Ben Jonson’s poem “Epitaph on S. P., a Child of Queen Elizabeth’s Chapel” and Robert Herrick’s poem “Upon Prue, His Maid” are two works, by seventeenth-century writers, that commemorate the dead. However, the differences between the two works are more striking than their similarities.
Herrick’s poem is very brief and, partly for that reason, somewhat witty. Consisting of a mere four lines, the poem does mention the full name of the person commemorated, Prudence Baldwin, but it gives us almost no impression of her as an individual person or personality. The language is as simple and plain as the poem is brief. Just as the urn in which Prue is buried is “little,” so the same thing is true of the poem in which Herrick commemorates her. Indeed, the word “urn” here may even refer, metaphorically, to the poem itself (1). One gets the sense that the poem did not require much time or effort to write – not because Herrick did not value Prue but simply because epitaphs were often short. (Many of them, in fact, were inscribed on cemetery headstones and thus could not be very long.)
In contrast, Jonson gives great attention to “S. P.” (Salomon Pavy), a boy actor who had acted in several of Jonson’s dramas and whom Jonson seems to have genuinely respected. Jonson in fact begins by referring to his own grief at Pavy’s passing, and he also directly and explicitly addresses the reader, as Herrick does not (1). The first four lines of the poem suggest that Pavy’s death is, and should be, an occasion of grief for practically everyone, including even a personified Death. Jonson presents a far more detailed picture of Pavy’s personality and individual character than Herrick presents of Prue’s. We learn about Pavy’s precise age (9), the length of his career as an actor (11-12), the kinds of roles he played (14), and his skill as an actor (16).
Jonson pays unusual tribute to a non-aristocratic youth, just as he plays unusual tribute to a member of a profession – acting – that was not especially respected by many people during his era. One senses in Jonson’s poem the kind of personal loss and genuine tenderness that a poem like Herrick’s was never intended to express. Herrick’s poem, though accomplished, is merely conventional; Jonson’s poem gives us a sense not only of Pavy’s character but also of the writer’s own personality and values. The mere existence and length of Jonson’s poem implies the rich value of Pavy’s life. The poem speaks, by implication, as attractively about Jonson as it does explicitly about Pavy. The fact that Jonson took the time and made the effort to celebrate Pavy in this way helps refute the claim (associated with the historian Lawrence Stone) that the deaths of children was not felt as keenly in the early modern period as they would be in later centuries.
By the end of the work, Jonson manages to convince us that there is real emotion behind the poem’s opening lines:
Weep with me, all you that read
This little story;
And know for whom a tear you shed,
Death’s self is sorry.
Jonson’s poem, unlike Herrick’s, does indeed help us “know” (emphasis added) the specific person whose death the poem laments.