Odes to Claret
Keats was clearly intoxicated by claret, which may explain why his poetry about wine is rather inaccurate
In the spring of 1819 Keats wrote to his brother George and George’s wife Georgiana: “We had a claret feast some little while ago — There were Dilke, Reynolds, Skinner, Mancur, John Brown, Martin, Brown and I — We all got a little tipsy — but pleasantly so — I enjoy Claret to a degree.” The promotion of claret from “claret” to the capitalised “Claret” in the course of the sentence is somehow a token of his esteem for this wine.
Wine figures in several of Keats’s poems. “Lines on the Mermaid Tavern” asks rhetorically:
Have ye tippled drink more fine
Than mine host’s Canary wine?
In “Fancy” the power of Fancy to forge unnatural unions is compared to an ingenious act of mixing:
She will bring thee, all together,
All delights of summer weather;
All the buds and bells of May,
From dewy sward or thorny spray;
All the heaped Autumn’s wealth,
With a still, mysterious stealth:
She will mix these pleasures up
Like three fit wines in a cup,
And thou shalt quaff it: . . .
However, although Keats celebrates intoxication as something which is both propitious to, and a metaphor of, poetic composition, he is sometimes rather shaky on the details. Earlier in 1819 he had written to Fanny Keats and had assembled imaginatively the ingredients of an ideal day:
O there is nothing like fine weather, and health, and Books, and a fine country, and a contented Mind, and Diligent habit of reading and thinking, and an amulet against the ennui — and, please heaven, a little claret-wine cool out of a cellar a mile deep — with a few or a good many ratafia cakes — a rocky basin to bathe in, a strawberry bed to say your prayers to Flora in . . .
The details of “a little claret-wine cool out of a cellar a mile deep” and the goddess Flora would recombine in the second stanza of “Ode to a Nightingale”, where Keats longs 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!” But if you were to keep wine in a cellar a mile deep, it would warm it up, not cool it down.
That is the observation of a dreadful pedant, of course. But Keats’s error over cellaring does lead one to wonder whether Keats really knew much about wine, and even whether he really knew what claret was. His greatest eulogy of the wines of Bordeaux is a wonderful piece of writing. But it leaves something to be desired as a tasting note:
Woodhouse took me to his coffee house — and ordered a Bottle of Claret — now I like Claret — whenever I can have Claret I must drink it, — ’tis the only palate affair that I am at all sensual in . . . For really ’tis so fine — it fills the mouth one’s mouth [sic] with a gushing freshness — then goes down cool and feverless — then you do not feel it quarrelling with your liver — no it is rather a Peace maker and lies as quiet as it did in the grape — then it is as fragrant as the Queen Bee; and the more ethereal Part of it mounts into the brain, not assaulting the cerebral apartments like a bully in a bad-house looking for his trul and hurrying from door to door bouncing against the waistcoat; but rather walks like Aladin about his own enchanted palace so gently that you do not feel his step. Other wines of a heavy and spiritous nature transform a Man to a Silenus; this makes him a Hermes — and gives a Woman the soul and immortality of Ariadne for whom Bacchus always kept a good cellar of claret — and even of that he could never persuade her to take above two cups —
It is not reassuring that, in another letter of 1819 to Dilke (which in the event he did not send) Keats wrote in remarkably similar terms about the experience of eating a nectarine: “Talking of Pleasure, this moment I was writing with one hand, and with the other holding to my Mouth a Nectarine — good god how fine — It went down soft pulpy, slushy, oozy — all its delicious embonpoint melted down my throat like a large beatified Strawberry.” Nectarines and claret are both glorious things. But they are not remotely the same thing, and to write as if they are suggests that a precise description of sensation is not really what Keats has in mind here.
When Woodhouse took Keats to that coffee house and ordered a bottle of claret, what did they get? In 1669 Walter Charleton had noted that the red wines of Bordeaux were regularly strengthened with Alicante. In 1800 the estate manager at Latour, disappointed with the quality of the wines of the most recent vintage (“in truth they are thin”) revealed that the grands vins of Bordeaux often relied on what were referred to euphemistically as “helping wines”, such as Hermitage, to give them the body demanded in particular by English buyers. The habit of adulteration was deeply ingrained and lasted long. At the beginning of the 20th century it was calculated that Bordeaux sold between six and seven million hectolitres of wine, but produced only between two and three million hectolitres. As one wit put it: “The production of Bordeaux is so great that it provides at least a quarter of what is consumed.” Goodness only knows what Keats and Woodhouse drank that day in London. The odds were certainly against its being pure Bordeaux.
Would Keats have been concerned about adulteration? The lines from “Fancy” quoted above, referring to “three fit wines in a cup”, suggest not. “Claret” was a term he employed, not so much for wine from a particular region of France, as for a deeply pleasurable experience he associated with his very deepest pleasure: composition. In “Sleep and Poetry” he had referred to the mood of composition as “intoxication”, and the last reference to claret in his letters brings together explicitly his own literary ambitions, the enjoyment of wine, and his relishing of the work of other poets:
One of my Ambitions is to make as great a revolution in modern dramatic writing as Kean has done in acting — another to upset the drawling of the blue stocking literary world — if in the course of a few years I do these things I ought to die content — and my friends should drink a dozen of Claret on my Tomb — I am convinced more and more every day that . . . a fine writer is the most genuine Being in the World. Shakspeare and the paradise Lost every day become greater wonders to me.
Keats’s imagination of the future commemoration of his own achievement falls into line with his own enthusiastic tribute to Shakespeare and Milton. For that purpose, either claret, or the “true, the blushful Hippocrene”, or even the canary of the landlord of the Mermaid Tavern, would be equally appropriate.