Points of friction/The Strayed Prohibitionist


The Strayed Prohibitionist


THE image of the prohibition-bred American youth (not this generation, but the next) straying through the wine-drenched and ale-drenched pages of English literature captivates the fancy. The classics, to be sure, are equally bibulous; but with the classics the American youth has no concern. The advance guard of educators are busy clearing away the débris of Greek and Latin which has hitherto clogged his path. There is no danger of his learning from Homer that "Generous wine gives strength to toiling men," or from Socrates that "The potter's art begins with the wine jar," or from the ever-scandalous Horace that "Wine is mighty to inspire hope, and to drown the bitterness of care." The professor has conspired with the prohibitionist to save the undergraduate from such disedifying sentiments.

As for the Bible, where corn and oil and wine, the three fruits of a bountiful harvest, are represented as of equal virtue, it will probably be needful to supply such texts with explanatory and apologetic footnotes. The sweet and sober counsel of Ecclesiastes: "Forsake not an old friend, for the new will not be like to him. A new friend is as new wine; it shall grow old, and thou shalt drink it with pleasure," has made its way into the heart of humanity, and has been embedded in the poetry of every land. But now, like the most lovely story of the marriage feast at Cana, it has been robbed of the simplicity of its appeal. I heard a sermon preached upon the marriage feast which ignored the miracle altogether. The preacher dwelt upon the dignity and responsibility of the married state, reprobated divorce, and urged parents to send their children to Sunday school. It was a perfectly good sermon, filled with perfectly sound exhortations; but the speaker "strayed." Sunday schools were not uppermost in the holy Mother's mind when she perceived and pitied the humiliation of her friends.

The banishing of the classics, the careful editing of the Scriptures, and the comprehensive ignorance of foreign languages and letters which distinguishes the young American, leaves only the field of British and domestic literature to enlighten or bewilder him. Now New England began to print books about the time that men grew restive as to the definition of temperance. Longfellow wrote a "Drinking Song" to water, which achieved humour without aspiring to it, and Dr. Holmes wrote a teetotaller's adaptation of a drinking song, which aspired to humour without achieving it. As a matter of fact, no drinking songs, not even the real ones and the good ones which sparkle in Scotch and English verse, have any illustrative value. They come under the head of special pleading, and are apt to be a bit defiant. In them, as in the temperance lecture, "that good sister of common life, the vine," becomes an exotic, desirable or reprehensible according to the point of view, but never simple and inevitable, like the olive-tree and the sheaves of corn.

American letters, coming late in the day, are virgin of wine. There have been books, like Jack London's "John Barleycorn," written in the cause of temperance; there have been pleasant trifles, like Dr. Weir Mitchell's "Madeira Party," written to commemorate certain dignified convivialities which even then were passing silently away; and there have been chance allusions, like Mr. Dooley's vindication of whisky from the charge of being food: "I wudden't insult it be placin' it on the same low plain as a lobster salad"; and his loving recollection of his friend Schwartzmeister's cocktail, which was of such generous proportions that it "needed only a few noodles to look like a biled dinner." But it is safe to say that there is more drinking in "Pickwick Papers" than in a library of American novels. It is drinking without bravado, without reproach, without justification. For natural treatment of a debatable theme, Dickens stands unrivalled among novelists.

We are told that the importunate virtue of our neighbours, having broken one set of sympathies and understandings, will in time deprive us of meaner indulgences, such as tobacco, tea, and coffee. But tobacco, tea, and coffee, though friendly and compassionate to men, are late-comers and district-dwellers. They do not belong to the stately procession of the ages, like the wine which Noah and Alexander and Cæsar and Praxiteles and Plato and Lord Kitchener drank. When the Elgin marbles were set high over the Parthenon, when the Cathedral of Chartres grew into beauty, when "Hamlet" was first played at the Globe Theatre, men lived merrily and wisely without tobacco, tea, and coffee, but not without wine. Tobacco was given by the savage to the civilized world. It has an accidental quality which adds to its charm, but which promises consolation when those who are better than we want to be have taken it away from us. "I can understand," muses Dr. Mitchell, "the discovery of America, and the invention of printing; but what human want, what instinct, led up to tobacco? Imagine intuitive genius capturing this noble idea from the odours of a prairie fire!"

Charles Lamb pleaded that tobacco was at worst only a "white devil." But it was a persecuted little devil which for years suffered shameful indignities. We have Mr. Henry Adams's word for it that, as late as 1862, Englishmen were not expected to smoke in the house. They went out of doors or to the stables. Only a licensed libertine like Monckton Milnes permitted his guests to smoke in their rooms. Half a century later, Mr. Rupert Brooke, watching a designer in the advertising department of a New York store making "Matisse-like illustrations to some notes on summer suitings," was told by the superintendent that the firm gave a "free hand" to its artists, "except for nudes, improprieties, and figures of people smoking." To these last, some customers—even customers of the sex presumably interested in summer suitings—"strongly objected."

The new school of English fiction which centres about the tea-table, and in which, as in the land of the lotus-eaters, it is always afternoon, affords an arena for conversation and an easily procurable atmosphere. England is the second home of tea. She waited centuries, kettle on hob and cat purring expectantly by the fire, for the coming of that sweet boon, and she welcomed it with the generous warmth of wisdom. No duties daunted her. No price was too high for her to pay. No risk was too great to keep her from smuggling the "China drink." No hearth was too humble to covet it, and the homeless brewed it by the roadside. Isopel Berners, that peerless and heroic tramp, paid ten shillings a pound for her tea; and when she lit her fire in the Dingle, comfort enveloped Lavengro, and he tasted the delights of domesticity.

But though England will doubtless fight like a lion for her tea, as for her cakes and ale, when bidden to purify herself of these indulgences, yet it is the ale, and not the tea, which has coloured her masterful literature. There are phrases so inevitable that they defy monotony. Such are the "wine-dark sea" of Greece, and the "nut-brown ale" of England. Even Lavengro, though he shared Isopel's tea, gave ale, "the true and proper drink of Englishmen," to the wandering tinker and his family. How else, he asks, could he have befriended these wretched folk? "There is a time for cold water" [this is a generous admission on the writer's part], "there is a time for strong meat, there is a time for advice, and there is a time for ale; and I have generally found that the time for advice is after a cup of ale."

"Lavengro" has been called the epic of ale; but Borrow was no English rustic, content with the buxom charms of malt, and never glancing over her fat shoulder to wilder, gayer loves. He was an accomplished wanderer, at home with all men and with all liquor. He could order claret like a lord, to impress the supercilious waiter in a London inn. He could drink Madeira with the old gentleman who counselled the study of Arabic, and the sweet wine of Cypress with the Armenian who poured it from a silver flask into a silver cup, though there was nothing better to eat with it than dry bread. When, harried by the spirit of militant Protestantism, he peddled his Bibles through Spain, he dined with the courteous Spanish and Portuguese Gipsies, and found that while bread and cheese and olives comprised their food, there was always a leathern bottle of good white wine to give zest and spirit to the meal. He offered his brandy-flask to a Genoese sailor, who emptied it, choking horribly, at a draught, so as to leave no drop for a shivering Jew who stood by, hoping for a turn. Rather than see the Christian cavalier's spirits poured down a Jewish throat, explained the old boatman piously, he would have suffocated.

Englishmen drank malt liquor long before they tasted sack or canary. The ale-houses of the eighth century bear a respectable tradition of antiquity, until we remember that Egyptians were brewing barley beer four thousand years ago, and that Herodotus ascribes its invention to the ingenuity and benevolence of Isis. Thirteen hundred years before Christ, in the time of Seti I, an Egyptian gentleman complimented Isis by drinking so deeply of her brew that he forgot the seriousness of life, and we have to-day the record of his unseemly gaiety. Xenophon, with notable lack of enthusiasm, describes the barley beer of Armenia as a powerful beverage, "agreeable to those who were used to it"; and adds that it was drunk out of a common vessel through hollow reeds,—a commendable sanitary precaution.

In Thomas Hardy's story, "The Shepherd's Christening," there is a rare tribute paid to mead, that glorious intoxicant which our strong-headed, stout-hearted progenitors drank unscathed. The traditional "heather ale" of the Picts, the secret of which died with the race, was a glorified mead.

"Fra' the bonny bells o' heather
They brewed a drink lang-syne,
'T was sweeter far than honey,
'T was stronger far than wine."

The story goes that, after the bloody victory of the Scots under Kenneth MacAlpine, in 860, only two Picts who knew the secret of the brew survived the general slaughter. Some say they were father and son, some say they were master and man. When they were offered their lives in exchange for the recipe, the older captive said he dared not reveal it while the younger lived, lest he be slain in revenge. So the Scots tossed the lad into the sea, and waited expectantly. Then the last of the Picts cried, "I only know!" and leaped into the ocean and was drowned. It is a brave tale. One wonders if a man would die to save the secret of making milk-toast.

From the pages of history the prohibition-bred youth may glean much offhand information about the wine which the wide world made and drank at every stage of civilization and decay. If, after the fashion of his kind, he eschews history, there are left to him encyclopædias, with their wealth of detail, and their paucity of intrinsic realities. Antiquarians also may be trusted to supply a certain number of papers on "leather drinking-vessels," and "toasts of the old Scottish gentry." But if the youth be one who browses untethered in the lush fields of English literature, taking prose and verse, fiction and fact, as he strays merrily along, what will he make of the hilarious company in which he finds himself? What of Falstaff, and the rascal, Autolycus, and of Sir Toby Belch, who propounded the fatal query which has been answered in 1919? What of Herrick's "joy-sops," and "capring wine," and that simple and sincere "Thanksgiving" hymn which takes cognizance of all mercies?

"Lord, I confess too, when I dine,
The pulse is thine.
The worts, the purslane, and the mess
Of water-cress.
'T is Thou that crown'st my glittering hearth
With guiltless mirth,
And giv'st me wassail bowls to drink,
Spiced to the brink."

The lines sound like an echo of Saint Chrysostom's wise warning, spoken twelve hundred years before: "Wine is for mirth, and not for madness."

Biographies, autobiographies, memoirs, diaries, all are set with traps for the unwary, and all are alike unconscious of offence. Here is Dr. Johnson, whose name alone is a tonic for the morally debilitated, saying things about claret, port, and brandy which bring a blush to the cheek of temperance. Here is Scott, that "great good man" and true lover of his kind, telling a story about a keg of whisky and a Liddesdale farmer which one hardly dares to allude to, and certainly dares not repeat. Here is Charles Lamb, that "frail good man," drinking more than is good for him; and here is Henry Crabb Robinson, a blameless, disillusioned, prudent sort of person, expressing actual regret when Lamb ceases to drink. "His change of habit, though it on the whole improves his health, yet, when he is low-spirited, leaves him without a remedy or relief."

John Evelyn and Mr. Pepys witnessed the blessed Restoration, when England went mad with joy, and the fountains of London ran wine.

"A very merry, dancing, drinking,
Laughing, quaffing, and unthinking"

time it was, until the gilt began to wear off the gingerbread. But Evelyn, though he feasted as became a loyal gentleman, and admitted that canary carried to the West Indies and back for the good of its health was "incomparably fine," yet followed Saint Chrysostom's counsel. He drank, and compelled his household to drink, with sobriety. There is real annoyance expressed in the diary when he visits a hospitable neighbour, and his coachman is so well entertained in the servants' hall that he falls drunk from the box, and cannot pick himself up again.

Poor Mr. Pepys was ill fitted by a churlish fate for the simple pleasures that he craved. To him, as to many another Englishman, wine was precious only because it promoted lively conversation. His "debauches" (it pleased him to use that ominous word) were very modest ones, for he was at all times prudent in his expenditures. But claret gave him a headache, and Burgundy gave him the stone, and late suppers, even of bread and butter and botargo, gave him indigestion. Therefore he was always renouncing the alleviations of life, only to be lured back by his incorrigible love of companionship. There is a serio-comic quality in his story of the two bottles of wine he sent for to give zest to his cousin Angier's supper at the Rose Tavern, and which were speedily emptied by his cousin Angier's friends: "And I had not the wit to let them know at table that it was I who paid for them, and so I lost my thanks."

If the young prohibitionist be light-hearted enough to read Dickens, or imaginative enough to read Scott, or sardonic enough to read Thackeray, he will find everybody engaged in the great business of eating and drinking. It crowds love-making into a corner, being, indeed, a pleasure which survives all tender dalliance, and restores to the human mind sanity and content. I am convinced that if Mr. Galsworthy's characters ate and drank more, they would be less obsessed by sex, and I wish they would try dining as a restorative.

The older novelists recognized this most expressive form of realism, and knew that, to be accurate, they must project their minds into the minds of their characters. It is because of their sympathy and sincerity that we recall old Osborne's eight-shilling Madeira, and Lord Steyne's White Hermitage, which Becky gave to Sir Pitt, and the brandy-bottle clinking under her bedclothes, and the runlet of canary which the Holy Clerk of Copmanhurst found secreted conveniently in his cell, and the choice purl which Dick Swiveller and the Marchioness drank in Miss Sally Brass's kitchen. We hear Warrington's great voice calling for beer, we smell the fragrant fumes of burning rum and lemon-peel when Mr. Micawber brews punch, we see the foam on the "Genuine Stunning" which the child David calls for at the public house. No writer except Peacock treats his characters, high and low, as royally as does Dickens; and Peacock, although British publishers keep issuing his novels in new and charming editions, is little read on this side of the sea. Moreover, he is an advocate of strong drink, which is very reprehensible, and deprives him of candour as completely as if he had been a teetotaller. We feel and resent the bias of his mind; and although he describes with humour that pleasant middle period, "after the Jacquerie were down, and before the march of mind was up," yet the only one of his stories which is innocent of speciousness is "The Misfortunes of Elphin."

Now to the logically minded "The Misfortunes of Elphin" Is a temperance tract. The disaster which ruins the countryside is the result of shameful drunkenness. The reproaches levelled by Prince Elphin at Seithenyn ap Seithyn are sterner and more deeply deserved than the reproaches levelled by King Henry at Falstaff; yet the tale rocks and reels with Seithenyn's potations. There are drunkards whom we can conceive of as sober, but he is not one of them. There are sinners who can be punished or pardoned, but he is not one of them. As he is incapable of reform, so is he immune from retribution. Out of the dregs of his folly ooze the slow words of his wisdom. Nature befriends him because he is a natural force, and man submits to him because he is fulfilling his natural election. The good and the wicked fret about him, and grow old in the troublesome process; but he remains unchangeably, immutably drunk. "Wine is my medicine," he says with large simplicity, "and my measure is a little more."

If ever the young prohibitionist strays into the wine-cellar of Seithenyn ap Seithyn, he will have a shell-shock. It may even be that his presence will sour the casks, as the presence of a woman is reputed to sour the casks in the great caves of the Gironde, where wine ripens slowly, acquiring merit in silence and seclusion like a Buddhist saint, and as sensitive as a Buddhist saint to the perilous proximity of the feminine. This ancient and reasonable tradition is but one phase of the ancient and reasonable hostility between intoxicants and the sober sex, which dates perhaps from the time when Roman women were forbidden to taste their husbands' wine, but were fed on sweet syrups, like warm soda-fountain beverages, to the ruin of their health and spirits. Small wonder if they handed down to their great-grand-daughters a legitimate antagonism to pleasures they were not permitted to share, and if their remote descendants still cherish a dim, resentful consciousness of hurt. It was the lurking ghost of a dead tyranny which impelled an American woman to write to President Roosevelt, reproving him for having proposed a toast to Mr. John Hay's daughter on her wedding-day. "Think," she said, "of the effect on your friends, on your children, on your immortal soul, of such a thoughtless act."

Nomadic tribes—the vigilant ones who looked well ahead—wisely forbade the cultivation of the vine. Their leaders knew that if men made wine, they would want to stay at home and drink it. The prohibition-bred youth, if he is to remain faithful to the customs of his people, had better not cultivate too sedulously the great literature, smelling of hop-fields, and saturated with the juice of the grape. Every step of the way is distracting and dangerous. When I was a school-girl I was authoritatively bidden—only authority could have impelled me—to strengthen my errant mind by reading the "Areopagitica." There I found this amazing sentence: "They are not skilful considerers of human things who imagine to remove sin by removing the matter of sin."

But then Milton wrote "L'Allegro."