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.)