illustration of two faces, a man and a woman, staring at one another and connected by vines that meet together between them holding a glass of wine

Song: To Celia

by Ben Jonson

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How would you explain and paraphrase Ben Jonson's "Song: To Celia"?

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Considered the finest lyric of the English Renaissance, Ben Jonson's "Song: To Celia" is the third of three songs. In this last one, Jonson reacts to the Petrarchan idealization of love and writes his verse with a mixture of the realistic and the ideal. In fact, this mixture may be part of the great appeal of this lovely verse, as it represents what new love often is like. Also, in this poem Jonson borrows from the classical poet Philostratus and his series of erotic letters, weaving a beautiful verse from this content along with his own.  


  • Stanza One

Jonson's first verse is imitative of Petrarchan convention in which love is received through the eyes. Clearly, the speaker is infatuated with Celia, whose name is connotative of a heavenly person. The lover pledges his devotion to Celia, indicating that he is serious about his feelings. Throughout this stanza the metaphor of drinking is used. For instance, his desire is described as "thirst." Yet he is so in love with Celia that he would rather have the empty cup with only a kiss in it than drink the nectar of Jove, the most powerful of the Roman gods.

  • Stanza Two

In this stanza, the woman is the subject of one line, then in the next line the man is the subject. Thus they are joined in the structure of the verse, while at the same time they are separated into different lines. This structure implies the mutuality of their love.

In this stanza the speaker has sent Celia a wreath, which is a symbol of the speaker's hopes that their relationship will continue--"when it grows and smells... / Not of itself, but thee." If she returns the wreath, he will know that she loves him.


In the first stanza, the speaker asks Celia to receive his pledge of love as expressed in his eyes, the medieval convention for communicating feelings. Further, he declares the depth of his love by describing his desire for Celia as deeper even than his wish to drink from Jove's cup.

In the second stanza, the speaker uses the symbol of a wreath to represent his hopes for the longevity and mutuality of their love. He has sent a rosy wreath (the rose is symbolic of passion and love). If she returns this wreath after having breathed upon it, it will smell of her and represent her reciprocal love. Also, there will be a role reversal on her part because she will have initiated an action. 

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Here's a quick mixture of paraphrase and interpretation of Jonson's "Song:  To Celia" to help you understand it.

  • Drink only to me with your eyes, or Drink to me with only your eyes (metaphor:  dedicate yourself only to me with your eyes, or with your eyes give a toast to me)
  • I'll pledge myself to you with my eyes/loving look, glance/stare
  • Or leave a kiss in the cup (the wine cup) and I'll be satisfied--I won't look for wine
  • The thirst that arises from one's soul needs a divine drink, but I would not exchange the nectar of the god's for a drink from you.

The second stanza:

  • I sent you some roses, not so much to honor you but that, by being in your presence, the roses might not rot
  • But you only smelled the roses and returned them; but since you returned them, I swear, they smell like you, not like roses.
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How might one briefly summarize and analyze Ben Jonson's poem "Song to Celia"?

As Terence Dawson and Robert Scott Dupree note in their splendid book titled Seventeenth-Century English Poetry: An Annotated Edition, Ben Jonson’s lyric beginning “Drink to me only with thine eyes” consists “mainly of scattered phrases translated from Flavius Philostratus, a Greek sophist of the second century AD, whose work Jonson liked enough to draw on as a source in several other works.” In this respect as in many others, the poem is typical of many writings by Jonson and other poets of the English Renaissance, who often drew on the works of earlier authors when composing their own. This process, known during the Renaissance as imitatio, was a valued means of writing “original” works by “Englishing” works from other languages.

The poem, which is titled “Song: To Celia,” might be briefly summarized as follows. The speaker, addressing Celia, asks her to make a kind of toast to the speaker using only her eyes, not the typical glass of wine. He will return the favor by using his eyes for the same purpose. Their shared looks, then, will celebrate their relationship. Or, instead, Celia may merely kiss the rim of a cup; if she does so, the speaker will be far more satisfied with that (when he touches the cup with his own lips) than if the cup were full of wine. Spiritual love (“the thirst that from the soul doth rise”) can be satisfied with something as apparently ephemeral as the lady’s look or the memory of her lips on a cup; spiritual love does not need to be satisfied with anything as crudely materialistic as mere wine. Even if the speaker had a chance to drink the kind of “nectar” served to the Greek and Roman gods, he would still prefer to look into the eyes of Celia (whose own name means “heavenly person”).

Recently (the speaker continues), he sent Celia a garland of roses. His intent in doing so was not so much to honor her as to give the garland some hope that, by being near to her, it would not wither. Celia merely breathed on the garland and sent it back to the speaker, and ever since then,

. . . it grows, and smells, I swear,

         Not of itself, but thee.

This poem can be seen as an expression of “Platonic love,” the common Renaissance idea that the truest form of love was spiritual, not physical and that the deepest form of affection involved a union of minds and souls, not flesh or bodies. 

The mutuality the poem celebrates is implied by its very structure, which often presents lines in which the woman is the subject of one line and the man is the subject of the following line. Thus, line 1 focuses on Celia, while line 2 focuses on the speaker’s response. The same pattern is echoes in lines 3 and 4. In lines 7 and 8, this pattern is slightly modified: line 7 deals with the speaker, line 8 with Celia.

Similarly, line 9 deals with the speaker and line 10 with Celia; line 13 deals with Celia and line 14 with the speaker; then, line 15 deals with the speaker and line 16 with Celia. Just as the bodies of the speaker and Celia never come together, so do the two figures never come together in one line. They are simultaneously joined and separated in the structure of the poem, just as they are in their lives, which are at once linked but distinct.

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