IT is with reasonable hesitation that I venture upon a theme which no pleading words of Horace can ever make acceptable to a nineteenth-century conscience. The world at present is full of people to whom drinking-songs are inseparably associated with drinking habits, and drinking habits with downright drunkenness; and it would be hard to persuade them that the sweet Muses have never smiled upon the joyless bestiality which wrecks the lives of men. Even in days long past, when consciences had still to be developed, and poets sang that wine was made to scatter the cares of earth, the crowning grace of self-control was always the prize of youth. When little Aristion, her curls crowned with roses, drained the contents of three golden goblets before beginning her dance, she was probably as careful to avoid unseemly intoxication as is the college athlete of to-day training for the gentle game of football; yet none the less her image is abhorrent to our peculiar morality, which can ill endure such irresponsible gayety of heart. The perpetual intrusion of ethics into art has begotten a haunting anxiety lest perchance for one glad half-hour we should forget that it is our duty to be serious. I had this lesson forcibly impressed upon me a few years ago when I wrote a harmless essay upon war-songs, and a virtuous critic reminded me, with tearful earnestness, that while there was nothing really hurtful in such poetry, it would be better far if I turned my attention to the nobler contest which Lady Henry Somerset was then waging so valiantly against intemperance.
Now, to the careless mind, it does not at first sight appear that war-songs, considered solely in their literary aspect, have any especial connection with intemperance. I am not even prepared to admit that drinking-songs can be held responsible for drink. When Englishmen began to cultivate habits of consistent insobriety, they ceased to sing of wine. The eighteenth century witnessed not only the steady increase of drunkenness in every walk of life, but also its willful and ostentatious defense. From the parson to the ploughman, from the peer to the poacher, all classes drank deeply, and with the comfortable consciousness that they were playing manly parts. It was one of the first lessons taught to youth, and fathers encouraged their sons—vainly sometimes, as in the case of Horace Walpole — to empty as many bottles as their steady hands could hold. “A young fellow had better be thrice drunk in one day,” says honest Sir Hildebrand to Frank Osbaldistone, “ than sneak sober to bed like a Presbyterian.” And there is true paternal pride in the contrast the squire draws between this strange, abstemious relative from town and his own stalwart, country-bred boys, “ who would have been all as great milksops as yourself, Nevey,” he heartily declares, “if I had not nursed them, as one may say, on the toast and tankard,”
Nevertheless, it was not in the eighteenth century, with its deep potations, and its nightly collapses of squire and squireen under their mahogany tables, that the gay English drinking-songs were written. The eighteenth-century drinker had no time and no breath to waste in singing. Burns, indeed, a rare exception, gave to Scotland those reckless verses which Mr. Arnold found “ insincere ” and “ unsatisfactory,” and from which more austere critics have shrunk in manifest disquiet. Perhaps the reproach of insincerity is not altogether undeserved. There are times when Burns seems to exult over the moral discomfort of his reader, and this is not the spirit in which good love-songs or good war-songs or good drinking-songs arc written. Yet who shall approach the humor of that transfigured proverb which Solomon would not have recognized for his own ; or the honest exultation of these two lines,
Accept a bardie’s gratefu’ thanks ! ”
or, best of all, the genial gayety of Willie Brew’d a Peck o’ Maut, — sovereign, says Mr. Saintsbury, of the poet’s Bacchanalian verse ? —
And Rob and Allan came to pree ;
Three blither hearts, that lee-lang night,
Ye wad na find in Christendie.”
Here at last is the true ring, without bravado, without conceit, without bestiality, — only the splendid high spirits, the foolish, unhesitating happiness of youth : —
That’s blinkin’ in the lift sae hie;
She shines sae bright to wyle us hame,
But, by my sooth, she ’ll wait a wee ! ”
When Burns sings in this strain, even those who wear the blue ribbon may pause and listen kindly, remembering, if they like, before leaving the world of “ Scotch wit, Scotch religion, and Scotch drink ” so repellent to Mr. Arnold’s pitiless good taste, how another jovial northcountryman has defined for them the inestimable virtue of temperance. “ Nae man shall ever stop a nicht in my house,” says the Ettrick Shepherd, “ without partakin’ o’ the best that’s in it, be’t meat or drink ; and if the coof canna drink three or four tummlers or jugs o’ toddy, he has nae business in the Forest. Now, sir, I ca’ that no an abstemious life, — for why should any man be abstemious ? — but I ca’ ’t a temperate life, and o’ a’ the virtues, there’s nane mair friendly to man than Temperance.”
Friendly indeed ! Why, viewed in this genial light, she is good-fellowship itself, and hardly to be distinguished from the smiling nymph whom Horace saw in the greenwood, learning attentively the strains dictated to her by the vinecrowned god of wine.
The best of the English drinking-songs were written by the dramatists of the seventeenth century, men who trolled out their vigorous sentiments, linked sweetly together in flowing verse, without the smallest thought or fear of shocking anybody. Frankly indecorous, they invite the whole wide world to drink with them, to empty the brimming tankard passed from hand to hand, and to reel home through the frosty streets, where the watchman grins at their unsteady steps, and quiet sleepers, awakened from dull dreams, echo with drowsy sympathy the last swelling cadence of their uproarious song. Where there is no public sentiment to defy, even Bacchanalian rioters and Bacchanalian verses cease to he defiant. What admirable good temper and sincerity in Fletcher’s generous importunity!
You shall perhaps not do it to-morrow :
Best, while you have it, use your breath;
There is no drinking after death.
Who drinks well, loves the commonwealth.
And he that will to bed go sober
Falls with the leaf still in October.”
Upon this song successive changes have been rung, until now its variations are bewildering, and to it we owe the ever popular and utterly indefensible glee roared out for generations by many a lusty tavern chorus : —
Falls as the leaves do, and dies in October ;
But he who goes to bed, and goes to bed mellow,
Lives as he ought to do, and dies an honest fellow.”
The most affectionate solicitude is continually manifested by seventeenth-century poets lest perchance unthinking mortals should neglect or overlook their opportunities of drinking, and so forfeit their full share of pleasure in a pleasant world.
is as much the motto of the drinker as of the lover, and the mutability of life forever warns him against wasting its flying moments in unprofitable soberness.
And old age hasteth.
Now to delight us,”
is the Elizabethan rendering of Father William’s counsel ; and the hospitable ghost in Fletcher’s Lovers’ Progress, who, being dead, must know whereof he speaks, conjures his guests to
You ’ll find but cold drink in the grave.”
Apart from life’s brevity and inconstancy, there is always the incentive of patriotism and national pride summoning the reveler to deep and ever deeper potations. It is thus he proves himself a true son of the soil, a loyal and lawabiding Englishman.
And hey for the honor of old England ! ”
sang the Devonshire harvesters two hundred years ago, connecting in some beery fashion the glory of their native isle with the gallons of home-brewed ale they consumed so cheerfully in her name ; and the same sentiment is more intelligibly embodied in that graceless song of Shadwell’s which establishes conclusively the duty of an honest citizen and taxpayer: —
In service are not dull,
We drink to show our loyalty,
And make his coffers full.
Wou’d all his subjects drink like us,
We ’d make him richer far,
More powerful and more prosperous
Than Eastern monarcbs are.”
It may be noted, by way of illustration, that Dryden, in his Vindication of the Duke of Guise, remarks somewhat vindictively that the only service Shadwell could render the king was to increase his revenue by drinking.
Finally, in England, as in Greece and Rome, black care sat heavily by the hearths of men; and English singers, following the examples of Horace and Anacreon, called upon wine to drown the unwelcome guest. “ Fortune ’s a jade ! ” they cried with Beaumont’s Yeoman ; but courage and strong drink will bid the hussy stand. Davenant echoed the sentiment defiantly in his mad round,
To those who ’scape from care by shunning wealth ; ”
and Ford gave the fullest expression to the gay laws of Sans Souci in the drinking-song in The Sun’s Darling: —
Lengthens not a day, nor can buy to-morrow;
Money is trash ; and he that will spend it,
Let him drink merrily, Fortune will send it.
Brothers of a rout, our brains will flow quicker;
Empty the cask ; score up, wo care not ;
Fill all the pots again; drink on, and spare not.”
To pause in the generous swing of verses like these, and call to mind Mrs. Jameson’s refined and chilling verdict, “ It is difficult to sympathize with English drinking - songs,” is like stepping from the sunshine of life into the shaded drawing-room of genteel society. Difficult to sympathize! Why, we may drink nothing stronger than tea and Apollinaris water all our lives : yet none the less the mad music of Elizabethan song will dance merrily in our hearts, and give even to us our brief hour of illogical, unreasonable happiness. What had the author of The Diary of an Ennuyée to do with that robust age when ennui had still to be invented ? What was she, to think of the indecorous Bacchanalian catches of Lyly and Middleton, or of the uncompromising vulgarity of that famous song from Gammer Gurton’s Needle, or of the unseemly jollity of Cleveland’s tavern-bred, tavern-sung verse ?
And in a whole Hippocrene of Sherry,
Let’s drink a round till our brains do whirl,
Tuning our pipes to make ourselves merry ;
A Cambridge lass, Venus-like, born of the froth
Of an old half-filled jug of barley-broth,
She, she is my mistress, her suitors are many,
But she ’ll have a square-cap if e’er she have any.”
Yet after discarding these ribald songs, with which refined femininity is not presumed to sympathize, there still remain such charming verses as Ben Jonson’s
Till I may see the plump Lyæus swim
Above the brim.
I drink as I would write,
In flowing measure, tilled with flame and sprite.”
Or, if this be too scholarly and artificial, there are the far more beautiful lines of Beaumont and Fletcher : —
Ever honoured, ever sung,
Stained with blood of lusty grapes ;
In a thousand antic shapes
Dance upon the maze’s brim,
In the crimson liquor swim ;
From thy plenteous hand divine
Let a river run with wine ;
God of youth, let this day here
Enter neither care nor fear.”
Or we may follow where Shakespeare leads, and sing unhesitatingly with him :
Plumpy Bacchus with pink eyne !
In thy vats our cares be drowned,
With thy grapes our hairs be crowned,
Cup us, till the world go round —
Cup us, till the world go round.”
There is only one drinking-song — a seventeenth - century drinking-song, too — with which I find it difficult to sympathize, and that is the well-known and often-quoted verse of Cowley’s, beginning,
And thirsts and gapes for drink again.”
Its strained and elaborate conceits are not in accordance with anything so natural and simple as conviviality. Men may give a thousand foolish reasons for loving, and feel their folly still unjustified ; but drinking needs no such steelforged chain of arguments. Moreover Cowley’s last lines,
Should every creature drink but I ?
Why, man of morals, tell me why ? ”
give to the poem an air of protest which destroys it. The true drinking-song does not concern itself in the least with the “ man of morals,” nor with his verdict. And precisely because it is innocent of any conscious offense against morality, because it has not considered the moral aspect of the case at all, it makes its gay and graceless appeal to hearts wearied with the perpetual consideration of social reforms and personal responsibility. “Be merry, friends ! ” it says in John Heywood’s homely phrase ;
and this “ short, sweet text ” is worth a solid sermon in days when downright merriment is somewhat out of favor.
The poet who of all others seems least aware that life has burdens, not only to be carried when sent, but to be rigorously sought for when withheld, is Robert Herrick. He is the true singer of Cakes and Ale, or rather of Curds and Cream; for in that pleasant Devonshire vicarage, where no faint echo of London streets or London taverns rouses him from rural felicity, his heart turns easily to country feasts and pastimes. It is true he rejoices mightily in
Not made of ale, but spicèd wine,”
yet even these innocent carousals are of Arcadian simplicity. He loves, too, the fare of Devon farmers, — the clotted cream, the yellow butter, honey, and baked pears, and fresh-laid eggs. He loves the Twelfth-Night cake, with “ joysops,” — alluring word, — the “ wassailbowl ” of Christmas, the “ Whitsun ale,” the almond paste sacred to wedding-rites, the “ bucksome meat and capring wine ” that crown the New Year’s board, and, above all, the plenteous bounty of the Harvest Home. In his easy, unvexed fashion, he is solicitous that we, his readers, should learn, not “ to labor and to wait,” but to be idle and to enjoy, while idleness and enjoyment still gild the passing day.
Come, my Corinna, come, let ’s goe a Maying,”
is the gay doctrine preached by this unclerical clergyman. Even when he remembers perforce that he is a clergyman, and turns his heart to prayer, this is the thanksgiving that rises sweetly to his lips : —
With guiltless mirth,
And giv’st me wassail-howls to drink,
Spiced to the brink.”
Had the patronage of the Church never been extended to Herrick, and had he lived on in London, the friend of Jonson and Selden and Fletcher and kind, witty Bishop Corbet, we should have lost the most charming pastoral vignettes ever flung like scattered May-blossoms into literature; but we should have gained drinking-songs such as the world has never known, — songs whose reckless music would lure us even now from our watchful propriety as easily as great Bacchus lured that wise beast Cerberus, who gave his doggish heart and wagged his doggish tail, gentle and innocent as a milk-fed puppy, when he saw the god of wine.
The close of the seventeenth century witnessed a revolution in English poetry, and the great “ coming event ” of Queen Anne’s Augustan age threw its shadow far before it, — a shadow of reticence and impersonality. People drank more and more, but they said less and less about it. Even in the reign of Charles II., though convivial songs were written by the score, they had lost the ring of earlier days ; and we need only read a few of the much-admired verses of Tom D’Urfey to be convinced that periods of dissolute living do not necessarily give birth to sincere and reckless song. In the following century, sincerity and recklessness were equally out of date. Now and then, a cheerful outburst, like the drinking-song from Congreve’s Way of the World, illumines our sober path, and shows the source whence Thackeray drew his inspiration for those delightful verses in Rebecca and Rowena concerning the relative pleasures of Pope and Sultan. Later on, Sheridan gave us his glee in The Duenna, and his ever popular toast in The School for Scandal, which is not properly a drinking-song at all. Then there came a time when the spurious conviviality of Barry Cornwall passed for something fine and genuine, and when Thomas Haynes Bayly “gave to minstrelsy the attributes of intellect, and reclaimed even festive song from vulgarity.” And at precisely this period, when a vapid elegance pervaded the ditties warbled forth in refined drawingrooms, and when Moore alone, of all the popular song-writers, held the secret of true music in his heart, Thomas Love Peacock wrote for respectable and sentimental England five of the very best drinking-songs ever given to an ungrateful world. No thought of possible disapprobation vexed his soul’s serenity. He lived in the nineteenth century, as completely uncontaminated by nineteenth-century ideals as though Robinson Crusoe’s desert island had been his resting-place. The shafts of his goodtempered ridicule were leveled at all that his countrymen were striving to prove sacred and beneficial. His easy laugh rang out just when everybody was most strenuous in the cause of progress. His wit was admirably calculated to make people uncomfortable and dissatisfied. And in addition to these disastrous qualities, he apparently thought it natural and reasonable and right that English gentlemen— sensible, educated, married English gentlemen — should sit around their dinner - tables until the midnight hour, drinking wine and singing songs with boyish and scandalous joviality.
The songs he offered for these barbarian entertainments are perfect in character and form. Harmless mirth, a spirit of generous good-fellowship, a clean and manly heart, disarm, or should disarm, all moral judgment, while the grace and vigor of every line leave the critic powerless to complain. Hail to the Headlong, and A Heel-tap! a Heel-tap ! are the poet’s earliest tributes at the shrine of Bacchus. He gained a fuller insight and an ampler charity before he laid down his pen. His three best poems, which cannot possibly be omitted from such a paper as this, show how time mellowed him, as it mellows wine. We mark the ripening power, the surer touch, the kinder outlook on a troubled world. Peacock was but twenty-nine when he wrote Headlong Hall. He was thirtytwo when Melincourt was given to the world, and in it his inimitable Ghosts: —
And now three friendly ghosts we be.
Around our shadowy table placed,
The spectral bowl before us floats :
With wine that none but ghosts can taste We wash our unsubstantial throats.
Three merry ghosts — three merry ghosts — three merry ghosts are we :
Let the ocean be port, and we ’ll think it good sport
To be laid in that Red Sea.
Our old refectory still we haunt.
The traveler hears our midnight mirth:
‘ O list,’ he cries, ‘ the haunted choir !
The merriest ghost that walks the earth
Is now the ghost of a ghostly friar.
Three merry ghosts — three merry ghosts — three merry ghosts are we :
Let the ocean be port, and we ’ll think it good sport
To be laid in that Red Sea.”
The next year, in Nightmare Abbey appeared the best known and the most admirable of all his glees, a song which holds its own even in an alien world, which is an admitted favorite with singing societies, and which we have all of us heard from time to time chanted decorously by a row of sedate and serious gentlemen in correct evening dress: —
Gotham’s three wise men we be
Whither in your bowl so free ?
To rake the moon from out the sea.
The bowl goes trim, the moon doth shine,
And our ballast is old wine ;
And your ballast is old wine.
I am he they call Old Care.
Here on board we will thee lift.
No : I may not enter there.
Wherefore so ? ’T is Jove’s decree
In a bowl Care may not be;
In a bowl Care may not be.
No : in charmèd bowl we swim.
What the charm that floats the bowl ?
Water may not pass the brim.
The bowl goes trim, the moon doth shine,
And our ballast is old wine ;
And your ballast is old wine.”
Last, but by no means least, in Crotchet Castle we have a drinking-song at once the kindest and the most scandalous that the poet ever wrote, — a song which is the final, definite, unrepentant expression of heterodoxy: —
May I never again drink wine ;
For how can a man, in his life of a span,
Do anything better than dine ?
We ’ll dine and drink, and say if we think
That anything better can be ;
And when we have dined, wish all mankind
May dine as well as we.
And brim no cup with sack,
Yet thoughts will spring as the glasses ring
To illumine our studious track.
O’er the brilliant dreams of our hopeful schemes
The light of the flask shall shine ;
And we ’ll sit till day, but we ’ll find the way
To drench the world with wine.”
With Peacock the history of English drinking-songs is practically closed, and it does not seem likely to be reopened in the immediate future. Any approach to the forbidden theme is met by an opposition too strenuous and universal to be lightly set aside. We may not love nor value books more than did our greatgrandfathers, but we have grown to curiously overrate their moral influence, to fancy that the passions of men and women are freed or restrained by snatches of song or the bits of conversation they read in novels. Accordingly, a rigorous censorship is maintained over the ethics of literature, with the rather melancholy result that we hear of little else. Trivialities have ceased to be trivial in a day of microscopic research, and there is no longer anything not worth consideration. We all remember what happened when Lord Tennyson wrote his Hands all Round : —
Then drink to England, every guest.”
It is by no means a ribald or rollicking song. On the contrary, there is something dutiful, as well as justifiable, in the serious injunction of its chorus: —
God the traitor’s hope confound !
To this great cause of Freedom drink, my friends,
And the great name of England, round and round.”
Yet such was the scandal given to the advocates of temperance by this patriotic poem, and so lamentable were the reproaches which ensued, that the Saturday Review, playing the unwonted part of peacemaker, “ soothed and sustained the agitated frame ” of British sensitiveness by reminding her that the laureate had given no hint as to what liquor should be drunk in the cause of freedom, and that he probably had it in his mind to toast
in milk or mineral waters. The more recent experience of Mr. Rudyard Kipling suggests forcibly the lesson taught our Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table when he sent his little poem to a “ festive and convivial ” celebration, and had it returned with “ some slight changes ” to suit the sentiments of the committee:
Down, down with the tyrant that masters us all! ”
Hood, a good-tempered mocker always, took note of the popular prejudice in his hospitable lines by a Member of a Temperance Society : —
Drink deep, and drink oft, and replenish your jugs.”
And Longfellow, with his usual directness, went straight to the hearts of his readers when, in simple seriousness, he filled his antique pitcher, and sang his Drinking Song in praise of water.
As it passes thus between us,
How its wavelets laugh and glisten
In the head of old Silenus! ”
This was the verse which New England, and Mother England too, stood ready to applaud. Every era has its cherished virtues, and when the order changes, the wise do well to change with it as speedily as they can. Once there was a jolly old playwright named Cratinus, who died of a broken heart on seeing some Lacedæmonian soldiers fracture a cask of wine and let it run to waste. He is mentioned kindly by ancient writers, but Peacock is the last man to fling him a word of sympathy. Once there was a time when Chaucer received from England’s king the grant of a pitcher of wine daily in the port of London. What poet or public servant now has, or hopes to have, such mark of royal favor ? Once Charles I. gave to Ben Jonson, as poet laureate, one hundred pounds a year, and a terse of Spanish Canary. No such generous drink comes now from Queen Victoria to lend sparkle and vivacity to Mr. Austin’s verse. Once Dr. Johnson, “ the real primate, the soul’s teacher of all England,” says Carlyle, declared roundly and without shocking anybody, “ Brandy, sir, is the drink for heroes.” It is not thus that primates and teachers of any land now hearten their wavering disciples. Once the generous publishers of Marmion sent Scott a hogshead of fine claret to mark their appreciation of his verse. It is not in this graceful fashion that authors now receive their tokens of good will. The jovial past is dead, quite dead, we keep repeating sternly ; yet its merry ghost smiles at us broadly, in no way abashed by our frowns and disapprobation. A friendly ghost it is, haunting the secret chambers of our hearts with laughter instead of groans, and echoes of old songs in place of clanking chains, — a companionable ghost, with brave tales to tell and jests to ease our pain, a word of wisdom when we have wit to listen, a word of comfort when we have time to heed.
And here, kind mate, to thee!
Let’s sing a dirge for Saint Hugh’s soul,
And drown it merrily.”