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Clover’s Literary Corner: Nectar of the Goddess

By Clover Carroll

As you prepare to celebrate St. Valentine’s Day this month, consider adding the deeply romantic English Renaissance love song “Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes” to your playlist (find the text at the bottom of this poem). Ben Jonson’s 1616 lyric “Song: To Celia” was set to music by an anonymous composer (perhaps Jonson himself) shortly after its publication, and became immediately popular. It has since been performed and/or recorded by myriad singers, from Paul Robeson to Johnny Cash. In line with Renaissance practice, Jonson translated the letters of Greek philosopher Philostratos (3rd c. AD) and transformed the ideas into a tightly structured, elegant love poem. One of the best and most beloved old love songs, “Drink to Me” expresses an innocent devotion and longing that sadly might be considered corny or sentimental today.

The setting I imagine for this poem is a crowded gathering at which the poet may not touch his beloved nor even speak to her in other than formal terms. With today’s freedom of association and expression, it might be difficult for us to comprehend such a social context in which men and women were never alone together and, with every movement observed, were forced to conduct themselves with the utmost decorum; even a glance could be meaningful and/or misinterpreted. As they lift their glasses across the table (or room) from each other, the poet asks his beloved to express her love by simply meeting his eyes. Words are not necessary to confirm their intimacy. The suppressed longing for consummation throughout this poem creates a tension between chastity and passion that adds to its energy and beauty.

Ben Jonson (1572-1637) was a contemporary of John Donne, about whom I have written here before (“No Man is an Island”). Known primarily for his plays, Jonson is considered “next to Shakespeare, the greatest dramatic genius of the English Renaissance”; in fact, Shakespeare starred in Jonson’s first play, Every Man in His Humour (1598). Jonson’s best known plays include Volpone (1606) and Bartholomew Fair (1614). Jonson is considered a “Cavalier Poet,” not only because he supported Charles I in the English Civil War (which resulted in Charles’ beheading in 1649), but also because of the chivalric character of his poetry. Jonson’s influence on literature was so great that his students and followers were known as the “sons of Ben.”

The poem begins calmly enough. Only send me a toast with your eyes, the poet pleads, and I will return your pledge of love; I prefer the kiss you leave for me inside the rim of your cup to actual wine. When I read this first line, I always hear the emphasis on the word “only.” We do not need words, or touch, or wine for our souls to commingle through our eyes alone—according to medieval convention, the windows to the soul.

But now he really takes off, developing an extended metaphor that compares love to spiritual nourishment, and his yearning to “thirst” for a “drink divine” that only she can give. We might paraphrase lines 5-8 as ‘when one person’s soul is drawn to another, he needs spiritual rather than worldly fulfillment. But, even if I had the opportunity to drink the nectar of the gods (a divine drink), I would not exchange it for your love.’ His yearning for her springs less from his body than from his soul, he claims, and her love is more intoxicating to him than any alcohol. This metaphor also raises the temporal act of kissing to the level of spiritual communion (also involving wine), and begins to raise the lady herself to the level of divinity—an idea that is further developed in the next stanza.

The tightly interwoven rhyme scheme (abcbabcb) and extensive use of sound effects add a polished, gem-like quality to Jonson’s song. The frequent combination of alliteration, such as kiss/cup, rosy/wreath, and thou/thereon, with assonance in “drink divine” and “kiss within” make this poem music to our ears even without its delicate, wistful melody.

The second stanza grows even more flowery, both literally and figuratively. I recently (former meaning of “late”) sent you a wreath of flowers, he reports. I sent these roses‚—a symbol of beauty—not only as a tribute to yours, but also to save it from withering or dying (as cut flowers invariably do). At this point, we have already entered the realm of hyperbole; it requires our suspension of disbelief not to view this reasoning as suspect. But he goes further. She merely breathed on the wreath, he claims, and this gave it new life—evidenced by the fact that, since she returned it to him, the flowers have continued to grow and their perfume has been replaced with the smell of her. In these final lines, the poet attributes supernatural powers to his beloved and infers that she is a goddess, capable of granting the gift of immortality. This remarkable event completely obscures the embarrassing detail that she actually rejected his love by returning the flowers! The overall effect of sound and meaning is to express a deep, intense, enduring love that could not fail to sweep any lady off her feet.

Song: To Celia
Ben Jonson 

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!

 

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