The speaker in "Song: To Celia" opens with a plea for his lady to express her love by gazing upon him. His plea is assertive, in the form of a command to drink to him with her eyes. He wants more than an expression of her love, however; he wants a pledge. He notes this in the second line when he declares that he will return the pledge with his own eyes. The reference to the cup that is commonly filled with wine becomes an apt metaphor for what he is asking from his lady. One usually makes a toast, a pledge of some sort, when first sipping a cup of wine. The speaker wants his lady to make a pledge to him with her eyes rather than while drinking from a cup of wine. This pledge would be more personal and so more meaningful to him.
By suggesting that his lady could convey such a pledge through her gaze, he pays tribute to her expressive eyes. He suggests that their connection is so intimate that they do not need the words of a speech to communicate their feelings for each other. This act reflects medieval love conventions, which propose that love is received through the eyes.
When the speaker gives his lady an alternative way to express her love, he suggests that she may be reluctant to do so. Leaving a kiss in the cup would allow her to respond to him in a more modest manner. This alternative, he states, would be just as pleasing to him. When he insists that he will "not look for wine," he implies that her kiss will intoxicate him more than any alcohol could. Wine would be an inadequate replacement for her love.
Jonson smoothly integrates the images of eyes, drinking, and wine in these first lines, which reinforces and heightens his speaker's expression of love and longing. Initially, the metaphor of drinking with one's eyes seems too forced, yet eyes produce liquid and can "brim over" with tears of sadness or joy. This liquidity, rather than that of wine, becomes the speaker's preferred method of demonstration. The image of the kiss also integrates smoothly with the others. "Kisses sweeter than wine" has become a standard expression of love.
The next four lines extend the metaphor set up in the first four lines. The speaker insists that if his lady would leave a kiss for him in the cup, he would prize it more than nectar from the gods. He claims that his soul "thirsts" for love and that only "a drink divine" that transcends even Jove's nectar can quench it. "Jove" refers to the god Jupiter, lord of the classical gods and a recurrent symbol of divinity in secular poetry. The gods drank a heavenly nectar far finer than any wine mortals drank.
According to Marshall Van Deusen, writing in "Criticism and Ben Jonson's 'To Celia,'" in the book Essays in Criticism and citing the Oxford English Dictionary definition, the word "change" in line 8 means "to make an exchange." Here the speaker is saying that he would not take Jove's nectar in exchange for that of his lady. By insisting that he values his lady's kiss more than the nectar of the gods, he elevates her to, or higher than, the status of a goddess. This type of extreme compliment is defined as "hyperbole."
There has been some disagreement on the meaning of lines 7 and 8. The popular interpretation is the one provided in the previous paragraph. Some scholars, however, insist that a literal interpretation...
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of the lines is that the speaker would not give up Jove's nectar for his lady's kiss.
Van Deusen also notes in his essay that one of the two quotations given as illustration of the definition of "change" in the Oxford English Dictionary could suggest by analogy that the lines mean "if I were to have the chance offered me to sup of Jove's nectar, and if your wine were also available, I would not change for . . . yours." Van Deusen points out that defenders of this interpretation cite Jonson's "antipathy to hyperbole" and argue that the lines are complimentary "precisely because they set the exact limits of legitimate praise and avoid irresponsible exaggeration." Van Deusen comments, however, that Jonson has elsewhere used hyperbole. He also cites the source of the poem, letters from the philosopher Philostratos, in support of the popular interpretation, translating the corresponding passage from Philostratos to "when I am thirsty, I refuse the cup, and take thee."
In line 9, the speaker notes that he recently ("late") sent his lady a wreath of roses, a flower traditionally associated with beauty. Jonson uses the rosy wreath, however, in an unconventional way. The speaker admits that his primary motive for sending it was not to honor her beauty, as any lover would with red roses, but for another purpose, which reflects her more intense charms. He does not discount her beauty, noting that he is sending the wreath "not so much" for her honor, but insists that he has a greater purpose. When he claims that the wreath would not wither in his lady's presence, he suggests her power over it.
The last four lines of the poem focus on this power and his lady's active connection with nature. Traditionally in love lyrics, the lady's breath is always perfumed. When the speaker swears that his lady's breath transformed the wreath, he claims that her perfume transcended the perfume of the rose. Her power does not stop there. She also gives the gift of immortality to the wreath, which continues to grow and produce a pleasing scent.
The imagery here not only illustrates the endurance of love but also suggests the fertility of the lady. If readers combine the images of the first stanza with the second, they see the speaker's lady become a fertility goddess, whose divine charms convey immortality as she affects and becomes a part of the objects around her.
By continuing undaunted toward his goal, the speaker cleverly sidesteps the suggestion that his lady is rejecting his offers of love when she returns the wreath. Even if he does not have her physical presence, he has her essence, which has been transferred to the wreath.