Friday, May 05, 2006

Wrist-Slitting Friday Poetry Blogging

In keeping with my preference for wrist-slitting poetry, I give you Ben Jonson's "On My First Daughter." Jonson (1572-1637) was roughly a contemporary of Shakespeare's (1564-1616), and wrote important plays (Volpone, The Alchemist, Epicene), masques (The Masque of Blackness and the Masque of Oberon), and enough verse to please even me. If there's been no Shakespeare, we'd probably have a Jonson requirement in a lot of English majors.

On a trip to Scotland in 1618, Jonson hung out with one William Drummond of Hawthorndon, who recorded Jonson's conversation, included ribald stories about that other playwright guy. Poor old WD, also a poet, will be remembered for his notetaking skills rather than his own poetry. Maybe, though, that's not so bad; his "conversations" are one of those weird quirky artifacts that give those of us who care about really dead folks grist. Thanks, WD!

So, this poem. When someone tells you that medieval and early modern people didn't care about their kids because they died so often, think of this poem, and of Jonson's poem after the death of his son Ben, and know better.

On My First Daughter

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.


  1. I love this poem - I always teach it in my surveys along with the poem to his son - Ben Jonson's a good egg...

  2. It's a great poem indeed, as is the one for his son. And this one has some very interesting, and maybe slightly risky, Catholic resonances: "heaven's queen, (whose name she bears)"; "virgin train" ...

    Another thought: Jonson called his son "Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry," but with his daughter he emphasizes "the safety of her innocence" and virginity; partly of course because she died in infancy, but also because he associates poetry with masculine birth and parthenogenesis, I think.

  3. I must profess to a lack of awareness of Ben Jonson. This is the first piece I've read and now I'll definitely seek out more of his work.

  4. You know, Medieval Woman, I think Jonson's one of the early modern folks who'd be just really fun to actually meet (or channel if you're psychic). And the two poems to his kids work wonderfully together in classes.

    Hieronimo, I think that's a really good point about the way Jonson thinks of poetry.

    Darren Reece, I'm glad to introduce you to one of the best poets of English; I hope you enjoy his other works, too!

  5. Thanks for this, and for the reference to the poem about his son, I wasn't aware of these poems and they are very useful to me.

  6. What a wonderful poem!

    I love the slicing visciousness of the word "severed." Couldn't think of a better word to portray a parent's pain.

    Then in contrast, close your eyes and say the last line of the poem. Was there ever a line so graceful (despite being rather cliched) in depicting the love of a father standing over a grave?

  7. GrumpyABDAdjunce - glad to be of service. Jonson's just amazing.

    CO - I agree about the "severed." But I bet this last line wasn't nearly so cliched when Jonson wrote it!

    I'm always in tears trying to teach either of these two poems.