Ben Jonson, “Inviting a Friend to Supper”

This may not seem the type of poem to qualify as a “favourite” — it lacks the intimacy of lyric, the breadth of epic, and, hell, it’s Ben Jonson (because, really, who feels close to Ben Jonson? he labours for our admiration, not our love) — but it is one of those I truly discovered in the classroom last year — really, in the middle of lecture, I suddenly *got it — and, as it has come to represent that unforgettable class, indeed its keen and bright students, it has justifiably earned my devotion. May you all have many such moments this year.

“Inviting a Friend to Supper”

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.
[Luminarium]

Now, what did I suddenly get that I hadn’t fully apprehended before, the many other times I had read this poem (and thought it tendentious)?

The way in which food (glorious food) makes not only for metaphor, but also for polemic. (Sounds good, doesn’t it? I know, it doesn’t really make sense, as written. That’s academic prose for you. Allow me to explain.)

As I noted preliminarily in class, the title of the poem informs us that the poem comprises an invitation; so we might think about how poetry itself extends an invitation to a reader and furnishes an occasion for social communion. Allowing the reader to view — and to assess — the terms of the invitation, effectively casting him in the role of invitee, the poet tacitly befriends the reader, asking him whether or not he will take part in the poetic repast: “It is the faire acceptance, Sir, creates/The entertaynment perfect: not the cates.”

Will the reader attend?

I had gone into lecture apprehending, and intending to convey, how the invitation represents the ideals of humanism, especially as founded in rhetoric: as rhetoric intends to persuade an audience of an idea, so, too, does an invitation attempt to win over its reader. Certainly, Jonson is aware of the theological significance of the invitation “to supper,” and trades on the resonance that breaking bread has in a thoroughly Christian culture. And the literary enticements smack of the classicism we expect of Ben Jonson (why I had included the poem in my module on him): his promises to “reade a piece of VIRGIL, TACITUS,/LIVIE,” or his claims that “Of which had HORACE, or ANACREON tasted,/Their lives, as doe their lines, till now had lasted,” mark Jonson for the seventeenth-century humanist holdout he is. But this poem also, and almost flagrantly, exemplifies the precepts of humanism as Jonson imagines them, as underwriting basic civility.

It’s on this count that, having assigned Jonson’s poetry *after our module on Francis Bacon, who decries humanist learning and writing as pointless and insubstantial, that I suddenly grasped the particular significance of “the cates,” indeed the meat of the poem (in all senses; apologies to the veggies out there). For while “the cates” are reputedly subordinate to the reader’s “acceptance,” or assent, they nonetheless cater to the poem’s central argument, its plea to the reader to recognize, and “accept,” the ways in which humanist discourse furnishes the occasion (if not the foundations) for social order — a meaty claim, if ever there was one.

Thus it is not just that the poem represents poetry as a form of invitation, and an invitation to humanist learning at that; and it’s not just that the poem sees poetry as a form of communion, a transaction in which two (or more) invividuals engage in a mutually satisfying, even redeeming, exchange. It’s that Jonson’s particular conceit of a humanist “meal” as both substantial and socially redeeming defends the latter as essential to the cultivation of civility in the face of an emerging empiricist culture, which thought a life in letters a fruitless exercise in self-indulgence.

In this respect, the meatiness of the featured food, its capacity to nourish and sustain, is as important as its (alleged) moderation. Many anthologized glosses of the poem emphasize its alleged restraint in view of early seventeenth-century standards of entertainment as well as classical precedent in wine-soaked symposia. This somewhat misses the point, as I re-view the poem in early seventeenth-century English intellectual and political culture. And as H.C. astutely pointed out in lecture, the foods are self-consciously represented as native, beside the (again, self-conscious) naming of the ancients; this positions the literary discourse of England as equally substantial to that of the ancients, and reinforces the poem’s overall theme, and tacit polemic.

We early modern folk are accustomed to the idea of Jonson picking fights (even if we’re not biographically inclined, his jail term certainly piques our students’ interest). But I especially like the fight he picks here, in a poem that might strike us — and our students — as potentially quaint or provincial.

“Wee’ll speake our minds, amidst our meate” — hear, hear.  And pass the peas.

There’s so much more to say — about this particular poem, or about how our own syllabi, our classes and students, impact our thinking. (They do say teaching is research.) By all means weigh in, if you like. And if not, hope you enjoyed the meal.

4 Comments

  1. Estefanía said,

    March 3, 2009 at 11:25 pm

    Hi. Do you know when he wrote it? I cannot find it and I don’t have a copy of The Oxford Book of Seventeenth Century Verse. Cannot get one either. I’m form Argentina, a province in the Patagonia. It’s very important if you can find the date.
    Thank you so much

  2. Laura Braunstein said,

    April 6, 2009 at 3:07 pm

    Look for it on the Dartmouth College Library home page (http://library.dartmouth.edu/) on Wednesday! Thanks so much for the suggestion — what a wonderful poem.

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