A delicate subject? Very true; and one which must be handled as tenderly as biscuit de Sevres, or Venetian glass. Whichever side of the question we may assume, as the most popular, or the most right, the feelings of so large and respectable a minority are to be consulted, that it behooves the critic or reviewer to move cautiously, and, imitating the actions of a certain feline household reformer, to show only the patte de velours.
The omniscient Burton seems to have reached the pith of the matter. The two hostile sections of his proposition, though written so long since, would very well fit the smoker and the reformer of to-day. That portion of the world which is enough advanced to advocate reforms is entirely divided against itself on the subject of Tobacco. Immense interests, economical, social, and, as some conceive, moral are arrayed on either side. The reformers have hitherto had the better of it in point of argument, and have pushed the attack with most vigor, yet with but trifling results. Smokers and chewers, et id omne genus, mollified by their habits, or laboring under guilty consciences, have made but a feeble defence. Nor in all this is there anything new. It is as old as the knowledge of the "weed" among thinking men,—in other words, about three centuries. The English adventurers under Drake and Raliegh and Hawkins, and the multitude of minor Protestant "filibusters" who followed in their train, had no sooner imported the habit of smoking tobacco, among the other outlandish customs which they brought home from the new Indies and the Spanish Main, than the higher powers rebuked the practice, which novelty and its own fascinations were rendering so fashionable, in language more forcible than elegant. The philippic of King James is so apposite that we may be pardoned for transcribing one oft-quoted sentence:—"herein is not only a great vanity, but a great contempt of God's good gifts, that the sweetness of man's breath, being a good gift of God, should be wilfully corrupted by this stinking smoke.....A custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmfull to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and in the black stinking fume thereof neerest resembling the horrible Stygian smoake of the pit that is bottomless."
The Popes Urban VIII and Innocent XII fulminated edicts of excommunication against all who used tobacco in any form; from which we may conclude that the new habit was spreading rapidly over Christendom. And not only the successors of St. Peter, but those also of the Prophet, denounced the practice, the Sultan Amurath IV making it punishable with death. The Viziers of Turkey spitted the noses of smokers with their own pipes; the more considerate Shah of Persia cut them entirely off. The knout greeted in Russia the first indulgence, and death followed the second offence. In some of the Swiss cantons smoking was considered a crime second only to adultery. Modern republics are not quite so severe.
It is not to be supposed that in England the royal pamphlet had its desired effect. For we find that James laid many rigid sumptuary restrictions upon the practice which he abominated, based chiefly upon the extravagance it occasioned,—the expenses of some smokers being estimated at several hundred pounds a year. The King, however, had the sagacity to secure a preemption-right as early as 1620.
Yet how could the practice but have increased, when, as Malcolm relates the tradition, such men as Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Hugh Middleton sat smoking at their doors?—for "the public manner in which it was exhibited, and the aromatic flavor inhaled by the passengers, exclusive of the singularity of the circumstance and the eminence of the parties," could hardly have failed to favor its dissemination.
The silver-tongued Joshua Sylvester hoped to aid the royal cause by writing a poem entitled, "Tobacco battered, and the pipes shattered, (about their ears who idly idolize so base and barbarous a weed, or at least-wise overlove so loathsome a vanity,) by a volley of holy shot thundered from Mount Helicon." If the smoothness of the verses equaled the euphony of the title, this must have proved a moving appeal.
Stow contents himself with calling tobacco "a stinking weed, so much abused to God's dishonor."
Burton exhausts the subject in a single paragraph. Ben Jonson, though a jolly good fellow, was opposed to the habit of smoking. But Spenser mentions "divine tobacco." Walton's "Piscator" indulges in a pipe at breakfast, and "Venator" has his tobacco brought from London to insure its purity. Sweet Izaak could have selected no more soothing minister than the pipe to the "contemplative man's recreation."
As the new sedative gains in esteem, we find Francis Quarles, in his "Emblems," treating it in this serio-comic vein:—
"Flint-hearted Stoics, you whose marble eyes
Contemn a wrinkle, and whose souls despise
To follow Nature's too affected fashion,
Or travel in the regent walk of passion,—
Whose rigid hearts disdain to shrink at fears,
Or play at fast-and-loose with smiles and tears,—
Come, burst your spleens with laughter to behold
A new-found vanity, which days of old
Ne'er knew,—a vanity that has beset
The world, and made more slaves than Mahomet,—
That has condemned us to the servile yoke
Of slavery, and made us slaves to smoke.
But stay! why tax I thus our modern times
For new-born follies and for new-born crimes?
Are we sole guilty, and the first age free?
No: they were smoked and slaved as we.
What's sweet-lipped honor's blast, but smoke? what's treasure,
But very smoke? and what's more smoke than pleasure?
Brand gives us the whole matter in a nutshell, in the following quaint epigram, entitled "A Tobacconist," taken from an old collection:—
"All dainty meats I do defy
Which feed men fat as swine;
He is a frugal man, indeed,
That on a leaf can dine.
"He needs no napkin for his hands
His fingers' ends to wipe,
That keeps his kitchen in a box,
And roast meat in a pipe."
And so on, the singers of succeeding years, usque ad nauseam,—a loathing equaled only by that of the earlier writers for the plant, now so lauded.