“Libiamo, libiamo!”—La Traviata
Do you have a minute? More precisely, do you have three minutes and fourteen seconds?
If so, give yourself over to the heart-breakingly handsome Placido Domingo singing his lively brindisi as he woos the beautiful courtesan, Violetta, in Act I of La Traviata. I’m willing to wager, it will be the best three minutes of your day.
If you don’t have three minutes and fourteen seconds, let me tell you what you’re missing: the finest drinking song ever written. As a composer, Giuseppi Verdi knew something about music; as an Italian, he knew something about wine and love; and as a man he had surely felt on his own pulses the electric connection among this trinity of gifts given to humankind.
Why should this old song, first sung in 1853, still rank among the most beloved of tunes a century and a half later? Perhaps because it enchants us with the power of its poetry and with the beauty of its music. Perhaps because to hear the tune and hum along is to raise a glass in company with the whole human family—distant aristocrats, common whores, and petty gamblers. Or perhaps because its energy and verve urge us to take a seat at the table of the Feast of Life.
Prized as it is in the here-and-now, wine is also associated with eternity. The ancient pagans believed wine to be the Nectar of the Gods, and Christian tradition shares this trope. Wine participates in the realms of both the human and divine—so much so that it is holy.
At the wedding feast of Cana, according to the Gospel of John, Jesus rescued the newly-married couple from the brink of disaster, miraculously turning urns of common water into fine wine. (The feast continued afterwards for days.) He (in)famously traveled through the countryside, eating and drinking with his disciples, sitting with tax collectors and prostitutes, a scandal to the teetotal-ing Pharisees. When he spoke of the good news he’d come to share, Christ compared it to new wine, words with such effervescent life, they would burst old wineskins were anyone fool enough to pour and store them there. He described himself as a vine, and his followers the branches, from which splendid grapes would grow. At the last meal he ate with his friends, Christ presided at the table, dispensing bread and wine, and all drank from a common cup. In doing so he welcomed them, as well as those who would come after, to take a seat at the Feast of Life.
Do you have three more minutes? More precisely, do you have three minutes and thirty-four seconds? If so, give yourself over to the heart-breakingly handsome Johnny Cash as he sings this sober anti-brindisi, “Song to Celia, ” written by poet Ben Jonson. (Welcome to the next best three minutes of your day.)
In this Elizabethan lyric, the singer urges his beloved,
Drink to me only with thine eyes,
And I will pledge with mine.
The beloved’s face, kiss, touch, and breath constitute “the drink divine” his soul craves and serves as substitute for mere mortal wine—for these rare substances possess the power to nourish, inspire, and intoxicate better than any ordinary grape.
Jonson’s verse, the sweet English air, and Cash’s warm, familiar voice transform the communal drinking song (à la La Traviata) into an intimate love song, an occasion where the lovers forgo the public ritual in order to carve out private space, even as they go through the motions of observance. While the others gathered at The Feast partake of coarser substance, they alone partake of love, and, thereby, choose the better part.
I taste a liquor never brewed,
From tankards scooped in pearl;
Not all the vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an alcohol!
Wine intoxicates the mind & body—and pleasantly so—but poetry intoxicates the soul:
Inebriate of air am I,
And debauchee of dew,
Reeling, through endless summer days,
From inns of molten blue.
Dickinson, too, invites us to the Feast of Life—the one she enjoyed daily, alone at her writing desk. Singing her own brand of brindisi in the quiet of her upper room, her poems constitute the strong tonic she serves in place of wine for anyone who has the time.
In the hands of the poets, wine is poetry and poetry is wine.
Wine is love and love is wine.
Wine is life and life is wine.
“My cup runneth over, ” writes the Psalmist.
“Let’s drink, let’s drink, ” sings Placido.
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