As Terence Dawson and Robert Scott Dupree note in their splendid book titled Seventeenth-Century English Poetry: An Annotated Edition, Ben Jonson’s lyric beginning “Drink to me only with thine eyes” consists “mainly of scattered phrases translated from Flavius Philostratus, a Greek sophist of the second century AD, whose work Jonson liked enough to draw on as a source in several other works.” In this respect as in many others, the poem is typical of many writings by Jonson and other poets of the English Renaissance, who often drew on the works of earlier authors when composing their own. This process, known during the Renaissance as imitatio, was a valued means of writing “original” works by “Englishing” works from other languages.
The poem, which is titled “Song: To Celia,” might be briefly summarized as follows. The speaker, addressing Celia, asks her to make a kind of toast to the speaker using only her eyes, not the typical glass of wine. He will return the favor by using his eyes for the same purpose. Their shared looks, then, will celebrate their relationship. Or, instead, Celia may merely kiss the rim of a cup; if she does so, the speaker will be far more satisfied with that (when he touches the cup with his own lips) than if the cup were full of wine. Spiritual love (“the thirst that from the soul doth rise”) can be satisfied with something as apparently ephemeral as the lady’s look or the memory of her lips on a cup; spiritual love does not need to be satisfied with anything as crudely materialistic as mere wine. Even if the speaker had a chance to drink the kind of “nectar” served to the Greek and Roman gods, he would still prefer to look into the eyes of Celia (whose own name means “heavenly person”).
Recently (the speaker continues), he sent Celia a garland of roses. His intent in doing so was not so much to honor her as to give the garland some hope that, by being near to her, it would not wither. Celia merely breathed on the garland and sent it back to the speaker, and ever since then,
. . . it grows, and smells, I swear,
Not of itself, but thee.
This poem can be seen as an expression of “Platonic love,” the common Renaissance idea that the truest form of love was spiritual, not physical and that the deepest form of affection involved a union of minds and souls, not flesh or bodies.
The mutuality the poem celebrates is implied by its very structure, which often presents lines in which the woman is the subject of one line and the man is the subject of the following line. Thus, line 1 focuses on Celia, while line 2 focuses on the speaker’s response. The same pattern is echoes in lines 3 and 4. In lines 7 and 8, this pattern is slightly modified: line 7 deals with the speaker, line 8 with Celia.
Similarly, line 9 deals with the speaker and line 10 with Celia; line 13 deals with Celia and line 14 with the speaker; then, line 15 deals with the speaker and line 16 with Celia. Just as the bodies of the speaker and Celia never come together, so do the two figures never come together in one line. They are simultaneously joined and separated in the structure of the poem, just as they are in their lives, which are at once linked but distinct.