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).[Notice]

  • Matthew Scott

…plus d’informations

  • Matthew Scott
    Somerville College, Oxford

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 …

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