How do you explain and paraphrase Ben Jonson's "Song: To Celia"?

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Considered the finest lyric of the English Renaissance, Ben Jonson's "Song: To Celia" is the third of three songs. In this last one, Jonson reacts to the Petrarchan idealization of love and writes his verse with a mixture of the realistic and the ideal. In fact, this mixture may be part of the great appeal of this lovely verse, as it represents what new love often is like. Also, in this poem Jonson borrows from the classical poet Philostratus and his series of erotic letters, weaving a beautiful verse from this content along with his own.  


  • Stanza One

Jonson's first verse is imitative of Petrarchan convention in which love is received through the eyes. Clearly, the speaker is infatuated with Celia, whose name is connotative of a heavenly person. The lover pledges his devotion to Celia, indicating that he is serious about his feelings. Throughout this stanza the metaphor of drinking is used. For instance, his desire is described as "thirst." Yet he is so in love with Celia that he would rather have the empty cup with only a kiss in it than drink the nectar of Jove, the most powerful of the Roman gods.

  • Stanza Two

In this stanza, the woman is the subject of one line, then in the next line the man is the subject. Thus they are joined in the structure of the verse, while at the same time they are separated into different lines. This structure implies the mutuality of their love.

In this stanza the speaker has sent Celia a wreath, which is a symbol of the speaker's hopes that their relationship will continue--"when it grows and smells... / Not of itself, but thee." If she returns the wreath, he will know that she loves him.


In the first stanza, the speaker asks Celia to receive his pledge of love as expressed in his eyes, the medieval convention for communicating feelings. Further, he declares the depth of his love by describing his desire for Celia as deeper even than his wish to drink from Jove's cup.

In the second stanza, the speaker uses the symbol of a wreath to represent his hopes for the longevity and mutuality of their love. He has sent a rosy wreath (the rose is symbolic of passion and love). If she returns this wreath after having breathed upon it, it will smell of her and represent her reciprocal love. Also, there will be a role reversal on her part because she will have initiated an action. 

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Here's a quick mixture of paraphrase and interpretation of Jonson's "Song:  To Celia" to help you understand it.

  • Drink only to me with your eyes, or Drink to me with only your eyes (metaphor:  dedicate yourself only to me with your eyes, or with your eyes give a toast to me)
  • I'll pledge myself to you with my eyes/loving look, glance/stare
  • Or leave a kiss in the cup (the wine cup) and I'll be satisfied--I won't look for wine
  • The thirst that arises from one's soul needs a divine drink, but I would not exchange the nectar of the god's for a drink from you.

The second stanza:

  • I sent you some roses, not so much to honor you but that, by being in your presence, the roses might not rot
  • But you only smelled the roses and returned them; but since you returned them, I swear, they smell like you, not like roses.
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