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On My First Sonne

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On My First Sonne

Would you agree with the phrase, life is poetry? In his poem “On First Sonne,” the English poet and dramatist Ben Jonson (1572‐1637) compares his deceased son to his best work of poetry. This twist on a traditional English elegiac poem explores the complexities of death and grief in light of Christian faith and the hardships of life.

On My First Sonne, Flower Graveyard, StudySmarterFig. 1 While reading the poem, you can imagine Ben Johnson speaking to his son's grave.

“On My First Sonne” Information Overview
Poet:Ben Jonson (1572‐1637)
Year Published: 1616
Type of Poem:Elegy
Rhyme Scheme: Rhyming couplets
Meter: Iambic Pentameter
Tone: Melancholic, Despairing
Literary/Poetic Devices: Rhyming Couplets, Tone, Analogy, Consonance, Ecphonesis, Rhetorical Questions, Metaphor, Enjambment
Themes: Death, Grief, Faith

“On My First Sonne” by Ben Jonson: Context

Ben Jonson (1572‐1637) was a 17th century English Renaissance poet and dramatist. Jonson is well-known for his sharp, satirical, and sarcastic writings. However, in the poem “On My First Sonne,” he genuinely reflects on life, expressing and questioning the depths of grief after the death of his firstborn son.

“On My First Sonne” is an elegiac poem, or a poem of remembrance, for Ben Jonson's first son, who died at the age of seven from the Bubonic plague. Jonson expresses his love for the child as he illuminates his struggles to cope with grief and the idea of death.

On My First Sonne, Father and Son Walking, StudySmarterFig. 2 In the opening line of the poem, Jonson describes his son as "thou child of my right hand, and joy" (1), indicating that the two were extremely close and that Jonson's son was always by his side.

“On My First Sonne”: Poem

Below is the full poem, “On My First Sonne,” with accompanying notes.

Line“On My First Sonne” by Ben Jonson Notes
1.2.3.4.5.6.7.8..9.10.11.12.
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.
tho' wert: you wereExacted: demanded lament: mourn'scap'd: escapeddoth: doeshenceforth: from now on

“On My First Sonne”: Summary

Ben Jonson directly addresses his son in the poem, saying goodbye to the child who was always by his side. He says that his only mistake was having too many hopes for his beloved “boy” (2) Jonson figuratively describes his son's life as a loan from God, which after seven years he had to repay, and the boy's life was taken away. He exclaims, “O, could I lose all father now!” to suggest that if only his identity as a father could dissipate with the disappearance of his son, he would not have to experience such deep grief (5).

Ben Jonson asks why he should mourn the death of his son, when his son has escaped the anger and frustration of human life on earth and is now living in heaven peacefully. He tells his son to rest in peace and suggests that his grave should say he was Ben Jonson's “best piece of poetry” (10). Jonson says that from now on, he will never love anything “too much” or as much as he loved his son (12).

“On My First Sonne”: Analysis of Form

“On My First Sonne” is an English elegiac poem written in a single stanza of twelve lines. The poem is short and brief, evoking the brevity of Jonson's son's life. Like a traditional elegiac poem, “On My First Sonne,” recalls Ben Jonson's experience of grief and remembers his son's life. However, while traditional elegies typically offer consolation for death and grief by the end of the poem, in Jonson's poem, he does not find consolation. Rather, he is left with the lost feeling of never being able to or wanting to love anything so much again, fearing such grief and disappointment.

An elegiac poem, or elegy, is a poem of remembrance for someone who has died. Elegies typically lament the subject's death and express great grief, but ultimately provide consolation in the end.

“On My First Daughter” (1616) by Ben Jonson

Ben Jonson also wrote an elegiac poem for his deceased daughter, called “On My First Daughter” (1616). The poem, “On My First Daughter,” presents the typical sense of consolation after death that “On My First Sonne” lacks. “On My First Daughter” is an elegy for Jonson's daughter, Mary, who died as an infant. Jonson uses this poem as a remembrance of her life and a consolation for her death in the light of faith. In "On My First Daughter," Ben Jonson describes his daughter Mary being welcomed into heaven by the mother of Jesus Christ, Mary, who is known as the Queen of Heaven and of Peace.

“On My First Daughter”:

“Here lies, to each her parents’ ruth,

Mary, the daughter of their youth;

Yet all heaven’s gifts being heaven’s due,

It makes the father less to rue.

At six months’ end she parted hence

With safety of her innocence;

Whose soul heaven’s queen, whose name she bears,

In comfort of her mother’s tears,

Hath placed amongst her virgin-train:

Where, while that severed doth remain,

This grave partakes the fleshly birth;

Which cover lightly, gentle earth!”1

How does the tone of Jonson's poem, “On My First Daughter,” vary from the tone of “On My First Son”?

“On My First Sonne”: Rhyme Scheme

“On My First Sonne” is written primarily in rhyming, or heroic couplets, which tie together Jonson's lines and thoughts in pairs. The rhyme scheme of the poem is AABBCCDDEEFF. Lines 5-6 and 9-10 are slant rhymes.

Slant rhymes, also known as half rhymes, are rhyming words with similar, but not identical sounds.

In lines 9 and 10, Jonson uses the slight change in the rhyme scheme to slow down the poem and cause the reader to stop and reflect on the fact that he considers his son to be his best work of poetry. In the rest of the poem, Jonson is speaking to his son as if he were alive. However, these lines resemble the epitaph, or inscription on a grave. This suggests that Jonson is coming to face the reality of his son's death, whom he speaks to through a gravestone.

“To have so soon 'scap'd world's and flesh's rage,

And if no other misery, yet age? —rhyming/heroic couplet

Rest in soft peace, and, ask'd, say, “Here doth lie —shift to slant rhymes

Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.”

(7 to 10)

“On My First Sonne” Meter

'On My First Son' is written mainly in iambic pentameter. This meter was commonly used in poetry during Jonson's time, and it creates a steady rhythm that carries the reader through the poem.

Iambic pentameter is a form of meter in poetry with ten syllables per line in an alternating pattern of unstressed and stressed syllables.

“Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;

My sin was too much hope of thee, lov'd boy.”1

(1 to 2)

“On My First Sonne”: Analysis of Literary Devices

“On My First Sonne” features literary and poetic devices including tone, analogy, consonance, ecphonesis, consonance, rhetorical questions, metaphor, and enjambment.

Tone

The tone of the poem, “On My First Sonne,” is melancholic and despairing. The poem's tone reflects Ben Jonson's dire sadness and grief after the death of his beloved first son.

Analogy and Consonance

Ben Jonson uses an analogy to compare the life and death of his son to a loan from God. He views God as the giver of life, with the right to take it away. Nonetheless, Jonson does not know how to cope with his son's life being taken away. Though he knows that death is a part of human fate, he is still bitter and distraught by the death of his son at so young an age.

On My First Sonne, Coins Growing, StudySmarterFig. 3 Ben Jonson compares his son's life being taken to a loan that was given seven years back but needed to be repaid.

Ben Jonson uses consonance, or repetition of the harsh “T” sound in line four, to evoke the frustration he feels at the thought of his son being taken away. Although Jonson initially compares life and death as a simple trade of give and take, he ultimately cannot accept the casualness of this exchange. He feels his son's death so sharply.

An analogy is a comparison between one thing and another used for explanation. It often helps the reader understand something unfamiliar by comparing it to something familiar.

Consonance is the repetition of the same consonant sounds within a sentence or line of poetry.

“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.” 1 —consonance of the harsh, “T” sound

(2 to 4)

Ecphonesis and Rhetorical Questions

Ben Jonson uses ecphonesis in line 5, when he exclaims “O, could I lose all father now!” Jonson describes the woe of the loss of his child, which makes him childless, yet he still has his identity rooted in being a father with compassion for his son. He makes this exclamation as if to say that if only his sense of fatherhood could disappear with the disappearance of his child, he would not feel such agony.

After this exclamatory statement, Jonson launches into a series of reasons justifying why he should not mourn his son. His reasoning is presented in the form of rhetorical questions. Jonson asks why he should mourn his son when his son was able to escape the difficulties of human life on Earth and the “misery” of aging (8). Jonson is clearly conflicted about his feelings and trying to console himself by telling himself that life in heaven is so much better than the human struggle on Earth. However, this does not keep him from feeling the pain of his loss.

Ecphonesis is the use of an emotional, exclamatory phrase that originated in ancient poetry and drama.
“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?”

(5 to 8)

Metaphor and Enjambment

Jonson uses a metaphor to compare his son to “his best piece of poetry.” By saying this, Jonson gives testament to how valuable his son was to him—his son was his best, most beautiful creation.

Jonson uses enjambment in lines 9 and 10 to lead up to his declaration that his son is “his best piece of poetry.” Jonson uses enjambment to create an element of surprise, as the lines split between the phrase “Here doth lie / Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.” As the readers know it is Jonson's son who lies in the grave, it is striking that Ben Jonson's name appears instead of his son's. Ben Jonson places his own name after the phrase “Here doth lie” to suggest his own death alongside his son's death. He recognizes that he can never be the same or love the same way after the death of his son.

Enjambment is the continuation of one line of poetry into the next without any pause or punctuation.

“Rest in soft peace, and, ask'd, say, 'Here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.'”

(9 to 10)

“On My First Sonne”: Themes

The main themes of “On My First Sonne” are death, grief, faith, and fatherhood.

Death and Grief

In the elegiac poem, Ben Jonson grapples with the death of his first son at the young age of seven. Jonson attempts to deal with his grief by convincing himself that his son is better off at peace in heaven, as opposed to facing the struggles and aging that characterize human life on Earth. Jonson is unable to console himself, and his grief has struck him so severely that he fears loving anything again so sincerely, seeing that it could be taken away.

Faith

Ben Jonson grew up in the Christian faith, in which there is a heavenly afterlife to be sought after. The poem reflects how Jonson believes in the beauty of heaven and the peace and joy that awaits his son in eternity. Nonetheless, this does not keep him from deeply feeling the loss of his dearly beloved child. Jonson does not want to feel the pain and undergo the suffering of loss, but it is a necessary part of grieving. Christians believe that suffering can unite them to Christ's suffering on the cross. The poem explores the complexities of balancing heavenly ideals and faith with the harsh realities of human life.

Fatherhood

Jonson's poem deals with the theme of fatherhood. In the poem, fatherhood is portrayed as a powerful thing that brings great joy, and it leads to a love so strong that it makes someone extremely vulnerable. Jonson describes his son as his right-hand man and his greatest joy. Therefore, his son's death is an unimaginable sorrow. Jonson's grief is so painful that he wishes his attachment as a father could disappear with the death of his son. However, fatherhood is a permanent thing, and he will forever maintain the identity and attachment of being a father even after his son's death.

“On My First Sonne" - Key takeaways

  • “On My First Sonne” is a 17th century poem written by the English poet and dramatist, Ben Jonson, after the death of his seven-year-old son.
  • The poem is an elegy.
  • The tone of the poem is melancholic and despairing.
  • The poem uses literary devices including rhyming couplets, tone, analogy, consonance, ecphonesis, rhetorical questions, metaphor, and enjambment.
  • The poem features the key themes of death, grief, and faith.

1 Ben Jonson, "On My First Daughter," 1616.

Frequently Asked Questions about On My First Sonne

The main idea of 'On My First Sonne' is that grief is difficult to grasp, even in light of faith. 

The meaning of 'On My First Sonne,' is that loss is painful and can make it hard to love again. 

Ben Jonson is the author of 'On My First Sonne.'

The speaker of 'On My first Sonne' envies his dead son because his son is in heaven and has escaped the struggles, frustrations, and misery of aging experienced in life on Earth. 

The speaker means that his son was his best, most beautiful creation when he says his son was his best piece of poetry. 

Final On My First Sonne Quiz

Question

Who is the author of the poem, 'On My First Sonne'?

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Answer

Ben Jonson

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Question

What type of poem is 'On My First Sonne'?

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Answer

An elegy 

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Question

What was 'On My First Sonne' published?

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Answer

1616

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Question

What meter is the poem written in? 

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Answer

Iambic pentameter

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What is the tone of the poem? 

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Answer

Melancholic, despairing

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What are the main themes of the poem? 

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Answer

Death, grief, faith

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Question

What kind of rhymes are used in 'On My First Sonne'?

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Answer

Rhyming couplets/ heroic couplets

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What does Ben Jonson compare the life and death of his son to? 

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Answer

A loan that was given and needed to be repaid.

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Question

How old was Jonson's son when he died? 

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Answer

7

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Why does the speaker say he should envy his son? 

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Answer

His son is at peace in heaven and does not have to face the struggles and miseries of life on Earth. 

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Question

In the poem, the speaker uses a metaphor to compare his son to what? 

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Answer

His best piece of poetry 

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Question

Which literary device is "O, could I lost all father now!" an example of? 

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Answer

Ecphonesis 

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