Port Versus Claret

— “ Firm and erect the Caledonian stood :
old was his mutton, and his claret good.
‘Let him drink port!’ the English statesman cried.
He drank the poison, and his spirit died.”

When the philosophic mind looks at a literary topic, it does so from a contributory, and not from a prohibitory point of view. Therefore it may be permitted to consider (after a literary fashion) the bearing of national beverages upon national conduct. As a local-optionist of the most pronounced stamp, the present contributor opposes alcohol in every shape, not excepting even Jamaica ginger. As a member of the Club, it is impossible to overlook the fact of the large place in poetry and fiction filled by the juice of the grape and the blood of the barley-corn. From the text of the above epigram, it may be permissible to evolve a brief exposition on the subject of national tastes expressed through their drinks and diet.

Claret and mutton in the north, beef and beer in the south, whiskey in Edinburgh, gin in London, are some of the antitheses which are visible in the chronicles of Great Britain. For a Scotch preference of course an Irish reason is excluded. In the days of Sir Jonah Barrington, a certain squire of Galway, in chronic pecuniary difficulties, was advised to furnish his guests with punch, as being cheaper than claret. His well-known reply was, “ An’ where would I get tick for a lemon ? ” It is not within the limits of credulity, even at the extreme bound set up by the Jew Apella, to suppose such a reason recognized north of the Tweed. To examine more fully the fare of the two nations will perhaps illustrate the difference. Scotch mutton compared with English beef ; Scotch ale, light and effervescent, with English porter, heavy and heady ; oat and barley meal bannocks with close and heavy wheat bread ; Glenlivat with Hollands ; and lastly claret with port, show in contrast the tendency of the one nation to mind and of the other to matter. The English objection to thin potations is that one “ gets no forrardor ” in proportion to the amount consumed.

The beginning of the national tastes was probably this, however. Up to the accession of James I. Scotland and England were two hostile realms. The constant ally of Scotland was France, and in Scotch words and customs are still found survivals of the impress of French ideas. Up to the act of union the two peoples of Great Britain continued almost as distinct as England and Hanover under the Georges. There was one sovereign, but there were two governments. On the other hand, the commercial and political ties between England and Portugal were of long and unbroken standing. Doubtless it was for reasons of revenue that the English statesman cried, “ Let him drink port ! ” But apart from these, there was a certain understood persuasion that the drinking of port was a badge of loyalty and orthodoxy in church and state, a good old Tory practice, while claret was apt to mantle in the glass that was waved above the water carafe when the toast of “ the king ” was honored. As a proof of what is here laid down, it will be found that when wine is mentioned unqualified by specific title, the Englishman understands port, and the Scotchman claret.

There is yet another explanation of these opposed tastes. Port was the accepted and canonical drink of the beneficed clergy of the English Established Church. The old school parson, as late as the Waterloo era, was stanch to this tradition. Arthur Pendennis, Esq., owns that to the rector of Clavering St. Mary’s was due the taste for old port which he preserved through all his days. Lord Tennyson, the son of a clergyman, in his Lyrical Monologue to the plump head-waiter at the Cock, chants the praise of his pint of port. This would go far to make the wine of Oporto “ poison ” to the “firm and erect Caledonian.” As a true blue Presbyterian he shunned the prelatieal beverage. He chose his claret drawn from the wood, and not his port in glass. If he could not get claret, he was content with whiskey, which, like the Covenanters of old, had its lurking place in the same glens and hillside morasses that had baffled the dragoons of Claverhouse as after they defied the gaugers of Walpole. Claret came indeed from France, but there were Huguenot vineyards as well as popish, while the presses of Oporto and Xeres were trodden only by the feet of the children of Belial, the servants of the Man of Sin, the devotees of the Scarlet Woman. But, however the taste began, the fact seems to be manifest of the varying tastes on the opposite sides of the border.

The contributor of this brief note is of course unable to speak with assurance of the comparative influences upon national character of the two vinous preparations. He is bound to esteem the port to be indeed “ poison ” to the Caledonian without conceding that the claret could be “ good ” for the Englishman, so long as any portion of the original sin of alcohol abode in it. But, as a theoretical and tentative speculation, he may be permitted to query whether the English choice did not incline to the drink which was supposed to lull and soothe the nerves after violent physical exertion, while the Caledonian valued the draught which should stimulate convivial and intellectual activity. From various passages of authors who are presumably experts, he is led to regard port as ruminant and sedative in its effects. Port is pictured as the wine which a solitary drinker sips in unsocial solitude, while claret is associated with a table round which gay guests are gathered, and across which flash bright rays of wit and song. The Jacobite melodies, the ditties of Burns and Cunningham and Hogg, the gay chansons of the Noctes Amhrosianæ, the “ high jinks ” of Counsellor Pleydell, the symposia of the Baron of Bradwardine, point to claret as the inspirer of the gay revel. Of course the final stage of ebrioty is much the same with over-indulgence in either potation, but the inference seems to be that the Scotchman prefers to travel toward it along the path of stimulation, — as Thackeray puts it, “ to chirrup in his cups,” — while the Englishman seeks the Same goal by the road of stupefaction.

Perhaps some other member of the Club will sav who the English statesman was who called out the epigram given above, and what the process by which the Caledonian was forced to “ drink the poison.”