In Ben Jonson's poem beginning "Come, my Celia, let us prove," what specific phrasing ironically undercuts the speaker, making him appear far less attractive than he wants to appear?

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Ben Jonson’s poem beginning “Come, my Celia, let us prove” is sometimes read as an appealing love lyric. In its original context, however – as part of Jonson’s play Volpone – it is clearly meant to be read satirically: it is clearly meant to mock and satirize the poem’s speaker (Volpone). In Volpone, the lyric is part of Volpone's attempted seduction of Celia – a seduction that eventually amounts to little more than an attempted rape. Even without knowing this fact, however, one can still see the irony embedded in this lyric.

Line 1, for instance, already implies that Celia has to be persuaded, thereby suggesting that she may be resisting the speaker’s entreaties. (In the play, she is very much resisting them.) In line 2, the speaker focuses on the “sports of love” -- the pleasures and games of physical love-making. He mentions nothing about genuinely loving Celia’s character, personality, or soul; he merely desires her body. Meanwhile, his claim that “Time will not be ours for ever” (3) is simply false, from a Renaissance Christian point of view. For Christians, time is eternal. Earthly life is merely a tiny interval in a never-ending existence ultimately spent either in heaven or in hell. Time will not “sever” our “good" (4) if we use our earthly time wisely. Indeed, if God chooses to grant us grace, “our good” will never end. This speaker, however, values only temporary worldly “good.” Ironically, he thereby spends his own “gifts in vain” (5) by failing to focus on eternity with God.

Line 6 may, perhaps, allude to Christ’s resurrection and may thus provide further reason for reading this poem ironically. Yet even if the “sun” mentioned there is merely the literal sun, the next two lines clearly seem ironic:

But if once we lose this light

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

The “perpetual night” the speaker truly needs to worry about is perpetual separation from God after death. In line 9, the speaker draws an ironically false conclusion from his previous corrupted reasoning: the joys he needs to focus on are not the temporary physical joys of earthly life but the eternal spiritual joys of life with God. Mere fame and mere rumor are indeed unimportant (10), but this is not so of true honor and virtuous reputation, which is what Celia seeks to preserve.  After all, if she were not resisting him, there would be no reason for this poem's existence: he would not need to persuade her. Indeed, the longer the poem becomes, the more – ironically – it highlights the fact that Celia finds something troubling about the speaker's desires.

Lines 11-14 clearly suggest that the deceptive speaker has something to hide. If his intentions toward Celia were truly virtuous, he would have no reason to be deceptive – to “beguile” anyone or practice “wile” (13-14). Line 15 may contain a subtle allusion to the original sin in the garden of Eden; whether or not this is the...

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case, the mere use of the word “sin” implies that Celia has been resisting his advances because she regards them as sinful. In the last four lines of the poem, the speaker celebrates deception, arguing that true sin does not involve the actual doing of sin but only being caught while doing sin. This is clearly a specious argument.  No sin, Renaissance Christians believed, could ever be truly hidden from God. One might deceive other humans about one’s sinful behavior, but one could never deceive God.

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Can you tell me what the speaker undercuts in Ben Jonson's poem "Come my Celia, let us prove"?

Three things are being undercut in this poem by Ben Jonson. The first is the lady's right to independent decision. The second is joined in the importance of a good name and the harm of rumor. The third is the nature of a crime. To undercut means to undermine; to diminish in importance; to destroy something's effectiveness; to destroy someone's range of authority or governance. These variations of the definition of "undercut" apply to the lady's right to independently choose and thus independently govern her actions; to the value of moral behavior and the harm of rumor; and to the definition of what constituted a crime in the England of Elizabeth I and of James I.

The lady Celia has evidently rejected the speaker's request for unwed love, "Come my Celia, let us prove, / While we may, the sports of love," and he is responding by attempting to coerce her into agreeing. One of the main arguments behind his disrespectful  behavior is that time is not on their side because their good "gifts" of youth "Time will ... sever." He attempts to persuade with an indirect metaphor between youth and the setting sun: a setting sun "may rise again," however when youth sets, fades away, it results in "perpetual night": youth once lost is lost forever.

Another argument is that "fame and rumor" are not as important as they are made out to be. In other words, if Celia loses her moral reputation and good name and if gossips spread (true) rumors about her moral behavior, it really doesn't matter because a good and trustworthy name and a few disparaging rumors are both insignificant "toys" and to be equally disregarded.

These arguments undercut Celia's right to decide without pressure, persuasion, and coercion. The second argument also undercuts the truth of the importance of moral behavior and the harm of rumor, especially if it is based upon truth--which if the speaker has his way, it will be.

His third argument is that they should easily be able to steal away from the prying eyes and overhearing ears of servants and family by their "wile" (clever strategy) and find a remote place to themselves. His fourth argument undercuts the nature of crime in the religious Renaissance period in which they live. He says that stealing love [outside of marriage] is no sin, but that to reveal that love has been stolen, that is the crime:

'Tis no sin love's fruit to steal;But the sweet theft to reveal.To be taken, to be seen,These have crimes accounted been

These arguments undercut Celia's rationality, her right to self-governance, and the nature of society (i.e., right reputation is wrong and rumor is an unimportant toy). It also undercuts the idea of what constitutes crime: in their era, immorality was sin and could be a crime, but the speaker says the reverse.

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