Ben Jonson wrote this elegy after the death in 1603 of his eldest son, Benjamin, aged seven. The poet addresses the boy, bidding him farewell, and then seeks some meaning for his loss. Jonson blames himself, rhetorically at least, arguing that he hoped too much for his son, who was only on loan to him. Now that the seven years are up, the boy has had to be returned. Jonson tries to argue that this is only fair and his presumptuous plans for the boy's future were the cause of his present sense of loss. He then questions his own grief: why lament the enviable state of death when the child has escaped suffering and the misery of aging? He cannot answer this question, simply saying "Rest in soft peace" and asking that the child, or perhaps the grave, record that his son was Jonson's "best piece of poetry," the creation of which he ...view middle of the document...
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.
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 image comes from the Bible - it reflects ancient cultures and the way Jesus is shown as sitting at God's right hand). The poet sees the boy's death as caused by his (the father's, not the boy's) sin - in loving the child too much - an idea that returns at the end of the poem. He sees the boy's life also in terms of a loan, which he has had to repay, after seven years, on the day set for this (“:the just day”). This extended metaphor expresses the idea that all people really belong to God and are permitted to spend time in this world. Jonson looks at the contradiction (or paradox) that we “lament” (cry over) something we should really envy - escaping the hardships of life and the misery of ageing. The writer suggests that “his best piece of poetry” (the best thing he has ever made, that is) is his son. Remembering his sin (of loving too much) he now expresses the hope or wish that from now on, whatever he loves he will not do so “too much”.