This week’s poem is from Volpone, by Ben Jonson, a biting, hilarious satire set in Venice about a man undone by his own greed and lust, who undoes a good many others in the process – and has some rather wicked fun on the way (though not as much as he intends). Volpone spends most of the first act lying in bed – apparently a deathbed – as his servant Mosca leads in a procession of well-wishers, wishing mostly of course to be written into the rich Volpone’s will. Each is persuaded by the crafty Mosca, and by encouraging wails and grunts from Volpone himself, that they are the main beneficiaries of Volpone’s Will, but in the meantime leave the not-so-sick man an expensive gift as a token of their love and good faith. Volpone – Italian for fox – and his servant Mosca – mosquito – thus trick them out of their money. They have, we can assume, made a great living out of such scams before, and this is their most successful yet. Volpone is side-tracked from this scheme, however, when he hears of the legendary beauty of the wife of one of his well-wishers, and, having ventured out in disguise and espied her, is determined to bed her.
Mosca devises an ingenious plan to make this happen. He explains to one of the well-wishers, Corvino, that a doctor has recommended an unusual treatment to help the ailing Volpone: a young maiden must lie with him. Though there is little chance of success in this treatment, on accunt of Volpone’s supposed incapacity, Volpone will look favourably on anyone who has tried to aid his unlikely recovery. Corvino, thinking that this will seal his place in Volpone’s will, agrees to provide his wife for such purposes, of whom he is normally extremely jealous.
A further obstacle to this plan is Celia’s great modesty and moral uprightness – having been taken to Volpone’s chamber, where he lies groaning in pain, she steadfastly refuses, on pain of death even, to assent to the plan. Mosca tactfully suggests that she will be more forthcoming if she and Volpone are left alone, for no woman likes to be immodest in front of her husband. When her husband and Mosca have left the chamber, Volpone throws off his disguise and immediately begins wooing Celia in the most tasteless way imaginable. Oblivious to her misgivings – to her horror, in fact – he woos her with the following song:
Come, my Celia, let us prove,
While we can, the sports of love;
Time will not be ours forever;
He at length our good will sever.
Spend not then his gifts in vain.
Suns that set may rise again;
But if once we lose this light,
’Tis with us perpetual night.
Why should we defer our joys?
Fame and rumor are but toys.
Cannot we delude the eyes
Of a few poor household spies,
Or his easier ears beguile,
So removèd by our wile?
’Tis no sin love’s fruit to steal;
But the sweet thefts to reveal,
To be taken, to be seen,
These have crimes accounted been.
Michael Jamieson, the editor of the Penguin edition of the paly, informs us that ‘educated members of the audience would recognize that the opening lines are adapted from Catallus’s Vivamus, mea Lesbia’. Wikipedia’s translation of this poem runs as so:
Let us live, my Lesbia, and love.
As for all the rumors of those stern old men,
Let us value them at a mere penny.
Suns may set and yet rise again, but
We, with our brief light, can set but once.
One never-ending night must be slept.
Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred.
Then, another thousand, and a second hundred.
Then, yet another thousand, and a hundred.
Then, when we have counted up many thousands,
Let us shake the abacus, so that no one may know the number,
And become jealous when they see
How many kisses we have shared.
Now that’s rather beautiful, I think. Guy Lee’s translation is even nicer – I would recommend his edition to those interested in Catullus. To give you an idea, here is how he renders lines 4-6:
Suns can set and rise again;
For us, once our brief light has set
There’s one unending night for sleeping.
Catullus, The Complete Poems, Ed. Guy Lee, Oxford World’s Classics, Oxford 1990
Volpone’s poem owes an awful lot to Catullus’s, and suffers badly in comparison. Catullus could be accused of being amoral, but he is, in his own terms, sincere – he really does think his love more important than the opinion of the old men; he really does think that we must value our daily pleasures all the more because one day death will put them to an end. His invitation, moreover, is seductive because his affection for Lesbea strikes us as very genuine: as the lines on hundreds and thousands of kisses attest. Volpone, we suspect, is much less worried about death than about Celia’s husband running through the door, while his imagery could do little to persuade Celia that it is her pleasure and not only his own he has in mind. The argument running through Volpone’s song is cynical and self-serving – there is no such thing as sin, as long as one doesn’t get caught, so let’s get to it!
Others, I think, would be reminded by that opening ‘Come’ and the love/prove rhyme of Marlowe’s Passionate Shepherd who sang ‘Come live with me and be my love / and we will all the pleasures prove’ (which itself borrowed the rhyme and much of the pastoral imagery from folk lyrics). A comparison is telling, however: Marlowe’s Shepherd had a wide (if overly idealized) idea of what pleasures entailed – from the outdoor delights that nature provides to the beautiful goods one can make of its materials, with coral clasps and amber buds and the like. Volpone, on the other hand, can imagine only one kind of delight: ‘love’s fruit’, sex that is. While Marlowe’s poem conjures images of romantic walks in an Arcadian setting, Volpone’s conjures tawdry images of sex in the house under the prying noses of servants. Volpone isn’t taking Celia anywhere. For reasons that are clear, Volpone is in an almighty hurry to get her clothes off. Even the poem itself sounds somewhat hurried, with the meter the same as Marlowe’s, but the lines much shorter, as if Volpone is squeezing his argument into as short a poem as he can.
To put it briefly, all that is good in the poem is from Catullus and Marlowe, and all that is bad is down to Volpone. In the context of the play, of course, this is very funny, as is Celia’s definitive response:
Celia: Some serene [i.e. poisoned mist] blast me, or dire lightning strike
This my offending face.