Sunday, October 21, 2012

Ben Jonson

Inviting a Friend to Supper
by 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.


TC said...


A great poem, and a brilliant reversal to turn the speaker into a woman.

Ben's poem (an updating/Anglicizing of an epigram by Martial) is shadowed by the reference to "Poley or Parrot". Robert Poole or Poley was a notorious Elizabethan informant and undercover agent "run" by the Queen's spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham. This nasty fellow's dark doings, a few of which have come to light, included involvement in a number of entrapments and insidious provocations; he played a significant role in the killing of Christopher Marlowe. He spent time in and out of prison, and it must have been in the latter place (Marshalsea) he came together with Henry Parrot, an infamous prison spy. These "two damn'd villains" (as Ben called them) were placed in the Marshalsea to extract information from those (including Thomas Nashe and Ben himself) imprisoned after the scandal over Ben's play The Isle of Dogs. A pair of very unpleasant characters. It was these two spooks Ben had in mind in composing this epigram:


SPIES, you are lights in state, but of base stuff,
Who, when you've burnt yourselves down to the snuff,
Stink, and are thrown away. End fair enough.

The mention of them in the Invitation, promising security from prying eyes at the supper, also casts an anxious look over the shoulder -- a hint as to the insecurity which prevailed in the milieu of poets and players at the time.

But your graphic makes the speaker's invitation so alluring that it becomes easier to understand how such worries would be left behind. For this one evening at least.

Nin Andrews said...

Thank you for that, Tom. I had no idea. I have always wondered what a pure cup of rich Canary wine might be. And I love the menu in a poem-- and the promises not to repeat verses and so on.

It's much more interesting now that you have explained it to me.

TC said...

A sweet wine, imported from the Canaries, where the Spanish had exterminated the natives and then planted vines. (The English importers were exempted from some tariffs, so it was affordable, and very popular.) Also known as sherry, if brought from Jerez. Because in Spain it was drunk from a sort of sack made of hides, that's the name it got with the English. "Sack" was famously imbibed in the tavern circle of the Tribe of Ben (Herrick et al.), and of course it was the favourite drink of Falstaff:

Good faith, this same young sober-
blooded boy doth not love me; nor a man cannot make
him laugh; but that's no marvel, he drinks no wine.
There's never none of these demure boys come to any
proof; for thin drink doth so over-cool their blood,
and making many fish-meals, that they fall into a
kind of male green-sickness; and then when they
marry, they get wenches: they are generally fools
and cowards; which some of us should be too, but for
inflammation. A good sherris sack hath a two-fold
operation in it. It ascends me into the brain;
dries me there all the foolish and dull and curdy
vapours which environ it; makes it apprehensive,
quick, forgetive, full of nimble fiery and
delectable shapes, which, delivered o'er to the
voice, the tongue, which is the birth, becomes
excellent wit. The second property of your
excellent sherris is, the warming of the blood;
which, before cold and settled, left the liver
white and pale, which is the badge of pusillanimity
and cowardice; but the sherris warms it and makes
it course from the inwards to the parts extreme:
it illumineth the face, which as a beacon gives
warning to all the rest of this little kingdom,
man, to arm; and then the vital commoners and
inland petty spirits muster me all to their captain,
the heart, who, great and puffed up with this
retinue, doth any deed of courage; and this valour
comes of sherris. So that skill in the weapon is
nothing without sack, for that sets it a-work; and
learning a mere hoard of gold kept by a devil, till
sack commences it and sets it in act and use.
Hereof comes it that Prince Harry is valiant; for
the cold blood he did naturally inherit of his
father, he hath, like lean, sterile and bare land,
manured, husbanded and tilled with excellent
endeavour of drinking good and good store of fertile
sherris, that he is become very hot and valiant. If
I had a thousand sons, the first humane principle I
would teach them should be, to forswear thin
potations and to addict themselves to sack.

(Henry IV Part Two)

Nin Andrews said...

Wow! Thank you! I have always wondered, as I said . So much I might know had I been an English major. So much of what I sticks in my brain from the great poets is still what my mother read aloud to me one upon a time. I remember this poem precisely bc she read it to me after having eaten stinky cheese. I called it predigestive cheese, suggesting it smelled like something she had already eaten once . . .

So much of poetry is free-floating as random phrases and images in my head from childhood.