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?
Ben had quite the life, and you can learn all about it here.
Ben Jonson at Poets.org
This dude was a Poet-with-a-capital-P, so of course he has his own page on poets.org.
Revel with Cynthia. You know you want to.
The Elizabethan Stage
Jonson was a great playwright among many great playwrights, and this web-book will tell you all about the golden age of English theater in Jonson and Shakespeare's time.
"Slow, Slow, Fresh Fount" in Song
Sing it loud and proud "O faintly gentle springs." Or sing it slow and sad. Whatever works.
Another Choir Version of the Poem
A choir singing – here, the words are more intelligible, not that you didn't have them memorized already.
Ben Jonson Portrait
He looks like a pretty nice fellow, right?
Ben Jonson's Marginalia
Not that you'll be able to read it or anything. But in any case, here's a pic of a copy of Jonson's edition of a Latin text (Martial), with his notes in the right margin.
Echo and Narcissus
In this 17th century painting, Nicolas Poussin shows narcissistic Narcissus gazing adoringly at his reflection in the water.
Narcissus and Echo
More of the same, brought to you by the English master J.W. Waterhouse.
Just in case you love Narcissus as much as he loves himself, check out yet another depiction of the youth, this time by Caravaggio.
The Elizabethan Stage
Here's a drawing of what the theater would have looked like in Jonson's time. Yes, that's a bear.
Ben Jonson: A Life
Check out this review of a recent Jonson biography, and if you want to learn more, go ahead and buy the book!
Ben Jonson: The Complete Poems
Like what you read in "Slow, Slow, Fresh Fount "? There's more where that came from.