Magazine article The American Conservative

The Taste of Vine and Verse

Magazine article The American Conservative

The Taste of Vine and Verse

Article excerpt

VISITORS TO THE NAPA VALLEY will find, inscribed on the signs at either end of Highway 29, Robert Louis Stevenson's memorable line: "... and the wine is bottled poetry." It's taken from The Silverado Squatters, Stevenson's insightful and detailed account of living in the wine country of the Wild West.

Yet the connection between wine and poetry goes much farther back. Homer praised wine, as did other Greek poets and playwrights. In fact, writers of all genres seem to have found inspiration under Bacchus's tutelage. Aristophanes made fun of Cratinus, a fellow playwright and self-professed wine enthusiast, saying that he had died of shock from seeing his wine go to waste as it ran from a broken amphora. (An amphora approximates a 15-liter bottle in volume, so who among us who would not die even a little upon witnessing such a loss?)

But back to poetry in particular. The Roman satirist Horace understood well the parallels between vinum and verse: both are for enjoyment in the here and now, both civilize us and enliven the time we have together. In Ode I.37, Horace describes a particularly joyful scene:

   Now is the time for drinking,
   Now we must beat the ground
      with dancing feet,
   Already now we should have
      adorned couches
   For the feasts of the Salii, my
      friends.
   Before it was forbidden
   To bring forth Caecuban wine
      from our ancestral cellars ...

I've taken some of the bite out of the first line: the Latin is more compelling--nunc est bibendum, "now we must drink." If that exhortation sounds more fitting to a fraternity party than wine and cheese with the swells, take comfort in the fact that Horace is not describing a scene of excess but of celebration. In fact, later in the ode, he describes the defeated Cleopatra as being drunk from a cloying variety of Egyptian wine and suggests that drunkenness had something to do with her undoing. Caecuban wine, on the other hand, is the good stuff.

Unlike a statue or a painting, wine and poetry both have an easily determined beginning and end, reminding us of the shortness of time. Poetry in Horace's age still retained its oral tradition, and though a few coffeehouses still host spoken verse, the majority of us relegate poets to bookshelves. But in antiquity, few could afford to own editions of poems to refer to at their leisure. Once the last words were uttered, the poem was gone. But was it lost entirely? In addition to enriching many a feast, recited poetry sent guests home with pleasant feelings and images lingering in their minds.

We can say the same for wine--or can even say that it is more ephemeral than our modern printed poetry. Have you tried to explain a wonderful wine to a friend who had the misfortune of not drinking it with you? You can recall the color, aromas, and mouthfeel, but words cannot equal the experience.

Horace knew this frustration, but he took the bittersweet nature of time's passing and presented his reader (or listener) with one moral: enjoy the days you have. The pithy Ode I.11 sums up his message:

   Do not seek-it is forbidden to
      know-what end
   The gods have given to you, to me,
      Leuconoe,
   Nor should you try astrology.
   How much better to endure
   Whatever will be,
   Whether Jupiter has allotted many
      winters
   Or the last, which now weakens
   The waves of the Tyrrhenian Sea,
      with opposing rocks.
   Be wise, strain your wine, and
      since time is short
   Prune back long hope; while we
      are speaking,
   Greedy time will have already fled:
      seize the day, trusting very little
      in the future. … 
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