Umber Nectar

My recent musings on coffee, inspired by a line from T S Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, reminded me of a poem I wrote on the subject a few years ago.

Sonnet to Coffee (February 2009):

All hail to thee, thou umber nectar sweet!
Unmilked, thou art to me as very milk,
And needst no sugar for to make thee meet,
But art the very finest of thy ilk.
Each morning when I rise, thou wak’st me up
And helpst my sluggish brain once more to start.
Each evening I take comfort in thy cup
While thou dost warm my hands, my head, my heart.
In truth, thou art a mistress harsh and cruel
Who to thyself a slave dost of me make.
Thrice daily I submit me to thy rule,
For, should I not, my head begins to ache.
O, coffee, thou art both the best and worst,
And with thy kiss I am both blest and curst.

Although not, I think, the original conscious intention, the use of the old-style language does help keep the tone of the poem light despite the fact that it is essentially about the subject of addiction.

Trying to cast my mind back to the thought processes involved in writing a poem nearly 5 years ago is hard work, even fortified by the cup of coffee I’ve just finished, but I think the initial impetus to write it came from the epithet “umber nectar” to describe coffee, which sprang unbidden into my head (doubtless while I was drinking a cup of the same – or possibly when I was painting a picture of one; in case you’re unfamiliar with paint colours, burnt umber is a shade of dark brown quite similar to the colour of black coffee).

Having come up with “umber nectar” and thinking it was a suitably poetic turn of phrase, I quickly decided to write a poem in praise of my favourite hot beverage.  The line “(All) hail to thee, thou umber nectar sweet” followed fairly quickly, as I recall, and because that sounded faintly Shakespearean I decided to aim for a sonnet and use vaguely archaic sounding language throughout (although there’s certainly nothing intrinsic in the sonnet form that requires it).   The poem grew more-or-less organically from beginning to end, as do most of my poems, and I didn’t have a clear end point in mind when I started it.  According to my old notebooks, I nearly finished a first draft, then scrapped it and started again once I realised it wasn’t in iambic pentameter (the standard meter for a sonnet, at least of the Shakespearean variety).  The rather abrupt switch from effusive praise to acknowledgement of the dangers of caffeine was beginning to take shape in the earlier version, although I didn’t get as far as the final couplet which brings the two strands together.

I mentioned earlier the possibility that the “umber nectar” idea came while I was painting.  I have, as I recall, painted two coffee-related pictures (both, as it happens, using the same mug as a model) and, looking back at them, the dates make it unlikely that either was the direct source of the inspiration as one was completed several years before the poem and one a few months afterwards.

You can follow the links (by clicking on the pictures) to see bigger images of these paintings on my Flickr page, and read the captions and comments if you want more information about them.

The first, from February 2003, is entitled Theorem Machine:

Theorem machine

This was probably hanging on my wall (as it is now) when I wrote the poem and may well have inspired (or helped to inspire) the poem even though I didn’t come up with the name when I was painting it (or at least, I don’t recall having held on to the “umber nectar” idea for 6 years – or even 6 hours – before turning it into a poem).

The second painting, from September 2009, is entitled Coffee Things:

Coffee Things

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2 Comments

  1. Finally got round to printing the Sonnet out for the coffee room wall – most splendid! Phil

    Reply
    • Does this mean I can now consider myself a published poet?

      I’m glad you like it and I trust it will amuse your colleagues too.

      Reply

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