It may seem surprising that such a simple poem could cause difficulties in trying to understand it, yet it seems to do just that on at least two or three points. In such a case, it is best to begin with an overview of the poem. It is also good to keep in mind that this poem was not original to Jonson: He borrowed the ideas from a love letter written by ancient Greek writer Philostratus, either the Philostratus of Athens or the one of Lemnos; which one wrote the love letter is not known.
In "To Celia," the poetic speaker is trying, so far unsuccessfully, to sway his lady love to share his feelings. It is evident that she as yet does not love the speaker because she immediately returns the rose wreath token of love spoken of in stanza two; she does not keep it. She does not love him. The theme of this poem, then, is unrequited love. The poem, with an inclusive "And" beginning the second and fourth lines, is an attempt to win the lady to his heart.
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.
We don't have any indication in this poem of its effectiveness, but we can identify the ploys the speaker uses to try to win the lady's love. Remember that in the courtly love fashion of Jonson's day, poetic extravagance was a ploy used to express love and to win love. Edmund Spenser used the same means to try to win Elizabeth Boyle as his beloved during the same era. To understand this poem, we'll start with a slight prose paraphrase.
SLIGHT PROSE PARAPHRASE
- Please do you drink to me only with your eyes, AND I will pledge my love to you with mine. Or, if you wish, place a kiss in the cup that you hold, and, giving it to me, I will not look for wine to drink: I will have your true love elixir to drink. The thirst that does rise from my soul, asks a drink divine to quench it, BUT, if I were offered Jove's immortalizing nectar to sip, I would reject it and cling to your divine though mortal elixir of love.
- I sent you lately a wreath of roses that, while honoring your beauty and sweetness, I promised a hope that in your hands they would live and not wither. BUT you kept them not: you breathed on them only and sent them directly back to me. Since returning to me, the wreath of roses grows, and smells, I swear it to be true, not of its own nature but because of thy breath upon it (it will not withered be because you breathed upon it).
THE POEM ANALYZED
The two conjunctions, "and" and "but" play a pivotal role is sorting out the ideas Jonson presents in compressed poetic form. It is good to remember that "and" is used to connect ideas that are meant to be understood jointly, while "but" introduces a contrasting idea that opposes what has already been stated. "And" joins ideas while "but" sets up opposition between ideas.
Jonson develops, firstly, an elaborate love trope in which love--both hers and his--is compared to a quenching drink, then, secondly, a breath trope in which her breath is compared to the source of life.
The setting is not given so may be one of a few possible scenarios. (1) They may be at a public gathering where direct communication might be difficult. When cups are raised to drink, he hopes that she will drink to him with her eyes to reveal to him her love. (2) On the other hand, they may be at a gathering where speaking directly is quite possible; he may be standing near her speaking to her. (3) It's also possible that, at one of these types of gathering, he is following courtly fashion by playing a lute or other string instrument and singing to her.
He needs only a sign from her eyes to encourage him to plight, or pledge, his love and troth to her. To pledge is to commit to a solemn promise. He is suggesting that she but drink to his love with her eyes--make a toast, as it were, to his love with her eyes--AND then he will pledge with a solemn promise his undying love for her.
To transition to the greater idea that her love is the drink that quenches his soul's desire, he invites her to leave a kiss in the cup that she holds and he will not look or ask for wine to fill his cup with. Related to setting, whether the cup gets back to him somehow is not stated, but perhaps this makes a case for them speaking face-to-face. Nonetheless, since his speech is all metaphor and at one with courtly love fashion, he could still be imagined as being distant from and singing to her or as being across a banquet table speaking to her.
He explains himself by saying that the thirst of his soul for her love needs not wine to quench it but needs a "drink divine." BUT, it needs only her divine drink of love elixir to quench it, because, even if the god Jove were to offer him the nectar that is for immortals, all else is inadequate for quenching his soul's thirst. To quench his soul's thirst he must have only her love, her eyes and her kisses.
In the second stanza, the poetic trope changes to one of life giving breath.
He sent her a wreath of roses as a love token and to honor her beauty, though, since roses can't compare to her beauty, he promised the roses that in her care they could not wither.
She received the rose wreath BUT did not accept it. She kept it only long enough for her breath to fall on it and sent it straight beck to the speaker as a sign of her rejection of his love. Now we know why he is so earnest in describing the depth of his love to her: she has rejected him. Undaunted, he claims that since the roses have returned to him, they live and grow under the sweet influence of her life-giving breath.
He began with her eyes as a sign of her love, then posited her kisses as the elixir of her love. Now he is asserting that even her breath gives the gift of her love, if even only to the roses and not to him.