Raise Your Glass! A Toast by W.B. Yeats

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I wanted to share a short poem and what makes it special, why it works as a poem and a toast. Along the way, I’ll talk a bit about punctuation and words, and why they are important to making language sing. This letter will cover three simple toasts, suitable for most occasions and easy to remember.

My new family welcomed me with a toast on my wedding day. The toast was a poem which was printed on a card and shared. Recently I resurrected it from my memory box and studied the syntax, the artful arrangement of words into sentences. Nearly twenty-five years later, I wanted to understand it better, how the punctuation makes the language work. I learned that the poem had a title which was not included on the card or mentioned at the wedding. And, that makes sense in hindsight.

 

A Drinking Song

          by William Butler Yeats

Wine comes in at the mouth

And love comes in at the eye;

That’s all we shall know for truth

Before we grow old and die.

I lift the glass to my mouth,

I look at you, and I sigh.

 

 

All together this simple poem has six lines of two sentences. The punctuation consists of one semicolon, two periods, and two commas. In order to understand it, I dissected the key elements.

The first four lines contain one sentence of two clauses, separated by a semicolon, the only punctuation. The semicolon is used for clauses which are closely related.

 

Wine comes in at the mouth and love comes in at the eye;

That’s all we shall know for truth before we grow old and die.

 

In this poem, the semicolon also forms a balanced sentence with parallel structure between the clauses: wine to the mouth and love to the eye, and what we know for truth before we grow old and die. Wine sustains the body and love sustains the spirit. Yeats is saying that these truths, in spite all that we’ve lived and experienced, are all we shall know for sure.

The semicolon—the winking eye part of the modern emoticon—is a period over a comma; as far as punctuation goes, it may be thought of as more than a comma and less than a period. That is, it lets the reader pause a bit longer than the comma and not quite as long as the period.  There are no commas in the first four lines. The words of both clauses move along smoothly before and after the semicolon pause.

The second or last sentence consists of two lines and uses commas to slow down the rhythm. It also puts the reader in the scene.

 

I lift the glass to my mouth,

I look at you, and I sigh.

 

The last three clauses are offset by commas and the reader or listener can see the poet. I see him lift the glass, I see him look at his lover or the object of his thoughts, and I see him sigh. The punctuation adds meaning, giving the words rhythm and grace. There is something implied and left to interpretation.

Has the poet forgone his love for his drink, as the title may suggest? Does the sigh have connotations of joy, a sense of fullness, sated from love, or one of sadness, regret, longing, maybe even a hint of relief? A sigh may indicate any of these. This is the beauty of the poem, that the reader doesn’t know.

 

A TOAST TO LOVE OR WINE

If reading this poem as a toast—at a wedding as I experienced—the tone and facial expression are important. You want to express joy, not regret or sadness. Also skip the title. Here it is one last time. Read aloud and listen to the phrasing and rhythm, created by the punctuation.

 

Wine comes in at the mouth

And love comes in at the eye;

That’s all we shall know for truth

Before we grow old and die.

I lift the glass to my mouth,

I look at you, and I sigh.

 

 

 

GENERAL TOAST

 

This toast is suitable for most occasions. The next two toasts come from the book by Paul Dickson, Toasts, Over 1,500 of the Best Toasts, Sentiments, Blessings, and Graces.

 

Here’s a toast to all who are here,

No matter where they’re from;

May the best day you have seen

Be worse than your worst to come.

 

The toast consists of four lines, one comma, one semicolon, and one period. It uses comparative and superlative adjectives. Dickson said the key to an effective toast is sincerity and preparation. It should elevate the mood in the room and it should also be brief. It’s important to speak clearly and articulate the words. In my experience, a good toast will leave the listener with a gift, what Dickson calls a verbal souvenir. I like this toast because you are left thinking about the words.

For the word brief, the comparative is briefer, and the superlative is briefest. Brief, briefer, briefest. In the poem, the comparative word is worse and the superlatives are best and worst. A comparative word compares only two things and the superlative word is used to compare three or more things.

The verbal souvenir from this toast is: it hopes that your best day ever is worse than the worst of all your future days. [Here it is again]

 

Here’s a toast to all who are here,

No matter where they’re from;

May the best day you have seen

Be worse than your worst to come.

 

 

TOAST AT A MEAL OR FEAST

And last, this is a good toast before a meal and one that is easy to remember.

 

To a full belly, a heavy purse, and a light heart.

 

The three phrases are a welcome rhythm to listeners. It opens in humor and ends with a gift.

I’ve never been a natural at impromptu toasts or speeches. The request to make a toast has happened to me and may likely happen to you. In such cases, it’s good to have two or three toasts in your repertoire, so maybe these will serve you well.

 

FUN FACTS  According to Paul Dickson, the toast should not exceed thirty seconds, a minute at most. The toastee or the person being toasted should NOT stand or drink to him- or herself. And, the toastee should respond appropriately with thanks in acknowledgement.

 

 Art of Toasting *

    1. Be prepared and keep the toast short.
    2. Be kind and sincere, and don’t try to be funny if you are not.
    3. Think of your toast as an important verbal souvenir.
    4. Stand (or sit) and deliver.
    5. End up.  (on a  positive note or ask audience to raise your glass)
    6. Clink before you drink.
    7. NEVERS (a list of things never to do — you’ll have to consult the book;-)
    8. Rule for the Toastee:  Respond to the toast appropriately.

*Highlights from chapter in Paul Dickson’s book, Toasts, Over 1,500 of the Best Toasts, Sentiments, Blessings, and Graces.

 

Jan 31, 2020

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About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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