A Book of Answers II: Celia And The Poet Laureate

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“To Celia” is one of Ben Jonson’s most delightful songs, but the great poet and great scholar—indeed he prided himself on his knowledge of grammar—was here a little careless of his syntax. It has always worried me, and any quick-witted young woman would have been likely to pick it up and tease her suitor as I have supposed Celia doing here.

It is of course possible that there was no such person. Of the three songs addressed to Celia in Jonson’s The Forest, two are translations from Catullus and “Drink to me only …” is based on passages in the Epistles doubtfully ascribed to Philostratus. Herrick used the same sources for some of his poems addressed to Anthea, who was more than likely an imaginary mistress. But who cares? The genius of their poets has made the two ladies more real to us than all the mopsies of flesh and blood who died unsung.

Song: To Celia

Drinke to me, onely, with thine eyes,
And I will pledge with mine;
Or leave a kisse but in the cup,
And Ile not looke for wine.
The thirst, that from the soule doth rise,
Doth aske a drinke divine:
But might I of Jove’s Nectar sup,
I would not change for thine.

I sent thee, late, a rosie wreath,
Not so much honoring thee,
As giving it a hope, that there
It could not withered bee.
But thou thereon did’st onely breathe,
And sent’st it backe to mee:
Since when it growes, and smells, I sweare,
Not of it selfe, but thee.

Celia To The Poet Laureate

The charming song thou sentst me late,
Dear Master Jonson, is
A riddle which, I own, defies
My best analysis.
Though thou bee Poet Laureate,
Blest with a pipe of wine,
Just what thy syntax signifies
Can muse or maid divine?

Drink only with mine eyes to thee?
Or drink to thee alone?
And which cup is it you prefer:
Jove’s nectar or my own?
A poet who would flatter me
Must wield a clearer pen,
Ere kiss or cup I pledge, good sir,
To thee ambiguous Ben!

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