This most poignant of themes is also one of the most difficult for serious poets. Mawkish verse on the loss of a child fills the obituary pages of daily newspapers, and maudlin sentiment is always near at hand when writers attempt highly charged emotional themes. The great poets can avoid it, however, by seeking fresh and surprising images and diction rather than the familiar and heavily emotive language of the conventional eulogy. This section includes poems not just about children but also about premature death: the loss of young people in their prime, those whose potential is abruptly and unexpectedly extinguished. Poems about young people who have died in war are discussed in the War section.
Ben Jonson is famous for three fine poems about the death of children, two of the children his own. “On My First Daughter” is a tribute to Mary, who died at the age of just six months; “On My First Son” (1603) concerns the death of Benjamin at the age of seven. Both poems are twelve lines of rhyming couplets, the first written in iambic tetrameter and the second in iambic pentameter. They are, however, very different in tone and content. The tribute to the infant Mary appears to be an attempt to comfort his wife, the grieving mother, with conventional Christian consolation. The baby was a gift to them, the young parents, from heaven, and therefore she is “heaven's due” and the father should not regret returning her to God. As an infant she is still innocent, and her namesake Mary will “in comfort of her mother's tears” make her a part of Mary's “virgin train,” a special, honored place. The baby's soul is safe, but the poem closes with a moving reminder of their little daughter's fragile, tiny body: “This grave partakes the fleshly birth./Which cover lightly, gentle earth.” These lines are a paraphrase from the first-century A.D. Roman poet Martial, who in Epigram V. xxxiv requests “may no hard