Skip to main content
Select Source:



Food has been a topic of poetry for many centuries and in many cultures; the notion that food writing and poetry writing are totally separate ventures is a recent development. Much of our knowledge of eating habits, culinary practices, and food taboos throughout history and around the world comes from poetry. Food in poetry also functions as a powerful symbol of spiritual and moral states, and at other times it is used as a sexual symbol.

The Chinese have a long tradition of including food in poetry, going as far back as the Chou Dynasty (from the 12th century B.C.E. to 221 B.C.E.). There are Chou poems celebrating festive foods of the time, including stewed turtle, fried honey cakes, duck, quail, and good wine, and discussing the preparation of rice. The Shih Ching (Book of Songs) includes food scenes such as lamb sacrifice, in which the aroma of the roasting meat is described and fruit and wine are offered; verses on a feast of rabbit and plenty of wine; a song rejoicing in family togetherness at a feast including such meats as lamb, ox, and tripe, and an abundance of wine; agricultural songs celebrating wheat, millet, barley, plums, cherries, dates, melons, gourds, beans, garlic, and rice (from which wine is made). The culinary abundance of the T'ang Dynasty (618907) is strongly evident in its poetry, which contains paeans to plums, pears, persimmons, jujubes, many kinds of melons, spring wine, and peaches, which were a traditional symbol of immortality in Chinese poetry and painting. Poems were also forums for discussing differences between foods. For instance, the eighth-century poet Chang Chiu-ling used poetry to address the many ways in which lychees and longans are not similar fruits at all, despite their superficial similarities. Poems written during another prosperous period, the Ch'ing Dynasty (16441922), link food and sex, with female beauty and sexuality compared to melons, cherries, and grapes.

Food is also an important presence in classical Western poetry. Homer's Iliad and Odyssey are rich with scenes of feasting, as well as of ordinary eating. In a famous scene from the Odyssey, Odysseus and his crew, trying to return by sea to Ithaca, stop at an unknown land whose inhabitants, the Lotus Eaters, offer a lavish banquet to the three men who are sent to explore. The fruit (or the juice from the fruit) that the men consume gives them great pleasure and also makes them forget all thoughts of home and family so that the other crew members must drag them away by force. Homer also describes the feast of roast meat served to Odysseus by Achilles. The Greek poet Hesiod wrote about enjoying good wine with meat and bread. The Roman poet Martial wrote a great deal about foods, such as figs, olives, parsnips, chicken, fish, cheese, eggs, chives, shallots, and onions, to name a few. Virgil described milk and cheese in his Georgics, which celebrates the agricultural life and mourns the dissolution of Italy's farms after famers were sent to war. Ovid wrote about olives and grapes in the Amores. In Greek mythology, the six pomegranate seeds eaten by Perse-phone (daughter of Demeter, goddess of agriculture) in the underworld after her abduction by Hades, are the mythical reason for winter: For each seed consumed, Persephone must spend a month of the year in the underworld, causing her mother to grieve and neglect her work. The story of Persephone and the pomegranate seeds continues to influence contemporary writers. In her collection Mother Love, the American poet Rita Dove writes of a modern young woman's journey to Paris that parallels Persephone's descent into the underworld. Her meal at "the Bistro Styx" includes Chateaubriand, Camembert, pears, figs, parsley, bread, and Pinot Noir. A mourning modern Demeter has a Spartan breakfast of cereal and raisins and puts stones into it.

Roman poets, including Catullus, Horace, and Martial, also wrote dinner-invitation poems. In the invitation poem, the poet cajoles the addressee into coming for dinner. He may describe the foods that are going to be served, talk about the wine that is going to be poured, and describe the entertainments that will be offered. Invitation poems are not only a source of information on what the Romans ate, but also literary documents in themselves. This tradition did not end with the Roman Empire. In the style of the classical invitation poem, Ben Jonson's "Inviting a Friend to Supper" describes a meal of salad, mutton, fowl, cheese, fruit, pastry, and wine. Another, more extensive food catalogue occurs in Jonson's "To Penshurst," which includes pheasant, carp, eels, cherries, plums, figs, grapes, quinces, apricots, peaches, cake, nuts, apples, cheeses, pears, beer, bread, and wine.

In the medieval Arab world, among those with sufficient resources, poetry and food were enjoyed in tandem, in lavish fashion. At banquets given by the caliphs, poems naming each dishand recounting the spices and herbs used in its preparation, as well as the method of cookingwere recited during the dinners, so that the guests might savor the poetry along with the food.

There is food poetry in the Bible, as well. Throughout the Song of Solomon, the male and female narrators compare one another to fruits and other foods. The man's cheeks are compared to a "bed of spices"; the woman's breasts are described as "clusters of grapes" and her nose as smelling like apples. Figs, grapes, vines, and pomegranates are used to describe their love for each other. The apple tree, standing out among other trees, represents the beloved's standing out among men. Other foods mentioned in the exchange include honey, milk, saffron, and cinnamon.

Food is inherent to many traditional songs and poems of the Celtic world and in England. For instance, an Irish saying goes: "Rye bread will do you good, / Barley bread will do you no harm, / Wheat bread will sweeten your blood, / Oat bread will strengthen your arm." Early Celtic poems tell of affection for such foods as mushrooms, milk, and colcannon, the Irish dish of mashed potatoes with cabbage or kale. In England, a song once accompanied the churning of butter: "Come, butter, come, / Come, butter, come, / Peter stands at the gate / Waiting for a buttered cake, / Come, butter, come."

In the sonnets, Shakespeare invokes appetite and eating as metaphors for human behavior, beginning with images of famine and gluttony in Sonnet 1, "From fairest creatures we desire increase." In Sonnets 56 ("Sweet love, renew thy force") and 110 ("Alas! 'tis true, I have gone here and there"), appetite represents desire. In Sonnet 75, which opens with "So are you to my thoughts as food to life," appreciation of the beloved is compared to feasting, and the speaker without the beloved is "starvèd for a look." In Sonnet 52, infrequency of "feasts" gives them meaning, and in Sonnet 118, the eating of "eager compounds" and "bitter sauces" is contrasted with the sweetness of the beloved.

Jonathan Swift, whose concern with matters of hunger reached its most famous height with "A Modest Proposal," the essay in which he ironically suggests fighting hunger by eating children, saw fit to write poetry about onions, oysters, and fishmongers. Robert Burns's "Address to a Haggis" is traditionally recited with the serving of the Scottish dish. The English writer Sydney Smith composed recipes in verse, giving instructions for preparing salad dressing and roasting mutton, for instance.

In the twelfth-century Celtic poem "The Vision of Mac Conglinne," Mac Conglinne helps a king overcome his gluttony. The poem, delectable not only to poetry lovers but also to scholars of medieval Ireland, catalogues an outrageous abundance of foods, including salmon, kale, hazelnuts, sausages, bread, cheese, bacon, and especially milk, which is described as being so thick that it must be chewed.

Food in poetry sometimes carries moral significance. In an archetypal episode in Ovid's Metamorphoses, the poor couple Baucis and Philemon share their meager food supply with beggars, who turn out to be gods in disguise and reward the couple with abundance. The biblical story of Eve's eating of the forbidden fruit, said to be an apple but possibly a pomegranate, is portrayed as the first human sin and the reason for man's state of sin. The story of Eve's giving in to the tempting fruit also starts off John Milton's epic on the fall of mankind, Paradise Lost. In Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, food is an important element in maintaining the balance of bodily humors, and gluttony is addressed as one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Gluttony is severely punished in Dante's hell. And food taboos are part of the human struggle: In Byron's Don Juan, a starving crew of seamen resort to cannibalism, but only after a long and horrible effort to avoid it.

Food in poetry can have transformative, and sometimes destructive, powers. In the English epic Beowulf, feasting (which always involves plenty of drinking) is generally followed by sleep, which makes the men vulnerable to attacks by the monster Grendel, who feasts on men. (Feasts in Beowulf are also given to honor people, and are the backdrop against which many discussions and confrontations take place.) In Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Kubla Khan," the consumption of milk and honey is linked to an altered state of mind. John Keats paid close attention to food in his poems and letters; in his poem "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," the beautiful woman destroys a knight by feeding and seducing him. The food, like the sexual attraction, is central to his undoing.

Some poets invoke food to convey matters of the spirit. T. S. Eliot's question "Do I dare to eat a peach?" conveys the jaded frame of mind of the speaker of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Emily Dickinson uses hunger metaphorically; in the poem "Hunger," hunger and dining express loneliness and love. Another poem, "Forbidden Fruit," makes a pithy statement about human nature: "Forbidden fruit a flavor has / That lawful orchards mocks; How luscious lies the pea within / The pod that Duty locks!"

Some poets simply delight in the discussing of food. Pablo Neruda, in his Elemental Odes, writes about artichokes, lemons, and olive oil (and the use of the oil in mayonnaise and salad dressing). Ogden Nash has a book of light verse about food. D. H. Lawrence wrote poems entitled "Pomegranate," "Peach," "Medlars and Sorb-Apples," "Figs," and "Grapes." A. E. Housman celebrates the cherry tree in "Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now." William Carlos Williams's famous "This Is Just to Say" has immortalized some irresistible plums in an icebox; the savoring of plums occurs also in his "To a Poor Old Woman." The contemporary American poet Robert Hass weaves lush California cuisine into many poems.

Poetry and food may be coming back together, as they were in ancient times. Enough contemporary poets have written poems about food to fill a number of anthologies of food poems, including one devoted exclusively to poems about potatoes (Spud Songs, ed. Gloria Vando and Robert Stewart).

See also Bible, Food in the; Folklore, Food in; Myth and Legend, Food in .


Asala, Joanne. Celtic Folklore Cooking. St. Paul, Minn.: Llewellyn Press, 1998.

Chang, K. C. Food in Chinese Culture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.

Dalby, Andrew. Empire of Pleasures. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Furst, Lilian R., and Peter W. Graham, eds. Disorderly Eaters: Texts in Self-Empowerment. University Park, Penn.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992.

Gowers, Emily. The Loaded Table: Representations of Food in Roman Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Mahon, Brid. Land of Milk and Honey. Boulder, Colo.: Mercier Press, 1998.

Neruda, Pablo. Selected Poems. Translated by Ben Belitt. New York: Grove Press, 1961.

Root, Waverley. Food. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980. Reprint: New York: Smithmark, 1996.

Silverman, Jeff. The First Chapbook for Foodies. Emeryville, Calif.: Woodford Press, 2000.

Tannahill, Reay. Food in History. Great Britain: Penguin, 1973. Reprint: New York: Crown, 1988.

Visser, Margaret. Much Depends on Dinner. New York: Collier, 1986.

Waley, Arthur. The Book of Songs. New York: Grove Press, 1987.

Adrienne Su

Food in Ovid's Art of Love

The Roman love poetry of Ovid (43 b.c.e.17 c.e.) reminds us of the ways in which food can serve erotic or aphrodisiac purposes. He talks of signals exchanged between secret lovers across a dinner table, and of messages written with a finger in spilt wine. He imagines a rival carefully mixing wine for a girlfriend, selecting the tastiest morsels from a serving dish for her to enjoy (Ovid, Amores, book 1 poem 4, and book 2 poem 5; see Ovid, The Erotic Poems, translated by Peter Green, Harmondsworth and New York: Penguin, 1982).

Ovid makes fun of aphrodisiac foods in a tongue-in-cheek didactic poem on love and seduction, in which he conscientiously lists several of such foods that Romans believed to be effective:

Some old women will tell you to take dangerous herbs and salep (I judge these to be poisons), or they will mix for you pepper and stinging-nettle seed and pellitory chopped into vintage wine. But the Love Goddess . . . does not permit her pleasures to be forced in that way. You can try the white bulb that comes from Megara; try the lascivious rocket leaf grown in gardens; try eggs; try honey from Mount Hymettus; try the nuts that are found in prickly pine-tree cones (Ovid, Art of Love, book 2, lines 415424. Translation by Andrew Dalby).

Salep is the ground root of an orchid (Orchis mas and other species) that is familiar as a hot winter drink in Turkey and the Balkans. Pellitory-of-Spain or Spanish chamomile is an ancient medicinal herb (Anacyclus pyrethrum ). Rocket leaf (Oruca sativa ) is the spicey-leafed plant arugula. The grape-hyacinth bulb (Muscari comosum ), once a speciality of Megara in central Greece, is often served as an appetizer: it is known as volvi in modern Greek and lampascioni in Italian. Mount Hymettus, near Athens, is a source of fine honey.

Andrew Dalby

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Poetry." Encyclopedia of Food and Culture. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Poetry." Encyclopedia of Food and Culture. . (December 13, 2017).

"Poetry." Encyclopedia of Food and Culture. . Retrieved December 13, 2017 from


POETRY Literary composition in verse form. It is often the case that to discuss a piece of work as poetry implies evaluating its quality, while to discuss it as verse relates to technique used in creating it. The terms, however, are blurred: the phrase bad poetry may refer to technique and the phrase superb verse may imply poetic excellence. In general, however, verse is the basis that supports a structure of sufficient quality to be called a poem.

The poetic medium

Poetry need not be written: early poetry was oral, transmitted and preserved through the mnemonic and performative skills of bards with no awareness of script or print. The written code accommodates poetry and adds the aesthetic effect of lines grouped on a page, or even of poems shaped in a visual pattern, like George Herbert's ‘Easter Wings’. Other phonic features are added to the basic metrical pattern of verse, with or without rhyme. Thus, the sound of words may be directly onomatopoeic or may give a less overt effect of sound symbolism. Both are heard in Tennyson's ‘Come Down, O Maid’ (1847):
The moan of doves in immemorial elms And murmuring of innumerable bees.

Slow or rapid movement can be suggested by a deliberate pattern of sounds and syllables as in Alexander Pope's Essay on Criticism (1711):When Ajax strives some rock's vast weight to throw,
The line too labours, and the words move slow;
Not so, when swift Camilla scours the plain,
Files o'er th'unbending corn, and skims along the main.

Alliteration is not a part of most modern verse structure, but has a tradition dating back to Old English. Many poets have made it a feature for rhetoric or emphasis. Imagery in poetry conveys ideas obliquely, drawing from almost any area of human experience to create a response more effective than direct exposition. SHAKESPEARE makes frequent references to disease and corruption in Hamlet to suggest evil in the state of Denmark. In ‘Dover Beach’, Matthew Arnold likens his uncertainty and loss of faith to an ebbing tide. Images are often presented through figures of speech like simile and metaphor. These are also found in PROSE and to a lesser extent in everyday discourse. They are especially distinctive of poetry, however, because of their frequency and the stronger focus of attention given by verse forms.

The poetic message

The appeal of poetry is semantic as well as phonic. The poet has something to convey in language, which may range from the half-concealed situation in many of Shakespeare's sonnets, through Wordsworth's specific description and reflection of experience in ‘The Daffodils’, to the overt message of the ‘Song of the Shirt’ by Thomas Hood. In general, the poem gains by not being too explicit in its personal statement. The meanings and associations of a word may not be in harmony with its sound: although paraffin contains a pleasing phonemic sequence, it would not usually be regarded as a ‘poetic’ word; equilibrium refers to a good state of being but has not a traditional poetic sound. Polysemy, abundant in English, enriches poetic language, as when T. S. Eliot uses the theological and linguistic meanings of word to write of Christ in his nativity as:
The word within a word, unable to speak a word.

(‘ Gerontion’, 1920)

The pun is not currently in fashion for serious writing, but could once be used with telling effect:
Therefore I lie with her, and she with me, And in our faults by lies we flattered be.

( Shakespeare, Sonnet 138)

The language of poetry

Concentration of special linguistic effects in a regular pattern tends to produce artificial diction. Rigid conventions about poetic usage have been less powerful in English than in some languages, but there have been times when poets have moved away from the familiar and everyday: particularly so in the 18c, with circumlocutions like the finny tribe for fish and the bleating kind for sheep. New generations of poets often demand a return to ‘ordinary’ language, as Wordsworth led the Romantic reaction against 18c POETIC DICTION with a call for ‘a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation’. In the 1930s, the ‘New Country’ poets, such as W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and Cecil Day Lewis, wanted to write language that was accessible to ordinary people.

In the 20c, language has been accepted in poetry that would once have been considered too colloquial, commonplace, or even obscene, but this too can become mannered and removed from common usage. Poetry will always be to some extent artificial; selection and compression within the chosen form, even of free verse, distances the poem from daily usage. True poetry, however, is never entirely severed from the speaking voice; a certain latitude, however, sometimes called poetic licence, allows the poet to take liberties with language. In the classical set of genres, poetry was epic or lyric according to the degree in which the poet's direct voice was heard. Later theory has absorbed both genres under the general heading of poetry and added forms for specific purposes, such as elegy and pastoral. The frontier between poetry and prose is not always closely guarded or easy to delineate. If prose has a markedly high proportion of rhythm and other features associated with poetry, it is poetic prose or even prose poetry. An extended SIMILE with imagery and careful choice of words can give poetic quality to a passage in a novel, as:
Her words faded. So a rocket fades. Its sparks, having grazed their way into the night, surrender to it, dark descends, pours over the outlines of houses and towers; bleak hill-sides soften and fall in.

( Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, 1925)

Some of the highest literary uses of English have been in poetry. Poets have wanted not only to create beauty but also to express themselves memorably; the attitudes, fashions, and beliefs of many periods are made permanent in poetry. It appeals to the senses as well as the intellect. Of the two, sensory attraction is the more important; without emotive beauty, versified philosophy has little to recommend it. Although a relatively objective metalanguage can be devised to describe and discuss poetry, individual response to it is necessarily subjective. See ALLITERATION, ASSONANCE, BIBLE, BURNS, ENGLISH LITERATURE, LITERATURE, NONSENSE, RHYTHM, STRESS.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"POETRY." Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

"POETRY." Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. . (December 13, 2017).

"POETRY." Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. . Retrieved December 13, 2017 from


510. Poetry (See also Inspiration.)

  1. Bragi god of verse. [Norse Myth.: Parrinder, 50]
  2. Calliope Muse of epic poetry. [Gk. Myth.: Kravitz, 159]
  3. Castalia Parnassian fountain; endowed drinker with poetic creativity. [Gk. Myth.: LLEI, I: 325]
  4. Daphnis creator of bucolic poetry. [Gk. Myth.: Kravitz, 75]
  5. Erato Muse of love lyrics. [Gk. Myth.: Kravitz, 159]
  6. Euterpe Muse of lyric poetry. [Gk. Myth.: Kravitz, 159]
  7. Homer legendary author of the Iliad and the Odyssey. [Gk. Lit.: Benét, 474]
  8. Parnassus mountains sacred to Muses; hence, abode of poetry. [Gk. Myth.: Hall, 234]
  9. Pleiade, The 16th century poets sought to revitalize French literature. [Fr. Hist.: Benét, 795]
  10. Sappho (c. 620c. 565 B. C.) lyric poet sometimes called the tenth muse. [Gk. Lit.: Benét, 896897]
  11. White Goddess, the goddess of ancient fertility and the moon whose worship is claimed by Robert Graves to be the origin of poetry. [Br. Lit.: Benét, 1087]

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Poetry." Allusions--Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Poetry." Allusions--Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. . (December 13, 2017).

"Poetry." Allusions--Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. . Retrieved December 13, 2017 from


po·et·ry / ˈpōətrē; ˈpōitrē/ • n. literary work in which special intensity is given to the expression of feelings and ideas by the use of distinctive style and rhythm; poems collectively or as a genre of literature: he is chiefly famous for his love poetry. ∎  a quality of beauty and intensity of emotion regarded as characteristic of poems: poetry and fire are nicely balanced in the music. ∎  something regarded as comparable to poetry in its beauty: the music department is housed in a building that is pure poetry.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"poetry." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

"poetry." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . (December 13, 2017).

"poetry." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved December 13, 2017 from


poetry: For lyric poetry, see ballad; elegy; hymn; lyric; ode; pastoral; sonnet. For narrative poetry, see chansons de geste; epic; idyl; romance. Dramatic poetry is incidentally treated in the articles drama, Western; and tragedy. See also articles on individual poets and on various national literatures. For technical discussions of poetry, see free verse; pentameter; rhyme; versification.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"poetry." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

"poetry." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (December 13, 2017).

"poetry." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved December 13, 2017 from


poetry Literary medium that employs the line as its formal unit, and in which the sound, rhythm and meaning of words are all equally important. Until the modern introduction of the concept of free verse, poetry was characteristically written in regular lines with carefully structured metres, often with rhymes. See also literature; prose

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"poetry." World Encyclopedia. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

"poetry." World Encyclopedia. . (December 13, 2017).

"poetry." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved December 13, 2017 from


poetry •hara-kiri • ribaldry • chivalry • Tishri •figtree • wintry • poetry • casuistry •Babbittry • banditry • pedigree •punditry • verdigris • sophistry •porphyry • gadgetry • registry •Valkyrie •marquetry, parquetry •basketry • trinketry • daiquiri •coquetry, rocketry •circuitry • varletry • filigree •palmistry •biochemistry, chemistry, photochemistry •gimmickry, mimicry •asymmetry, symmetry •craniometry, geometry, micrometry, optometry, psychometry, pyrometry, sociometry, trigonometry •tenebrae • ministry • cabinetry •tapestry • carpentry • papistry •piripiri • puppetry •agroforestry, floristry, forestry •ancestry • corsetry • artistry •dentistry • Nyree • rivalry • pinetree

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"poetry." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

"poetry." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . (December 13, 2017).

"poetry." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Retrieved December 13, 2017 from