Ben Jonson: On my first Sonne
About the poet
Ben Jonson (1572-1637) was an actor, playwright and a poet. He wrote his plays around the same time as Shakespeare, whom he outlived. (According to an eccentric and almost certainly false theory, someone else wrote Shakespeare's plays - and Jonson is the one of the chief suspects, along with Francis Bacon.) In his own time, Jonson was more highly regarded than Shakespeare. In 1598 he was convicted of murdering a fellow actor, Gabriel Spencer, but escaped the hangman by claiming benefit of clergy (he proved he was in holy orders, and so not liable to trial in the ordinary courts). His work is closer in style to the classical dramatists of the ancient world. He published two collections of poems and translations.
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About the poem
The poem records and laments (expresses sorrow for) the death of the poet's first son. We call such poems elegies or describe them as elegiac. Jonson contrasts his feelings of sorrow with what he thinks he ought to feel - happiness that his son is in a better place.
The death of a child still has great power to move us - Seamus Heaney records a similar experience in Mid-Term Break. It would have been a far more common event in 17th century England, where childhood illnesses were often fatal. The modern reader should also be aware of Jonson's Christian faith - he has no doubt that his son is really in a “state" we should envy, in God's keeping. Sometimes poets write in the first person (writing "I") but take on the identity of an imagined speaker (as Yeats does in The Song of the Old Mother and Browning does in My Last Duchess). Here we can be sure that Jonson is speaking for and as himself.
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The poem in detail
Jonson writes as if talking to his son - and as if he assumes that the boy can hear or read his words. He calls him the child of his "right hand" both to suggest the boy's great worth and also the fact that he would have been the writer's heir (the...