In Elizabethan England the prize wine on the market was Malmsey, a fortified wine from the Canary Islands in Spain. It is a wine celebrated in the writings of Shakespeare. Indeed the popularity of the sweet white fortified wine predates Elizabeth’s reign. The Duke of Clarence, brother to Edward IV, was killed by being drowned in a barrel of Malmsey in 1478 during the wars of the Roses.
Made from the Malvasia grape, thought to have originated in Greece, the vines thrived on the volcanic soils of the Canary Islands. In those days only a fortified wine could survive the long sea voyage from Spain to Britain. Indeed prolonged maturation in the cask on board ships at sea actually improved the quality of these wines.
In Shakespeare there are multiple references to “Sack” and “Sweet Sack”. These are the sweet fortified whites that were popular. Some from Jerez, but the best from the Canaries. The name “sack” causes some confusion as the French term “sec” means dry, but these wines are clearly sweet. It appears to be a derivation from “sacas” a Spanish word used in past times to refer to exports.
The Poet Laureate of England in 1630, Ben Johnson, petitioned for the salary of the post to be raised. His wish was granted and a tierce of Canary was added for good measure. A tierce was a large barrel, equivalent to 42 Imperial Gallons or just about half a standard modern bottle of wine per day for the year. Just the right amount to lubricate the pen of a good poet.
The supply of this vintage ran into difficulty in 1666 when the Canary Islanders rebelled against the London based Canary Island Company and smashed all their wine casks, so that the streets flowed with wine. The British company responded by banning imports from the Canaries and moving production to Madeira.
The tierce of Canary became a tierce of Madeira until the appointment of Henry James Pye to the post in the 1790’s. Pye was appointed for political and not poetic reasons. His work was scorned in his own lifetime and ever since. The barrel of wine was converted into a stipend of cash, probably because he was suffering under a weight of debt. Pye received €27 a year to churn out bad doggerel.
But how bad can his poetry be? Oh let me promise you it is execrable. What is worse is that it is mostly interminably long. It reminds me of the Woody Allen joke about the 2 Jewish women in a holiday resort in the Catskills.
Woman 1: The food this year, it’s not so good.
Woman 2: And the portions, so small.
If you are going to serve bad fare, at least make the portions mercifully small. So here is a small portion of the work of Henry James Pye, the worst English Poet Laureate, born this day in 1745. Read it and weep.
The Snow-drop; by Henry James Pye
Hail earliest of the opening flowers!
Fair Harbinger of vernal hours!
Who dar’st unveil each silken fold
ere Sol dispels the wintry cold,
and with thy silver leaves display’d
spread lustre through the dreary glade.
What though no frgarance like the rose
tincturing the Zephyr as it blows,
thy humble flowers from earth exhale
to scent the pinions of the gale;
What though no hues of gaudy dye
strike with their dazzling charms the eye,
nor does thy sober foliage shew
each blended tint of Iris’ bow;
Yet in thy meek unsullied grace
imagination’s eye shall trace
the glowing blossoms that appear
proudly to paint the vernal year,
and smiling Maia’s blushing dyes,
and jocund Summer’s cloudless skies,
and Autumn’s labors which succeed
to bid the purple vintage bleed,
our hopes anticipating see
led on in radiant train by thee.