Poetry is the Devil’s Wine: origin and meaning of the expression

In the 1980s, my high school’s literary magazine was called “The Devil’s Wine,” a reference to the ill-attributed and much misunderstood but often repeated proverb: poetry is the Devil’s wine.

Most dime-store quotation aggregate websites ascribe the quote to St. Augustine. So does the editor of “a compendium of… dark verse,” Tom Piccirilli.

In fact, St. Augustine did not conceive the axiom. Nor did Francis Bacon. But the origin story leads us back to the English critical theorist and scientist (above).

In his essay “Of Truth,” Bacon wrote: “One of the fathers [of the Church], in great severity, called poesy vinum daemonum, because it filleth the imagination; and yet it is but with the shadow of a lie.”

The word vinum means wine in Latin. The word daemonum id the plural genitive of daemon meaning demon (not devil).

A more apt translation from Bacon’s Latin would be the wine of demons.

Over time, some of Bacon’s editors have translated it as devils’ wine (note the English possessive/genitive plural), in other words, the wine of devils (and not Devil’s wine with capital d and singular genitive). I believe this is where the now colloquial expression was born.

Another important distinction: for Bacon, poesy, not poetry, is the wine of demons.

The term poesy, more akin to the Greek poiesis than the contemporary English poetry or poem, denotes not just poetry or poem but rather the art of composing poetry or a poem.

It’s a fine point, I concede. But there is a subtle difference that’s important here: in the context of Bacon’s essay, he’s arguing that literary artifice, the art of creating poetry, can obscure or bend the truth (read the essay here; it’s great, btw).

In his quote of the Church father, he’s probably blending — most scholars agree — a line from St. Augustine and a line from St. Jerome.

In the Confessions, St. Augustine wrote: “vinum erroris ab ebriis doctoribus propinatum” (“the wine of error poured for [me and my fellows] by drunken teachers”).

Like Bacon, who was inspired by him, he was discussing the ways words — literary artifice — can eclipse truth.

In one of his epistles to Pope Damasus I, St. Jerone wrote that “daemonum cibus est carmina poetarum” (“the poets’ verses are the food of demons”).

I haven’t been able to track down the original letter (yet). But I believe that St. Jerome is apologizing to the Pope for his use of a parable (literary artifice) to illustrate one of Christ’s teachings (according to descriptions of the letter, it describes and recounts the Parable of the Prodigal Son).

So the next time someone misattributes this erroneous quote, please correct them and tell them to pair the wine of error with the food of demons.

Thanks for reading.

Image via Wikipedia Creative Commons.

One thought on “Poetry is the Devil’s Wine: origin and meaning of the expression

  1. Pingback: Wine Blog Daily Wednesday 7/11/18 | Edible Arts

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