Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 454

“The Wine Menagerie” shows how creative genius necessarily dissolves into fear when it is contaminated by the effects of alcohol. To put it another way, the poem demonstrates how alcohol fails dismally in powering the creative process. As such, it is a remarkable description of the insanity of chronic drunkenness and how that drunkenness is controlled by an element of trickery and illusions of grandeur. The poet does not simply perceive his world from a weird perspective; he is enveloped by it and condemned to wander among the lowest common denominator of humanity and alcoholic degradation—a grimy saloon of dissipation, fraudulent perceptions, and broken relationships.

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Fear is the poet’s insatiable companion, and it is pervasive to the degree that it colors his every perception and misperception. He makes no distinction between delusion and reality; because of his self-involvement and narcissism, he becomes enveloped in a terrifying drama in which he becomes the axis of a self-created world gone mad. He does not achieve an intensified and clarified vision, as he seems to hope; rather, his perceptions are dulled, and his metaphorical juxtaposition of opposites becomes absurd and fatalistic. He elevates the trivial into the extravagant, mistaking pretentious drivel for linguistic elegance. The wine is not so much redemptive as it is reductive, reflecting the poet’s all-consuming self-obsession and his alcoholic imprisonment in the very bottles that he hopes will provide creative release. Although the poet has tried to generate something profound, he is by the very nature of his experience conscripted to mediocrity. His mind jumps from one absurdity to another; while he seeks a new identity, he remains confused and restricted by his alcoholic confusion. When the caricatures in the saloon mutate into grotesques, they amplify his paranoid isolation from himself and hence from other human companionship.

“The Wine Menagerie” shows that alcohol is not the father of insight. Alcohol provides no profound metamorphosis into creative genius or extra-logical truth. Instead, Crane admits that he is both imprisoned and strained by inflated emotions and by an extreme of drunkenness that can only lead to collapse. Ultimately, he is compelled to flee the debris of the speakeasy and its ugly apparitions. The poem is a remarkable portrait of the confusion, the narcissistic depression, the insanity, and the self-deception characteristic of the alcoholic perspective. As such, it is astonishing in its accuracy, as it demonstrates how a wine-soaked attempt at illumination and self-transcendence can become overcharged and lead to disorientation. The allure of loneliness, the intolerable soul sickness, and the hunger to translate insanity and unintelligible drivel into art are molded into a senseless yet stunningly accurate portrait of the irrational priesthood of an alcoholic writer who wavers between terror and self-sufficiency.

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