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Reviews

Anya Taylor, Bacchus in Romantic England: Writers and Drink, 1780-1830. Basingstoke: Macmillan; New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999. ISBN: 0312214995. Price: £47.50 (US$65.00).

  • Matthew Scott

…plus d’informations

  • Matthew Scott
    Somerville College, Oxford

Corps de l’article

More or less anyone who remembers the pleasures of an undergraduate education will know that the one thing more tedious than hearing about another person's dreams is hearing about how much they had to drink the night before. Fortunately, most good drinking stories leave the pub bore at the bar, and wallow little in the debilitating effects of the heavy night, taking us instead on flights of fancy that speak of heroics rather than headaches. True drinking raconteurs inhabit a strange space, however: unlike many of our heroes we do not really wish to visit the places they have been, but are happy to view from afar, drinking in the story as though its intoxicating effect were greater than any fine wine. But just as pub philosophers are the unwanted bedfellows in the public imagination of their academic namesakes, the whimsical drunk given to the occasional half-rhymed, fireside anacreontic is a pretty poor relation of the poet. Nevertheless, even academics, taken with the fine art of taxonomy, are fond of constructing lists of writers whose bond with the bottle was all but immutable, and we retell the best Byronic hand-me-downs as though we had been present ourselves. There is a fascination with the relationship between writing and drinking, and a persistent belief that creativity and the Dionysian are bequeathed to us as a bond formed in antiquity: if it is not the object of this study to cure us of this belief, it is certainly Anya Taylor's intention that we question it more fully.

The common ground shared by intoxicated- and dream-reality suggests that our persistent fascination has much to do with the perceived value of an altered perspective in the act of describing experience itself. To see with different eyes is to be able to tell with a different tongue. Wilde's dictum, "a mask tells us more than a face," proclaims that disguise intensifies personality. The drunk, we may then say, allows a truer and more intense self to become exposed. But is it this simple? The lesson of the Romantic preoccupation with dreams is that therein lies not only a counter-claim to any unified theory of perception, but also evidence of the fluidity of personal identity itself. Johnson drank to "throw [himself] away," and yet, as soon as we are tempted to say that he is simply not himself, we must quickly counter that the drunk presents a very real part of his make-up. It is neither sufficient to say naively that our drunken or dreaming selves are utterly different from our true selves, nor that they are an intensification of that self. Instead, the evidence of both experiences causes us to question the existence of a single unified consciousness.

In essence, this is the basic philosophical premise behind Anya Taylor's study, which returns again and again to the problem in order to unpick the implications present in the recorded drunkenness of a large number of Romantic authors. This comes out most clearly in her treatment of Charles Lamb, whose lifelong battle with drink is exposed (though often embraced) in his letters. Taylor focuses upon these, his neglected drama John Woodvil, and his essay "The Confessions of a Drunkard," with a view to demonstrating that an awareness of the force of addiction coincided with increased interest in personal identity itself. Her point is nicely made: for Lamb, the drunk is manifestly removed from his ordinary self but becomes in time a replacement for that self, so that he can write, "The drinking man is never less himself than during his sober intervals." Taylor's investigation of Lamb's multiple personalities, each framed by the anxiety of the drinker's denial of addiction, is informed by Hume and Hartley. Of the former, she writes: "[the] fragility of being, which Hume may just be imagining or feigning for the moment, before his mood shifts and he dines and is 'merry with his friends,' is one of Hume's many legacies to Romanticism: he invents the anxious philosopher clinging to his rock, gazing at the obtuse people who go on as if they have continuous identities to live in." (p. 64)

Lamb's point appears paradoxical in light of Hume's bundle theory of personal identity, but it is actually remarkably telling in a period in which the investigation of the complexities of selfhood was so acute. One of the tragedies of drunkenness lies in the speed with which the drunk is stripped of all other identity, to become associated in the public imagination as a drinker and nothing more. Taylor's opening chapter prepares us for this with an interesting discussion of the critical reception of Burns in the years after his death. The initial ambiguity of his status as the Dionysian poet par excellence manifested itself in euphemisms, but by the time of the Romantics preoccupation with his poetry, this position was well established. Taylor concerns herself with Wordsworth's acceptance of Burns's inspired, if fatal drunkenness. She then moves on to examine the ways in which a perception of Burns's own gusto (to borrow Hazlitt's term) was used as a critical contrast to Wordsworth's own cold nature.

The championing of Burns, and of similarly disposed Scots such as Hogg, by the likes of Byron certainly had much to do with the perception of them as primitive poets connected to an essential poetic tradition that celebrated drink. But the wealth of material relating to the drinking habits of the famous, both anecdotal and factual, is testament to a more widespread desire in the period to record this aspect of life in all its detail. Furthermore, the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were a time of prodigious drinking, bordering alternately on the heroic and pathetic. This fact may be largely taken for granted and dismissed as a function of the ready availability of alcohol combined with a lack of adequate health advice, but this is to miss the point somewhat. Not only was there an awareness of the dangers of drink, and a conscious interest in its physical and psychological effects, but also we can over-easily allude to the culture of drinking without being aware of its historical distance from our own more temperate time. In short, the very quantities being consumed by many notable figures were sufficient to make us pause and question how they ever got anything done at all. Roy Porter writing of the late eighteenth century notes that "The Gentleman's Magazine listed ninety-nine ways of calling a man drunk," and goes on: "To gain a reputation as a blade one had to be at least a three-bottle man. Sheridan, Pitt the Younger, and the Greek scholar Porson were all said to be six-bottle men […] and the third Cambridge professor of history died after a drunken fall." [1] These were men fully capable of standing their ground with W. C. Fields or Jeffrey Bernard, and the after-effects were no less pernicious. As Fields himself might have said, drinking six bottles of port is, err, difficult, and yet these are not names that we associate simply with barroom tolerance.

Whether we receive such stories in a mood of temperate disapproval, or as a gay clarion-call to arm ourselves with a charged glass, it is difficult to feel mere indifference. Instead, the story of the Romantic drinker is one that lends further weight to the fact that the culture of the period is both a piece of our past and irretrievably lost. Certainly, a book could be written detailing the excesses, the comic and tragic stories, but Taylor is to be credited for taking a subject that could run with ease into just such pseudo-academic frivolity and making it serious. As such, she moves with ease from the examination of biography to literary texts, letters and notebooks; she is philosophically informed and attuned to the concerns of social history, while remaining consistently literary critical. Although a concern with the instability of identity brought about by drunkenness persists as a theoretical question, Taylor also demonstrates that this problem was being seriously informed by medical investigation for the first time. She points to the work of those like Thomas Trotter and Thomas Beddoes, who saw alcoholism as a pathological condition to be treated medically, and also suggests that a nascent temperance movement began with reformed Romantic drinkers like Basil Montagu, who saw state control as the only answer to widespread dissipation.

The preoccupation with the fluidity of identity, and with its anxious exposure in the adoption of drunken personae, returns in Taylor's admirable examination of the complex reality of Coleridge's alcoholism. Leading on from her examination of Lamb, this chapter forms the spiritual centre of the work. Taylor is at pains to show that Coleridge's relationship to drink was one of complicated division. He is happy at times to embrace the Dionysian world of song and society that seems to suit his youthful self so well. But beneath this outward ebullience, there lie a number of contradictory states that develop with age and regret. Even in youth, when Coleridge is happy to embrace the role of the wild university man, there are excessive and lavish tones of remorse that emerge in his letters home, and in later life this dualism becomes more pronounced. Through a deft use of her sources, Taylor is able to show that Coleridge was a man divided between a sense of the pleasure of drinking and an understanding of its pernicious effect upon the will. The pleasure of wine connects for Coleridge with a sense of mental stimulation and excitement, whose physical pulsation is analogous to the experience of the imagination in a state of creativity. This is in precise opposition to the bodily sluggishness of opium addiction, in which the will is subject not only to the drug but also to its solution in brandy as laudanum. Harking back to Hogarth, the observation that spirits brutalise the man by reducing the will to a set of addictive impulses provides an apt subject for Coleridge's attention, and Anya Taylor duly shows how it appears as a social concern as early as The Watchman.

The divided state of being, the loss of free agency, and the determined condition of addiction are all fears that haunt Coleridge from youth on, but they appear even more starkly in the reality of his eldest son. In the following chapter, Taylor turns her attention to Hartley, who became a horrific drunkard, wandering homeless and producing derivative verse as though fated to do so. Drunkenness may have been Coleridge's most damning legacy to his son, but it is only one symptom of the extraordinary waste of talent in a man who was unable to live up to the weight of expectation placed upon him. Taylor takes on the subject in light of the evidence of addiction as a familial legacy. As such, drunkenness becomes a trope through which she can explore the wider matter of Hartley's sense of his own inadequacy as the son of a brilliant father. As a projection of his father's drunken excess, Hartley comes to be one aspect of Coleridge writ large. But in spite of this aspect, Coleridge managed, with some difficulty, to live and to produce great work. Hartley's drunkenness, though interesting if inherited, is far more terrible than Coleridge's because of this, and yet it takes a leap of faith to suppose that without it, he would have had the same genius as his father.

In the final two chapters, Taylor moves away from a direct concern with the persona of the drinker to examine, first, the literary trope of intoxication in Keats, and secondly, the social and literary relationships between men and women in light of the culture of drunkenness that pervaded the period. These seem to me to be the finest and most problematic chapters respectively. Intoxication, in the Keats chapter, seems to capture the way in which a sensation of light-headedness and a heightened literary sensitivity coalesce quite deliciously. Taylor offers us a series of brilliant readings of Keats alongside Milton, focusing in turn upon Paradise Lost and Comus, and offering suggestive analogies to Melancholy, Endymion, Lamia and the Nightingale ode. Not only does Keats adopt and adapt Milton's puritanical language of intoxication, but he also comes to see intoxication as part of the willed transformation of human experience, which, in attempting to develop and dwell in the transitory sensations of life, presages an awareness of death. Drunkenness approaches and provides us with evidence of both the heightened and dulled sense of experience that is achieved in aesthetic experience. And through an accordant sense of the difference from ordinary experience, it provides us with knowledge of the capacity of imagination to rival and out-strip that normative state of mind, replete with the tedium and misery of everyday life.

Inevitably, Taylor turns to Keats's own drinking, and though she is at pains to follow W. J. Bate's conclusion that he "occasionally drank a half bottle or more of claret," she decides, following Aileen Ward and Haydon, that he "flew to dissipation as a relief" from the death of Tom. (p. 176) But the discussion of his drinking seems, in a sense, to be immaterial to the argument of the chapter, which celebrates the poetry and the power that he achieves therein. That which begins as a trope attractively applicable to a literary critical argument becomes somewhat vulgar when it is carried over into the discussion of actual biography. This is my fundamental criticism of the final chapter, which pits the evidence of some of the most notorious drinkers of the period—Byron, Sheridan, and Moore —against the reactions of a host of female writers to the dissipation that they see around them. The latter topic is interesting as social and literary history because these writers, Edgeworth, Wollstonecraft and More, are precursors of later Victorian novelists, who acutely observed the dangers of drink. They do address a phenomenon that many male writers indulged in, but whether this constitutes an alternate Romanticism is open to dispute. In taking drinking to task in writing, they do not exactly mass in opposition against a body of writing that celebrates drinking. Excepting Burns and Don Juan, there is not a vast body of published, male, Romantic writing that champions drunkenness—Coleridge's drinking songs, for example, are private for the most part, after all.

To an extent, the comparison rests upon the evidence of Moore's Irish Melodies, which are fairly slight. Alongside these are placed some of the choicest moments from Byron's journals, which do admittedly expose him as a competitive, if amusing, boozer. There are some problems with assessing the value of this kind of material. To start with much of it is merely anecdotal and frankly frivolous. It is, therefore, frequently shot through with a dose of guilt or bravado. Whether we can draw serious conclusions about the way in which authors viewed their drinking habits from piecemeal observations in journals and letters is open to debate. For one thing, common sense tells us that male drinking stories form a case par excellence of the adoption of personae and of the elaboration of truth. To put it more simply, men who drink together often behave stupidly and say foolish things, but this does not necessarily mean that they stand by all they have said or consider their behaviour to be admirable and acceptable. If undergraduates, eager for a forebear, are wont to tot up the instances of excess in such letters as frivolous evidence of the 'good-blokeishness' of Byron or Sheridan, a more concerned and older critic can be seen to be merely collecting black-marks against them.

This is the case with Taylor herself, who is disposed to read fairly innocent statements as though they were testament to shocking excess. She has, I am sure, been exposed to some of the real horrors of drink in her admirable work for the Alcohol and Substance Abuse Program at CUNY. But through such alarming proximity to her subject she can seem delectably po-faced, as when she comments on this journal entry of Byron's:

A beau(dandies were not then christened) came into the P[rince] of W[ales] and exclaimed —'Waiter bring me a glass of Madeira Negus with a Jelly—and rub my plate with a Chalotte' This in a very soft tone of voice.—A Lieutenant of the Navy who sate in the next box immediately roared out the following rough parody—'Waiter—bring me a glass of d—d stiff Grog —and rub my a—e with a brick-bat.'

In delighting in the manliness of real men who would rather have their asses wiped with brick bats than their china with shallots, Byron anticipates the later opponents of dandyism, as Ellen Moers has described them; these sturdy manly English gentlemen drink quantities of wine and whisky, for it was the 'proud badge of their trade to be always drinking and often drunk.'

p. 197

Certainly, drinking was associated with manliness, but one has to say that Byron's description of a London pub would not be too wide of the mark if it were used in tourist guide today. More significantly, Taylor seems to imply that the general predilection to drunkenness masked a nasty misogynist tendency, which she really backs up only by citing a couplet from Robert Lowell's own awfully self destructive poem "To speak of the woe that is in marriage":

That the non-dandy, randy, brandy male verges on the animal even Byron notes when he speaks of Porson as a brutish Silenus to Sheridan's Bacchus. When wives await their husbands they often await such animals, raging, predatory and irrational, returning after having spent their wives' portions to gratify their own appetites. The husband returns 'to stall above me like an elephant,' to recall the epigraph to this chapter, Robert Lowell's sonnet imagining a wife's anxiety about her 'hopped up' husband 'cruising' the avenues [streets] and 'whiskey-blind, swaggering home at five.'

p. 199

Well, this rings reasonably true, but these are pretty serious allegations that need to be well backed up. Certainly, the evidence of Wollstonecraft's Maria and Edgeworth's Belinda go some way to make Taylor's point, but the unfair implication, by placing such a statement in the context of a discussion of Byron and Sheridan, is that they too were guilty of such horrors.

At times, we can have the sense that the blame for every social ill or case of wasted promise is to be laid squarely at the door of drink. "Kit Smart and John Clare," we are told, as if part were whole, "lived out their days in madhouses in part because of excessive drinking." (p. 60) The problem with diagnosing the near universality of a phenomenon like excessive drinking is that it cannot then be seen to be the simple root cause of specific problems. It is either a sporadic problem that caused certain individuals to suffer from its dire consequences, or it is so widespread as to be a part of the social fabric and co-existent with both the successes and failures of the period.

Taylor touches on a subject at the end of her chapter on Coleridge, which I would have liked to have seen further developed. There she suggests that Coleridge indulged in a dialogue with the ancient relationship between creativity and the Dionysian. [2] This relationship recurs, of course in the later nineteenth century in Nietzsche's Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik. But it seems more significant than to be simply a precursor to this. The whole issue of an explicit duality in the stimulus of alcohol relates to the significance of the irrational in the valorisation of Romantic creativity. These few pages are deeply interesting and begin to inform upon a subject that being curiously silent, begs to be addressed more fully.

Both Keats and Byron talk of limiting their consumption of alcohol, but in neither case do these limits constitute what we would today describe as abstemiousness. Equally, Coleridge, even though his addictions were obviously pronounced, and have been exhaustively documented, still managed to produce a remarkable body of work between 1808 and 1828. The real question is how these writers still managed to produce so much work under such debilitating circumstances. Not least because it calls into question our own enterprises, it is clearly not sufficient merely to say that they could have written more if their creative lives were not hampered by drink. Instead, we need to take reasonably seriously the question of a potential link between creativity and the desire to visit those passionate parts of ourselves that are only experienced through an abandonment of self-control. This issue is all too frequently dismissed as obvious or archaic, and we should be thankful for a brilliantly-informed and intelligent study like Anya Taylor's, which will inaugurate serious discussion of a subject that has too long been trivialised by generalisation.

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