Ben Jonson’s poem, “Come, my Celia, let’s prove it,” is a love poem originally appeared as a song in Jonson’s famous 1605 comedy, Volpone. In the play, the lecherous Volpone uses the song to try to convince the virtuoso Celia to have sex with him. Jonson’s poem refers to a much earlier poem by the Roman poet Catullus – a poem usually referred to as “Ode 5.” This ode begins with the following line: “Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus” (“Let us live, my Lesbian, and my love”). Jonson’s poem, then, strongly alludes to Catullus’ earlier work.
Volpone’s “song,” however, is much less obsessed with just kissing that Catullus is. Gathering as many kisses as possible from Lesbia seems to be the main purpose of Catullus’ speaker; he seems to think or talk about a little else. Volpone, however, seems much less concerned with kisses (which he never even mentions) than with what he evokes as the “sport of love”:
Come my Celia, let us prove,
While we may, the sports of love. (1-2)
In the play, this song is embedded in a scene in which Volpone clearly hopes to enjoy much more than a simple kiss from Celia, and in fact, at one point on the scene, Volpone seems to be raping Celia (before she is suddenly rescued from that fate). Unlike Jonson’s poem, then, Catullus seems almost mild, and indeed the hundreds and thousands of kisses my Catullus speaker was looking for seem so exaggerated in number that it’s hard to take the speaker seriously. (7-9).
Volpone, on the other hand, must indeed be taken very seriously; he is not nearly as laughable as the speaker of Catullus; instead, he is truly threatening and predatory. Thus by referring to the poem of Catullus, Jonson’s poem allows us to see how Volpone does and does not resemble the speaker of Catullus.
Yet Jonson’s poem may also refer to texts other than Catullus’ poem, and to ideas other than those found in Catullus’ ode. Jonson’s poem appears highly ironic, for instance, if it is read in the light of the teachings of the Christian Bible. This is especially true when Volpone claims, in line 15, that ‘Tis no sin love’s fruit to steal.’ Here the word ‘sin’ immediately reminds us of Christian religious standards (in a way that a more neutral word, such as ‘crime,’ would not have done so). Moreover, this line also reminds us of the original sin of Adam and Eve, who stole the fruit they were forbidden to taste.
In general, Jonson’s poem refers to many different standard Christian doctrines, only to refute them. Thus, Volpone maintains that “Time will not be ours for ever” (3) – a direct contradiction of Christian teachings. Likewise, he urges Celia to “Spend not then his gifts in vain” 5. (5), when that’s exactly what he’s trying to seduce her to do. Likewise, he claims, at one point, that
. . . if once we lose this light
’Tis, with us, perpetual night. (7-8)
These lines, ironically, may inadvertently remind Christian readers of the “perpetual night” of life in hell if the spiritual “light” of Christ is lost.
In short, Jonson’s poem seems to refer to both the text of Catullus (and similar seduction poems, both classical and later) and the standard Christian ideas of the time. In all cases it is possible to argue) the allusions make Volpone’s poem seem even more ironic, even less savoury than it already seems.
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