Monday, March 5, 2012

Inviting a Friend to Supper

Inviting a Friend to Supper
Ben Jonson

TO-NIGHT, grave sir, both my poore house, and I
Doe equally desire your companie:
Not that we thinke us worthy such a guest,
But that your worth will dignifie our feast,
With those that come; whose grace may make that seeme
Something, which, else, could hope for no esteeme.
It is the faire acceptance, Sir, creates
The entertaynment perfect: not the cates.
Yet shall you have, to rectifie your palate,
An olive, capers, or some better sallad
Ushring the mutton; with a short-leg’d hen,
If we can get her, full of eggs, and then,
Limons, and wine for sauce: to these, a coney
Is not to be despair’d of, for our money;
And, though fowle, now, be scarce, yet there are clerkes,
The skie not falling, thinke we may have larkes.
I’ll tell you of more, and lye, so you will come:
Of partrich, pheasant, wood-cock, of which some
May yet be there; and godwit, if we can:
Knat, raile, and ruffe too. How so e’er, my man
Shall reade a piece of VIRGIL, TACITUS,
LIVIE, or of some better booke to us,
Of which wee’ll speake our minds, amidst our meate;
And I’ll professe no verses to repeate:
To this, if ought appeare, which I know not of,
That will the pastrie, not my paper, show of.
Digestive cheese, and fruit there sure will bee;
But that, which most doth take my Muse, and mee,
Is a pure cup of rich Canary-wine,
Which is the Mermaids, now, but shall be mine:
Of which had HORACE, or ANACREON tasted,
Their lives, as doe their lines, till now had lasted.
Tabacco, Nectar, or the Thespian spring,
Are all but LUTHERS beere, to this I sing.
Of this we will sup free, but moderately,
And we will have no Pooly, or Parrot by;
Nor shall our cups make any guiltie men:
But, at our parting, we will be, as when
We innocently met. No simple word
That shall be utter’d at our mirthfull board
Shall make us sad next morning: or affright
The libertie, that wee’ll enjoy to-night.

Source:
The Oxford Book of Seventeenth Century Verse.
H. J. C. Grierson and G. Bullough, eds.
Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1934. 155-156.


This is a poem about art, not about dinner. I also think it's one of the few that shows how Jonson may, actually, have had a sense of humor. A lot of his verse is sort of bullying and argumentative but this one, I think, really does invite the reader into Jonson's house.

I’ll tell you of more, and lye [lie], so you will come That's good stuff, Ben. Tempt us with false promises because you know that what we'll actually find at your feast will satisfy us even if we wouldn't think so from an honest invitation.

I also like it because it makes me think of John Lily's "Oh for a bowl of fat canary," which is one of the finest little bits of verse about drinking that's ever been written.

Another possible misreading of this poem, especially if you consider the lines

your worth will dignifie our feast,
With those that come; whose grace may make that seeme
Something, which, else, could hope for no esteeme


is that Jonson claims English poetry to be as good/valuable/whatever as the classics, as the wine Jonson will be serving (that fat Canary) would have kept Horace and Anacreon alive had they drunk of it. Though earlier on he promises that Virgil, Tacitus, Livy or "something better" will be read, and he himself will profess no verse. So I don't know. But the lines quoted above infer that English poetry, if that's what the poem is about, will only be dignified if English readers partake of it. And so the way to get English readers to read English poetry is to pretend that English poetry contains "meats" more rare than it actually contains? I don't know, again. Or still. The poem becomes more complex the more I look at it.

"Pooly and Parrot" were informers for the repressive state's thought police, and as such were not invited to supper. "...and lie, so you will come" is still my favorite line here. I think it reveals Ben in ways none of his other poems do (or at least none of the poems I've read, which is admittedly a small portion of his total output).

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