"To Celia" sounds like both a toast and a song that you would sing to a woman you love (we're sure that you could substitute a guy's name for "Celia" and sing it to man too – maybe Cesar or Charlie). The opening words of the poem are just another version of something like "drink to the New York Yankees" or "let's toast our new life together." Just because the poem is sixteen lines long doesn't make it any less like a toast. Sometimes people's toasts resemble little speeches, especially at weddings when people might have had a little too much to drink. When reading "To Celia," just imagine you're at a party and somebody raises his glass and says, "I'd like to raise a toast to my mother…I'd take your apple cider over Jove's nectar any day."
"To Celia" also kind of sounds like a song – the full title is even "Song to Celia." The poem rhymes, is easy to remember, and just sounds musical. Take the following four lines and try singing them (just whisper-sing it if you're shy) and you'll see what we mean:
I sent the late a rosy wreath,
Not so much honouring thee
As giving it a hope
That there it could not withered be (9-12)
It's no coincidence that eventually somebody came along and put the words to music (we're not quite sure who first put the words to music or when). If you do a Google search for "Drink to me only with thine eyes," you will find a bunch of sites that talk about it as a relatively well-known English song. Head over to "Best of the Web" to see a sampling of the variety of different ways people have performed this classic.
Ben Jonson (with no "h") wrote at least two poems called "Song to Celia" (or "To Celia" for short), so there must have been something about that name that he really liked. (Shmoop thinks Celia is a nice name, too). It has been said that the name comes from the Roman family name Caelius, which in turn is thought to originate from the Latin caelum ("heaven"). That sure seems an appropriate name for someone the speaker claims he loves.
Beyond its telling origins, however, the name Celia also has a long literary history. It is a fairly common name in ancient pastoral poetry and romance, and Jonson was a big fan of classical (ancient Greek and Roman) literature. In addition to its ancient literary pedigree, Celia is also the name of one of the characters in Shakespeare's pastoral comedy As You Like It (1599 or 1600). Jonson knew Shakespeare, and it's totally possible that Big Willy's use of the name had at least something to do with Jonson's choice. In the decades following Jonson's death, Celia would become a frequently-used name in English pastoral poetry, appearing most famously (or notoriously) in Jonathan Swift's bawdy poem "The Lady's Dressing Room." Want to read Swift's dirty little poem? Check it out here.
Imagine it's 1616 and that you're in London. You're inside a dimly-lit but cozy tavern, with two other patrons. Outside, it's cold and damp – typical London weather. The fire is starting to burn down, so the bartender goes over, puts another few logs on, and disappears. After he leaves, you look over at a guy sitting in the corner; he's staring at the other patron, a woman about ten feet away. He writes, look at her, writes some more, and so on. He's also got a wreath sitting next to him and an empty glass. Every so often he picks up the wreath and sniffs it, and then returns to his paper.
The more you think about it, the more this quaint little tavern resembles a Starbucks, only a lot cozier, much quieter, with a fireplace and beer instead of coffee. It's the kind of place you go to get some work done, people watch, or to find some inspiration for your drawings or your poems. In short, it's the type of public place that lets you work in peace and where you can bring a wreath with you and nobody will bat an eye.
That's the sort of setting we picture for this poem. What do you think? How do you imagine the setting?
The speaker of "To Celia" is like your buddy. Imagine, who's really into writing poetry. He likes to test out new metaphors (his latest one involves a comparison between flirting and drinking) wear funny hats, and hang out at Starbucks. Lately, he's been raising his cup of coffee and toasting girls he sees. Sometimes, he'll write a poem about somebody he sees at the café, tear out the sheet from his notebook, and deliver it.
Your friend is really educated, and last time you checked, he was planning on majoring in Classics. He knows his Greek and Latin really well – so well, in fact, that he has fun making totally obscure allusions Greek and Roman literature in his poetry. And when we say obscure we mean obscure. One poem that he wrote to a girl named Celia is even based on the writings of an ancient dude named Philostratus. See what we mean?
The last time you saw your buddy, just the other day, he was carrying a really nice wreath. "What are you doing with that?" you asked him. "Oh, I'm taking it to Starbucks, and I'm going to give it to Celia. She's so divine, man, maybe this wreath will live forever in her presence." You just shake your head, smile, and tell yourself there are some things you will never understand.
"To Celia" isn't really a difficult poem; there are a few references that may need some explaining (like Jove in line 7), but other than that it's pretty straightforward. The vocabulary is a bit old-fashioned and the sentences are sometimes complicated (nothing like many of John Milton's, though), but the general point of the poem is relatively easy to grasp.
Ben Jonson was a very book smart poet and didn't mind showing off his fat brain. As a child he was trained by a famous classical scholar (William Camden), and he was praised by contemporaries for his prodigious learning (straight A's). And by classical we mean all things having to do with those good ol' ancient Greeks and Romans. Most discussions of Jonson's poetry mention something about his love for the classics and the fact that many of his poems contain classical allusions, sometimes very subtle, sometimes not so much.
"To Celia" is a perfect example of this quality of Jonson's writing. Actually, it is almost an exaggeration. If you look at our "Allusions" section, you'll see that Jonson borrowed substantially from a seriously obscure ancient writer named Philostratus, who wrote a series of erotic letters. In fact, nearly every line in the poem echoes or alludes to one of four letters from which Jonson borrowed. Jonson's poem, however, is not just a patchwork of allusions or echoes; he manages to seamlessly weave together ancient sources while also making them his own.
We're about to throw a lot of poetry vocab at you, so brace yourself. "To Celia" actually has two different meters: iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter.
Let's start with "iambic." An "iamb" is an unaccented syllable followed by an accented one. It makes a sound like da-DUM. Easy enough.
Next up is "iambic tetrameter." "Tetra" means "four" (like Tetris) and "meter" refers to a regular rhythmic pattern. So iambic tetrameter is a kind of rhythmic pattern that consists of four iambs per line. It sounds like four heartbeats:
da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM
The odd-numbered lines are written in iambic tetrameter. Let's check out an example from the first line. We'll put slashes between the iambs and bold the stressed syllables.
Drink to | me on|ly with | thine eyes
The even-numbered lines are in a meter called iambic trimeter, which is the same as iambic tetrameter except there are three ("tri," like tricycle) iambs instead of four. Take line 2 as an example:
And I | will pledge | with mine.
"To Celia" also rhymes and has the following rhyme scheme: ABCBABCB DEFEDEFE. We'll assign letters to each rhyme in the first stanza to show you what we're talking about:
Drink to me only with thine eyes (A)
And I will pledge with mine; (B)
Or leave a kiss but in the cup, (C)
And I'll not look for wine. (B)
The thirst that from the soul doth rise (A)
Doth ask a drink divine: (B)
But might I of Jove's nectar sup (C)
I would not change for thine. (B)
Notice how the A's all rhyme (eyes, rise), the B's rhyme (mine, wine, divine, thine), and the C's rhyme (cup, sup).
Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
"To Celia" is really an extended toast of sorts – it begins with the speaker urging Celia to "drink" to him with her eyes – and drinking plays an important part for a large part of the poem. In particular, the speaker uses drinking and thirst as a metaphor for love or desire. He's helping us understand something spiritual (love) by putting it in terms of something earthly (the necessity for water or drink).
The speaker talks about Jove's "nectar" (Jove a.k.a. Jupiter a.k.a. Zeus is the immortal king of the gods in Greek/Roman mythology) and expresses a desire that the "rosy wreath" (9) he sends Celia will not die in her presence. He even talks about how the soul requires a "divine" (6) drink – not Jove's nectar, but something equally out-of-this-world. By the end of the poem, he even implies that the "rosy wreath" continues to "grow," even though we know that that is impossible (a wreath is made of flowers or leaves that have been plucked, so they're dead). The implication is that the woman's breath is able to make things immortal.
The "rosy wreath," and the vocabulary that accompanies it, takes up a big part of the second half of the poem. The wreath is similar to a bouquet of flowers that you might give to your crush, but in the poem the speaker uses it in order to determine if Celia possesses the angelic or divine power to keep things living. The wreath is also a symbol in the poem of art itself, something carefully and skillfully created in much the same way as Jonson's poem.
There really isn't anything super steamy about "To Celia," Yes, there is a guy who wants a girl, and he talks about drinking, but the poem is really about emotions, feelings, love, that sort of thing…not the raunchier, dirtier thing. The very fact that the poem has become an incredibly popular song – check out "Best of the Web" to see that performances range from Johnny Cash to various operatic singers – speaks to its relative lack of racy stuff.