Who could refuse this invitation to supper from Ben Jonson, charmingly and artfully composed in verse to describe the food, entertainment, wine and companionship to be expected or hoped for at dinner at Jonson’s house. Read, enjoy and imagine yourself setting out for such an evening as this in the London of the early 1600s.
Inviting a Friend to Supper
BY BEN JONSON
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.
The first eight lines set out the invitation itself, for the very same evening, in terms that politely flatter the invited guest by saying that his presence will grace the feast relative to the other people present; and that the success of the evening will be determined by accepting the invitation, not by the food on offer (from the context, I assume the word “cates” refers to the food.
But then Jonson goes on to describe what he is planning to serve at dinner, so it is clearly not absolutely irrelevant. The next 11 lines progress through the relatively mundane salad and mutton, to a series of birds which were presumably more exotic. Again, the wit of the poet hits that he is exaggerating or lying when listing some of these items in order to stand a better chance of having the invitation accepted.
For entertainment while dining, the poet promises readings from the classics and also promises not to read his own poem, again politeness and modesty being a way to make the evening more attractive to the invited guest.
For dessert there will be fruit and cheese washed down by wine from the Canaries which Jonson will send for to the Mermaid, presumably his local pub. In the final lines, Jonson promises convivial conversation and good company which no one will regret the next morning.
Sounds like a great evening, and who could refuse such an invitation
The Poetry Dude