Jonson (1616) In "Inviting a Friend to Supper," Ben Jonson imitates Horace but writes with an English sensibility. He had famously discussed speech as primarily an instrument for social interaction, noting, "Pure and neat language I love, yet plaine and customary." While Jonson ostensibly communicates only with one close acquaintance in this poem, he retained not only a sense of his broader audience but also a
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responsibility toward communicating with them. He leaves little room for ambiguity, applying his traditional approach to the construction of strong surface imagery that lodges with the observant reader and helps that reader distinguish the poem's theme. This method ran contrary to that of writers who dealt with deep subconscious suggestion. Jonson also commented, "Words are the Peoples; yet there is a choise of them to be made," making clear his belief in the writer's responsibility to choose wisely.
When he invites his friend, a "grave sir," into his "poor house," desiring company, the reader is not prepared for the sumptuousness of the feast the speaker then describes. He notes that the guest's presence "will dignify our feast / With those that come," a display of ritual modesty. The speaker notes that "the fair acceptance, Sir, creates / The entertainment perfect: not the cates," where cates means food. Thus, company makes the meal. Jonson's open acceptance of his guest has caused some critics to identify that guest as Jonson's former teacher, the historian William Camden.
The speaker next begins to provide for his would-be guest a litany of delights designed to tempt him through the door. They will eat olives, capers, salad, mutton, "a short-legged hen, / If we can get her, full of eggs," as well as "Lemons and wine for sauce" and a rabbit. He notes that "though fowl now be scarce, yet there are clerks," adding humor with his reference to scholars, and then continuing, "The sky not falling, think we have larks." He tells of "partridge, pheasant, woodcock" and "Knot, rail, and ruff, too," all various game birds. Not only will they sup handsomely, the speaker's manservant will read Virgil, Tacitus, and Livy, "or of some better book to us, / of which we'll speak our minds amidst our meat." He promises not to repeat aloud any verses, with a droll urbanity, and notes that if any paper is seen, it will be lining a pie pan. In other words, they will turn full attention to the food, leaving work aside for a time. While they will enjoy cheese and fruit, the speaker most anticipates "a pure cup of rich Canary wine," which best stirs his muse but presently sits at an inn. Jonson identifies the inn as the Mermaid, a popular drinking stop for London poets where Canary wine, a favorite of Jonson and of Robert Herrick, was served.
Jonson next references two famous figures, the Latin Horace and the Greek Anacreon, and declares the lines they wrote had lasted a long time, a second example in this poem of his frequent use of the classics. His hospitality is neither formal nor stuffy, but rather framed by a good-natured tone, that of one accustomed to sharing with others in intimate circumstances. Jonson had much practice on the social scene, as he and his Tribe of Ben were staples of the London tavern scene. While drink remained important, so did bright verbal exchange regarding the aesthetics of poetry and drama and an interest in events of the day.
The speaker remains confident that other intoxicants cannot prove as enjoyable as the wine, and they need not worry about "Pooly or Parrot," probably a reference to state spies, as Jonson had to be careful regarding public display of his Catholic faith. He concludes, noting that their "cups" will not make them feel guilty,
But at our parting we will be as when We innocently met. No simple word
That shall be uttered at our mirthful board Shall make us sad next morning, or affright The liberty that we'll enjoy tonight.
By the poem's conclusion, one remains confident that the speaker did not use the term friend lightly. His companion was a close acquaintance who could be taken into confidence, who could share a jest without insult, and who proved perfect company for a liberating evening of pleasure.
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