From the early to mid-seventeenth century Europe was embroiled in political and social turmoil, the catalyst was the Puritan
revolt from 1640-1660. Writing for the amusement of the Court, the courtier
came into play depending upon the good will and generosity of the Court for their living. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume I defines Cavalier poetry by poets as an attempt to "compress and limit their poems, giving them a high polish and a sense of easy domination at the expense of their intellectual content.” One of these poets that showcased in the Cavalier category was Ben Jonson. His life spanned the flowering of the Elizabethan era
, reaching well into the reign of Charles I
and into a very different atmosphere from that which prevailed at the end of the 16th century. Born on June 11th in 1572 his work would influence English poetry that would come to match Shakespeare's in popularity. Shakespeare is said to have acted in one of his plays and it was Jonson’s criticism that enormously influenced later neo-classicists. The generation of Cavalier
poets considered him their mentor; and his lyrics are still striking and vital today.
This poem is a song from the satiric play Volpone. The original text of To Celia from The Forest, published in The Workes of Benjamin Jonson (London: Will Stansby, 1616).
English poet and critic John Dryden in his Essay of Dramatic Poesy offered an opinion about both Shakespeare’s and Jonson’s work in 1668: "Shakespeare was the Homer, or father of our dramatic poets; Jonson was the Vergil, the pattern of elaborate writing. I admire him, but I love Shakespeare."
Biographers relate that Jonson’s humor was cruel and boisterous; relishing so much in the colorful societies of London it was his great talent that often saved his skin and overshadowed his flaws. No one showed as great strength and originality of creation with the classic model of lyrical verse as Johnson did in his day. To Celia is probably the best example. Once heard it’s hard to forget the perfect verbal patterning of such phrases as "Drink to me only with thine eyes." The lover’s pledge has a peculiar merit with not a word too much of unique and happy grace; truly a touch of immortality, it’s hard to imagine a song heard on the radio today that will still be sung 390 years from now. A combination of epiphany and wine song it’s a skillful rendition drawn from four ancient love letters and set in a different time and place. This cento of quotations was penned by Philostratus, a little known Greek sophist, Johnson’s first line is delivered from Philostratus’Letter XXIV:
"Drink to me with thine eyes only. Or, if thou wilt, putting the cup to thy lips, fill it with kisses, and so bestow it upon me."
Lines nine through twelve come from his Letter XXX
"I sent thee a rosy wreath, not so much honouring thee (though this also is in my thoughts) as bestowing favour upon the roses, that so they might not be withered."
And lines thirteen through sixteen take their content from Letter XXXI
"If thou wouldst do a kindness to thy lover, send back the reliques of the roses I gave thee, no longer smelling of themselves only, but of thee."
His legacy no doubt rests upon his hilarious and witty portrayal of contemporary London life and their ensuing comedies of manners. Jonson was a moralist who endeavored to improve the ways of men by depicting human foibles and passions through exaggeration and distortion. However many royals did not look kindly upon the satirist who so cleverly used Petrarchan themes in his poetry. In 1598 he was tried for killing another actor in a duel but escaped execution by claiming right of clergy meaning that he could read and write. That was the same year that his most important work Every Man in His Humour was produced and it was this play in which Shakespeare was cast. The following year its companion piece, Every Man out of His Humour, Jonson satirized many of his fellow playwrights, particularly Thomas Dekker and John Marston, who were writing at that time for a competing company. Six years later he collaborated with George Chapman and Marston on the comedy Eastward Ho!(1604). It included a passage that was so derogatory to the Scots that an offended James I imprisoned the three playwrights for a brief time. It wasn’t until 1606 that Jonson's great period, both financially and artistically, took off and that was with the production of Volpone a knock at his critics.
Literary historians consider him to have been somewhat of a dictator among his contemporaries. Towards the end of his career Jonson established a group called The Sons of Ben. Among them he became dean and the leading wit of a group of writers who gathered at the Mermaid Tavern in the Cheapside district of London. A combination of his conversion to Roman Catholicism so near to the time of the Gunpowder Plot along with his fall from grace with Charles I led public sentiment to turn against him in his later years. Suffering from a stroke left him bedridden until his death in 1637.