“On My First Son” by Ben Jonson

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, loved boy:
Seven years thou 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 soon ‘scaped world’s and flesh’s rage,
and, if no other misery, yet age?
Rest in soft peace, and asked, say, “Here doth lie
Ben Jonson, his best piece of poetry.”
For those whose sake henceforth all his vows shall be such
As what he loves never like too much.

benjonBen Jonson – soldier, courtier, author of satiric plays, bon vivant and the model for the Cavalier poets of England – was also famous for his belief in “sweet neglect” and his crowning Shakespeare the “Soul of an Age.” He lived by his wits and his pen, and if necessary, his rapier, at least when young. Yet there is hardly an elegy in the language more tender and heart-rending than Jonson’s “On My First Son,” written for his son Benjamin (etymologically “dexterous” and “fortunate”), who died on his seventh birthday.

Half a dozen rhymed couplets in iambic pentameter, the poem addresses a subject well-suited for a sonnet, but perhaps the architecture of a sonnet called for more resolution than the poet could reach, and perhaps he wished its self-indicting language to stand outside that tradition, though some have interpreted the spelling in the original of “son” as “sonne” to be a nod to the popular form. It is a poem conveying both discipline and impulse.

I can hardly think of a poem so committed to its formal gestures yet so emotional and spontaneous-seeming, all in the service of enacting the wrestling match between what “reason” would suggest (that he refrain from lamenting the boy’s escape to a more peaceful state) and his conviction that his love and hope for the boy were sinful in their extremity. At the poem’s close, he vows renounce loving with such fervor again, lest the force of his emotion bring still more harm.

The poem is addressed to the dead Ben by his namesake and bids him “farewell,” though he’s aware that “farewell” bites more deeply here than in its casual use. He also sees the death as punishment for his own sin, so he has assigned guilt for the child’s loss to himself. Not one to miss a high irony, Jonson suggests there may be a cruel logic to the boy’s dying on his birthday, the “just” day for such a loss, though I can fill the bitterness under that “just.”

This loss is deep enough to make him exclaim that he could wish to repudiate all parental identity – “lose all father!” His grief leads him to extreme statements, which seem not so much his famously skillful rhetoric as the result of uncontrollable grief. He wants to find consolation in the notion of death as peace, but he’s not consoled and says to his son, if he’s asked who or what he is, to reply that he, the son, is the father’s best piece (and peace?) of poetry, far more valuable than the penned works. But there’s much more, as the slippery syntax says both here lies Ben Jonson’s son, his best work, but also here lies Ben Jonson the father. The father might as well, for the way he feels, be in the grave. Now all he can do is to avoid committing again this sin of excess love which kills, to protect “those whose sake” he must choose his further actions on behalf of.

It’s a candid but crafty poem, reminding me how intellect and emotion are seldom mutually exclusive, and I can’t resist leaving the poem with a final question: how are we to take that isolated “lie” at the end of line nine? I don’t suspect he means that either the phrase that follows or the entire composition is a lie, and yet that potent word, so emphatically placed wants a reckoning. just as the “misery” and “rage,” as well as other elements of the poem, cry out for further exploration.

Yet none of the complexities weaken the grief or the knotty way the quick and eloquent Jonson feels this occasion of profound sorrow. His many poems and plays are easily accessible in anthologies and collections and reward repeated readings.


recent-meR. T. Smith has edited Shenandoah since 1995 and serves as Writer-in-Residence at Washington & Lee. His forthcoming books are Doves in Flight: 13 Fictions and Summoning Shades: New Poems, both due in 2017.