On My First Daughter by Ben Jonson

Jonson’s ‘On My First Daughter’ is an elegy or a poem written in memory of one who has recently died. It was published in 1616. Scholars believe that the poem was a personal representation of the poet’s own feelings and was based around the death of his first child, Mary. Throughout the text, Jonson speaks on themes of loss, death and religion. This poem can be paired with another by Ben Jonson titled, On My First Son‘. 

 

Summary of On My First Daughter 

‘On My First Daughter’ by Ben Jonson is a touching elegy written to honour and mourn the death of the poet’s first child, Mary. 

In the first lines of ‘On My First Daughter,’ the poet begins by addressing his daughter in her grave. She was born to the couple while they were young and brought them much sorrow when she died. Despite these things, he does take some comfort in knowing that she’s safe in heaven now. 

She was baptized and both he and his wife like to consider her in the arms of Mary Magdalene. The poem ends with the speaker asking the grave to cover her lightly with dirt as she will one day be reborn. 

 

Poetic Techniques in On My First Daughter 

On My First Daughter’ by Ben Jonson is a single stanza poem that’s made up of twelve lines. The lines utilize a simple rhyme scheme of couplets, following the pattern of AABBCC, and so on, changing end sounds as the poet saw fit. There is one moment of slant or half-rhyme in the poem with the endings “bears” and “tears”. 

The majority of the lines also contain four sets of two beats, for a total of eight syllables. The stress shifts positions as well, but generally conforms to iambic tetrameter. One moment in which this pattern does not control a line is the first with the stressed words “Here lies”. This is known as a spondee. 

Jonson also makes use of several other poetic techniques. These include apostrophe, alliteration, enjambment and repetition. The first, apostrophe, is an arrangement of words addressing someone who does not exist or is not present, in the poem’s immediate setting. In this case, the speaker, who is clearly Ben Jonson, the poet and father of Mary, the deceased infant girl, is speaking to his daughter beyond the grave. She is not there to hear his words, but he speaks them nonetheless. 

Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For instance, “Where, while” in line ten. There are also general examples of repetition in the text.

 

Repetition and Enjambment

Repetition can refer to the use and reuse of a specific technique, word, tone or phrase within a poem. In this case, the image of the grave is introduced and utilized at the beginning and end of the poem and the speaker mentions “heaven” three times. This is as if through repetition he will ensure his daughter’s soul resides there. 

Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. There are a few examples within ‘On My First Daughter’ but one can be seen in the transition between lines five and six. 

 

Analysis of On My First Daughter 

Lines 1-4

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. 

In the first lines of ‘On My First Daughter’ the speaker begins with the spondee, “Here lies.” This double stressed introduction lets the reader know the speaker is at his daughter’s grave. The poem takes the form of the inscription on the stone and reflects on the speaker’s feelings of grief and religious conviction. 

The child, whose death brought “ruth”or sorrow to her parents, is named Mary. The second line states that she was born to them in “their youth,” when they were quite young themselves. 

The next two lines lighten the mood slightly as the speaker tells the reader his knowledge of heaven makes him feel slightly less sorrowful. He knows that he was only blessed with his child because of heaven, and she had to eventually go back to heaven as well. Or as Jonson puts it, “all heaven’s gifts being heaven’s due”. 

 

Lines 5-8 

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, 

The next four lines of ‘On My First Daughter’ provide the reader with a little more background information about the child. She was only “six months” old when she “parted hence,” or died. But luckily, she did so “With safety of her innocence.” She was young, which meant that she did not know sin hen she died. But also, this phrase likely alludes to the fact that she was baptized. God would’ve received her with open arms, the poet thinks. 

Jonson adds to this statement to increase the feeling of safety around his deceased daughter. He knows that she was welcome into heaven by “heaven’s queen,” the woman with whom she shares a name, Mary. In a reflection of line four, line eight speaks to the comfort of the mother. This knowledge makes Jonson’s partner feel as though her daughter is being well taken care of. 

 

Lines 9-12 

Hath placed amongst her virgin-train: 

Where, while that severed doth remain, 

This grave partakes the fleshly birth; 

Which cover lightly, gentle earth!

In the ninth- twelfth lines of ‘On My First Daughter’ Jonson explains that Mary Magdalene would’ve put the child alongside the others she protects in heaven. He then takes the elegy back to earth and the physical grave in front of him. Jonson describes how the child’s soul is up in heaven “while” her body is buried in the earth at his feet. He believes that her soul will be reborn from the grave. In the last line, he asks the earth to “cover lightly” and gently his child’s body. 

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