Eat, Drink, and Be Merry: Ben Jonson’s “Inviting a Friend to Supper”

Sideways jellyfish icicle from the front window.

Sideways jellyfish icicle from the front window.

Unpleasant weather continues here in Boston (this weekend delivered the trifecta of snow, rain, and ice), and even hardened and hardy New Englanders agree that the last few weeks have been miserable. We’ve been staying put most weekends, venturing out for groceries and then settling in between bouts of shoveling.

Luckily, friends, like sunshine, have made brief but welcome appearances, and so in honor of friends who come to dinner, this week’s poem is Ben Jonson’s “Inviting a Friend to Supper.”

Jonson addresses his patron, William Herbert, with what I’d call a tone of amused deference. The feast he describes is quite something, even for a man of Jonson’s epicurean appetites: capers, olives, mutton, chicken, larks, other kinds of available fowl, a bit of salad, lemons, and, most importantly,

a pure cup of rich Canary wine,
Which is the Mermaid’s now, but shall be mine;
Of which had Horace, or Anacreon tasted,
Their lives, as so their lines, till now had lasted.
Tobacco, nectar, or the Thespian spring,
Are all but Luther’s beer to this I sing.

Hilarious (the Mermaid was a tavern, by the way). I’d like to try wine that good.

Now, our friendly dinners are never so grand or so well-appointed, and the wine has never been compared the Thespian spring, but the company, I’ll venture to say, is even better than William Herbert’s, and we are more grateful for our friends than Jonson was for Canary wine.

Ben Jonson
Inviting a Friend to Supper

Tonight, grave Sir, both my poor house, and I
Do equally desire your company;
Not that we think us worthy such a guest,
But that your worth will dignify our feast
With those that come, whose grace may make that seem
Something, which else could hope for no esteem.
It is the fair acceptance, Sir, creates
The entertainment perfect, not the cates.
Yet shall you have, to rectify your palate,
An olive, capers, or some better salad
Ushering the mutton; with a short-legged hen,
If we can get her, full of eggs, and then
Lemons, and wine for sauce; to these a cony
Is not to be despaired of, for our money;
And, though fowl, now, be scarce, yet there are clerks,
The sky not falling, think we may have larks.
I’ll tell you of more, and lie, so you will come:
Of partridge, pheasant, woodcock, of which some
May yet be there, and godwit, if we can;
Knat, rail, and ruff too. Howsoe’er, my man
Shall read a piece of Virgil, Tacitus,
Livy, or of some better book to us,
Of which we’ll speak our minds, amidst our meat;
And I’ll profess no verses to repeat.
To this, if ought appear which I not know of,
That will the pastry, not my paper, show of.
Digestive cheese and fruit there sure will be;
But that which most doth take my Muse and me,
Is a pure cup of rich Canary wine,
Which is the Mermaid’s now, but shall be mine;
Of which had Horace, or Anacreon tasted,
Their lives, as so their lines, till now had lasted.
Tobacco, nectar, or the Thespian spring,
Are all but Luther’s beer to this I sing.
Of this we will sup free, but moderately,
And we will have no Pooley, or Parrot by,
Nor shall our cups make any guilty men;
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.

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9 thoughts on “Eat, Drink, and Be Merry: Ben Jonson’s “Inviting a Friend to Supper”

  1. I’m so glad you and your family have been safe and warm during this bitter cold and snowy winter. This is a delightful poem. Spending time with friends and enjoying a meal together are definitely ways to warm your and heart and soul.

    • Thanks, Karen! I hope Columbus hasn’t been too bad, but I did see the bitter cold coming your way last week. We’re making soup tonight and tomorrow to ward off the chills 🙂 Hugs to you and Bob, and a pat on the head for Rodi.

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