The finest wine poems selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Wine is bottled poetry.’ So said the Victorian poet and novelist Robert Louis Stevenson; and, indeed, over the centuries numerous poets have waxed lyrical about the juice of the vine. Below are ten of the finest poems about wine.
1. Ben Jonson, ‘Song: 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.
I sent thee late a rosy wreath,
Not so much honouring thee
As giving it a hope, that there
It could not withered be.
But thou thereon didst only breathe,
And sent’st it back to me;
Since when it grows, and smells, I swear,
Not of itself, but thee.
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 wine as a metaphor for enjoying life – in this case, the companionship and affection of the poem’s addressee, Celia.
2. Percy Shelley, ‘The Vine-Shroud’. Short enough to be quoted below here in full, ‘The Vine-Shroud’ is little more than a fragment, but it carries a certain poetic power with its commingling of the vine (representing life?) and the shroud (denoting death):
Flourishing vine, whose kindling clusters glow
Beneath the autumnal sun, none taste of thee;
For thou dost shroud a ruin, and below
The rotting bones of dead antiquity.
3. Charles Baudelaire, ‘The Soul of Wine’.
‘One should always be drunk’, Charles Baudelaire once advised – whether on wine or poetry didn’t matter. In ‘L’Ame du Vin’ or ‘The Soul of Wine’ he combines these two intoxicating pleasures, writing a poem from the wine’s perspective – in ‘The Soul of Wine’ Baudelaire gives voice to a bottle of wine. The wine thanks its human consumer for allowing the fruit of the vine to realise its full potential by being turned into wine to soothe man’s dry and tired throat.
4. James Thomson, ‘The Wine of Love’. This charming little poem is short enough to be quoted here in full:
Sits long and ariseth drunken,
But not with the feast and the wine;
He reeleth with his own heart,
That great rich Vine.
5. Emily Dickinson, ‘I bring an unaccustomed wine’.
I bring an unaccustomed wine
To lips long parching, next to mine,
And summon them to drink.
Crackling with fever, they essay;
I turn my brimming eyes away,
And come next hour to look.
The hands still hug the tardy glass;
The lips I would have cooled, alas!
Are so superfluous cold,
I would as soon attempt to warm
The bosoms where the frost has lain
Ages beneath the mould.
Some other thirsty there may be
To whom this would have pointed me
Had it remained to speak.
And so I always bear the cup
If, haply, mine may be the drop
Some pilgrim thirst to slake,—
If, haply, any say to me,
‘Unto the little, unto me,’
When I at last awake.
Few poets could write such arresting opening lines as Emily Dickinson – who, in this wine poem, uses a glass of wine and thirst as metaphors for some deeper craving. For religious faith, perhaps? Or the afterlife? The poem doesn’t say, leaving us to take from that glass of wine what we will.
6. W. B. 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.
I lift the glass to my mouth,
I look at you, and I sigh.
These lines provide a nice miniature example of Yeats’s poetic style and the often accessible, plain-speaking manner in which he deals with the big themes.
7. Hilaire Belloc, ‘Heroic Poem in Praise of Wine’.
As the title implies, this poem is written in heroic rhyming couplets, and sees the poet best-known for his cautionary rhymes paying homage to wine as the nurse-maiden of the arts.
8. Tennessee Williams, ‘The Wine-Drinkers’.
Brilliantly capturing the torpidity and inaction of ‘wine-drinkers’ sitting in the sun, men whose lives have unravelled and who rely on drugs to see them through the night, ‘The Wine-Drinkers’ is a fine underrated poem by one of America’s greatest playwrights.
9. Pablo Neruda, ‘Ode to Wine’.
Neruda also wrote an ode to his socks, so we perhaps shouldn’t read too much into his decision to write a song in praise of the vine. Yet ‘Ode to Wine’ is no ordinary wine poem, with its arresting images of ‘wine with purple feet or topaz blood’.
10. Pierre Martory, ‘Wine’.
Martory (1920-98) was a French poet whose work was translated into English by John Ashbery. Wine, in the words of the closing line of this poem, can make ‘my head light my tongue loose’ and … er, a certain part of the poet’s anatomy ‘happy’. Quite. A wonderful paean to the pleasures of wine, but also the knowledge that such pleasure must necessarily be fleeting.
For more classic poetry, we recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market (we offer our pick of the best poetry anthologies here). Discover further poetry recommendations with these great drinking poems, these poems about heaven and paradise, these spooky Gothic poems, and these birthday poems.
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.