If old Bacchus were the speaker,
He would tell you, with a sigh,
Of the Cyprus in this beaker
I am sipping like a fly
“Wine of Cyprus” (1844)
Elizabeth Barrett Browning is sometimes best remembered for having run off to Italy with Robert Browning, the famous poet she had secretly married, but in her day she was renowned as a female poet of exceptional classical learning. Her “Wine of Cyprus" was a “proof of grateful regard” for Hugh Stuart Boyd, who encouraged her to study Greek like a man.
Boyd – an indifferent scholar – was married with a child by the time he met the poet, and blind. Undeterred, Barrett Browning developed a fervent crush on the much older man as they studied ancient Greek literature together. The infatuation did not last, but the friendship did.
Boyd gave the Cyprus wine of the poem’s title to Barrett Browning in 1844 (and on many subsequent occasions before she left England for Italy). Both Dr Francis Guy, of the Cyprus Wine Museum, and Stanna Wieclawska, author of "Stop Whining and Start Wining: A Wine Drinker's Guide to Cypriot Wine," believe the wine was commandaria – a fortified, darkly colored dessert wine.
In "Wine of Cyprus," drinking reminds Barrett Browning of studying with Boyd: “And I think of those long mornings … When, betwixt the folio’s turnings, / Solemn flowed the rhythmic Greek.”
The poet tactfully concludes by praising the wine for the memories that it evokes, without lauding its flavor: “So, to come back to the drinking / Of this Cyprus, – it is well, / But those memories, to my thinking, / Make a better oenomel” (an ancient Greek beverage of wine and honey).
This avoidance strategy is suggestive, and you can trace a rapid deterioration in Barrett Browning’s appreciation of the wine in her letters. Initially, she seems positively inebriated. On June 18, 1844, she writes to Boyd: “Thank you my very dear friend!! I write to you drunk with Cyprus! Nothing can be worthier of gods or demigods.” In her “intoxication,” she offers the “last drop” of wine to her beloved dog, Flush, who runs away in fright.
But a few weeks later, on August 6, she describes introducing her father to the wine: “He raised it to his lips, – &, after a moment, recoiled, with such a face as sinned against Adam’s image, & with a shudder of deep disgust – ‘Why,’ he said, ‘what most beastly & nauseous thing is this! Oh – he said ‘what detestable drug is this! Oh, oh,’ he said! I shall never, never get this horrible taste out of my mouth.’”
Barrett Browning’s respect for the wine subsequently plummets. In the following letters, she pleads with Boyd to send no more, and upbraids him when he does. Finally, on May 3 1845, she resorts to a franker approach: “I have been forced to leave it off as unfit for ME … it made me so feverish.”
Wieclawska attributes Barrett Browning’s reaction to the wine’s alcohol level.
“Drinking it, she would almost certainly feel feverish! It’s like drinking neat schnapps or vodka, but sweet, and going down very nicely," Wieclawska explains. "But it would certainly give her a bit of a blush of heat – it was very strong in those days!”
Undiluted commandaria would have been 28 percent abv in Victorian times – a stiff drink for a woman unused to wine, especially one of Barrett Browning’s tiny stature.
Despite its unwelcome effect, the gift expressed Boyd’s deep affection for Barrett Browning. Guy and Wieclawska agree that it would have been difficult to procure Cyprus wine in 1840's England, and expensive to boot. Commandaria was not exported at that time.
Cyprus was part of the Ottoman Empire and very little wine was made on the island. However, Cypriots of the Orthodox religion did produce some, partly because they continued to practise “their religion, quietly, and the wine that they were drinking at communion was commandaria," says Wieclawska.
The only way for an Englishman to get hold of commandaria was by traveling to Cyprus, purchasing it there and taking it home. Cyprus was a popular stopover for people traveling to the Holy Land or Egypt. Wieclawska reports that while on the island, “they would almost certainly try and get a barrel” to take back to England, where they would have it bottled.
However, in Barrett Browning's letters there is only one reference to Boyd having traveled in the vicinity. On March 1, 1845, referring to the publication of "Wine of Cyprus," she wrote: "The review amused me … by its percipiency about your remembering me during your travels in the east, and sending me home the Cyprus wine."
But this reads as ironic, and it certainly seems an unlikely thing for an elderly blind man to do. It may have been a friend of his, or a younger member of his family, who collected the wine, but we will probably never know, given that Boyd is rarely written about.
Boyd’s efforts in procuring the wine were not entirely unrewarded. Commandaria retained a special place in Barrett Browning’s life. Having married Robert Browning in a secret ceremony, she repaired immediately to Boyd’s and toasted the union with a glass of commandaria while she waited for her sisters (who knew nothing of the marriage).
And, once in Italy, she toasted her old friend with a glass of Cyprus. On May 26, 1847, she writes: “Robert & I drank your health two evenings ago in wine of Cyprus – It is good wine, brought straight from Cyprus … but for some reason or other I thought it inferior to yours – yes, certainly inferior!”
All quotes from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s letters are from "The Brownings’ Correspondence," edited by Philip Kelley and Ronald Hudson, Wedgestone Press, 1984.
The 7th Cyprus Wine Competition takes places from April 25-28th, 2012.