Friday, April 24, 2009

Song: To Celia by Ben Jonson

Where can one go from Sara Teasdale's poem, "The Look", with its mention of so many men by name? Well, I chose to focus on the last two lines of Teasdale's poem:

But the kiss in Colin's eyes
  Haunts me night and day.

Where to focus - on the kiss, or on the eyes? No need to choose when you go with Ben Jonson's lovely "Song: To Celia", a poem later set to music by an unknown composer:

Song: To Celia
by 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 honoring thee,
As giving it a hope, that there
  It could not withered be.
But thou thereon did'st only breath,
  And sent'st it back to me:
Since when it grows, and smells, I swear,
  Not of it self, but thee.

Analysis of the poem:
The poem is written in two eight-line stanzas, each rhymed ABCBABCB DEFEDEFE, with alternating lines of iambic tetrameter (four iambic feet, taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM) and iambic trimeter (three iambic feet, taDUM taDUM taDUM). It's easy to hear how all the short lines of each stanza rhyme with one another; the cross-rhyming of the longer lines is more subtle, but adds an extra coherence to the poem without feeling quite as formulaic as it might have had he used an ABABCBCB rhyme or something similar.


The poem was written by Ben Jonson, who lived from 1572 to 1637. Jonson was a well-educated man who wrote poetry and plays beginning in the time of Queen Elizabeth I, rather like one of the young actors in his 1598 play Every Man in His Humour: William Shakespeare, the author of yesterday's bonus poem. See how well everything is tying together for my National Poetry Month festival?

Jonson led a rather dramatic life. He was a soldier with Francis Verre in the Netherlands for a while, then a (bad) actor and (good) playwright. He married a woman whom he described as "a shrew, but honest". After cowriting a play called The Isle of Dogs with Thomas Nashe, Jonson was put in prison for "lewd and mutinous behavior" (the Elizabethan spellings are more fun: "leude and mutynous"). A year later he was back in jail for having killed an actor in a duel. He pleaded guilty, but was later released under "benefit of clergy", for which he gave up all his goods and chattels, was branded on his left thumb and had to recite a short Bible verse in Latin. All of this was before he began to achieve success with Every Man in His Humour. Jonson became more successful still under James I.

A recording of this song:
When I first posted this poem in February of this year, I included a video of a young voice major. Today, I offer you a recording of Richard Tauber. Although the audio is a little scratchy, the tempo and feel is much more what I like in a performance of this song, which is why it's here for you today:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Richard Tauber was already seriously ill with lung cancer when this broadcast was recorded for transmission the following day.
Three weeks later, he gave his heroic final performance as Don Ottavio at Covent Garden, and a few days after that his left lung was removed in Guy's Hospital.
He died on 8th January 1948.
Dan O'Hara