A Short Analysis of Ben Jonson’s ‘On my First Sonne’

Ben Jonson’s touching elegy on his son, ‘child of his right hand’ – analysed by Dr Oliver Tearle

‘On My First Sonne’, Ben Jonson’s short poem for his son Benjamin, who died aged seven, is one of the most moving short elegies in the English language. Some analysis of this touching tribute to the poet’s young son may help to show why the poem means so much to modern readers. Jonson (1572-1637) was a contemporary of William Shakespeare and, like the Bard, wrote poems as well as the plays for which he is well-known. Here is his poem ‘On my First Son’, along with a short analysis of it.

On My First Sonne

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sinne was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy,
Seven yeeres 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 fate he should envíe?
To have so soon scap’d worlds, and fleshes rage,
And, if no other miserie, yet age?
Rest in soft peace, and, ask’d, say here doth lye
BEN. IONSON his best piece of poetrie.
For whose sake, hence-forth, all his vowes be such,
As what he loves may never like too much.

The poem movingly pays tribute to Jonson’s son, who we know from the poem was called Benjamin, or Ben, after his father: ‘child of my right hand’ is a reference to the literal meaning of the given name Benjamin, from Hebrew. (First sons are often named after their fathers.) Jonson says that his one sin was to entertain too many hopes for his son’s future. This is a ‘sinne’ (a twisting of ‘Sonne’: ‘On My First Sonne’), because the child’s fate, like everyone’s, is not in Jonson’s hands, but God’s: not up to his Ben Jonsonfather but Our Father, he might say. Jonson follows this up with a financial analogy, saying that his son was merely ‘lent’ to him, and now he has to ‘pay’ back the loan that has been ‘Exacted’. It was ‘fate’: God willed that the boy be returned to Him after seven years, so who is Jonson to question or lament this? Indeed, he knows that in many ways his son should be envied, for escaping the hardships of life, and the horrible process of getting old. (Obviously to a believer, as many people were in Jonson’s time, such a bitter pill is easier to swallow if one has a belief in the afterlife, that the son is in a ‘better place’.)

Rest in soft peace, and, ask’d, say here doth lye
BEN. IONSON his best piece of poetrie.

In this couplet (the whole of ‘On My First Sonne’, of course, is written in rhyming couplets), Jonson constructs a sort of epitaph for his son, as signalled by the familiar words ‘Rest in (soft) peace’ and ‘here doth lye’ (echoing the ‘here lies’ inscription on gravestones). The ‘BEN. IONSON’ (the ‘I’ in place of a ‘J’ is to echo the Latin inscriptions on monuments) is ambiguous and can be analysed in two ways: it could refer to the poet Ben Jonson himself, or to his namesake and son, young Benjamin Jonson. That is, the couplet can either be read as ‘here lies Ben Jonson’s best piece of poetry’ or ‘here lies Ben Jonson, his best piece of poetry’. Either way, the word poetrie is another pun: poetry literally means ‘something made’ (from the Greek). Just as Ben Jonson makes poetry, so he also made his son. (This tallies with the Elizabethan poets’ fondness for comparing the writing of poetry with pregnancy and childbirth: for example, see Sir Philip Sidney’s sonnet ‘Loving in truth’.) And this pun is also strengthened by the play on peace/piece (‘Rest in soft peace’, ‘piece of poetrie’): this piece of poetry is now at peace.

‘On my First Sonne’ is a powerful poem, technically adroit but also, one feels, from the heart. Ben Jonson’s studied analysis of his own grief is restrained, yet also shot through with genuine feeling. ‘On My First Sonne’ was not the first moving elegy for a child written in English (see the medieval dream poem Pearl, for instance), but it is perhaps the first modern expression of such grief.

The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.

Image: English playwright, poet, and actor Ben Jonson (1572-1637) by George Vertue (1684-1786) after Gerard van Honthorst (1590-1656); Wikimedia Commons.

3 thoughts on “A Short Analysis of Ben Jonson’s ‘On my First Sonne’”

  1. Read this in grad school and appreciate the reminder that it is a eulogy as much as it is a poem today. That is, I can remember the boy for whom it was written beyond looking at the poem’s construction itself. Thanks!


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