This is a tragic epitaph for Jonson’s infant child, Mary, who died when she was six months old. In the poem Jonson tries to come to terms with her death and consoles himself that she now rests in heaven and all her innocence and purity will remain intact for eternity placing her amongst the most divine residents of heaven.
However, despite his believe her soul is in heaven, he shows that the tragedy still weighs heavy upon him by pleading with the earth that covers her grave to be gentle with her.
ruth – compassion for another’s suffering or sorrow for your own faults.
virgin-train – a train in this sense means an entourage or attendants for a lady.
severed – separated.
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!
Ben Jonson (1572-1637)
Jonson’s poetry appeared on the last AS Songs of Ourselves selection with a similarly themed poem From Underwood, which lamented the loss of a close friend before his time.
As the next best thing after Shakespeare, Jonson was a pretty influential writer in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but much more interesting than that he was in prison a couple of times: once for killing a guy in a duel!
The background to this poem is heartbreaking. In 1593 when he was just 21, his wife gave birth to their first child – a daughter named Mary. However, Mary died at around 6 months old. Tragedy was to strike Jonson again with his first son also dying in his youth, having contracted the bubonic plague at 7 years old (he also wrote an epitaph for him called On My First Son, which will no doubt be in the next CIE selection!), and his other son died as a young adult.
Clearly this is focused around parental love, but also mortality and coping with the loss of a loved one. While the poem is about his daughter it reveals more about him, his suffering and attempts to cope with his loss than it tells us about his daughter.
The two opening lines position us as Jonson’s daughter’s gravestone. While this is an immediately tragic setting, Jonson attempts to deal with his loss by explaining that as his daughter was a gift from heaven, he knew she would always have to return there.
In the fifth line he reveals the extent of the tragedy as Mary only reached six months before her death (not uncommon at the time when infant mortality rates were astronomical). However, he tries to treat this optimistically and sees her youth as meaning she cannot hold any sin or evil that would deny her a seat in heaven. In the seventh, eighth and ninth lines, Jonson imagines that this innocence and purity will see her join with the Virgin Mary and be taken under her comforting wing.
The final three lines reveal the lie in Jonson’s hopes and imaginings for his daughter. While he is trying to console himself that she is in a better place, part of him acknowledges that the daughter he loved is the flesh that is buried in front of him. He quietly pleads with the earth to be gentle and look after this part of her.
Language and techniques
The first thing I would mention is the significance of the word ‘First’ in the title. While losing a loved one is always going to be heartbreaking, this is their first child (only child at the time) and as such the most important person in Jonson’s world – presumably. He reveals as much in the second line as this is the daughter of ‘their youth’ and thus before they have had the chance to become aware of the tragedies that befall all our lives.
We also have a lovely metaphor comparing his daughter to ‘heaven’s gift’ and thus something divinely special in his life. This communicates just how much love Jonson held for her as he elevates her above the rest of mankind. It also allows him to deal with his loss – ‘makes the father less to rue’ as he knows that our gifts from heaven must be repaid and her return would always, eventually, be ‘heaven’s due’. Thus he feels like his time with his daughter was incredibly special as he was borrowing a divinely perfect creature, but she would always have to return.
He uses this metaphor of a loaned gift as a coping mechanism. The idea that Mary will return to heaven makes the guilt of a parent unable to keep their child alive easier to bear (I’m not suggesting it was his fault here).
Continue to explore the idea of his daughter returning to heaven he compares innocence to a suit of armour figuratively. His daughter has the ‘safety of her innocence’ to ensure safe entry to heaven as in six months she has not been exposed to sin or to evil that could bar her entry. This flies in the face of earlier Catholic belief that unbaptised babies cannot enter heaven, but instead enter the rather unappealing state of limbo. Luckily England was a Protestant country so baby Mary was allowed to have a golden ticket!
When Jonson talks about ‘heaven’s queen’ he is referring to the Virgin Mary, Jesus’ mum, who is considered to be divinely pure, innocence and chaste (no doubt to the consternation of her husband, Joseph!). The poem places baby Mary alongside the Virgin Mary as an attendant in her ‘virgin-train’, which suggests that he views baby Mary’s innocence and purity as making her special and important to the Virgin Mary. So much so that the baby will be given the ‘comfort’ of ‘her mother’s tears’. Again this is Jonson elevating the importance of his daughter in order to help him cope with the loss by imagining she will be supremely well looked after.
In the final three lines, Jonson switches his attention from the soul of his daughter, which he has assured himself will find its home in heaven and focuses on her body. Although soul and body are ‘severed’ with death, with the soul considered to be the true essence of the person, Jonson still mourn her body and is concerned that it too should be treated with care and love. He pleads softly with the earth above her to ‘cover [her] lightly’ and thus ensure that her body is comfortable even in its lifeless state.
Okay, so the first thing you need to know is that this is an epitaph. That means that it was either read at her funeral or inscribed onto her grave.
It is build of six rhyming couplets. The rhymes are all simple with soft sounds dominating (with the exception of ‘bears’ and ‘tears’). The simplicity reflects the youth and innocence of his daughter, while the softness of the words throughout the poem, and the rhymes in particular, connects us with a sense of gentle grief.
You could also mention the exclamation mark at the end, which gives urgency to Jonson’s plea for the earth to be ‘gentle’ with her body.
Obviously this is read in very sombre tones due to the subject matter. Even when Jonson envisages hopes of a better existence in heaven, he is never far from grief as reveal by his emotional plea at the end of the poem.