The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Song: To Celia” is a sixteen-line iambic poem written in four quatrains. The content of the poem divides after the second quatrain to form two octets representing two distinct scenes. The poem is the third of three songs addressed to Celia that are collected in The Forest. The other two, “Come my Celia” and “Kiss me, sweet,” first appeared in Ben Jonson’s play Volpone (1605).

“Song: To Celia” is Jonson’s reworking of five different passages of prose from the Greek sophist writer Philostratus (third century c.e.). The lyric exists in several manuscript versions; Jonson reworked it until he hit upon what is generally considered his finest lyric, indeed one of the finest lyrics of the English Renaissance. In the eighteenth century, an anonymous composer set the poem to music, and it became a popular song.

The first half of the poem is a witty series of variations on the lover’s pledge. Traditionally, a lover would toast his or her love and drink a glass of wine; here, the poet asks only for a pledge from Celia’s eyes—a loving look—that he promises to return in kind. Even better, if she will “leave a kiss but in the cup” (that is, pledge a kiss), he will forget about wine. The pleasures of Celia’s love are a more profound intoxication, a greater sensual delight, than alcohol.

The second quatrain starts more seriously. The poet claims his thirst is not...

(The entire section is 477 words.)

Historical Context

(Poetry for Students)

The Seventeenth-Century Court

The dominant forms of literature during the Elizabethan age and under James I and Charles I,...

(The entire section is 1051 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The lyric is dominated by two images: wine and the rosy wreath. The first octet offers a series of possible substitutions—love favors—that the poet is willing to accept in lieu of the traditional wine. Wine implies intoxication, the delirium of love, but also sensual gratification. The substitutes that the poet is willing to accept seem more ethereal: the glance, the kiss in a cup. Indeed, the wine itself becomes rarefied into Jove’s nectar, a divine drink that reputedly had a rejuvenating effect—the same effect that Celia has on the poet.

The wreath dominates the second octet. It is a more concrete pledge than those requested in the first part of the poem, but it is rejected. The rose is the archetypal symbol of love in the English tradition. The wreath consists of a number of roses woven into a circle, which is itself a symbol of eternity. The eternal devotion that was the hallmark of the more spiritual love popularized by Petrarch is combined, then, with the sensual. While the circle may imply eternal love, the wreath’s nonstatic quality is emphasized: “it grows, and smells.” These flowers are still alive, growing as does the poet’s love.

Finally, the wreath, an interweaving of flowers, stands for this poem itself, which is an ingenious interweaving of excerpts from the classical source. The weaving finds its analogue in the rhyme scheme of the poem. The short lines of both octets revolve on single rhymes and thus bind the poem together. The wreath itself has passed from the poet to the lover and back to the poet, describing in its movement a circle. It is the only physical thing that links the two, besides the poem itself.

This poem has a remarkably regular iambic meter that produces its lyrical quality. The only significant break in the rhythm is a caesura in the final line between “itself” and “but.” This pause draws attention to the final qualification in the poem. While the other qualifications undercut the ideal and metaphoric, this final qualification asserts the lover as an ideal who changes reality—she has altered the wreath. The caesura also lends emphasis to the concluding “but thee.” The poem ends with the lover, a marked contrast from the beginning of the poem, which emphasizes the poet.

Literary Style

(Poetry for Students)


Repetition of sounds in a poem can emphasize key words and images and so create poetic structure. In addition,...

(The entire section is 351 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Poetry for Students)

  • 1600s: Men who wanted to gain the affection of their lovers would sing them lyrics written by poets like Jonson and Campion....

(The entire section is 155 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Poetry for Students)

  • Read one of Shakespeare's sonnets. Compare the sonnet's theme and structure to those of "Song: To Celia."
  • Investigate the development of the ballad. How does the poem "Song: To Celia" follow the conventions of the ballad form?
  • Read Jonson's Volpone, focusing on the character of Celia. Do you see parallels between the Celia in the play and the Celia in the poem? What are the similarities or differences in the two characters named Celia?
  • Many poems of the Elizabethan era have a clear rhythm that would make them easy to set to music. How do you think Jonson's poem would sound put to music? Do you think it would be fast or slow? Try reciting Jonson's poem to music you hear on the radio, such as pop, rock, jazz, or hip-hop. What musical category do you think best suits this poem? Explain why. What instruments were popular during the Elizabethan era? Which Elizabethan instruments do you think would work best to accompany Jonson's poem if it were set to music?

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Poetry for Students)


Adams, Robert M, "The Seventeenth Century (1603–1660)," in The Norton Anthology of English Literature,...

(The entire section is 355 words.)