Thu 30 Jul 2009
What more could you ask for at 5:30 in the evening when it’s not yet really twilight and rain is beginning to fall on the roof of the screened porch than a martini, a bowl of little Tuscan crackers and the July/August issue of Poetry magazine? The martini is composed of 1 and 1/2 jiggers of Hendricks gin and about 1/3 of a jigger of Noilly Prat vermouth and, as you can see, a real lemon twist, not one of those thick, clunky strips of lemon rind with the pith that they give you in bars when you ask for a cocktail with a twist.
The title of this post is the opening line of “Endymion,” a long mythological poem that John Keats wrote from April to December 1817, when he was 21 and 22 years old. It’s a nice sentiment: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” (He wrote “for ever.”) It’s not true, though, is it? The martini gets consumed and the crackers eaten. The writers whose poems and prose are featured in the current issue of Poetry will largely be forgotten, and the magazine will crumble to dust or be nibbled on by insects that enjoy the delicacy of dry paper. The blue Japanese bowl that holds the crackers? Who knows what will happen to it in the years and decades to come? Slipped from unsteady fingers to shatter on the travertine? Sold at an estate sale to adorn other lives and households?
No, Keats wised up quickly, and in April and May of 1819, the “Great Year” of his achievement, he wrote in “Ode on Melancholy” about “Beauty that must die;/And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips/Bidding adieu.” You see, “Veil’d Melancholy” is the twin of Beauty, because Beauty embodies the seeds of its own impermanence and decay; as Wallace Stevens expressed the concept more succinctly in the 20th Century: “Death is the mother of beauty.” Keats concludes the three-stanza poem with an interesting botanical metaphor; only the person “whose strenuous tongue/Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine” will perceive the true glory and necessity of Melancholy. That image, which encompasses the tension of the grape skin, the muscular push of the tongue against it and the quenching splash of the juice, has always appealed to me for its sense of striving and pleasure and refreshment.
Keats was fond of vinous metaphors. The whole second stanza of “Ode to a Nightingale,” written in May 1819, consists of an extended description of a glass of wine (sorry, my blog program would not reproduce the stanza indentations):
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;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim …
Every time I taught this poem in the second semester of English survey, I would think, “Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth … a beaker full of the warm South … beaded bubbles winking at the brim … Man, I want a glass of that stuff right now!”
Keats knew, though, that however much pleasure wine confers, its intoxicating character is not the road to transcendence. If he merges with the nightingale, a symbol of immortality, he will “Not [be] charioted by Bacchus and his pards.” (In classical myth, Bacchus, the god of wine, was led in a chariot drawn by a team of leopards.) Keats knew that wine has limitations, chief among them being that, like Pleasure and Beauty, it is ephemeral; wine fades, falters, goes bad. This can happen overnight, or it can take decades, but happen it must.
We read all the time the phrase: “Wine is a living thing.” Friends, wine is not a living thing. A bottle of wine is mostly water with some portion of alcohol, say, 12 to 14 percent, and infinitesimally minute quantities of about 400 trace elements that lend wine its actual character. The fact that a few wines are intended to and in fact do develop and mature as they “age in the deep-delved earth” doesn’t make these wines “living things.” We’re talking about natural chemical processes, the sometimes slow interactions of oxygen with elements in the wine’s chemical composition. If you leave your hedge clippers out in the yard and it rains (especially if you leave them out in the yard for, oh, three weeks), the blades will rust. There’s an example of a natural transformative chemical process, but no one goes around asserting that his hedge clippers are a living thing. If wine were “a living thing” — notice that no one says, “Wine is alive” — it would probably contain, um, things that we wouldn’t want to drink.
What I’m saying is that we don’t have to subscribe to the (fairly harmless but annoying) myth that wine is a living thing in order to understand how glorious wine can be; wine’s potential nobility and power do not depend on that. Still, part of the greatness of a great wine lies in our knowledge that its power, its character, its awesome pleasure-giving capabilities are peculiarly finite. To taste a great wine is to anticipate its demise; that acknowledgment contributes to our understanding and appreciation. It’s the factor that makes being charioted by Bacchus and his pards a matter of such mixed joy and melancholy.
The sketch of John Keats was done by his friend Charles Brown on the Isle of Wight in July 1819, in the midst of the nine months during which Keats wrote his finest poems. National Portrait Gallery, London. Titian’s “Bacchus and Ariadne,” 1620-23, hangs in the National Gallery, London.