The best boozy verses down the ages selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
We like to think of Interesting Literature as a library, a vast virtual library full of literary treats and unexpected delights. But if it is, it is a library with a spacious bar and plenty of drinks on offer. Previously, we’ve considered some of the most curious synonyms for ‘drunk’ in the English language, so we thought it was about time we contemplated some of the best poems about drink in English literature. We hope you like these alcoholic verses, these boozy paeans to beer – but if you have a favourite wine-soaked work of poetry we’ve missed off, please join us at the bar and leave your suggestions below.
1. ‘A Medieval Drinking Song’.
We’ll begin in the fifteenth century, and a charming piece of nonsense verse found in the same manuscript that also contains the glorious poem ‘I have a gentle Cock’. This is a medieval drinking song and doesn’t necessarily qualify as great poetry, but it does shine a light on early links between poetry and drink in English literature.
The speaker talks about birds in a tree, moans that his lips are dry as nobody’s bought him a drink, and then encourages his companions to have a drink before they ‘gon henne’ – i.e. go hence, but whether ‘hence’ here means home for the night, or the more permanent departure of death, remains unclear.
Omnes gentes plaudite,
I saw myny bryddis setyn on a tre;
He tokyn here fley[char]t & flowyn away,
With ego dixi, haue good day.
Many qwyte federes ha[char]t the pye,
I may noon more syngyn, my lyppis arn so drye.
Many qwyte federes ha[char]t the swan,
The more that I drynke, the lesse good I can.
Ley stykkys on the fer, wyl mot is brenne;
Geue vs onys drynkyn, er we gon henne.
2. Ben Jonson, ‘To Celia’.
Drink to me only with thine eyes,
And I will pledge with mine;
Or leave a kiss but in the cup,
And I’ll not look for wine.
The thirst that from the soul doth rise
Doth ask a drink divine;
But might I of Jove’s nectar sup,
I would not change for thine …
This is one of Ben Jonson’s most famous ‘song’ poems – probably the most famous. Like a number of poems on this list it uses drinking as a metaphor for enjoying life – in this case, the companionship and affection of the poem’s addressee, Celia.
3. John Keats, ‘Ode to a Nightingale’.
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk …
From its opening simile likening the poet’s mental state to the effects of drinking hemlock, to the poem’s later references to ‘a draught of vintage’ and ‘a beaker full of the warm South’, Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ is one of the most drink-sodden poems produced by the entire Romantic period.
4. Emily Dickinson, ‘I taste a liquor never brewed’.
I taste a liquor never brewed –
From Tankards scooped in Pearl –
Not all the Frankfort Berries
Yield such an Alcohol!
Inebriate of air – am I –
And Debauchee of Dew –
Reeling – thro’ endless summer days –
From inns of molten Blue …
Here is someone literally drunk on air: intoxicated by the fresh air and the blue sky and the world of nature. As in so many of Dickinson’s poems, here she takes the familiar experience of enjoying nature and gives it a twist (of lime?) by likening it to the experience of getting drunk.
5. Thomas Hardy, ‘Drinking Song’.
Fill full your cups: feel no distress
That thoughts so great should now be less!
Earth mid the sky stood firm and flat,
He held, till came
A sage by name
Copernicus, and righted that.
We trod, he told,
A globe that rolled
Around a sun it warmed it at …
Hardy wrote a number of song-like poems, and ‘Drinking Song’ is a classic example. It contains the refrain, ‘Fill full your cups: feel no distress; / ‘Tis only one great thought the less!’
6. Arthur Symons, ‘The Absinthe-Drinker’.
Symons (1865-1945) was a decadent writer of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, whose work often also points forward to modernism. This sonnet by Symons captures the spirit (as it were) of the fin de siècle, when writers and artists imbibed the ‘green fairy’ of absinthe in order to bring on hallucinations and other visionary experiences, as a way of setting free their artistic inspiration. We reproduce this poem, not widely available elsewhere online, in full here:
Gently I wave the visible world away.
Far off, I hear a roar, afar yet near,
Far off and strange, a voice is in my ear,
And is the voice my own? the words I say
Fall strangely, like a dream, across the day;
And the dim sunshine is a dream. How clear,
New as the world to lovers’ eyes, appear
The men and women passing on their way!
The world is very fair. The hours are all
Linked in a dance of mere forgetfulness.
I am at peace with God and man. O glide,
Sands of the hour-glass that I count not, fall
Serenely: scarce I feel your soft caress.
Rocked on this dreamy and indifferent tide.
7. Housman, ‘Terence, this is stupid stuff’.
Say, for what were hop-yards meant,
Or why was Burton built on Trent?
Oh many a peer of England brews
Livelier liquor than the Muse,
And malt does more than Milton can
To justify God’s ways to man.
Ale, man, ale’s the stuff to drink
For fellows whom it hurts to think:
Look into the pewter pot
To see the world as the world’s not …
The most famous couplet from this, the penultimate poem in Housman’s 63-poem cycle A Shropshire Lad (1896), takes up a memorable line from Milton’s Paradise Lost only to have Milton supplanted by a pitcher of ale: ‘And malt does more than Milton can / To justify God’s ways to man.’ As in so many of Housman’s poems of simple rustic life, beer’s the thing to help you get through life, if only because it helps you to forget.
8. Yeats, ‘A Drinking Song’.
Wine comes in at the mouth
And love comes in at the eye;
That’s all we shall know for truth
Before we grow old and die …
These are the first four of this six-line poem by Yeats, and provide a nice miniature example of his poetic style and the often accessible, plain-speaking manner in which he deals with the big themes.
9. Amy Lowell, ‘Vintage’.
I will mix me a drink of stars,—
Large stars with polychrome needles,
Small stars jetting maroon and crimson,
Cool, quiet, green stars.
I will tear them out of the sky,
And squeeze them over an old silver cup,
And I will pour the cold scorn of my Beloved into it,
So that my drink shall be bubbled with ice …
Like Dickinson’s poem above, ‘Vintage’ uses drinking as a metaphor for experiencing nature. Lowell (1874-1925) was a key figure in Imagism, taking over as the poetic movement’s figurehead when Ezra Pound, its founder, lost interest in leading. ‘Vintage’ is not as tautly Imagist as some of Lowell’s other poems (and she was less restrained than other Imagists, such as Pound and H. D.), but its central idea – of concentrating the stars into a cocktail – is in keeping with Imagism.
10. Seamus Heaney, ‘Sloe Gin’.
Taking the form of a toast – with the glass raised in honour not only of the sloe gin but also the woman who made it – this poem beautifully captures the full-on sensory experience of drinking sloe gin, from opening the bottle to smell the ‘disturbed tart stillness of a bush’ to way the drink flames in the glass ‘like Betelgeuse’. Next time you drink some sloe gin, remember this poem.
Staying for another drink? Continue your drinking session with these classic poems about fruit, our exploration of the links between classic literature and the martini, and learn about what connects Roald Dahl with chocolate and red wine here.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image (bottom): Martini Splash, courtesy of Thor on Flickr.