Student Question

Summarize Ben Jonson's "Song to Celia."

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This song, so famous in English, is a classic and fascinating expression of love.  Jonson's ideas are so sincere and unusual that they are memorable as well as beautiful.

"Drink to me only with thine eyes" means Ben is asking his beloved to look at him with love.  He doesn't want her to proclaim her love to him with a toast ("drinking to him"), but with a glance.  He is asking for an expression of love in unconventional ways--- a look, or a "kiss within the cup" (and how, exactly, can a kiss be left anywere?).  He will "not ask for wine" if she does this, meaning that a look, or even a promised kiss from her, is far greater than any sweetness he could get from drinking wine.

Building on the wine metaphor, Jonson now compares love to a "thirst that from the soul doth rise" -- a hunger of the soul for love, rather than a bodily longing for something to drink.  This is a neat comparison, and elevates the expression of his love from something merely physical to something that comes from the "soul".  This thirst needs a "divine" drink -- implying that love from his lady is such a great thing that it is better than "Jove's nectar" (the Olympian gods of Greece, of whom Jove (Jupiter, or Zeus) was the head, did not eat and drink normal food, but rather had divine food and drink called ambrosia and nectar -- supposedly the most wonderful food imaginable, which gave eternal life!)

Jonson continues the divine, or supernatural, metaphor by saying that he has sent her  wreath of roses, not just to honor her beauty, but to preserve it forever.  This could be, he claims, attained by her breathing on the flowers.  Her divine breath, perhaps again like the breath of the Olympian gods, would render the roses immortal.  The last lines claim that this would also mean that the roses would no longer smell their own sweet smell, but something infinitely sweeter: her. 

Within this last metaphor of divinity and immortality are contained some of the ideals of Renaissance love.  Love was supposed to be likened, in many ways, to divine love, and the closer it approached it the greater the love was.  Also, the hope of the endurance of love, such as the imperishable roses, would be part of a love poem such as this.  Jonson takes seemingly simple ideas -- eyes, wine, a kiss, a cup, and roses -- and makes them into a sophisticated and moving tribute of love desired, and, perhaps, attained.

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Please explain to me more about the poem "To Celia" by Ben Jonson.

"Song: To Celia" is an extremely rhythmical love song.  It has a very definite meter that alternates between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter.  All lines of trimeter rhyme within each stanza (while only some of the lines of pentameter rhyme).  This meter gives the song a true lyrical quality, so much so that it has remained popular through many centuries. Jonson reworded the words of prose from a Greek author to create these lyrics of the Renaissance and they were set to music.  (In fact, they became a very popular song of the time.)

In regards to the poem's meaning, each octet focuses on a different subject: wine or wreath.  Celia's kisses are more important to the speaker than wine.  Celia's love is more preferable than even "Jove's nectar" or the food of the gods.  To show his love, the speaker sent a wreath of roses that Celia sent promptly back.  Even in the speaker's sadness, he can't help reveling in the fact the wreath has taken on the scent of Celia.  Yes, passion and love has always been an inspiration for good (and bad) poetry.

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