Poems on beer, good and bad

Someone has put Carol Ann Duffy’s poem “John Barleycorn”, a “lament for, and a celebration of, the Great British Pub”, from the BBC Culture Show programme, up on YouTube: you can find it here and, if you haven’t heard it yet, I feel confident in saying you’ll enjoy it greatly.

Duffy’s poem is a rare and brilliant exception to the general rule that poetry about pubs and beer is mostly pretty bad: Pete Brown commented in Hops and Glory that India Pale Ale in particular seemed to inspire Britons stationed out in Bengal, Calcutta or Madras to dreadful attempts at rhyme and metre. Here’s one I reproduce for its awfulness: it appears in the autobiography of a book by Harry Abbott, who was an officer in the Indian Army manager of an indigo factory in Bihar, north-east India in the last half of the 19th century, and, as it happens, grandson of a partner in Hodgson’s brewery, Edwin Abbott. This was “a song which used to be sung at many a pigstick party and race meeting in the thirties, forties and fifties”, that is, 1830s to 1850s:

‘Who has not tasted of Hodgson’s pale beer
With its flavour the finest that hops ever gave?
It drives away sadness, it banishes fear,
And imparts a glad feeling of joy to the grave.

Oh! to drink it at morning, when just from our bed
We rise unrefreshed, and to breakfast sit down,
The froth-crested brimmer we raise to our head,
And in swigging off Hodgson, our sorrows we drown.

Or to drink it at tiffin, when thirsty and warm,
We say to the khidmutgar*, “bring me some beer,”
Soon, soon do we feel its most magical charm,
And quickly the eatables all disappear.

Or at ev’ning, when home from our ride we return,
And jaded and weary we sit down to dine;
We ask but for Hodgson, and willingly spurn
The choicest the dearest the rarest of wine.

Then hail to thee Hodgson! of Brewers the head,
Thy loss we in India would sadly bewail;
May you live long and happy, and when you are dead,
1 will think of you daily whilst drinking your ale.

*Urdu for waiter

Beer for breakfast: it’s an interesting idea, but even in a hot climate I think I’ll stick to tea. Anyway, that was pretty rubbish – “And quickly the eatables all disappear” is especially vile. But to show it wasn’t just IPA that inspired crap verse, here’s a mid-19th century poem to porter, particularly Barclay Perkins’s porter from Southwark. The poem is called “Heavy Wet”, the nickname for porter among the working classes, and it appeared in a magazine called Bentley’s Miscellany in 1842. Actually, it’s so bad, I’m not going to give you all of it, just some edited lowlights.

O Heavy Wet! thine excellence
I sing, O Heavy Wet!
Nectar of man, who, having beer,
Need envy not Olympian cheer –
On thee my soul is set!

Let other British bacchanals
Imbibe the fuscous(1) stream,
Which Guinness from Eblana(2) sends
To Christendom’s remotest ends
Turban’d with mantling cream.

Or fraught with Oriental floods
Of Hodgson’s bitter brewin’
Of Burton, Edinbro’ or Crw(3),
Consign dull care and devils blue
To utter rout and ruin;

The fittest drink I stout maintain,
For coppers cool or hot,
Is porter – by the Thames’s side
From Barclay’s vasty vats supplied,
Pull’d from a pewter pot!

When noontide Phoebus(4) from my couch
Invites me to arouse,
Recruited by the balmy charms
Of genial Somnes’ downy arms
From yesternight’s carouse

No vile infusion of Cathay
I femininely sip,
With muffin, or if toast a bite,
No gas and water bottled tight
Pollutes my waking lip;

But rasher from the brawny thigh
Of porker deftly fried
Which Yorkshire unexceeded yields,
Or acorn-fed from forest-fields
Of Westphaly supplied

Whose savoury catabasis(5)
I momentar’ly cheer
With freshening streams (as summer rains
Invigorate the sitient(6) plains
Of Barclay’s blessed beer.

Oh Porter! stream of Paradise!
By thee to man is given
Delight more rare than bearded Turk,
When rushing to the deathful work,
Aspires to taste in Heaven.

Thy virtues on the moral frame,
And physical alike,
With influence beyond the power
Of fam’d Armida’s(7) fairy bower,
Do magically strike;

For whilst on pious votaries
They bounteously bestow
A prize far ‘bove
rouleaus(8) of wealth
Of muscular and lusty health
The ripe and ruddy glow, –

With like beneficence they shed
On th’ elevated mind,
From all anxiety secure,
“Making assurance doubly sure,”
Felicity refined.

Then let us sing God save the Queen!
And Barclay-Perkins eke,
And may we never know regret
For lack of pots of heavy wet
One day throughout the week.

(1) ‘Of a dark or sombre hue’ (2) An old name for Dublin (3) cwrw, the Welsh for beer (4) the sun (5) descent (6) thirsting (7) a mythical enchantress (8) rolls of coins

At least it’s trying to be funny, in an irritating Oxford-classics-graduate-showing-off way (which is why I’ve had to put in all the footnotes), but it goes on far too long: I’ve only reproduced half of it, and that’s too much. Here’s a tip: if you’re going to write rubbish rhymes, make ’em short.

8 thoughts on “Poems on beer, good and bad

    1. That’s a bit more like it, BN – sums up everything yer other man was trying to say, and we even get a shot of both a Burton beer and “the fuscous stream/Which Guinness from Eblana sends”, too.

  1. I love this poem!
    I wonder if anybody can help me find a good poem I heard years ago. It sounds like a poem of a lover sucked dry and tossed to the side, but is actually a poem about a beer bottle tossed aside after it is emptied. I remember a line something like “he sucked me dry, then tossed me aside, cold, lonely, an empty beer bottle”
    I haven’t been able to find it anywhere..:(

  2. E. Allan Poe – Lines on Ale 1848

    Fill with mingled cream and amber,
    I will drain that glass again.
    Such hilarious visions clamber
    Through the chamber of my brain

    Quaintest thoughts — queerest fancies
    Come to life and fade away;
    What care I how time advances?
    I am drinking ale today

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