Johnson, Samuel. Lives of the English Poets. Vol. 2. New
York: E. P. Dutton, 1958. Nokes, David. John Gay: A Profession of Friendship. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
"SONG: TO CELIA" Ben Jonson (1616) Ben
Jonson drew on classical tradition to write "Song: To Celia," which first appeared in one of his dramas. It would become a famous drinking song when set to new music in the 18th century. He based his lines on five different passages written by the third-century Greek philosopher Philostratus. Philostratus practiced sophistry, which did not have in his day the negative connotation that it does today. Sophistry meant literally "knowledge from wisdom," and its practice conflicted with the traditional use of logic and reason in order to arrive at a truth that would convince an audience. The sophists instead held that the audience alone could determine truth, and that audience could be manipulated through an appeal to emotion.
The song is divided into two thematic sections of eight lines, opening with the famous sentiment
Drink to me only with thine eyes, And I will pledge with mine;
or leave a kiss but in the cup, And I'll not look for wine.
Celia exchanges gazes with the speaker, leaving him uninterested in wine. His thirst is an emotional one that can be quenched only by her love. The speaker notes, "Thirst that from the soul doth rise / Doth ask a drink divine," as Jonson employs alliteration to emphasize Celia's divine nature, which makes the nature of the speaker's affection also divine, by extension. However, even should "Jove's nectar," drink fit for a deity, be offered to the speaker, he gallantly declares he would not exchange that drink for Celia's cup.
The second eight lines offer a new vignette in which the speaker sends "a rosy wreath" to Celia. He does so with the "hope that there / It could not withered be." So great is Celia's effect that the wreath flowers will never die, because roses had long been a symbol for romance involving a mature woman. However, Celia merely breathed on the wreath and returned it to the speaker. He describes a miracle in that "Since when it grows and smells, I swear, / Not of itself, but thee." Celia did breathe life into the wreath, whose flowers continue to grow, emanating not the scent of a rose, but that of Celia, suggested to be even sweeter.
SONG TO DAVID, A Christopher Smart (1763)
Although Christopher Smart's poem A Song to David contains 86 six-line stanzas, it appears in its entirety in many anthologies. At the time Smart published the poem, it received negative to tepid reviews, which Smart exacerbated with cryptic responses. It was first released in quarto form to 736 subscribers. Unfortunately prospective readers heard the story that Smart had scratched his verses into the wainscoting of his insane asylum cell with a key. The hint at mental illness turned readers away, particularly in light of Smart's highly emotional response to its less-than-
stellar reception. That reception had nothing to do with the poem's focus, as 18th-century readers remained quite interested in the biblical figure of King David; Smart had checked out books from the library on the topic. But the mean-spirited attacks on Smart as an individual by the Monthly Review and the Critical Review in response to his own bitter invectives against their initial evaluations caused the work to be ignored for centuries. As Smart's biographer Neil Curry notes in a chapter devoted to A Song to David, the Critical Review quoted from "Mr. Churchill's Epistle to Hogarth" to give readers a sense not of the value of the work, but of its writer. It implied that Smart was "deep sunk, in second childhood's night!" meaning insanity, or "this evil," left "To drivel out whole years of idiot breath, / And sit the monuments of living death." Robert Browning's attention in 1887 turned the public tide of thought, and A Song to David gained deserved critical esteem.
one characteristic of the poem emphasized by most scholars is Smart's tendency to focus only on David's positive aspects. His traditional joyous tone celebrates much about the ruler, as evidenced by its fourth stanza description of David using the same 12 adjectives he had employed in his Jubilate Agno to describe the 12 Jewish tribes. Here David individually reflects all that was good about the tribes:
Great, valiant, pious, good, and clean,
Sublime, contemplative, serene,
Strong, constant, pleasant, wise!
Bright effluence of exceeding grace;
Best man!—the swiftness and the race, The peril, and the prize!
The poet glosses over David's well-known adultery, which led to what amounted to murder of Bathsheba's husband; he never even mentions Bathsheba's name. Instead his next 12 stanzas elaborate on each of David's 12 virtues.
Because of what has been described as Smart's manic interest in numbers, as well as his membership in the Freemasons, many architectural references exist, including one to Solomon's Temple, which had been planned by King David. Smart also elaborates on
David's talent as a poet, establishing a connection between his own work and that of the Hebrew king. He especially emphasizes that both use man's language to praise God's creation, a technique closely related to Smart's traditional praise of nature as a result of divine action. Smart thus also includes a catalog of flora and fauna in stanzas 22 through 25. The "Trees, plants, and flowers" are "of virtuous root," yielding both "blossom" and "fruit," while the "fowl" are of "every beak and wing," some making music, others mocking. "Every size and shape" of fishes exist, and "the beaver plods his task; / While the sleek tigers roll and bask." He will later describe the seasons as a form of praise, sharply separating his method, as Curry points out, from that of other Anglican poets, who looked not to the world for evidence of God but only to a life after death.
one section of the poem that has long puzzled critics is the group of seven stanzas that begin with the Greek letters alpha, gamma, eta, theta, iota, sigma, and omega. Curry's discussion points out that the letters form no word and do not represent an anagram. Some scholars have looked to numerology for an explanation, while others believe the letters may correspond to various psalms, and others that the answer lies in Masonic imagery or architectural symbolism. As Curry writes, "The only thing clear is that in choosing them Smart overturned a cornucopia of both orthodox and esoteric religious thought and that there seems no end to the possibilities." The stanzas each reflect Smart's often expressed belief that man must articulate his gratitude to God, as the poet does constantly through his praise works. He continues through the poem emphasizing the positive aspects of the New Testament God as compared to the Old Testament God of vengeance, where the objective commandments that constituted Mosaic law are superseded by the moral law of the Sermon on the Mount.
The momentum of the poem increases through use of sound and form as Smart approaches its conclusion. Enjambment and the rhythm inherent to repetition draw the reader forward as letter sounds begin to explode, rather than smoothly glide, when the words are read aloud. Stanza 76, in which most words contain only one or two syllables, provides a strong example:
Strong is the lion—like a coal His eyeball—like a bastion's mole
His chest against the foes: Strong the gier-eagle on his sail, Strong against tide, the enormous whale Emerges, as he goes.
Smart drives his poem to a frenzy of praise with eight repetitions of the term beauteous, seven repetitions of precious, and, in stanzas 84 through 86, 13 repetitions of Glorious placed at the beginning of every line. He leaves the earth to describe the heavens, God's domain. Stanza 84 reads:
Glorious the sun in mid career; Glorious the assembled fires appear;
Glorious the comet's train; Glorious the trumpet and alarm; Glorious the almighty stretched-out arm; Glorious the enraptured main;
At the last David's purpose becomes clear; he is a progenitor of Christ. Curry compares the final stanzas of A Song to David to a Handel chorus, which the audience does not want to end, but simultaneously cannot endure any longer. When Smart concludes, he does so with three simple terms meant to echo and resound through the church of the reader's mind: "DETERMINED, DARED, and DONE."
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