On My First Daughter and On My First Son
Ben Jonson's poems on the death of his children
Ben Jonson lived in the English Renaissance period when childhood mortality was very high due to health problems, diseases, lack of medicines and unhygienic life conditions. He got married to Anne Lewis in the early 1590s. Their first daughter, Mary was born in 1593 who died only six months later. Jonson wrote his poem On My First Daughter upon her death. His first son, Benjamin, born 1596, died of the plague in 1603 at age seven and Jonson wrote the poem On My First Son shortly after his death1. On My First Daughter and On My First Son were both published with many other poems in Epigrams in the first folio collection of Ben Jonson's works in 1616. On My First Daughter (number XXII. in the Epigrams) is a twelve line poem with rhyming couplets with the rhyme scheme aa bb. The first two lines of the poem can be seen as a statement that gives us informations about the child and its parents. We get to know that Mary, the first daughter of Ben Jonson and his wife, who they got when they were very young (”daughter of their youth”), passed away and they are mourning together. The second couplet is about two philosophical/religious thoughts. The first is that nothing on Earth lasts forever, with the meaning everybody has to die someday. The second thought is that what has been given from heaven, which symbolizes God, belongs to heaven/God. It can be interpreted as God's presents are not presents as such, because they are just loaned to us and we have to give them back. Mary, the little baby has been such a gift from God for her parents, but the parents had to return this gift very soon, as we can see in the next line. This second thought gives the father a little comfort, because he knows that his daughter is back to heaven, which is a better place than the Earth.2 The next two lines reveal that Mary was only six months old when she died. This means of course, as shown in lines 5 and 6, that she was an infant. In a religious sense being an infant is the same as being innocent, because she was too young to be able to sin, her age was her assurance on her way to heaven. Lines 7-9 are pointed at Virgin Mary, after whom Mary Jonson was named (”whose name she bears”). Line 7 tells us that the baby's soul is at ”heaven's queen”, at Mother Mary, who puts her soul among the other innocent ”virgin” souls in line 9. This is also a description of a very religious moment, it shows that only the soul goes to heaven, lives on in the afterlife, while the body, being fleshly, remains on Earth. Lines 7 and 9 are a kind of parentheses to line 8, where baby Mary's mother appears and comforts her with her tears. These three lines show us a strange triangle. There are three female characters here and it does not matter which two we pick out of them we find many similarities. This connection is in case of mother and daughter, Mary and Anne Jonson very obvious. So let's look at Queen Mary and baby Mary instead. We know that they share the same name, the baby girl was named after Queen Mary. They have also in common that they are both virgins. Queen Mary was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus that is why she is also called Virgin Mary. We mentioned the baby girl's innocence earlier, and we know that innocent and virginal are often used as synonyms in case of girls. And right now they are both in heaven, both have left this life, but their soul lives on there. 3 If we look at Queen Mary and Mrs Jonson, we also find many similarities. First they are both mothers, whose first born child died. Altough the children did not die at the same age, they were both innocent when they passed away, and this gave a little comfort to the mothers while they were mourning. It is interesting to observe that they have the same function, so when the baby dies, she leaves her birth mother, but gets a new one in heaven, because Mother Mary takes her on her side. After mentioning...
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