In 1616 Ben Jonson published the first collected edition of his works. The collection included a number of Jonson's plays (he was a contemporary of Shakespeare's, and relatively well-known playwright at the time) as well as a short collection of poems called The Forest. Among the fifteen poems that comprise The Forest are two poems called "Song to Celia" (maybe he liked the name?) of which the second (titled "IX") is the more famous.
Now, nobody is quite sure who Celia was, but some speculate that she was a fellow poet and close friend of Ben Jonson's named Lady Mary Wroth (she was married to a guy that Jonson didn't really like). Jonson praised her directly in his poem "Sonnet to the Noble Lady, the Lady Mary Wroth" and indirectly in a poem called "To Penshurst," which celebrates a country estate where she spent a lot of time as a child.
Ben Jonson was quite the classicist; he knew his Greek and Latin pretty well, and he loved to display his book smarts. "To Celia" is a perfect, if not immediately obvious, example of Jonson's prodigious learning. Large parts of "To Celia" are loose translations of or close parallels of the love letters of an ancient writer named Philostratus. Who? Yeah, he's a pretty obscure writer. Jonson borrowed substantially from letters XXIV, XXV, XXX, and XXXI to build what is one of his most anthologized poems.
Can you think of something that you really, really love? Maybe you love a type of food (fries with mayo?) or a celeb (gaga for Lady Gaga?) or a hobby (button collecting?). Have you ever found yourself trying to explain to someone else the depth of your love? It can be hard, especially when you're trying to convince someone who isn't really as enthusiastic.
It can also be difficult because, frankly, our most powerful emotions are often super hard to express. "To Celia" is partly about this difficulty, or about the ways in which we try to verbalize – to put into words – our passion. The speaker uses a lot of drinking imagery in an attempt to explain his love for Celia. He calls his feelings a "thirst that from the soul doth rise" (5), in an effort to describe how his desire, and love, for Celia are something his body needs to survive. (Starting to sound like a vampire, isn't he?)
Think back to the things you love. Maybe you, too, consider them necessities (like food and water). The metaphor is a little weird – love is like a thirst for something? – but that just points to the difficulty of expressing our emotions. It's like powerful emotions are almost spiritual, and the soul just doesn't play by the rules of vocabulary.
That doesn't mean you shouldn't give it a shot, though. Go ahead. You know you want to write a poem called "To Fries with Mayo." But be sure to check out "To Celia" first. You might learn a thing or two from Ben Jonson on how to express your passion in words.
Ben Jonson's page on Luminarium.org includes a bio, some of his writings, essays on his work, and more.
At Westminster Abbey
Ben Jonson is buried at Westminster's Abbey's Poet's Corner. Read a bit about his life and also his grave. Weirdly, he was buried standing in an upright position
A discussion of the different people named Philostratus. One of these Philostratuses (Philostrati?) was the guy who wrote the letters Jonson based "To Celia" on.
Singing "To Celia"
A guy, a girl, and a woodwind specialist jam "To Celia."
Johnny Cash Sings "To Celia"
The Man in Black does a great, somber, country-ish version of "To Celia." This is really awesome.
Elizabeth Schwarzkopf Sings "To Celia"
A very operatic and beautiful performance of "To Celia."
Operative Version of "To Celia"
Another beautiful operatic version of the song with a pretty picture of a rose accompanying.
A Reading of "To Celia"
Some old guy reads "To Celia" in a good poetry-reading voice.
A famous painting of Jonson, probably around middle age.
Lady Mary Wroth
The woman who may have inspired "To Celia."
A picture of Ben Jonson's headstone in Westminster Abbey.
A Jonson Manuscript
Some poems written in Jonson's own hand.