On My First Daughter Ben Jonson

(1616) As would any bereaved father, Ben Jonson adopts a solemn, touching tone for this tribute to his dead child. While the poem was included in his Works published in 1616, the date of its writing remains unknown. A religious man, and a Catholic at the time of this poem's creation, Jonson adopts the attitude that all humans remain on loan from God, to whom they must return at his pleasure. As George Parfitt notes, Jonson held a specific moral vision constantly revealed in his poetry. He supported that vision through use of a recurrent "ethical vocabulary," including terms such as virtue. In this poem he celebrates the preservation of his daughter's innocence, and, by implication, her virtue. The 12-line poem composed of rhyming couplets remains simple in sentiment, yet imbued with all of the complicated emotions a grieving parent would feel.

Jonson opens as if standing over a new grave, stating, "Here, lies, to each her parents' ruth /," where ruth means grief, "Mary, the daughter of their youth." The second line signals the loss as especially hurtful, as the parents are young and inexperienced, probably doting on their first girl child. The third line reflects the father's faith as the transitional term Yet allows the statement of faith to balance the grief, "Yet all heaven's gifts being heaven's due," with the repetition of heaven emphasizing the speaker's belief that his daughter has returned to the place she left. Because all human life as God's gift will eventually depart earth, this "makes the father less to rue." He also takes solace in the fact that "At six months' end she parted hence / With safety of her innocence," suggesting that as an infant, she had not yet exhibited any sinful behavior, a point of comfort for her parents. His next lines engage in delicate imagery, as he and her mother take comfort also in the fact that his daughter's soul is now a part of those serving the baby's namesake, the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus and queen of heaven:

Whose soul heaven's queen, whose name she bears,

In comfort of her mother's tears,

Hath placed amongst her virgin-train:

Jonson concludes by shifting his attention back to the material reality of the grave that cradles the child:

Where, while that severed doth remain,

This grave partakes the fleshly birth;

Which cover lightly, gentle earth!

He employs the harsh verb severed to describe a forced separation of such pain that he feels he has lost a part of himself, contrasting with the previous imagery of comfort provided by visions of his daughter in heaven. The Where refers to heaven, where the child's soul remains, while her earthly body lies under ground. However, Jonson concludes on a positive note, employing the terms lightly and gentle to personify the earth as a place that will respect her tiny form. That concept proved, according to Parfitt, "commonplace, both in classical and Elizabethan contexts," the classical context here that of the Latin poet Martial, although Jonson manipulates Martial's paganism to give his adaptation "a distinctively Christian connotation."

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Responses

  • Giacobbe
    What meaning is found in poem my first daughter?
    3 months ago

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