Food in Poetry

Rye Bread will do you good

Barley Bread will do you no harm

Wheat Bread will sweeten your blood

Oat Bread will stregthen your arm

~Irish saying

There is no shortage of poems about or involving food.  Some verses talk of the transformative power of food, some the enjoyment of food.  There are those that approach it as a matter of spirit, the human conditions, human sexuality, or from the perspective of hunger.  There is an abundance of metaphor relating to food and eating. There are many poems about growing food, and many more just discussing food in one form or another.  Some of the oldest known poetry to mention food comes from China.  Some of the poetry from the Zhou Dynasty (12th century BCE through 221 BCE), mentions stewed turtle, duck, quail, fried honey cakes, and good wine.  Poets of the Tang Dynasty (618 through 907), write of pears, plums, persimmons, melons, sweet wine, and peaches.  Peaches are considered a symbol of immortality.  During the Qing Dynasty (1644 through 1911) food and sex are more prevalently associated. Female beauty, and sexuality are often compared to cherries, grapes, and melons.

Poetry of the Middle East often mentions food and wine.  Medieval Arabic poetry often refers to food and feasting, wine is frequently mentioned along with those feasts although mostly in pre-Islamic verse.  Omar Khayyam the Astronomer of Persia very much enjoyed living life to the fullest, feasting and enjoying wine.

“Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of Spring
Your Winter – garmet of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To flutter – and the Bird is on the Wing.
Whether at Naishapur or Babylon,
Whether the Cup with sweet or bitter run,
The Wine of Life keeps oozing drop by drop,
The Leaves of Life keep falling one by one.”

Greek and Roman poetry is full of food and references.  The Iliad and the Odyssey are packed with eating and feasting, as well as descriptors such as wine colored skies.  One example in the Odyssey on food and food preparation tools, is spoken of during a visit to the home Menalaus. “I give you the fairest and costliest item – a  wrought mixing-bowl of solid silver doubled with gold about the rim. Work of Hephaestus. Hero Phaedimus, King of Sidon, endowed me with it when I found shelter in his house on my way back here. I am happy to transfer it now to you.’ As they so exchanged their phrases those whose turn it was to provide (and share) the entertainment that night in the palace of the god-like king came near, driving before them the needful sheep and carrying their generous wine. For them too their high-coifed wives sent a store of wheaten bread.”    

The greek poet Hesiod talked of enjoying good wine with meat and bread. The Georgics by Virgil is a poem about agriculture and the tensions and difficulties involved in growing food.  In greek myth, winter is partially blamed on the eating of pomegranates. In the story of Persephone the daughter of Demeter goddess of agriculture.  After Persephone is abducted by Hades she eats six pomegranate seeds, the forbidden fruit if the underworld.  She is allowed to return home but must spend one month per year, per seed eaten in the underworld, during which time her mother Demeter mourns her daughters absence and neglects her duties of keeping the earth warm and fertile.  The Roman poet Ovid talks a great deal about food and how it can serve erotic purposes.  He speaks about signals sent across the table by secret lovers, as well as making a bit of fun of some of the herbs and potions the Romans believed to have aphrodisiac effects.  The Roman poet Martial speaks of moderation and health as a means to a happy life.   Some of the Roman poets including Catullus, Horace, and Martial were know to write dinner invitations in the form of poems, enticing their guests to attend by telling of what food and wine will be served, as well as the entertainment to be provided.

The bible has many references to food, including how and when to prepare and eat it.  One of the most famous stories of course is the story of the garden of eden, when Eve eats the apple (or sometimes pomegranate) from the tree of knowledge.  Another example of forbidden fruit.  Food and sex play a major role in Songs of Solomon as in chapter 2: 3-5,As an apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among young men. With great delight I sat in his shadow, and his fruit was sweet to my taste. He brought me to the banqueting house, and his intention toward me was love. Sustain me with raisins, refresh me with apples; for I am faint with love. O that my left hand were under my head, and that his right hand embraced me!  And of course one of my favorite verses about food in the bible, Ecclesiastes 8, 15: So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun.

Some other notable mentions in literature include, Dante Alighieri’s divine comedy he speaks of severe punishment for gluttony is hell.  Beowulf is full of feasting and drinking often followed by sleeping leaving the men vulnerable to the attack of Grendel.  This could be an ode to the celebration or a cation to moderation.  In a modest proposal, Johnathan Swift suggests eating the children to relieve the burden of the poor.  Emily Dickinson wrote:

Forbidden fruit a flavor has
That lawful orchards mocks;
How luscious lies the pea within
The pod that Duty locks!

She also penned

I had been hungry, all the Years
My Noon had Come—to dine
I trembling drew the Table near
And touched the Curious Wine

‘Twas this on Tables I had seen
When turning, hungry, Home
I looked in Windows, for the Wealth
I could not hope—for Mine

I did not know the ample Bread
‘Twas so unlike the Crumb
The Birds and I, had often shared
In Nature’s—Dining Room

The Plenty hurt me—’twas so new
Myself felt ill—and odd
As Berry—of a Mountain Bush
Transplanted—to a Road

Nor was I hungry—so I found
That Hunger—was a way
Of Persons outside Windows
The Entering—takes away

Of course one can not write an article about food in poetry without quoting Shakespeare. Shakespeare mentions food and drink with great frequency, as in Othello: Act 2, Scene 3, Do you think that because you are virtuous, that there shall be no more cake and ale? Or in As you like it: Act 3, Scene 2, I would give all my fame for a pot of ale. Also in The Merry Wives of Windsor: Act 1, Scene 1, Truly, thou art damned like an ill roasted egg, all on one saide. He uses food and hunger metaphorically as in sonnets 56:

Sweet love, renew thy force; be it not said 
Thy edge should blunter be than appetite, 
Which but to-day by feeding is allay’d, 
To-morrow sharpen’d in his former might: 
So, love, be thou; although to-day thou fill 
Thy hungry eyes even till they wink with fullness,
To-morrow see again, and do not kill 
The spirit of love with a perpetual dullness.
Let this sad interim like the ocean be 
Which parts the shore, where two contracted new
Come daily to the banks, that, when they see 
Return of love, more blest may be the view; 
Else call it winter, which being full of care 
Makes summer’s welcome thrice more wish’d, more rare. 

And again in 75:

So are you to my thoughts as food to life,
Or as sweet-season’d showers are to the ground;
And for the peace of you I hold such strife
As ‘twixt a miser and his wealth is found.
Now proud as an enjoyer, and anon
Doubting the filching age will steal his treasure;
Now counting best to be with you alone,
Then better’d that the world may see my pleasure:
Sometime all full with feasting on your sight,
And by and by clean starved for a look;
Possessing or pursuing no delight
Save what is had, or must from you be took.
Thus do I pine and surfeit day by day,
Or gluttoning on all, or all away.

I’m sure many of you have other favorite quotes that I haven’t mentioned.  You could write volumes about Shakespeare alone.

One last poem about one of my all time favorite foods, and probably the most important ingredient in the culinary world.

Ode To The Onion – by Pablo Neruda

Onion,
luminous flask,
your beauty formed
petal by petal,
crystal scales expanded you
and in the secrecy of the dark earth
your belly grew round with dew.
Under the earth
the miracle
happened
and when your clumsy
green stem appeared,
and your leaves were born
like swords
in the garden,
the earth heaped up her power
showing your naked transparency,
and as the remote sea
in lifting the breasts of Aphrodite
duplicating the magnolia,
so did the earth
make you,
onion
clear as a planet
and destined
to shine,
constant constellation,
round rose of water,
upon
the table
of the poor.

You make us cry without hurting us.
I have praised everything that exists,
but to me, onion, you are
more beautiful than a bird
of dazzling feathers,
heavenly globe, platinum goblet,
unmoving dance
of the snowy anemone

and the fragrance of the earth lives
in your crystalline nature.

There are of course a copious number of poems surrounding the subject of food, and it would not be practical or possible to mention them all here.  I would love to hear from you, about some of your favorite poems, whether they are about food or not. Please Share.  I have included a picture below of the books I used as reference for this article.  Another great resource not included in the picture is:

The Encyclopedia of Food and Culture
Solomon H. Katz, Editor in Chief
Volume 1

Thank You for Reading!

TIS AN ILL COOK THAT CANNOT LICK HIS OWN FINGERS.

~Shakespeare food & drink quote 8. Twelfth Night: Act 1, Scene 3

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Author: foodinculture

Lover of Food, Music, Culture, and Humanity

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