How does allusion function in Ben Jonson's poem "Come, my Celia, let us prove"?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Ben Jonson’s poem beginning “Come, my Celia, let us prove” originally appeared as a song in Jonson’s famous 1605 comedy titled Volpone. In the play, the lecherous Volpone uses the song to try to persuade the virtuous Celia to have sex with him. Jonson’s poem alludes to a much-earlier poem by the Roman poet Catullus – a poem usually referred to as “Ode 5.” This ode begins with the following line: “Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus” (“Let us live, my Lesbia, and love”; see note below for original and translation). Jonson’s poem, then, strongly alludes to Catullus’s earlier work.

Volpone’s “song,” however, is much less obsessed with mere kissing that Catullus’s is. Gathering as many kisses as possible from Lesbia seems to be the main purpose of Catullus’s speaker; he seems to think or speak of little else. Volpone, however, seems much less concerned with kisses (which he never even mentions) than with what he suggestively calls “the sports of love”:

Come my Celia, let us prove,

While we may, the sports of love. (1-2)

In the play, this song is embedded in a scene in which Volpone clearly hopes to enjoy far more than simple kisses from Celia, and in fact at one point in the scene Volpone seems about to rape Celia (before she is suddenly rescued from that fate). In contrast to Jonson’s poem, then, Catullus’s seems almost mild, and indeed the hundreds and thousands of kisses sought my Catullus’s speaker seem so exaggerated in number that it is hard to take the speaker seriously (7-9).

Volpone, in contrast, must be taken very seriously indeed; he is not nearly as laughable as Catullus’s speaker; instead, he is genuinely threatening and predatory. Thus, by alluding to Catullus’s poem, Jonson’s poem allows us to see how Volpone both does and does not resemble Catullus’s speaker.

Yet Jonson’s poem may also allude to other texts than Catullus’s poem and to other ideas than the ideas contained in Catullus’s ode. Jonson’s poem seems highly ironic, for instance, if it is read in light of the teachings of the Christian Bible. This is especially true when Volpone claims, in line 15, that “'Tis no sin love's fruit to steal.” Here the word “sin” immediately reminds us of Christian religious standards (in a way that a more neutral word, such as “crime,” would not have done). In addition, this line also reminds us of the original sin of Adam and Eve, who stole fruit they were forbidden to taste.

In general, Jonson’s poem alludes to many different standard Christian doctrines, only to repudiate them. Thus, Volpone claims that “Time will not be ours for ever” (3) – a direct contradiction of Christian teachings. Likewise, he urges Celia, “Spend not then [time’s] gifts in vain” (5), when that is precisely what he is trying to seduce her to do. Similarly, at one point he claims that

. . . if once we lose this light

'Tis, with us, perpetual night. (7-8)

These lines, ironically, may inadvertently remind Christian readers of the “perpetual night” of life in hell if the spiritual “light” of Christ is lost.

In short, Jonson’s poem seems to allude both to Catullus’s text (and similar seduction poems, both classical and later) and to standard Christian ideas of the time.  In all cases (it is possible to argue), the allusions make Volpone’s poem appear even more ironic, even less savory, than it already seems.



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