Ben Jonson’s “Song to Celia” ~ The Poem You Did Not Know Was a Song

294_bjonson.gif One of my favorite love songs comes to us from the poet Ben Jonson. According to, “The poet, essayist, and playwright Ben Jonson was born on June 11, 1572 in London, England. In 1598, Jonson wrote what is considered his first great play, Every Man in His Humor. In a 1616 production, William Shakespeare acted in one of the lead roles. Shortly after the play opened, Jonson killed Gabriel Spencer in a duel and was tried for murder. He was released by pleading “benefit of clergy” (i.e., by proving he could read and write in Latin, he was allowed to face a more lenient court). He spent only a few weeks in prison, but shortly after his release he was again arrested for failing to pay an actor.

“Under King James I, Jonson received royal favor and patronage. Over the next fifteen years many of his most famous satirical plays, including Volpone (1606) and The Alchemist(1610), were produced for the London stage. In 1616, he was granted a substantial pension of 100 marks a year, and is often identified as England’s first Poet Laureate. His circle of admirers and friends, who called themselves the “Tribe of Ben,” met regularly at the Mermaid Tavern and later at the Devil’s Head. Among his followers were nobles such as the Duke and Duchess of Newcastle as well as writers including Robert Herrick, Richard Lovelace, Sir John Suckling, James Howell, and Thomas Carew.”

After March 1616, Ben Jonson took an ancient love letter and turned it into a poem. Ben Jonson’s Song: To Celia” is often identified by its first line: ‘Drink to me only with thine eyes.’ This line is actually simply a word-for-word translation of a line from one of the letters of the 3rd-century Greek author Philostratus. And, the similarities do not stop there. In addition to the Epistles of Philostratus, some experts point to the classical literature of Catullus for the poem’s inspiration. tells us, “In fact, many of the sentiments and images Philostratus includes in his erotic love letter are used by Jonson in his ‘Song: To Celia.’ For example, Jonson employs two different allegories in the poem’s two stanzas: one involving wine; the other, roses. This framing structure that Jonson uses closely resembles Philostratus’ closing line, ‘Because, that way, no one is without love like someone still longing for the grace of Dionysus while among the grapevines of Aphrodite.’ Using symbolic representations of the Greek god of wine (Dionysus) and the goddess of love (Aphrodite), Jonson not only repurposes Philostratus’ imagery, but also reflects his predecessor’s sentiment concerning his own sweetheart: no other divine, intoxicating presence (wine/Dionysus) is needed where she is around.”

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 breath,
    And sent’st it back to mee:
Since when it growes, and smells, I sweare,
    Not of it selfe, but thee.

Around 1770, the poem became the lyrics of “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes.” 

Wikipedia provides this information: “John Addington Symonds demonstrated in The Academy 16 (1884) that almost every line has its counterpart in “Epistle xxxiii” of the erotic love-letter Epistles of Philostratus. The Athenian. Richard Cumberland had, however, identified the link to “an obscure collection of love-letters” by Philostratus as early as 1791. George Burke Johnston noted that ‘the poem is not a translation, but a synthesis of scattered passages. Although only one conceit is not borrowed from Philostratus, the piece is a unified poem, and its glory is Jonson’s. It has remained alive and popular for over three hundred years, and it is safe to say that no other work by Jonson is so well known.’ Another classical strain in the poem derives from Catullus.  In a brief notice J. Gwyn Griffiths noted the similarity of the conceit of perfume given to the rosy wreath in a poem in the Greek Anthology and other classical parallels could be attested, natural enough in a writer of as wide reading as Jonson.

“Willa McClung Evans suggested that Jonson’s lyrics were fitted to a tune already in existence and that the fortunate marriage of words to music accounted in part for its excellence. This seems unlikely since Jonson’s poem was set to an entirely different melody in 1756 by Elizabeth Turner. 

Another conception is that the original composition of the tune was by John Wall Callcott in about 1790 as a glee for two trebles and a bass. It was arranged as a song in the 19th century, apparently by Colonel Mellish (1777-1817). Later arrangements include those by Granville Bantock and Roger Quilter.  Quilter’s setting was included in the Arnold Book of Old Songs, published in 1950.” Some think the song was created by Mozart, but there is no evidence to that fact. As to Colonel Mellish being the composer of the music, that is unlikely as he is believed to have been born in 1777. Grattan Flood asserted that he had seen an edition of the song dating from about 1803 with Henry Herrington of Bath (1727-1816).


Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes 

Drink to me only with thine eyes
And I will pledge with mine.
Or leave a kiss within the cup
And I’ll not ask for wine.
The thirst that from the soul doth rise
Doth ask a drink divine;
But might I of Jove’s nectar sip,
I would not change for thine.
I sent thee late a rosy wreath,
Not so much hon’ring thee
As giving it a hope that there
It could not withered be;
But thou thereon did’st only breathe,
And sent’st it back to me,
Since when it grows and smells, I swear
Not of itself, but thee.
Listen to Versions of “Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes” on You Tube by going HERE.

About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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4 Responses to Ben Jonson’s “Song to Celia” ~ The Poem You Did Not Know Was a Song

  1. It is a song that I didn’t know was a poem. Bill Shakespeare died in 1616 so it must have been early in the new year that he performed in the play

  2. In a David Bevington essay, he writes: “Every Man In was entered in the Stationers’ Register on 4 August 1600, along with As You Like It, Henry the Fifth, and Much Ado About Nothing, all of them ‘My Lord Chamberlain’s men’s plays’. The first quarto of Every Man In appeared in 1601, offering the play to the reader ‘As it hath been sundry times publicly acted by the Right Honorable the Lord Chamberlain his Servants’ (title-page). A substantially revised edition appeared in the 1616 folio, advertised on its title-page as ‘A Comedy. Acted in the year 1598. By the then Lord Chamberlain his Servants.’ (The reference here is to performance of the quarto Italian version in 1598, even if the phrasing elides the gap between it and the folio version.) A list of actors in the folio text indicates that the original performance took place ‘With the allowance of the Master of Revels’.

    On the verso of its title-page, the 1598 quarto lists the characters in two columns, reproduced here in modernized spelling:

    The number and names of the Actors.

    Lorenzo Senior Giuliano
    Prospero Lorenzo Junior
    Thorello Bianca
    Stephano Hesperida
    Doctor Clement Peto
    Bobadilla Matheo
    Musco Piso
    Cob Tib
    The list in the 1616 folio reads as follows, again in modernized spelling:

    The Persons of the Play.

    Knowell, an old gentleman Roger Formal, his clerk
    Ed. Knowell, his son Kitely, a merchant
    Brainworm, the father’s man Dame Kitely, his wife
    Master Stephen, a country gull Mistress Bridget, his sister
    Downright, a plain squire Cash, Kitely’s man
    Wellbred, his half-brother. Cob, a water-bearer
    Justice Clement, an old merry magistrate Captain Bobadill, a Paul’s man
    The 1616 folio text also contains, at the back of the play, the following cast list, below the announcement that ‘This Comedy was first acted in the year 1598, by the then Lord Chamberlain His Servants’. Abbreviations are here expanded:

    The Principal Comedians were:

    William Shakespeare Richard Burbage
    Augustine Phillips John Heminges
    Henry Condell Thomas Pope
    William Sly Christopher Beeston
    William Kemp John Duke
    “The fact that William Shakespeare’s name heads the list of actors in the folio version of Every Man In, opposite that of Richard Burbage, has fuelled speculation (first proposed by Thomas Davies, 1785, 2.56) that Shakespeare took the part of Old Knowell; Kitely has also been proposed as a possibility. Such speculations are unsubstantial, as are most attempts on the part of T. W. Baldwin (1927) and others to assign acting roles to Shakespeare on the slender basis of stage traditions that he played ‘some kingly parts in sport’ (John Davies of Hereford, 1610-11, Epigr. 159), along with the Ghost in Hamlet (Rowe, 1709, and ‘a decrepit old man’ who was ‘carried by another person to a table, at which he was seated among some company who were eating, and one of them sung a song’, presumably old Adam in As You Like It (William Oldys, quoted in Steevens, 1778, 1.204,, reporting what one of Shakespeare’s younger brothers is said to have said. For these allusions to Shakespeare as an actor, see Chambers, 1930, 2.214, 265, and 278.) The ordering of names in the folio list may have little significance. Lorenzo Senior is not a leading role. Indeed, the play is designed for an ensemble acting company, with choice roles of more or less balanced length for about nine actor-sharers: Bobadilla, Musco, Thorello, Prospero, Lorenzo Senior, Lorenzo Junior, Cob, Doctor Clement, and Giuliano. Boys would have played the women’s parts, which are, characteristically for Jonson, less dominant. The relatively minor roles of Piso and Peto could have been doubled, or assigned to hired men. Would Burbage, as leading man, have preferred Bobadilla, or Musco, or Thorello? Was Will Kemp, as the company’s leading clown, assigned Cob or Bobadilla? Scholarly guesswork favours Cob, because of the similarities to Bottom and Dogberry, but the fact is that we simply do not know.” [from Cambridge University Publishing Online ~

  3. Jennifer Redlarczyk says:

    Thanks for this article. I love this song and Lizzy sings it in both of my books, Darcy’s Melody and my current WIP His Heart’s Desire. Here is a link to my recording with the Roger Quilter arrangement.

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