorporated “Timber” or “Discoveries made upon men and matter” a prose work that included some private commentaries on books he had read. Jonson is best considered a play writer. He wrote in a prefatory poem to his deceased friend’s collection that Shakespeare’s plays were “not of an age, but for all time!” Jonson’s plays belong to an early contemporary London and the courts of England.


In 1623, Jonson experienced the tragedy of seeing many of his papers burned in a fire. Although he persisted to write, he never recovered the goodwill he once had at court. In 1628 this unusual character underwent a paralytic stroke, and he died in 1637 beleaguered by ill health and financial restraints. He was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey under a gravestone bearing the writing, “O rare Ben Jonson.”

Introduction

This short elegiac poem by Ben Jonson laments the tragic death of his son, who died at a tender age of “seven years”. It is indeed significant that the poem was written thirteen years after the loss. This piece also marks a diversion by Jonson from metaphysical themes, where he vents his grief for his son, Benjamin, whom he refers to as the “child of my right hand”(the Hebrew translation for Benjamin). The poet’s sorrowful expression reaches its climax when he says that he ought to be envious of his son, who escaped the woes and wails of existence, “world’s flesh’s rage” by dying at such an early age and thus he desires death himself so that he could escape the tormenting grief.

Commentary

Unlike most elegies, this poem is not an immediate or abrupt emotional expression of sorrow. It has the well-rounded composure that is quintessential of Jonson’s epigrams. The fact that it was written thirteen years after the death testifies to the validity of this assertion. The poem, therefore, might not have Shelley’s intensity but it certainly has greater intellectual depth, something that is expected of a seasoned metaphysical poet. It strongly hints at the paradoxical nature of existence by juxtaposing the poet’s endeavor to rationalize his loss on the one hand and his inability to manage his bitter feelings on the other. The irony of the attempt to put the death into some sort of perspective by recourse to religion and philosophy is very conspicuous. Instead of drawing some didactic lesson about death, the poem presents the stark reality of the overwhelming and inescapable nature of the emotional loss.

Language

The poem begins with very strong direct speech, with Jonson addressing his son as the “child of my right hand”. This telling phrase is the Hebrew translation for Benjamin, which alludes to Jesus as the right hand of God. This direct expression has two-layered meanings: it reveals his passionate love for his child and perhaps an indirect suggestion that he loved his son more than God.


Metaphorical expressions in the 3rd and 4th lines communicate that Jonson considers his son to be God’s debt to him, as he was “lent” to him by God but this debt was repaid when God took him back: “and I thee pay”.


Jonson conveys his mental agony by such powerful lines as “O, I could lose all father now”, which indicates that the poet desires to rid himself of the immense pain by losing all feelings of paternal love.

Critical Summary and Literary Appreciation

The poem is about a father mournful of the loss of his son, who breathed his last on his seventh birthday. The boy was named after his father and was the only true delight in the man’s life. The father admits that his son was “lent” to him for seven years by god and had to give him back, yet feels accountable for the crime of hoping too much for the boy and his prospects.

He wishes to God that his paternal responsibilities and feelings of anguish and soreness could be taken from him. Then, he wonders to himself why he is so disturbed when he should be jealous of his son, who was taken from the Earth before he had to see the ills of the world and humanity. He goes on to tell his deceased son that if anyone should ever ask, tells them that he was and is his father’s best piece of poetry. He ends the poem by saying that never again will he allow himself to love or become emotionally involved in something so strongly again.

It also shows to the readers the intricacy of feelings a father can feel when he has to mourn over the loss of his son, or in Jonson’s case the “seven years were thou lent to me”.
The significance of Jonson’s son dying on his birthday ties in the idea his son’s life was simply custody of God that brought him delights for seven years. In the times of 1616 when the poem was written, people had very strong Christian values. There is essential poignancy in the poem where we see Jonson queries the existence of God and whether his actions are always indispensable. “Oh, I could lose my entire father now”

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