“To Celia” — Ben Jonson

“To Celia” — Ben Jonson

Ever wondered about the elusive rift between spiritual and physical love? Well, Ben Jonson –and yes, I’m still sure it’s definitely not Johnson, thank you Spellcheck– has the answers. Or, at least, he’s asking the same question, which sort of helps. Posing as a simple poem wondering why his belovèd Celia doesn’t feel the same way about him, Ben’s To Celia is actually a cunningly disguised discussion of the problems of love versus lust.

Please do not think that I was planning by any means to cast my mind into the gutter when I began this, nor was I intent on bringing Jonson and his probably wholly innocent poem down there with me. It just happened.

Drink to me only with thine eyes,
         And I will pledge with mine;
Or leave a kiss but in the cup,
        And I’ll not look for wine.
The thirst that from the soul doth rise
        Doth ask a drink divine;
But might I of Jove’s nectar sup,
      I would not change for thine.

(stanza one)

The Big (or slightly reduced depending on how eager you are) Scoop

Apart from being slightly too impressed with Jonson’s ability to find such a multitude of words that rhyme with “mine” (and I suspect that some anachronistic version of rhymezone.com came heavily into play), the thing that endears me most to this poem is its simplicity. And thus its complexity. In using a regular metre, into which all the lines fit perfectly, Jonson highlights the very problem: that his love does not fit meekly into the conventions of the time. He is not content to play the disinterested and purely sentimental courtly stereotype, because what he feels has overwhelmed both his emotional facility and also *gasp* his physical one.

For, despite his soul’s “thirst” for a “drink divine”and the strictly religious lexis which implies a relationship that would transcend his bodily desires, the use of the word “nectar” provokes images of a lush fertility that has no place in this purely spiritual union. Playing with the word, Jonson rejects the traditional connotations of immortality conferred by the “nectar” of the Roman gods (of whom Jove was king), instead alluding to Celia’s “nectar”: a prize within reach, but similarly unattainable.

Again, rather than sticking to convention and giving Celia a wreath for the purpose of “honouring [her]” –a phrase which suggests some degree of distance from subject and object– he freely admits that (curiously) he intended on “giving it a hope, that there//It would not withered be.” Slightly enigmatic, but I’ve made something up managed to extrapolate one meaning.

*clears throat* My completely-viable-and-not-at-all-solely-created-for-the-purposes-of-this-blog interpretation is that this “rosy wreath” has a somewhat deeper significance than solely of a romantic floral decoration, and refers instead, in a rather nice half self-reflexive manner, to a prior poem Jonson had written to Celia.* This previous poem was a not-so-subtle celebration of the joys of physical pleasure and love, and, assuming that Celia had “sent[] it back” in a strop, would explain why this next poetic outpouring has a decidedly less overt sexual undertone –which we, the cunning weasels that we are have of course seen straight through– but preserves that conflict nevertheless.

Basically, see To His Coy Mistress for Marvell’s take on this issue. I just thought I’d at least try to get a bit of genuine affection in there, hopeless romantic that I am.

* This poem (the one I’m writing about) is actually known fully as “Song to Celia [II]”, with “Song to Celia [I]” being the “rosy wreath” alluded to here. Or so I’m trying to prove. It’s slightly confusing, but I’m sure you’re very intelligent and will understand completely.

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