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?

1 Answer

vangoghfan's profile pic

vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

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 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.