Thursday, November 13, 2008

Wine Parties & Hebrew Wine Poetry

"Wine is bottled poetry." --Robert Louis Stevenson

Wine is far more than just a liquid to quench your thirst or get you drunk. Wine can arouse many emotions, as well as provide impetus to writers, poets, and artists. When I savor a special bottle of wine, one that wows me, it puts me into a poetical mood. It makes me want to rhapsodize about the hedonistic pleasures of the wine. Other times, when I share a bottle of wine with family or friends, that might also put me into a poetical mood. At those times, the wine does need to wow me as it is the surrounding circumstances that elevate even a more ordinary wine to higher levels.

Wine was also inspirational to Arabic and Hebrew poets in Spain during the 8th to 11th centuries. They wrote much wine poetry yet it seems largely forgotten now. Were you aware of their poetry? I knew nothing about it until I chanced upon a passage discussing it in a recent biography, Maimonides. The passage intrigued me so I dug deeper, researching more about this wine poetry. I found a few resources about it, though it is still an area that needs more study.

My primary resource was Wine, Women and Death: Hebrew Poems on the Good Life by Raymond Scheindlin (Oxford University Press, 1986), a book I recently bought as it seemed interesting. It turned out to be a fascinating book, containing not only background on Hebrew poetry but all presenting 31 different poems, with explanations of each. I should also note that each poem is presented in Hebrew as well as English. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants more information on this subject.

Arabic wine poetry, called khamriyyah, originated in the 6th century but started to become more prominent in the 9th century. The most important Arabic wine poet was Abu Nuwas (9th century). During the 9th through 11th centuries, in Moslem Spain, wine parties became an honored tradition and very popular, especially in the lifestyle of courtiers. These parties were the origin and subject of many wine poems.

Jews in Moslem Spain, especially Andalusia, were influenced by the wine poetry of the Arabs and they began to imitate such poetry. The first Hebrew wine poem was written by Dunash ibn Labrat, also known as Rabbi Adonim ha-Levi, who lived in Spain in the middle of the 10th century. He was also the first Jewish poet to apply Arabic forms of poetry to Hebrew, causing quite a controversy at first. But this style of poetry eventually caught on and became the norm. Unfortunately, only a few of Dunash's poems still exist and most are known only by lines quoted by others.

Though Jews participated in wine parties, we don't have many specifics about those parties. But based on their poetry, it appears they were very similar to Arabic wine parties, provided the Jewish poets were writing about their own experiences. There seems little reason to doubt that the parties were not similar.

Most Arabic wine parties began after dinner and resembled in some ways the ancient Greek symposiums. Participants would sit on cushions with small tables next to them. The wine they drank was usually mixed with water, like the ancient Greeks. Attendees might bring their own glass, often crystal, or share a communal cup. The wine pourer, a saqi, was often an attractive young boy who was flirtatious but followed certain etiquette. Any young girls who acted as saqi had their hair cut short and dressed like a boy. These parties were most often held outside, commonly in a garden, and there would be entertainers such as singers and dancers.

Wine poetry lacked any rigid rules though they usually consisted of one of two themes, either descriptive or meditative, those sometimes poets combined the two. Descriptive poems would give details of the wine and the circumstances surrounding it. The poems might describes the wine’s age, fragrance, clarity, brilliance, and color. It might describe the cup, the jug which filled the cup, the table on which it is set, or even the saqi who served. Some even seemed like love poetry addressed to the saqi. Or the poems might detail the place where the party was being held or even discuss the entertainers. Meditative poems detailed the feelings that the wine aroused in the poet. These emotions were usually sad and the poems might contrast joy and sadness, indicating how pleasures are but temporary and fleeting.

Though wine poems are primarily secular, religious themes and imagery were sometimes added to them. For example, it was traditional to greatly exaggerate the age of the wine. It might be associated with biblical characters to indicate its great age. Interestingly, this did not originate with the Jews but actually came from the Arabs. Abu Nuwas sometimes described wines as coming from the age of Adam and Eve or Noah. In addition, in the wine poetry of the mystics, wine was a symbol of divine love while drunkenness was viewed as mystical ecstasy.

Samuel ha-Nagid (11th century) was the Jewish vizier of Granada, a very powerful man, and also wrote many wine poems. In some of his poems, he characterized King David as the model drinker as well as a symbol of the wine's great age.

Here are two short poems that he wrote, both from Wine, Women and Death: Hebrew Poems on the Good Life.

If you’re like me, and want to pour the wine of joy,
Hear what I have to say.
I’ll teach you pleasure’s way, though you don’t want to hear,
You friend of sighs and pain.
Five things there are that fill the hearts of men with joy,
And out my grief to flight:
A pretty girl, a garden, wine, the water’s rush
In a canal, and song.

Take from a fawn the crystal filled with blood
Of grapes, as bright as hailstones filled with fire.
Her lips are a scarlet thread; her kisses, wine;
Her mouth and body wear the same perfume.
Her hands are crystal wands with ruby tips—
She tints her fingers with her victim’s blood.

What are your feelings about these poems? I find the second poem to be especially evocative, with powerful imagery. It is a poem of passion and speaks to my heart.

Does wine make you feel poetic? It might be fascinating to see others write some wine poetry, either descriptive or meditative. If you write some, I would love to read it as I am sure others would be interested to read it as well.

Maybe it would be interesting to have our own wine parties in an outside garden, beneath the stars. Winter in New England might not be the best time for that but we could look forward to doing it this spring. Anyone want to join me for a garden wine party?

"No thing more excellent nor more valuable than wine was ever granted mankind by God."--Plato

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