Truth in Wine? On Not Drinking Wine & Reading Ancient Poetry

Jack Lemmon in Days of Wine & Roses

In vino veritas (there is truth in wine)

Is there truth in wine?

My first boyfriend was an alcoholic, and there wasn’t much truth in wine for him.  He did the things that alcoholics do:  he conducted his social life in bars, drank on the job, lost his job, passed out on lawns, fraternized with bar owners, and was warned by our doctor that he would die if he kept it up.

I left him, dear Reader, many years ago, but it did affect my attitude toward drinking. I avoided wine, because every night he downed bottle after bottle with friends who slurred their words as they deluded themselves about the possibility of sex with beautiful women, or laughed about wild parties where someone did something inbecilic, hence hilarious.  This drunken revelry was not for me: I  sat in the bedroom, doing homework and, on occasion, reading Zola’s L’Assommoir. 

So why do I love ancient poems about wine? Well, wine humanizes the poets, whether you drink wine or are a teetotaler: the ancients drank a lot of wine, and the lyric poets don’t seem falling-down-drunk types.  The  witty Catullus may have written the first comical “Bring Your Own Bottle” poem (a dinner invitation in which he tells a friend that he will dine well if he brings the dinner, wine, and wit).  And Horace wrote many poems about wine:  my favorite is his ode to a wine jar, in which he informs the jar of his appreciation “whether you bring lamentations or jokes, whether strife and insane love, or easy sleep.” And he adds that his serious philosophical friend Corvinus, though “steeped in Socratic dialogues,”  appreciates the fine Massic wine:  even Cato the Elder did!

In addition to Horace, I have been reading Harry Eyres’s light, charming, intelligent book Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet.  Though I didn’t go to Eton, and  enjoyed Horace at a university, Eyres and I have something in common.  Like me, he is returning to Horace after many years and is overjoyed by the discovery of the layers of meaning in each measured poem

Eyres is also a wine merchant’s son.  He writes,

You could say there is nothing more central to Horace’s poetry, and philosophy than wine… The centrality of wine often passes relatively unnoticed, or is overlooked because “it is just a convention” or because wine is surely not serious as a subject.

The prominence of wine in Horace’s poetry was not overlooked by me, for good and obvious reasons.  I was the son of a wine merchant; I grew up among bottles and boxes of the restorative fluid.  Wine was central to our family economy and to my father’s philosophy. Wine was also what drew me to Horace in the first place, what forged a connection I couldn’t miss.  Though there was much I couldn’t and didn’t understand about Horace, I immediately understood what he felt and expressed about wine, how he grasped wine’s deeper power even as he also relished different vintages and crus as a Roman connoisseur.

I also am very much enjoying Eyres’ translations of Horace.  They are not quite translations–rather, they are modern versions–in which he updates the classical references to, say, the war in Iraq, or, instead of using the Roman name Corvinus, he substitutes the common name Jim.   It’s a little strange at first, but effectivel Too often the literal English translation cannot be  understood without many looks at the Latin, and that wreaks havoc of the point of translation.

I will try to post one of my translations or one of Eyres’ translations in the next few days.

Meanwhile, Carpe diem! (Seize the day!) Nunc est bibendum. (“Now it must be drunk…”)

Look for poetry another day….

The Athens of the Midwest

Roman woman writing

It started in the Midwest.

I grew up in Iowa City, a hip university town.  I wish I could live in a university town:  Iowa City, Madison, Bloomington, Ann Arbor,  it hardly matters, since they are all nicknamed “the Athens of the Midwest.”

In some ways, Athens saved me. That is, fifth-century Athens.

The Athens of the Midwest failed me for a year and a half.

I was happy growing up in Iowa City.  Then, in my teens, my idyllic life crumbled when my parents divorced.  My irresponsible father, who was my guardian, left town to  live with his girlfriend.  Now that was a good call.  And so I  became the live-in concubine of a lesbian English teacher (fortunately not my English teacher). It all started innocently, as far as I was concerned.  She invited me out for coffee repeatedly, and lent me her copy of Anne Sexton’s poems.  Then she got  hysterical over the phone about Sexton.  Oh, her notes in the margins would tell me she was a lesbian, she wept, and she didn’t know how I’d feel about it.   I politely said it didn’t matter, and it didn’t, since I had no intention of reading Sexton.

Nonetheless, I ended up living with her.  Having a place to live was a big part of my decision. (I had been staying with some benevolent hippies, in a back room without a door.)  A room with a door had its appeal, and lesbian feminism was not only fashionable but attention-getting.   But it was dull, and I only dared tell a few of my most radical friends, because she was in her thirties and stressed I was a minor and she could go to jail, plus it was still taboo to be gay.

All right, I was extremely bored. We had nothing in common, the sex was terrible, and I wasn’t even gay.   She never read a book, liked to shop at K-Mart (so unhip!), and listened to Melanie (Lay Down Candles in the Rain).

I was unhappy.  I did not see how life could go on like that.  And it didn’t.    I got away a few years later and had lots of books and boyfriends.  And what else does a person need?

But it is no exaggeration to say my discovery of classics in college saved me.   The beauty of ancient languages, the enjoyable memorization of paradigms, the fascinating vocabulary, hours with lexicons and grammars, and the joy of translation gave my life a much-needed structure.

I started with Greek, though everyone said I should start with Latin.  Baffled by Lattimore’s Homer—how could anyone take his prosy epic seriously?—I wanted to read the Iliad in the original.   Soon I was spending hours with Homer, Lysias, Euripides, Sophocles, Aeschylus,  the Greek lyric poets, Plato.  And I also studied Latin, a cognate language of Greek, and was unprepared for the wit and vivacity, because it is a literature that does not translate well into English.  And yet it always felt familiar to me, and I came to love it more than Greek.  It is the literature that influenced the Western canon.

catullus-poems-51fhu8iesgl-_sx325_bo1204203200_Let me share with you a  witty,two-line Latin epigram by the Roman poet Catullus.

My literal translation:

I hate and I love. You may ask why I do so.
I don not know, but I feel it and I am tortured.

Here is Horace Gregory’s four-line translation, which is also fairly literal and much more elegant.

I HATE and love.
And if you ask me why,
I have no answer, but I discern,
can feel, my senses rooted in eternal torture.

Here are  the two lines of Latin”

Odi et amo. Quare id faciam, fortasse requiris.
Nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucio.

Can you tell odi (“odious” is a derivative) means ” I hate” and amo (“amiable,” “amatory”) means love?  Bet you can!

And, by the way, another wild girl from my high school also took Latin.  We agreed to keep mum about our past lives.  “I’m working on getting my virginity back,” she said.

I’m pretty sure both of us managed to do so because of our hours of study!