Bless this poem, I’m torn between thinking of Jonson’s lover as a hapless geek stalker and something a bit more sinister.
This is about obsessive lover who wants nothing other than the object of this poem’s lamentation. However, probably advisably, this girl is having nothing to do with him.
Drink to me only with thine eyes,
And I will pledge with mine;
And 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 rose 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 send’st it back to me,
Since when it breathes and smells, I swear,
Not of itself but thee.
Ben Jonson (1572-1637)
Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.
Jonson is another one of our poets who had an interesting life (1572-1637). He’s famous as the next best thing after Shakespeare in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but much more interesting than that he was in prison a couple of times: once for killing a guy in a duel. Now far be it for me to call for the returning of public duelling with pistols, but it’d be great wouldn’t it?! Although I’d worry that being very tall and a bit portly, these days, would make me an easy target.
Anyway, that’s not really relevant. However, it might be interesting for you to know that a lot of people think this poem is about fellow Songs of Ourselves poet and all round misery guts, Lady Mary Wroth. Jonson was known to be an admirer and didn’t approve of her hubby.
Unrequited love, obsession, mortality and nature.
The whole poem is about the object of his affection not returning it, but it doesn’t seem to have discourage the lover. There are links to mortality with this girl able to preserve the beauty of his wreath and the wreath links us to nature.
The first stanza starts with some Hollywood teenager romance movie imagery. Our poetic voice is at the same party as this girl and is willing her to return his loving gaze. The opening line is him pleading for her to look at him with affection in her eyes and he is only waiting for this encouragement before he is willing to ‘pledge’ his life to her. Next he hope for a residual kiss from her cup, which will be enough to intoxicate him: forget the wine (‘I’ll not look for wine’).
Sometimes poetry is just beautifully expressive; the opening line of stanza 2 is a world beater and you have to comment on it. ‘The thirst that from the soul doth rise’ extends the idea of the wine and the cup from the first stanza, but expresses his desires and urges as a physical need that we can all relate to. However, rather than just having a dry throat, his soul (something which makes us who we are) aches for this girl. His desire to have this thirst satisfied means he claims he’d rather drink his love than the supreme god, Jove. All a little odd, but he is positioning his love as being more important than a god or more remarkable to him.
The next two stanzas move away from the girl as a drink analogy. Now he is talking about a wreath (an assortment of flowers) and we again see some suggestion that this girl is heavenly. He has sent a rose in order to preserve its beauty, believing ‘It could not be withered’. The poetic voice is suggesting that this girl is somehow heavenly, divine and therefore not subject to the same mortality as the flowers and thus can prolong their existence.
Unfortunately for our lover, she sends the wreath back. This is where I see our poetic voice turning into an obsessive stalker (don’t put this in your exam) as simply having been breathed upon by this girl leads him to see the rose as being an extension of her and a constant reminder of his feelings. Psycho! Leave her alone!
Lots to talk about here and most of it mentioned above.
First of all the title of the poem immediately connects us with the idea of drinking that is used to convey Jonson’s feelings. ‘To Celia’ is like a toast to celebrate her existence or beauty.
There is an idea of secrecy about this toast as the imagery places his love interest at some sort of ball and he wants her to communicate reciprocal feelings through a meaningful glance or a lingering kiss on a cup. I’d comment on the strength of his feelings as his eyes want to ‘pledge’ to her suggesting commitment, loyalty and marriage.
The comparison of his feelings to thirst is also quite lovely to discuss. He ‘thirst[s]’ for this woman, which implies desperation and shows how her affection is necessary for him to live, particularly as he says ‘from the soul doth rise’, telling us that his whole being is yearning for her.
I’d also talk about the connection that he draws between Celia and the divine. First, we have the thought of her being the ‘divine drink’ that his soul requires, more desirable to him than ‘Jove’s nectar’ (the god’s sustenance and something that granted immortality), but then we also see that he considers her to have powers of immortality through her beauty as when he sends a wreath to her, he does so because he believes ‘it could not be withered’. This suggests that he doesn’t believe she is mortal or could be spoiled with age and he hopes for the same for the wreath.
Oh, also, if you want to sound clever, you could link this to the story of Odyseus in Greek mythology when he talks about rejecting the nectar of the gods. Odyseus was offered the chance of immortality if he remained with the goddess Calypso, but refused as he wanted to return to his wife and therefore turned down the nectar.
In the final stanza the poet tells us that this hope has somehow been realised. If the wreath still ‘breathes and smells’ then it is alive – could this represent his feelings? Despite the wreath being sent back (a clear rejection), he still feels it lives (so does his affection – he’s not yet been crushed).
We have four stanzas here, but they work in pairs.
The first two are focused on this analogy of his love and desire related through wine and thirst. Notice that they are linked through the rhyme scheme with the corresponding lines of each stanza rhyming (e.g line 1 ‘eyes’ -5 ‘rise’, 2 ‘mine’-6 ‘divine’).
The second discuss his hopes and his thoughts of her as some sort of divine being. The enjambment in the third stanza (lines 10-12) mirror the hope he reveals as he wants her to immortalise the beauty of the wreath – the lack of a pause could be linked to continuation of its life. Whereas, at the end of the forth, there is one caesura that allows us pause to appreciate the mystical powers of this girl as he swears to her effect on the wreath.
Sorry, I know this section isn’t very clear.
This borders on infatuation. The poet clearly raises this girl above mere mortals and considers her beauty and love to be more powerful than the gods. This is a stage of love I’ve experienced many times in my life, where you are blinded to all the flaws in a particular girl and see them as the absolute essence of perfection: I bet she picks her nose and makes a stench in the bathroom.