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Food and Beverages in English Poetry

by Anuradha sowmyanarayanan

“Live to eat or eat to live”, Food is an integral part of mans’ life. To survive, man requires food. Food can be defined as a substance taken into the body of an animal or plant to maintain its life. That’s why among the basic necessities of mans’ life – food acquires foremost place (Food, Clothing and Shelter).

Food is available in different forms. Fruits, Vegetables, Cereals, Grains, Nuts, etc. Food can be classified into Raw & Cooked Food. Depending on the forms, there are two types of food – Solid Food & Liquid Food. Items of staple food vary from one another. Methods of food preparation and varieties differ from person to person based on geographical, social and religious factors.

Next to necessities, comes comfort and luxuries. Expanding his horizons from necessities, man searches for comforts. Comfort provides pleasure. One such pleasure comes from reading literature. Literature is a body of writings especially great novels, poetry and plays. Language is a medium to express once own thought.  Scripts were developed based on the spoken language and later uniform symbols called Alphabets were assigned.

“History’s true object of study is the human mind” says Fustel De Coulanges. When man started to pen his thoughts, there were formed many literary compositions. The compositions reflected social life.

Looking at the splendid fabric of English literature we realize in it a “Coat of many colours.” To its making have gone the prismatic fancy of the celt, the somber passion of the Teuton, the golden gaiety of France, the Scandinarian greys and Italian purples. Above all, Anglo-saxon is predominant. Teuton’s were renowned for their hospitality. “Every German”, to quote Tacitus “receives his guest with a well-furnished table. When his supplies are exhausted he who was but now the host becomes the guide to further hospitality, and without invitation they go to the next house.”

Having washed his hands and feet, the guest joined the family board and using his fingers instead of a form, helped himself to devour the vast quantities of meat which were always in requisition. The meal being brought to a lively, if somewhat hazardous conclusion by the practice of throwing the bones about the place, the serious business of the evening began – namely drinking. Around the blazing fire in the centre of the long hall, ale used to be supplied late into the night.

No day was complete without food and drink. Based on the origin of food, it is divided into two: they are vegetarian and non vegetarian food, Consumption of these is subject to one’s palate.

As poetry is a segment of Literature, poetry envelopes all aspects of human life. So, food also take part in it. Food is an essential component of human life. Though a recipe is not a part of the poetry,  the poems stated about the availability of food in those days. Apart from that it showcases the food preferences of various sects of people based on the region and the cast they belong to.

Food is special during festivals; it’s different during fasts, long menus during buffets and official banquets. The food used to be traditional that is offered to God. All these were duly covered in the poem highlighting the way of life.

A few paradigms of testimony …………..

“ The King and the Hermit” translated by Kuno Meyer , is an Ancient Irish poetry. It deals with food habits of a hermit. Irish Poetry not only covers the celtic love of nature in the beautiful poem but also the strong personal note that bespeaks of the celt.

The poem is a colloquy between Guaire, King of Connacht in the Seventh Century and his brother Marvan,a hermit. Marvan recounts to Guaire the beauties and delights of his simple dwelling.

A tree of apples – great to bounty!

Like a hostel, vast!

A pretty bush, thick as a fist, of the Tiny hazelnuts,

A green mass of branches.


A choice pure spring and princely water

To drink:

There spring watercresses , Yew – berries,



A clutch of eggs, honey delicious mast,

God has sent it:

Sweet apples, red whortle-berries,

And blae berries.


Ale with herbs, a dish of strawberries of good taste and colour,

Haws, berries of the juniper,



A cup with mead of hazel-nut, blue bells,


It evinces the food that were accessible in the woods for the hermit. They are the nature’s best production. Moreover Marvan describes it as Gods’ sent.  Above all, he gets to drink pure spring and princely water. The diet of the hermit are very fresh and can be taken as it is and it will provide sustenance.

Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales draw attention not only to foods but also Emphasizes the table etiquettes.

“ To boil the Chicken and the marrow bones,

And poudre marchant tart and galingale

He could roast and seethe and boil and fry,

Maken Mortrewes and well bake a pie.”

“Poudre marchant tart’ seems to have been a kind of medieval curry powder; “galingale,’ the root of the sweet cypress, was aromatic and pungent; “Mortrewes” were soups which contained a variety of ingredients – fresh pork, chicken, eggs, saffron, or sometimes fish, pepper, bread and ale. These ingredients were crushed first in a mortar – hence their name.

Chaucer’s interest in cookery helps him to ascertain the dishes as well as the ingredients that go into the making of a recipe.

Chaucer is particular not to ignore the table manners. He disclosed this in the prologue itself. Each guest brought his own knife, but for common use there were no forks. They washed their hands in their desirous way. They flung the bone and scraps of meat on the floor. Every guest had a napkin, and the proper use of the napkin was an elaborate ritual in itself. This shows how the middle classes fared. As they are not exposed to such high class traditions.

Pie is a baked dish of meat, fish or fruit covered with pastry or other crust.

More playful and extravagant in his mood is William Brighty Rands (1823 – 1880). In his poem “CHORUS” he uncovers the childish acts of little maids having a pie.

“Havelok – the Dane” by Geffrei Gaimar was probably composed in the reign of Edward I about 1280. Although it is of a French version, it has the origin in England.

The poem opens in spirited fashion with request “First fill me a cup of good ale.” It encompasses sea foods. As Grim – a character in this poem is a fisherman who shares his fishing experiences. He caught Sturgeon, Turbot etc., He also sold lampreys and brought home Simnels, meal, meat and hemp. It itemizes the varieties of fishes and more importantly the ability of the people of those days to identify the differences.

Like Gaimar, Chaucer also briefs about ale in the Canterbury Tales. Ale/Beer was found in other places than inns in the fourteenth Century. At the cross roads of frequented highways, houses were erected where beer was to be had. And the pilgrims in the Tale stop at a house of this kind and

“……….. at this Ale stake

Both drynke and byten cake.”


William Langland born at about 1332, in his work : The Book of Piers - the plowman analyses more about the suppliers rather than the food.

“Brewers and bakers, and butchers and looks;

Such men, on this mould, can most harm-work

To the poorer people, that piece-meal buy,

For they poison the people, both privily and oft.”

He condemns the rich people for “regrating” – that was the customs of buying up provisions and retailing them to the poor at great profit. In those days also getting good food was a “costly affair”


In this poem he mentions of ‘breed’(Bread) from strat-ford, this reminds us of the fame which Stratford-at-Bow enjoyed in medieval times for supplying bread to the city. And the bakers were important men.

The denomination of the food varied according to the time in which it was consumed. This idea is wisely associated in the poem “The Monks and the Gaints.”

“Dinner and supper kept their usual hours,

Breakfast and luncheon never were delayed.”

It brings forth their routines and regular intake of food without fail.

In the Bishop Percy’s Reliques – Old Tom of Bedlam.

the poet takes us on a trip to the celestial world. Pluto, Mars, mercury, Venus and Moon are the stations were the poor Tom Wanders. The poet deals on the edibles in the Moon.

“The Man in the moon drinkers Claret,

Eates powder’d beef, turnip, and Carrot,


G.G.Coulton the author of the poem – Pearl probably highlights the high season of August as the feast of the Assumption (August 15th )

“when corn is cut with sickes keen

The Earth where once my pearl rolled down

Was shadowed with herbs full clear and sheen,

Gilly flower, ginger and gromelion

And peonies powdered all between.”

Though the poet was worried about the loss of his precious Pearl, the sight which comes forth before him insisted good harvest and self-sufficiency. All the seasonal crops grown well and people were never in hunger. Yields are in surplus and the end products reach their plates. Spices are also in the list.

A poem titled “The Aesthete” by William Schwenck Gilbert (1836 – 1911) focuses on the Nature’s beauty of producing Vegetables and Fruits.

“An attachment a’la plato for a bashful Young potato,

Or a not-too. French French bean!


Christopher Smart (1722-1771), in his poem”Song to David” portrayed the bountiful nature and its gift of many edible things.

“For adoration ripening canes

And cocoa’s purest milk detains


And Vines with Oranges disposed


The nectarine his strong tint imbibes

And Apples of then thousand tribes,

And quick peculiar Quince.

It reflects nature at its best – A show of wholesome disposal which adds richness to the mother Earth.

In contrast to the above surpluseness, the poverty stricken Butler can be known in the following:

No generous patron would a dinner give,


The poet’s fate is here in Emblem shown:

He asked for bread, and he received a stone.”

It’s a quote by C.Wesley.

“INCOGNITA” by Mr.Austin Dobson (1840). In this the poet compares the verses into soufflé.

“That preferred your mere metrical souffle’

to the stronger poetical food:

Actually souffle’ is a light dish made with beaten Egg White.

In the Category of Beverages –Alcoholic and non-alcoholic are the two major differentiations. Among the non alcoholic, Coffee had an upper hand over all the others. It’s a warm feeling to relish a hot coffee on a rainy day.

In the Poem “Nell”

“The streets grew light, but rain began to fall;

I stopped and had come coffee at a stall,

Because I felt so chill;

This marks the poet’s minute detailing of small pleasures in human life.

In the same poem ”Nell,” the poet reports about the excess dose of drinks, which makes a man mad and Hence request to avoid it.

“A lad as gentle as a lamb, but lost

His senses when he took a drop too much –

Drink did it all – drink made him mad when crossed

Wine is an alcoholic drink which is made from fermented grape juice or from other fruits or plants.


Wine and Beer (ale) are exigencies because of weather conditions. It’s a habit with the members of high class.

“Landlords spice the smoking ale.

Hail white winter, lady fine,

In a cup of elder wine.

Elder wine is made out of dark berries.

The above lines were quoted from the poem “A WINTER SKETCH’ by John Byrne Leicester (1835 – 1895).


Wine is employed as a sedative and assumed that tranquility is guaranteed. It is appraised in the poem “CONFITEOB” by Sir Alfred Lyall.

“And sailors before the mast:

Then pledge me a cup of the Cyprus wine,

For I fain would bury the past.”

Music is being interpreted as an instrument which holds some one spell bound. Shelley in his poem “MUSIC” states that it is like a bewitching wine.

“I pant for the music which is divine,

my heart is its thirst is a dying flower;

Pour forth the sound like enchanted wine.”

S.T.Coleridge in his work”Kublakhan” discloses the purity of milk which gives completeness.

“For he on honey-dew hath fed,

And drunk the milk of paradise.

In the poem “The Ancient Mariner” S.T.Coleridge gives a glimpse of the physical strain of being thirsty.

“Water, Water every where,

And all the boards did shrink;

Water, Water, Every where,

Nor any drop to drink.”

“Letter to Maria Gisborne” is a poem by Shelley. In this Shelley approaches to real humour by fantastically using liquor and tea.

“The liquor doctors rail at – and which I

Will quaff in spite of them – and when we die

We’ll toss up who died first of drinking Tea,

And cry out – heads or tails? – where’er we be.”

These are the few in which food and beverages were been part of English poetry. This exemplifies the poets’ familiarity and dexterity in handling any themes in connection with varied subjects.

Anyhow, “To eat is human and to digest is divine.” Literature helps us to understand the divinity of human life.