“A draught of vintage!” Wine as a “shadow of a lie”: an enocentric reading of John Keats, the wine writer.

From the department of “de poëse”…

Above: a plaque outside the Keats-Shelley museum in Rome located in the palazzo where Keats died at age 25 (image via Wikipedia Creative Commons).

One of the observations uttered on Friday night (during a lively virtual reading and discussion of poetry accompanied by wine) was that John Keats, the Romantic poet, was a great wine writer. The text in question was what is arguably his most famous poem, one we all read (and hardly understood) in high school English class, “Ode to a Nightingale.”

“O, for a draught of vintage!” wrote Keats, probably referring to a wine (mostly likely a fortified wine) that was coveted for the high quality of its harvest:

O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth…

Now, THAT is a great example of synaesthesia!

Tasting of Flora [with a capital F] and country green/Dance, and a Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!

What a verse!

But the one that gets me personally is the allusion to the “blushful Hippocrene,” the spring on Mt. Helicon, a body of water sacred to the Muses. Now THAT is a tasting note! 99+ points Robert Parker!

As much as our enocentric reading of the text, performed by none other than Edoardo Ballerini, thrilled the attendees, it was a closer look at the poem that raised eyebrows on Friday evening.

In the first half of the work, Keats alludes to wine as a source of solace and forgetting as he contemplates the ephemeral, fragile nature of human experience. But before the second part begins, “Bacchus and his pards” (his cronies, as it were) would not be the ones to lift him to reach the singing nightingale.

No, it would be “poesy” (nota bene: not poetry) whose wings he would ride:

Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
Though the dull brain perplexes and retards…

Note the rhyme scheme (and more importantly the prosody) here. Brilliant imho. Poesy with a capital P.

It’s possible that Keats was referring to Francis Bacon’s observation that poesy is the wine of demons.

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

That passage was later corrupted and transformed into the aphorism poetry is the Devil’s wine, an adage hegemonically read to mean poetry is the idle work of the Devil.

But what Bacon meant was that poesy, the act of creating art, or better yet, artifice could be likened to wine, a drink that seems to transcend the sum of its parts, so to speak, and go beyond the realm of human understanding — nec plus ultra.

Making art, as Bacon suggests and as Keats ponders throughout his writing, is something beyond human capacity. It is the lie, the artifice, that reveals a greater truth that could not be revealed otherwise (a concept central to the notion of the sublime).

It’s key to remember that the science of wine was still scarcely understood in Keats’ time (more than four decades before Pasteur would publish his studies on wine, to put it into context). For the Romantic poet, as for Bacon, an analogy between poesy and wine could be made for their shared ability to surpass human understanding.

Even though we know much more (although not all) about the science of wine today, the binomial wine and poesy (again, not wine and poetry) continues to pervade our ongoing fascination with the enoic stuff.

Enjoy the poem here. Happy reading!

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