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In 1603, Ben Jonson had a dream, a very strange dream. He was visiting a friend (Sir Robert Cotton) outside of London. There, as one of Jonson's friends later recounted, "he saw in a vision his eldest son, then a child and at London, appear unto him with the mark of a bloody cross on his forehead, as if it had been cut with a sword; at which amazed he prayed unto God, and in the morning he came to Mr. Camden's [another friend of Jonson's who was with them] chamber to tell him, who persuaded him it was but an apprehension of his fantasy at which he should not be dejected."
See? We told you it was weird. Know what's weirder? Jonson's friend was wrong. Letters soon arrived, informing Jonson of the non-dream death of his eldest son at the hands of the plague (sometimes referred to as the "pest"). Bad times.
In response to his son's untimely death, Jonson composed this short poem "On My First Son." Nobody is entirely sure when he wrote the poem, but it must have been shortly after his son's death and burial. The poem laments the death of Jonson's son and expresses what appears to be Jonson's feelings of profound sadness. (A poem that commemorates a dead person and laments their death is called an elegy, and there are many famous elegies in English. See our module for "Lycidas" for one important example.)
Even though Jonson wrote the poem shortly after his son's death, he didn't publish it until 1616, when he issued a collection of his works. In that collection, he sorted his poems into smaller groups. "On My First Son" appears in a group of poems called Epigrams. (Epigrams are generally short and memorable little poems, usually only a few lines long.) Although it's not a very long poem, it deals in great depth with the poet's tremendous grief and loss. In just a few lines, Jonson packs a powerful punch.
Have you ever been to a funeral, or lost somebody close to you, or known somebody who lost someone close to them? Chances are you're nodding right now. When someone has died, it is common for people to say things like "he or she is in a better place now" or "it was just his or her time." These and similar comments are attempts to explain death or to find some meaning in it. We like to believe that after we die we go to a better place.
In the same way, we like to believe that everybody is given a certain amount of time on earth and that, when that time is up, that's it. It makes life easier to believe that when we die is somehow out of our hands—that there is some "fate" or destiny or logic governing the things that happen in the world, including death.
Ben Jonson's poem explores all of these issues. It's about the grief we feel when somebody close to us suddenly dies. It's also about how we like to think of death as something that is beyond our control, but also a transition to a better place. The speaker of "On My First Son" is working through his grief, and he does so in a way that is probably familiar to you if you've had, or known someone who's had, a brush with death. When the worst happens, we're left reeling, trying to make some sense out of death's finality. Jonson's doing the exact same thing here.
Check it out. It may be that his conclusions bring comfort to you, or maybe it's just comforting to read how others feel the same way you do, even if you're separated by hundreds of years.
Ben Jonson, Set to Music
Here's a Ben Jonson site that plays music and contains a number of links.
Ben Jonson: The Man, the Legend
This is a short biography about the poet with links to purchase and read his works.
Ben Jonson: Also, the Playwright
Check out a discussion of Jonson that focuses on his plays.
Ben Jonson: A Grave of His Own
Dig (sorry) this info at the poet's grave's website.
Jonson at Westminster (the Abbey, not the Dog Show)
Here's Jonson's page at the Westminster Abbey website.
Fonts of the Renaissance
Try your hand at Jonson's style. You can download fonts that will make your writing look like something written during the sixteenth and seventeenth century.
Check out the University of Delaware's men's chorus performing the poem.
In the Closet
Here's a fellow wearing a hoodie and reading the poem in what looks to be a walk-in closet.
Here's a British kid discussing the poem, with some wild visual aids.
A young person reads the poem, but not with much enthusiasm.
This version is a tad more…dramatic.
Dig the Beard
Here's a famous painting of Ben Jonson.
Good Marks for Penmanship
Here's a page from a manuscript showing Jonson's handwriting.
A Grave Sight
Check out Jonson's burial place in Westminster Abbey (it says "O rare Ben Jonson").
Check out this great article by famous poet Robert Pinksy. In it, he discusses the role of the speaker in "On My First Son."
Ben Jonson: The Father
In this article, a scholar reflects on the theme of fatherhood in this poem.
Masques, Epigrams, and Underwoods: The Works of Ben Jonson
See page 175 for "On My First Son."
Ben Jonson: A Life
Here's a biography by scholar Ian Donaldson.