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Homebound on Whitman’s Open Road

Winter kept us warm . . .
T. S. Eliot

I’m writing this on National Beer Day in the United States, where we’re also celebrating National Poetry Month. So it’s a good time to catch up with the fifth Whitman tribute from Bell’s Brewery, Song of the Open Road. In these quarantine times when we’ve got time on our hands, a slow-sipping Winter Warmer Ale resets our internal clocks to the pre-pandemic season. This American beer brings an Old World heartiness to your home through its rich mix of textures and flavors. As Whitman intones in its namesake poem: Here is adhesiveness, it is not previously fashion’d, it is apropos.

In The Oxford Companion to Beer, Martyn Cornell reminds us that while winter warmers and other strong winter ales aren’t beer per se, their longevity proves “as old as brewing in Northern Europe itself.” Before Whitman’s time British versions would top tankards with spiced toast. Bell’s Brewery nods to this tradition in their label for Song of the Open Road, touting its “notes of baked bread” blended with brown sugar. The American craft beer revival has brought such seasonal ales back to our homes, hopping up the brewing process while keeping the traditional dark malt profile.

I’ll confess that I wasn’t expecting the flavors I found when I first traveled Bell’s Song of the Open Road. Neither smooth nor bracing, this toffee-colored brew tasted much stronger than its aroma. The tiny bubbles and fine carbonation are akin to tripels. But the closest concoction I’ve tasted was my first barley wine, another old ale that pushes beer toward the full-bodied mouthfeel of wine and some whiskeys. The beer spreads heavy dark malts across your mid-tongue with a caramelized sweetness that’s not too sweet (I’d place it closer to molasses than to honey). There’s a pause between these tastes and the lighter, slightly bitter finish that has a hint of fizziness. This beer makes you slow down and take your time with it. The flavors come out even more as Song of the Open Road approaches room temperature.

We’re in our rooms more these days, so I find it paradoxical to return to Whitman’s Song of the Open Road. Originally titled “Poem of the Road,” it traveled to the 1867 and 1881 editions of Leaves of Grass. Like Whitman’s Song of Myself, this expansive poem rejects all manner of containment:

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.

Indeed, the poem commands us to forsake indoor pleasures and go outside, as if prophesying our hunkering down with electronic devices:

Whoever you are, come forth! or man or woman come forth!
You must not stay sleeping and dallying there in the house, though you built it, or though it has been built for you.
Out of the dark confinement! out from behind the screen!

Whitman’s open road even takes a cosmic turn, becoming a conduit for the procession of souls along the grand roads of the universe as it moves us forever alive, forever forward. For now, we should shelter in place. But we can shelter there with a beer as unfiltered and unabashed as the poem it celebrates. Good through December, Song of the Open Road can warm us throughout this year.

MARSHA BRYANT writes about modernism, poetry, women's writing, popular culture, and pedagogy. Her recent essays have appeared in Feminist Modernist Studies, The Classics in Modernist Translation, and The Conversation. Bryant is Associate Editor of Contemporary Women's Writing, and Professor of English & Distinguished Teaching Scholar at the University of Florida.

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