The Presentation of the Beloved in the Poem ‘To Celia’
“To Celia” is a four-stanza poem written by Ben Jonson that has been said to be centered around his fellow poet Lady Mary Wroth, who had also been the subject of his other poems such as ‘To Penshurst’ and ‘Sonnet to the Noble Lady, the Lady Mary Wroth’. This poem is essentially a depiction of an exquisite woman that the speaker is romantically interested in. In the first half of the poem ‘To Celia’, the speaker describes how her smallest of actions would trigger the largest of reactions in his mental state. The speaker then continues the poem by chronicling the events in their relationship. This can be seen through the mention of his decision to send his beloved a rosy wreath, and eventually his beloved’s response towards this particular action. It is crystal clear that her every move is of utmost significance to him, and the reader gets a sense of the speaker’s transcendental love for his beloved. Therefore, the question before us is: how was the beloved presented in this poem?
First of all, ‘To Celia’, could be interpreted as the speaker addressing the poem to his beloved, and this is supported by the use of second-person pronouns, such as ‘thine’, ‘thou’, and ‘thee’ throughout the four stanzas. On the other hand, the phrase ‘To Celia’ also sounds like a toast to celebrate the existence of Celia, thus presenting Celia as a rather special human being. The title of the poem has not only provided a hint to the reader about drinking but has also begun the pedestalling of the beloved. In the first stanza of the poem, alcohol is used as a metaphor for the beloved’s intoxicating eye contact. This is suggestive of the fact that the speaker is addicted to the beloved, which explains why he would go so far as to ‘pledge’ to her. In other words, Celia is depicted as a woman who is lovely enough for the speaker to be committed and loyal to her at the drop of a hat, so long as she would merely glance at him. Her kiss is then described as a substance that exceeds wine in terms of its ability to cause infatuation. In this instance, the reader is again reminded of the beloved’s ethereal qualities, which perhaps is used by the speaker to justify his love for her. It is worth noting that the speaker’s desire for her to communicate any reciprocal feelings through actions instead of words creates an atmosphere of secrecy. The reader would now be curious about the identity of the beloved and the nature of their mysterious relationship.
In the second stanza, the analogy of his love and desire being related through wine and thirst is demonstrated through the rhyme scheme of the first two stanzas. The corresponding lines of each stanza rhyme with each other, for example the last word of the first line of the first stanza ‘eyes’, rhymes perfectly with the last word of the first line of the second stanza, ‘rise’. In the first line, thirst is used as a metaphor to express the speaker’s desires and urges as a physical need. This is done through the implied desperation by the usage of the word ‘thirst’ and it shows how the affection of the beloved is of utmost necessity for the speaker to live. The idea is further strengthened with the phrase ’from the soul doth rise’, as it gives the reader the impression that the speaker yearns for his beloved with every fibre of his being. In the following line, the speaker begins to draw a connection between Celia and the divine. Firstly, the speaker elevates the depiction of Celia by indicating that she is the ‘divine drink’ that his soul requires, and proceeds by further idealizing the beloved through hyperbolic comparisons. For example, the speaker confesses that the desirability of Jove’s nectar pales when juxtaposed against that of the divine drink of Celia’s love. Hence, it can be said that the speaker considers the divine drink to have powers even greater than that of Jove’s nectar, which is a substance that allegedly provides immortality. This mythical allusion helps cement the message that the speaker is trying to get across: that Celia’s love is so wonderful, it exceeds even the best of what the mystical realm can offer.
The poem then departs from the drinking analogy that has previously been presented. Now the focus of the poem is on a wreath, and the speaker uses this to again prove that his beloved is indeed heavenly. The depiction of the wreath as ‘rosy’ could suggest beauty and fragility, but the seemingly positive intention of sending the beloved a lovely wreath is diminished by the following line. ‘Not so much honouring thee’ would shock the reader as it is an unforeseen tonal shift from the devotee-like praise that came from the speaker in the first two stanzas. In fact, the phrase seems to insinuate a form of insult towards the beloved. The speaker then defends himself by clarifying that he considers Celia to have powers of immortality, thus his actions serve as an experiment to test the veracity of his belief. This provides evidence that the speaker thinks that his beloved is not mortal and therefore is not subject to the same mortality as the flowers in the wreath, which perfectly explains why the speaker attempts to prolong the existence of the wreath by sending it to her. The Petrarchan convention of immortality in romantic poetry, which is introduced in the previous stanza, is clearly sustained. Besides that, the enjambment in the third stanza in lines 10-12, mirror the speaker’s hope to immortalize the beauty of the wreath. The lack of a pause could also be linked to the continuation of the life of the wreath.
In the final stanza, the reader is informed on what becomes of the wreath. It is sent back by Celia, and thus can be seen as a direct rejection towards the speaker’s romantic intentions. This paints an image of the beloved as a coy and scornful woman, which fits in with the Petrarchan conventions commonly found in love poetry. Essentially, the main point of the stanza is that despite being sent back, the wreath is still alive as it still ‘breathes and smells’. Similarly, despite a rather obvious dismissal, the speaker’s affections have yet to be crushed. However, the speaker’s seemingly foolish behavior of clinging onto this potential relationship could be justified by the fact that since the rose smells of Celia, it could mean an implied acceptance. Moreover, the rose smelling of Celia is an apparent statement of power because it shows that the smell of Celia is so powerful that it overwhelms the smell of the rose, even though the rose has only been in Celia’s presence for a relatively short while. Therefore, the wreath is not only symbolic of the speaker’s hopes for the continued life of his relationship with Celia, but it is also symbolic of Celia’s quasi-divine abilities as well.
Overall, the poem presents the beloved as a woman who is above mere mortals. In the first stanza, Celia is presented as a woman so lovely that her kiss is capable of providing more intoxication than alcohol. The speaker then continues to elevate Celia’s image by comparing the desirability of Celia’s love and Jove’s nectar, and ultimately decides that he would trade off this drink of immortality in favor of Celia’s love. This again positively slants Celia and presents her as an extraordinary woman. Finally, through the revival of the wreath, the speaker makes it unquestionable that Celia is to be considered as absolutely divine. In conclusion, Celia is presented to the reader as an ethereal woman whose beauty and love is more powerful than what both earthly and supernatural worlds can offer.
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“To Celia” is a four-stanza poem written by Ben Jonson that has been said to be centered around his fellow poet Lady Mary Wroth, who had also been the subject […]