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.

Recommended Reading: The Wife by Meg Wolitzer

A tip of the hat once more to my friend Katie, who pointed me toward Meg Wolitzer (Katie was, at the time, reading The Ten-Year Nap, and that’s on my list now, too!). The Wife is about a very unfunny subject —the unravelling of a marriage — but in Ms. Wolitzer’s capable hands, Joan (the wife in question) tells her story in darkly comic fashion.

Photo courtesy Tanatat /

Photo courtesy Tanatat /

Joan’s husband is the much-awarded novelist Joe Castleman, and when the novel opens, she’s made up her mind to leave him as they fly to Helsinki, where he’s to receive his latest accolade. From there, Joan takes the narrative back to Smith College in the 1950s, and we learn how the pair met, and just how it all went wrong.

As a narrator, Joan is simultaneously unreliable and honest, and always a keen observer, not only of her own marriage, but also of the changing world around her. Though The Wife was published ten years ago, Joan’s observations about the role of wives echo loudly, especially with the recent debates about Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article on work-life balance in last summer’s Atlantic. Here’s Joan near the end of the novel:

Everyone knows how women soldier on, how women dream of blueprints, recipes, ideas for a better world, and then sometimes lose them on the way to the crib in the middle of the night, on the way to the Stop & Shop, or the bath. They lose them on the way to greasing the path on which their husband and children will ride serenely through life. (183)

Apparently, I’m not the first reader to love this passage; the page was dog-eared when I picked up the book.

A Literary Wedding, or, “Earth’s the right place for love: / I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.”

our rings

Our wedding rings

We were married three years ago this week, back in the olden days before Pinterest provided endless helpful suggestions regarding how to personalize your wedding with monograms and mason jars.

Now, I love a mason jar as much as the next gal, but our last name’s initial looks a heckuva lot like a circle, so I didn’t (and don’t) see much point in monogramming anything. I think it would have confused people. (“Which table are you sitting at?” “Table 0.” “Oh, I thought we were at table O.” “Oh dear.”) Personalizing one’s wedding ought to mean something more than splashing one’s initials all over it in in perfect wildflower hues, right?

Our wedding would never make the pages of Martha Stewart Weddings. We didn’t meticulously handcraft garlands of paper cranes from the pages of vintage books. We didn’t do favors, rice, confetti, a “real” wedding cake (we went with the Heart of Darkness chocolate torte, with mango coulis), or a “normal” ceremony.

What we did do was try very hard to make the wedding our own, an event that expressed not only who we are as a couple but where we came from — the people and words and music that shaped our lives.

The program included the line from “Birches” I’ve used in this post’s title, and Juliet’s immortal lines, “My bounty is as boundless as the sea / My love as deep. The more I give to thee / The more I have, for both are infinite.” The lettering on the front of the program used a font based on Jane Austen’s handwriting; on the last page we reprinted Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 in memory of absent friends.

The processional was “Building the Barn” from Witness, because, well, just watch that part of the movie (bonus: Viggo Mortenson cameo!). And the recessional was “Everyone” by Van Morrison because, well, watch the end of The Royal Tenenbaums. But only if you’ve seen the beginning and the middle.

While guests waited they had the option of tinkering with a crossword we made about us, our friends, and families, or looking out over a little river and falls, or browsing in the bookstore.

Yes, we were married at a bookstore. Well, technically, we were married on a deck that’s part of a restaurant that’s located in an old mill that’s been converted into a used bookstore in a town called, of all things, Montague. But I just tell everyone that we were married at a bookstore. It’s easier that way.

[It’s lovely to be able to return to a place that holds such beautiful memories for us; we try to go back at least once a year. I’ll post pictures from our latest visit tomorrow.  I bet you’ll want to go there too.]

Our ceremony was comprised of the usual wedding bits, retooled to suit our beliefs and preferred wording, and literary readings. Each of us asked a parent, a sibling, a friend, and an aunt or uncle to read during the ceremony, in groups of two.

Which readings, you ask?

  • “In Lands I Never Saw,” by Emily Dickinson
  • “The Owl and the Pussycat,” by Edward Lear
  • Most Like an Arch This Marriage,” by John Ciardi
  • Sonnet 116, by William Shakespeare
  • “The Master Speed,” by Robert Frost
  • a selection from the Song of Songs
  • a selection from Emma, by Jane Austen
  • a selection from The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien

I can still hear each one of these people reading, people we love who shared these words that mean so much to us. Because a marriage ceremony is an act of speaking something into being, and it’s important to get the words right.


So, since today is Tuesday, and therefore a poetry day around these parts, I thought today I’d highlight a poem that wasn’t read at our wedding.

You read that right. We both love Robert Frost’s “Birches” — so much so that my husband’s wedding ring is etched to look like birch bark — but it is long, and not really related to marriage, so we chose a different Frost poem for our set of readings. Now, though, after three years and one child together, this poem has taken on even more significance to us. Sometimes I imagine my son as the boy in the poem, confident though solitary. Sometimes I turn to the poem when things get hard, as they are wont to do, when

I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.

But above all, we love the poem for its abiding love for the beauty and promise of this world and its often-anonymous inhabitants. After all, “one could do worse than be a swinger of birches.”

Three years later, at the bookmill.

Three years later, at the Bookmill.

Did you incorporate readings into your wedding ceremony? How did you choose your readings?

Recommended Reading: Out of the Girls’ Room and Into the Night, by Thisbe Nissen

Like William Adama, I am not a loaner of books. A giver of books, surely, but a loaner, no. When I hand over a book, I assume it’s gone forever, and if I really like it, I pick up a new copy for myself. This quirk is based on my own foibles: I am terrible when it comes to returning phone calls, emails, and good books.

Luckily for me, my friend Amy is a much more generous soul. When she came to visit me in the hospital (and when a friend sees you looking that bad and still gives you a hug, she’s a keeper), she brought her favorite book, Thisbe Nissen’s collection of stories Out of the Girls’ Room and Into the Night, to keep me company. [Amy and my neighbors Katie and Elena also performed many miraculous acts of cooking and kindness over those ten days, for which I am eternally and profoundly grateful.]

It’s simply wonderful. Every story is engaging, every character wholly realized. One story might make me laugh, and another might make me feel like my stomach had fallen to my feet. These are tales of the perilous nights and days of youth, ranging from cold midwest college towns to the Nevada desert and Manhattan’s apartment landscapes. And I’d almost forgotten the pleasure of reading short stories; like biting into a perfectly ripe pear, with the accompanying satisfaction of finishing the whole thing in one sitting.

That said, I can’t wait to read Ms. Nissen’s novels. Thanks Amy!

Recommended Reading: Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, by Maria Semple

If you love Arrested Development, you’ll love this book. And there’s no way it won’t be made into a movie in a hot minute.

Maria Semple wrote for (perhaps still writes for?) AD, and her hilarious send-up of Seattle upper-middle-class culture both makes me want to move there and also makes me feel better that I don’t live there already.

I’d like to tip my hat to my friend Katie, who mentioned a few weeks ago that she was reading a book she took out from the library, at which I thought: “Hey! The library! Not just for Elmo videos!”

So, the next time we went in for Elmo videos, which are next to the new (read: 2012 and forward) releases, I picked the book with the great title and decided to run with it.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is nearly epistolary, with occasional interpolations by the narrator, Bernadette’s daughter, Bee, and that alone makes my heart sing. I love a good epistolary novel. The Coquette, one of the earliest American novels (1797, if my first year in grad school serves me well), is a great read, and if you haven’t read Griffin and Sabine, go immediately to your nearest bookseller and take it home with you.

Anyway. I don’t want to give away the plot, as usual, because, as the title indicates, it’s also something of a detective novel. Positively delightful, fast-paced, witty, and with enough talk about Antarctica that I heartily recommend it for the beach this summer.

In Which Steven Seagal and All About Eve Appear in the Same Paragraph

When I was fifteen, I climbed a mountain with my father and younger brother and sister.

I assure you that this was not my idea.

I was relieved to reach the summit, but much distressed by the unpleasantness of the descent, the heat and bother and bugs and rocks. The unpleasantness was much exacerbated by my absent sense of balance and deep-seated fear of falling, which also precludes me from enjoying roller coasters, ladders, deck stairs, and broken dining room chairs. And at the end of it all, the gift shop was closed, and so it was sans-T-shirt that I proclaimed, with bad grace, my triumph over the mountain and physical exertion.

That mountain was Mount Monadnock, in New Hampshire, the most-climbed mountain in the world, and the backdrop to the first essay in David Rakoff’s perfectly tuned collection entitled Fraud. Mr. Rakoff, who died last year, was a satirist and contributor to This American Life on NPR, and I’m sorry to say that he did not appear on my radar until last week, when my friend A. brought Fraud over to have a dramatic reading of an essay on Steven Seagal at a New Age center. My friend assumed, correctly, that my husband would find it vastly amusing, and indeed, he did (as did I). However, the reading also led to plans for a Seagal movie marathon, so I wasn’t sure how indebted I was feeling toward A. Until I opened up the book (he accidentally left it behind) and found the epigraph:

You’re maudlin and full of self-pity. You’re magnificent. –Addison De Witt

Anyone who begins a book by nodding to All About Eve has earned my love and admiration. Seagal marathon forgiven. I’ll be returning the book before I have a chance to finish the essays, but I’ll come back to it, soon, I hope.