Song: To Celia by Ben Jonson: Summary & Analysis

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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

It's probably not a love song you'd sing to your sweetheart today, but 'Song: To Celia' was once a chart-topper! Come explore this antique love song by Ben Jonson, and uncover its even more ancient roots in this lesson.

'Song: To Celia' by Ben Jonson

Have you ever turned the lyrics of a love song into a letter for your sweetheart? It turns out that when Ben Jonson wrote his 'Song: To Celia' around 1616, he did just the opposite, actually turning an ancient love letter into a song. Jonson's 'Song: To Celia' is definitely no 'Freebird,' though, so taking it all in won't take nearly as long. Let's take a moment to read through it in its entirety.

Drink to me only with thine eyes,
And I will pledge with mine;
Or leave a kiss but in the cup,
And I'll not look for wine.
The thirst that from the soul doth rise
Doth ask a drink divine;
But might I of Jove's nectar sup,
I would not change for thine.
I sent thee late a rosy wreath,
Not so much honouring thee
As giving it a hope, that there
It could not withered be.
But thou thereon didst only breathe,
And sent'st it back to me;
Since when it grows, and smells, I swear,
Not of itself, but thee.

Analyzing Jonson's 'Song: To Celia': Enduring Flattery

Have you ever heard someone say 'Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery?' While you might find it extremely annoying when your little brother or sister does it, mimicking others is common practice in the world of literature - where it's viewed as not only gratifying, but also necessary. Take for instance Ben Jonson's 'Song: To Celia,' which is often identified by its first line: 'Drink to me only with thine eyes.' This line is actually simply a word-for-word translation of a line from one of the letters of the 3rd-century Greek author Philostratus. And, the similarities don't stop there.

Analyzing Jonson's 'Song: To Celia': Wine And Roses

In fact, many of the sentiments and images Philostratus includes in his erotic love letter are used by Jonson in his 'Song: To Celia.' For example, Jonson employs two different allegories in the poem's two stanzas: one involving wine; the other, roses. This framing structure that Jonson uses closely resembles Philostratus' closing line, 'Because, that way, no one is without love like someone still longing for the grace of Dionysus while among the grapevines of Aphrodite.' Using symbolic representations of the Greek god of wine (Dionysus) and the goddess of love (Aphrodite), Jonson not only repurposes Philostratus' imagery, but also reflects his predecessor's sentiment concerning his own sweetheart: no other divine, intoxicating presence (wine/Dionysus) is needed where she is around.

The poetic narrator's initial rejection of the wine is also very similar to some thoughts expressed by Philostratus in his letter. The Greek author asks of his beloved: 'And, if you would, do not gulp down the wine; instead, pouring in only water and bringing it to your lips, fill the cup with kisses and this way give (them) to those in need' (a.k.a. him). Jonson writes: 'Or leave a kiss but in the cup, / And I'll not look for wine,' claiming that the 'thirst' of his soul demands a 'drink divine.' However, he also claims that, even if he were able to partake of the nectar drunk by the king of the gods, he would still pass it up for her.

Of course, Philostratus also relies on divine authority to glorify his lover, saying '…drink to me with your eyes alone, of which even Zeus (Jove) insisted to give his cupbearer a taste.' What both men are saying then, is that even such a supreme being would give up his own pleasures if he knew what it was like to enjoy their ladies' company and affection.

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