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….