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On My First Daughter by Ben Jonson: Summary & Analysis

On My First Daughter by Ben Jonson: Summary & Analysis
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

A parent's loss of a child is a truly heartbreaking experience, and many of us might not know how to manage if we were confronted with it. Find out how Ben Jonson coped with such a tragedy in this lesson on his poem 'On My First Daughter.'

'On My First Daughter' by Ben Jonson

Since this poem contains only six rhyming couplets and many of us might have no prior experience with it, let's take a quick look at Ben Jonson's brief but heartfelt commemoration of his daughter, Mary.

Here lies, to each her parents' ruth,
Mary, the daughter of their youth;
Yet all heaven's gifts being heaven's due,
It makes the father less to rue.
At six months' end she parted hence
With safety of her innocence;
Whose soul heaven's queen, whose name she bears,
In comfort of her mother's tears,
Hath placed amongst her virgin-train:
Where, while that severed doth remain,
This grave partakes the fleshly birth;
Which cover lightly, gentle earth!

Analysis

In the modern era, many of us will never experience the tragedy of losing a child; however, we might have had to deal with the pain of burying pets, who we often see as our 'children.' For those of us who have had to say goodbye to these companions who we diligently care for, the intense emotional distress of that loss is often almost unbearable and indescribable.

Now imagine living in the 16th century like Ben Jonson did, when infant mortality rates were much higher, and what it's like to have the same experience with your own flesh and blood. Many more people of his day undoubtedly shared in this experience with Jonson, and many probably felt much the same way he did.

'On My First Daughter' is a poetic epitaph, or funerary speech or inscription, honoring the deceased. Jonson wrote it for his daughter, who died 'At six months' end.' As with our pets or any other family member, we understand how attached people can become to those they love. We might also know how difficult it sometimes is to separate our love for them from our attachment to them. These feelings can quite often be rather contradictory, especially when it comes to letting loved ones go, and this is the type of problem that Jonson outlines in his poem.

He opens the epitaph by expressing the pain felt from this loss: 'to each her parents' ruth.' Although he only knew Mary for six short months, Jonson's pain comes from his attachment to his daughter - the familiarity and comfort of having her around. With that connection severed, he has to find a new source of comfort, and the poem's second couplet is the first step in arriving at that new source.

For Jonson, a spiritually minded man, the first hurdle he jumps in getting over his attachment to his daughter comes from the realization that she was never really 'his' to begin with. He sees Mary as a gift from Heaven, and as such, Heaven is entitled to reclaim her as it sees fit. However, knowing this 'makes the father less to rue,' rather than making him bitter, giving the first indication that his love for Mary is driving his emotions now more than his attachment to her.

Certainly, such an unexpected end to such a short life is tragic, but Jonson also saw Mary's young age as one of her redeeming qualities in death. Since she died in the 'safety of her innocence,' Mary had no sins she had to atone for in the afterlife, so she's free of any punishment from God.

Of course, Mary's name gives her a connection to 'heaven's queen,' which Jonson takes as another indication that he has no cause for concern. In fact, as consolation to the grieving mother, he even claims that the Queen of Heaven has taken in the young Mary as one of her attendants 'amongst her virgin-train.'

Despite all his spiritual reassurances, though, Jonson is still human, after all, and he understands just how hard it is to let go completely. Although it's clearly comforting for him to imagine that Mary's soul has been accepted into the bliss of Paradise - where she'll not have to experience her own struggles with pain and heartache - he can't help but feel separated from her.

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