Sit back, relax, and let Shmoop tell you a story. It's about a wood nymph named Echo and the huge crush she had on a young man named Narcissus. Theirs is a love story for the ages. Sort of. The Ancient Greek myth of Echo and Narcissus goes a little something like this:
Echo falls head over heels in love with Narcissus. Narcissus gives Echo the cold shoulder. Harsh. A heartbroken Echo spends the rest of her life sad and alone, which is the Ancient Greek equivalent of eating ice cream with her best gal pals. Narcissus, meanwhile, finds love elsewhere. Yep, the dude falls in love with… himself (hence our word "narcissism ").
You see, one day, he comes upon a spring, and when he sees his reflection in the water, he just can't resist his own good looks. He stares at himself so long that he eventually drops dead. Whoops. On the spot where he dies, the world's first daffodil (a.k.a. the narcissus flower) sprouts. Or so the myth says.
Enter Ben Jonson, an English Renaissance playwright, poet, and contemporary of Big Willy Shakespeare. In a scene from his play called Cynthia's Revels, first performed in the year 1600, Jonson tells the story of Echo and Narcissus through the words of the nymph herself. And that's where today's poem comes in. In the scene, Echo, who has had her fill of cookies and cream, has learned of Narcissus' death and is totally devastated. She has a chat with some of the other characters before singing the short lyric "Slow, Slow, Fresh Fount," in which she laments the death of her long lost unrequited love to a rapt audience. That makes this poem-within-a-play decidedly about grief.
If there was ever a person in your life who is no longer in your life, but who you wish were still in your life, then you're probably familiar with the grief this type of loss can cause. You've probably also noticed that when you're really upset about things like this, the sadness really starts to take over and permeate every aspect of your life, at least for a little while.
It's this experience of grief that's the subject of Ben Jonson's poem. Echo, who speaks the poem, is still upset about the death of her special someone, a young man named Narcissus. It's pretty clear that she's crying as she sings the poem, and it seems like her entire existence is consumed by sadness. Just note all the references to grief in the poem: "tears," "heavy part," "woe," "droop," and "grief." Not only that, but Echo thinks the rest of the world is as upset as she is. She tells the "fount" to grieve with her and implores the flowers to "droop." That's a whole lot of sorrow to be packed into such a tiny poem. In fact, her grief practically turns her (and our) world upside-down. But hey, we can totally relate. Who hasn't been turned topsy-turvy by tragedy and then, maybe, written a mopey poem about it?