Ben Jonson’s poem ‘On My First Son’, written in 1603 is the compelling tale of one father’s unconditional love for his son who has perished after falling victim to the notorious plague, the Black Death. ‘Dream of a Lost Friend’ meanwhile is much a more modern-day poem; almost story-like in nature it tells the story of the immense strain placed upon a close friendship as the realisation that one friend will die hits home. It is how these poems deal with death, and their differing representations of it that make these poems so engaging to read.
‘On My First Son’ is basically a Dad’s reflection on the loss of his son. The poem deals with how Jonson’s son died and his own feelings and reactions toward every father’s personal nightmare. The themes are the poem’s recurring religious overtones and the father’s state of mind following his dreadful loss. ‘Dream of a Lost Friend’ is the story of a friendship capitulating under the pressure of two friends struggling to come to terms with the fact that one of them has AIDS and is destined to die. Themes seen throughout the poem are the strength and durability of feelings within a friendship, the denial of fate and the boundaries between dream and reality. There are few similarities story wise, apart from the obvious loss of life.
The structure of ‘On My First Son’ is one twelve line stanza, unlike the four six line stanzas that make up ‘Dream of a Lost Friend’. ‘Dream of a Lost Friend’ is also written in free verse, giving the poem the story like quality it possesses. ‘On My First Son’ uses simple, typical sixteenth century language. There is no great description or no raw emotion. ‘Dream of a Lost Friend’ uses much more descriptive language to help resemble raw emotions and is a poem that generates more impact than ‘On My First Son’ in my opinion. There are also periods of speech represented by italics. For example the poet writes: “Then you turned, pale, unwell. My dear, must this be?” The language used in this quote is used to generate the raw emotion of desperation.
From my viewpoint ‘On My First Son’ is also using an elaborate comparison of Jesus and Jonson’s son throughout the piece. Jonson loved his first son so much his son literally became part of him, a fragment of his own soul: “Farewell, thou child of my right hand”. The phrase ‘child of my right hand’ has biblical background. The Bible presents Jesus as God’s right hand so Jonson is basically harnessing the idea that he shared a spiritual connection with his son alike the one God and Jesus had. Also, much like God gave Earth Jesus, a true ‘miracle-child’ Jonson goes on to write: “Seven years thou wert lent to me, and I thee pay”. Is Jonson saying that Earth being given Jesus is similar to him being given his son?
The four stanzas of ‘Dream of a Lost Friend’ all resemble phrases of the friend’s mindset. The first stanza is the realisation that both friends face. The setting is dominated by an AIDS poster, just as both characters thoughts are dominated by the revelation of one of their impending deaths. The second stanza is the two friends coming to terms with what they have just heard. The sufferer reacts hysterically: “You laughed, a child-man’s laugh, innocent, hysterical, out of your skull.” I feel that the laughter portrays a refusal to accept reality.
The third stanza is one friend’s dream that her friend is still alive while the fourth stanza is a quick return to reality. The fourth stanza also reveals the guilt of the friend for not attending the victim’s funeral: “I missed your funeral, I said, knowing you couldn’t hear at the end of the corridor, thumbs up, acting.” I personally think that the victim’s friend is seeking forgiveness and redemption from her friend for not attending her funeral and telling her, when she was alive that everything was going to be alright.
‘On My First Son’ is written in a typical sixteenth century style of writing and the tone of is one of great emptiness, loneliness, sadness and reflection. Jonson writes: “My sin was too much hope of thee, loved boy.” Jonson cannot bring himself to look upon the good times he spent with his son; he can only see his faults as a father. ‘Sin’ was also considered a very damning word in the 16th Century so Jonson is being very harsh on himself as a father. There is no bitterness from Jonson in the tone of the poem though. This poem has also been designed to signify Jonson’s mood of emotional exhaustion. When read aloud, the reader should notice a number of pauses, called caesuras, for example: “Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy” and these are designed to slow down the pace of the poem and in some places resemble sighs or periods of reflection.
The tone of ‘Dream of a Lost Friend’ is not too distant from that of ‘On My First Son’. It is also one of reflection and sadness. The tone is also of genuine helplessness, true fear and people accepting fate, whether it be their own or another’s. The poet writes: “Your white lips. Help me.” She is truly petrified at the thought of having AIDS and her desperation is apparent when he says ‘Help me’. Her friend goes on to say “It’s only a bad dream, I heard myself saying, only a bad dream.” She, much like her friend cannot accept her friend’s ominous future and both battle with raw emotions throughout the poem. We must also consider the fact that this poem was written in the 1980s. This decade was when the AIDS epidemic was in the full public glare and at the time incurable. This would of added extra impact to the fear felt by the characters.
While slightly similar in tone there is no correspondence in the way each poet portrays death. Jonson’s ‘On My First Son’ looks upon death as a release and includes none of the fear associated with death which is so readily present in ‘Dream of a Lost Friend’.
Jonson displays quite an unrivalled scale of emotions when depicting death. From the depression displayed early on in the poem at his son’s death, Jonson goes on to consider his passing as almost a blessing: “Will man lament the state he should envy?” Rather than curse God, Jonson feels he should be thankful. In his opinion God has kept his son pure and done him justice by allowing him to die: “To have so soon ‘scaped world’s and flesh’s rage, And, if no other misery, yet age?” In my opinion Jonson sees it as a godsend that the son he covets so much will not be exposed to the temptations of the adult world; the innocence Jonson sees within his son will stay intact forever now. His son has also escaped the perils of old age, the terror of the rampaging plague and in Jonson’s eye the World’s universal misery.
On the other hand ‘Dream of a Lost Friend’ illustrates death as something to be feared. Obviously the impact of dieing from AIDS makes this portrayal of death understandably more chilling. The fear of death for both friends in the poem is all too over-powering: “The words you spoke were frenzied prayers to Chemistry; or you laughed, a child-man’s laugh, innocent, hysterical, out of your skull.” The dread she feels for death causes her to give up on religion and God. She makes ‘frenzied prayers’ to science in the hope a cure will be found rather than plead with God for a miracle.
What I find most intriguing about the two poems are their religious connotations. ‘On My First Son’, the sixteenth century poem is a poem that sticks to a strong set of religious rules and treats death more lightly while ‘Dream of a Lost Friend’ shows a lack of faith in religion and treats death more bluntly, in my opinion. ‘On My First Son’ is also such a reflective poem from the father’s point of view that it does not need to use the raw emotions displayed in ‘Dream of a Lost Friend’.