A Drink for All Seasons

Supping with the autumnal god Bacchus

Literature Wine
Bacchus, the "fatbacke god": "Drest in Vine leaues, and a garland of grapes on his head"

When he was staying with the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Whitgift, at Croydon in October 1592 the Elizabethan wit, pamphleteer and man of letters Thomas Nashe wrote a dramatic entertainment which was cunningly adapted both to the time of year and to the preferences of his host, who apparently kept open house during the customary festive seasons of the year. Svmmers Last Will and Testament dramatises the end of Summer, who, feeling himself to be sick, reviews the performance of his various servants, and eventually hands over his crown to Autumn.

The form of Svmmers Last Will and Testament is deliberately miscellaneous. It includes songs and visual spectacle as well as sharp comic repartee. However, a thread that links all the various elements of the play (or “shewe”, as Nashe himself perhaps more accurately styled it) is lament for the transience of lovely things. The aged and sickly Summer comes on stage, attended by singing and dancing satyrs and wood-nymphs, and immediately strikes the keynote of regret for what has passed:

What pleasure alway lasts? no ioy endures:
Summer I was, I am not as I was;
Harvest and age haue whit’ned my greene head:
On Autumn now and Winter must I leane.
Needs must he fall, whom none but foes vphold.

And the theme is beautifully and famously recapitulated in the song towards the end of the play, which includes the celebrated lines:

Beauty is but a flowre,
Which wrinckles will deuoure,
Brightnesse falls from the ayre,
Queenes haue died yong and faire,
Dust hath closde Helens eye.
I am sick, I must dye:
        Lord, haue mercy on vs.

Transience is something to which we must all submit, and Nashe shows a gentle humanity in addressing this central theme. 

But there is also a vein of satire in the play which is directed against recent changes in social attitudes. Alongside the transience which is inevitable and springs from the revolution of the seasons or the ineluctable journey from birth to death there are those more culpable vicissitudes which arise from human action or neglect. Nashe regrets the decline of the spirit of holiday, of sports and pastimes, and of the old customs of hospitality and open house — all aspects of human society which were wisely attuned to the simple fact of transience, but which have been replaced by the newer, more economically instrumental and utilitarian values associated with possessive individualism — values that serve a hubristic desire to triumph over transience.

So we find Nashe on the one hand writing wonderfully evocative lines celebrating vacancy and vagabondage, and the imaginative wealth such idleness generates, as when he recalls

a company of ragged knaues,
Sun-bathing beggers, lazie hedge-creepers,
Sleeping face vpwards in the fields all night,
Dream’d strange deuices of the Sunne and Moones . . .

On the other, we find bitter reproaches levelled at the new economic discipline, as when Summer reproaches the spirit of the new Christmas for his abandonment of traditional festivity, and for his misprision of wealth as something dedicated to his own personal use, rather than to more general and sociable benefit:

Christmas, I tell thee plaine, thou art a snudge,
And wert not that we loue thy father well,
Thou shouldst haue felt what longs to Auarice.
It is the honor of Nobility
To keep high dayes and solemne festiuals:
Then, to set their magnificence to view,
To frolick open with their fauorites,
And vse their neighbours with all curtesie;
When thou in huggar mugger spend’st thy wealth.
Amend thy maners, breathe thy rusty gold:
Bounty will win thee loue, when thou art old.

The centrepiece of Nashe’s sustained attack on utility and economic discipline comes in the middle of the play when “god fatbacke” Bacchus is called on stage, and arrives “riding vpon an Asse trapt in Iuie, himselfe drest in Vine leaues, and a garland of grapes on his head: his companions hauing all Iacks in their hands, and Iuie garlands on their heads; they come in singing”. He immediately asks for drink, at which Summer reproaches him for having “no mind but on the pot”. Bacchus responds by arguing from analogy for the necessity of drink, in terms which are inventive but also customary: “What sets an edge on a knife? the grindstone alone? no, the moist element powr’d upon it, which grinds out all gaps, sets a poynt vpon it, & scowres it as bright as the firmament.  So, I tell thee, giue a soldier wine before he goes to battaile, it grinds out all gaps, it makes him forget all scarres and wounds, and fight in the thickest of his enemies, as though hee were but at foyles amongst his fellows. Giue a scholler wine, going to his booke, or being about to inuent, it sets new poynt on his wit, it glazeth it, it scowres it, it giues him acumen.”

More interesting and unusual than this defence of wine is the dialogue that follows.  Summer starts to cross-examine Bacchus about the recent harvest in terms dictated by the new economic utility: “I would about thy vintage question thee: How thriue thy vines? hadst thou good store of grapes?” Bacchus ignores the question, instead insisting that “wine is a pure thing, & is poyson to all corruption.” Winter, one of Summer’s companions, tries to get Bacchus to address the point: “Fye, drunken sot, forget’st thou where thou art? My Lord askes thee, what vintage thou hast made?” Finally Bacchus addresses the narrow economic question, but in such a way as to make plain his contempt for any manner of thinking about wine which reduces it to an economic commodity and denies its true status as the best gift from the gods to men:

Our vintage was a vintage, for it did not work vpon the aduantage, it came in the vauntgard of Summer,
& winds and stormes met it by the way,
And made it cry, Alas and welladay.

Bacchus’s wisdom is wasted on Summer, who cannot free his mind from narrow economic calculation, and who — ridiculously — keeps trying to extract economic statistics from the god: “That was not well, but all miscarried not?”

Nashe’s sympathies here are plainly with the “fatbacke” god, who eventually leaves the stage in an uproar of cursing and drunkenness, and whose vivid cameo performance has so memorably associated wine with the festive, the traditional, the pleasurable and the wise.