Ben Johnson’s “On my first son” is a poem about a father’s grief after the death of his son. It is an elegy that reflects Johnson’s thought process as he tries to balance guilt, sadness, anger, and envy. At first, he communicates grief as he acknowledges the pain from the loss of his son; however, as he expresses himself farther we go on a journey of different emotions. Johnson’s use of language, imagery, sound, and rhythm produce a picture of his journey through grief.
The poem is written as a heroic couplet with a total of six pairs of rhyming couplets. Each line of the poem is an iambic pentameter. Johnson follows a strict rhyming pattern of aabbccddeeff. There are variations throughout the poem of line length and rhythmic pattern. This is an indication of an emotive poem. If we look at line 3: “Seven years thou wert lent to me, and I thee pay” (3), it is not an iambic pentameter, but a trochee hexameter. The line begins with a stressed syllable and is followed by an unstressed syllable. This unexpected variation in the rhythmic pattern could be an indication of Johnson’s struggles with his emotions. In addition, this is the first line where Ben Johnson’s son is spoken of directly. An additional interruption of the rhythmic pattern occurs in line 9, as an enjambment where Johnson’s son is spoken of again. It is as if speaking directly of Ben was too difficult to bear; therefore, disturbing the rhyming pattern.
Johnson’s diction and uses of punctuations demonstrate this is a very emotional poem. He begins the poem with “farewell” (1) setting a tone of grief and sadness while also signifying the beginning of closure. His use of the words “misery” (8), “rage” (7), and “sin” (2) further highlight the sorrow Johnson must have felt as he wrote the poem. The exclamation mark used in “O, could I lose all father, now!” (5) showcase his cry for desperation and anger. Johnson then goes from a state of sadness to confusion in line 6. He end-stopped with a question mark to stress his confused state, trying to understand the death of his son. However, towards the end of the poem there is a different side of Johnson, a sense of calmness and acceptance. Specifically, in lines 11 and 12, the choices of words are more formal, a suggestion of emotional distance as Johnson accepts what has occurred.
Imagery and figurative devices are used throughout the poem. In the first lines of the poem, Johnson treats the death of his son as a financial arrangement between himself and God. His son is treated as a good that was “lent” (3) to him and must be “paid” (3) back. This line implies the beginning of acceptance, as he understands that his son was “exacted” (4) “on the just day” (4). Johnson’s display of acceptance and control over his emotions do not last long. His emotions change to helplessness. He states “O, could I lose all father now! For why” (5), Johnson would rather abandon all feelings of fatherhood as his feelings are too much to bear. The assonance sound ‘o’ particularly highlights his helplessness. He further eludes to feelings of envy, as death is a state of “soft peace” (9) and allowed his son to escape all the “misery” (8). Johnson’s love for his son is evident in the poem as he is referred as “his best piece of poetry” (10) and “child of my right hand” (1). This metaphor and play on the name Benjamin indicate how large of a role Ben played in his life. Ben was his prized possession.
Johnson’s “On My First Son” is a written reflection of Johnson’s thoughts as he processes the death of his son. We are taken on a journey of distinct emotions as he tries explaining what has occurred. Johnson’s use of imagery and diction help indicates the emotion he felt as he wrote the specific line, while variations in line length and rhythm imply an overall emotive poem.