Thursday, April 23, 2009

Donne quoted in the coffee-house

The Author of The women’s petition against coffee representing to publick consideration the grand inconveniencies accruing to their sex from the excessive use of that drying, enfeebling liquor: presented to the right honorable the keepers of the liberty of Venus by a well-willer (1674) is almost certainly the same as the author of the sequel pamphlet from the same year, The Mens answer to the womens petition against coffee vindicating their own performances and the virtues of that liquor from the undeserved aspersions lately cast upon them by their scandalous pamphlet.

This is well written knockabout stuff, five minutes of amusement for a coffee house goer. The women’s petition is a complaint of male sexual failings since men took to coffee drinking:

“to our unspeakable Grief, we find of late a very sensible Decay of that true Old English Vigour; our Gallants being every way so Frenchified, that they are become mere Cock-sparrows, fluttering things that come on Sa sa, with a world of Fury but are not able to stand to it, and in the very first Charge fall down flat before us…

The Occasion of which Insufferable Disaster, after a serious Enquiry, and Discussion of the Point by the Learned of the Faculty, we can Attribute to nothing more than the Excessive use of that Newfangled, Abominable, Heathenish Liquor called COFFEE, which Riffling Nature of her Choicest Treasures, and Drying up the Radical Moisture, has so Eunuch[ed] our Husbands, and Crippled our more kind Gallants, that they are become as Impotent, as Age, and as unfruitful as those Desarts whence that unhappy Berry is said to be brought.

For the continual sipping of this pitiful drink is enough to bewitch Men of two and twenty, and tie up the Codpiece-point without a Charm. It renders them that use it as Lean as Famine, as Rivvel’d as Envy, or an old meager Hag over-ridden by an Incubus. They come from it with nothing moist but their snotty Noses, nothing stiff but their Joints, nor standing but their Ears: They pretend 'twill keep them Waking, but we find by scurvy Experience, they sleep quietly enough after it.”

At the high point of the comedy occurs a misquotation from Donne – it was probably made from memory, and if the author checked afterwards, he might have kicked himself, as the original words even more apposite:

“can any Woman of Sense or Spirit endure with Patience, that when priviledg’d by Legal Ceremonies, she approaches the Nuptial Bed, expecting a Man that with Sprightly Embraces, should Answer the Vigour of her Flames, she on the contrary should only meet A Bedful of Bones, and hug a meager useless Corpse rendered as sapless as a Kixe, and dryer than a Pumice-Stone, by the perpetual Fumes of Tobacco, and bewitching effects of this most pernitious COFFEE, whereby Nature is Enfeebled, the Off-spring of our Mighty Ancestors Dwindled into a Succession of Apes and Pigmies: and

---The Age of Man
Now Cramp’t into an Inch, that was a Span.”

The tag derives from AN ANATOMIE OF THE WORLD The first Anniversary, when Donne laments the shortness of human life in this decayed world, and then makes a rapid transition to our diminished stature:

Old Grandsires talk of yesterday with sorrow:
And for our children we reserve to morrow.
So short is life, that every peasant strives,
In a torn house, or field, to have three lives.
And as in lasting, so in length is man,
Contracted to an inch, who was a span

As I say, Donne’s original words would have gone better in the bawdy context. One can see that the author remembered that Donne was talking about longevity (who could forget those resonant first couple of lines in the quotation?), but forgot about the shift to our diminished ‘length’.

The pamphlet author, working at speed, gives an amusing enough account of the working relationship between coffee and alcohol, with the male clientele alternating between coffee house and ale house:

“Some of our Sots pretend tippling of this boiled Soot cures them of being Drunk; but we have reason rather to conclude it makes them so, because we find them not able to stand after it: 'Tis at best but a kind of Earthing a Fox to hunt him more eagerly afterward: A rare method of good-husbandry, to enable a man to be drunk three times a day! Just such a Remedy for Drunkenness, as the Popes allowing of Stews, is a means to prevent Fornication: The Coffee-house being in truth, only a Pimp to the Tavern, a relishing soup preparative to a fresh debauch: For when people have swill’d themselves with a morning draught of more Ale than a Brewers horse can carry, hither they come for a pennyworth of Settle-brain, where they are sure to meet enough lazy pragmatical Companions, that resort here to prattle of News, that they neither understand, nor are concerned in; and after an hours impertinent Chat, begin to consider a Bottle of Claret would do excellent well before Dinner; whereupon to the Bush they all march together, till every one of them is as Drunk as a Drum, and then back again to the Coffee-house to drink themselves sober; where three or four dishes a piece, and smoking, makes their throats as dry as Mount Aetna enflam’d with Brimstone; so that they must away to the next Red Lattice to quench them with a dozen or two of Ale, which at last growing nauseous, one of them begins to extol the blood of the Grape, what rare Langoon, and Racy Canary may be had at the Miter: Sayst thou so? cries another, Let's then go and replenish there· with our Earthen Vessels: So once more they troop to the Sack-shop till they are drunker than before; and then by a retrograde motion, stagger back to Soberize themselves with Coffee.”

The Mens answer to the womens petition, which I imagine the writer had ready for the very next week, voices the male response, which protests against the immoderate demands of the women, representing men knocking themselves out to give the women of England pleasure:

“Have we not condescended to all the methods of Debauchery? Invented more postures than Aretine ever dreamed of? Been Pimps to out own Wives, and Courted Gallants even with the hazard of our Estates, to do us the Civility of making us not only Contented, but most obliged Cuckolds…

That our Island is a Paradise for Women, is verified by the brisk Activity of our Men, who with an equal Contempt scorn Italian Padlocks, and defy French Dildo’s, knowing that a small Doze of Natures Quintessence, satisfies better in a Female Limbeck, than the largest Potion infused by Art.”

“Tis not this incomparable settle Brain that shortens Natures Standard”, the pamphlet exclaims, and even offers the argument is that coffee houses keep men in sexual top form: “Every coffee house has a Tawdry Woman, a wanton daughter, or a Buxom Maid.”

And anyway, it says, the long hours men take at the coffee shop are just another sexual opportunity for women: “The news we chat of there, you will not think it Impertinent, when you consider the fair opportunities you have thereby, of entertaining an obliging friend in our absence, and how many of us have you dubb’d knights of the Bull-Feather, whilst we have sate innocently sipping the Devils holy-water.”

From the earliest, quasi-medical, or traveler’s reports of coffee in the 1650’s, by 1662 there is an exuberance of coffee house titles, some of them very racy. The Maidens complaint against coffee, 1663, is a playlet. I will leave with the pungent sentiments of ‘Dorothy’ about men who drink too much coffee:

“Before I’le fling my self away upon any such dry whorson as drinks Coffee, I’le wrap my Maiden-head in my smock, and fling it into the Ocean to be bugger’d to death by young Lobsters.”

My illustration is from Coffee-house jests 1686.


Sebatinsky said...

This is hilarious! Thanks for sharing.

By the way, I have finished my thesis on Swetnam - if you want to take a look, I'd be happy to email a digital copy.

DrRoy said...

Yes, do send a copy - I promise to glance at it! Excuse the joke, I am interested, but it is u/g marking time. I am roy DOT booth AT btinternet DOT com - I vaguely wonder if that will fox the email address harvesting 'bots'?