Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Religious Drinking of Tobacco

I have found a couple of old cigar poems. I will post the first one by the Puritan poet Robert Wisdome in this posting, and another--being a madrigal authored by Michael East (1580-1648)--in the next.

The first poem entitled "A Religious Use of Taking Tobacco" is attributed by many to the archdeacon of Ely and poet Robert Wisdome, later nominated by King Edward VI to an Irish bishobric (d. 1568). I therefore offer this poem with a monitum, a warning, inasmuch as our right reverend archdeacon was an enemy of both the Pope and the Turk. As to the first, he was in error. As to the second, he was aright.

Wisdome's unwise tendentiousness shows itself in his hymnody. There is a hymn attributed to Wisdome which begins:

Preserve us, Lord, by thy dear word,
From Turk and pope defend us, Lord.

I suppose he had his reasons, and he is said to have fled merry old England when the Catholic Queen Mary assumed the throne of England.

In any event, this sort of bias was mocked by Bishop Richard Corbet (1592-1635), one of the so-called "metaphysical poets," who wrote a poem entitled "To the Ghost of Robert Wisdome."* He was dean of Christchurch Oxford, then Bishop of Oxford, and finally Bishop of Norwich.

Thou once a body, now but air,
Arch-botcher of a psalme or prayer,
From Carfax come!
And patch me up a zealous lay.
With an old ever and for ay,
Or, all and some.

Or such a spirit lend me,
As may a hymn down send me
To purge my brain:
So, Robert, look behind thee,
Lest Turk or Pope do find thee,
And go to bed again.

"Puritan" Brand Cigar Label

In his poem "A Religious Use of Tobacco," Wisdome wisely seeks to link the smoking of tobacco with human life within the perspective of the Christian revelation. The poem therefore seeks to view the smoking of tobacco as a memento mori, a reminder of death. It notes that tobacco is like a man who is born and quickly shoots up like a sapling. Not long, however, the decay of age sets in, and eventually the life is cut down by death. The change of the tobacco leaf into smoke is a symbol of life's fleetingness, its vanity. Life and all the earthly goods are as ephemeral as cigar smoke. Wisdome likens the filth of the pipe to the soul marred by sin, and such sin is cleansed only as if through fire. The ashes that are left behind ought to remind us that were but dust and ash, and to dust and ash we shall return. Cinerem in cinerem, pulverem in pulverem.

The Indian weed, withered quite,
Green at morn, cut down at night,
Shows thy decay,
All flesh is hay:
Thus think, then drink Tobacco.**

And when the smoke ascends on high,
Think thou beholdest the vanity
Of worldly stuff,
Gone with a puff,
Thus think, then drink tobacco.

And when the pipe grows foul within,
Think on thy soul defil'd with sin,
And then the fire
It doth require.
Thus think, then drink tobacco.

The ashes that are left behind,
May serve to put thee still in mind,
That unto dust
Return thou must.
Thus think, then drink tobacco.

Some forms of this poem have an alternative first stanza attributed to the Calvinist George Wither (1588-1667). Wither also adds an additional stanza.

Why should we so much despise,
So good and wholesome an exercise,
As early and late,
To meditate:
Thus think, then drink Tobacco.

The pipe that is so lily-white,
Shows thee to be a mortal wight;***
And even such,
Gone with a touch,
Thus think, then drink tobacco.

*See Thomas Warton, History of English Poetry: From the Twelfth to the Close of the Sixteenth Century (London: Reeves & Turner, 1871), Vol. 4, 131-32.
**It seems odd, but "drinking" tobacco was another way of referring to the "smoking" of tobacco. See Notes and Queries: Media of Inter-Communication for Literary Men, Artists, Antiquaries, Genealogists, etc. (London: Bell & Daldy, 1856) (2nd series, Vol. I (Jan-Jun 1856), 378 (s.v. "Song on Tobacco") It may, however, also stem from the Elizabethan custom of both breathing and swallowing the smoke. As a result of this oddity, some versions of the poem have replaced the term "drink" with "take."
***Wight is a Middle English word derived from Old English wiht, and it is used to refer to a sentient being or creature. It is most often used to describe a living human being.

And interesting discussion of this poem may be found at "To 'Drink' Tobacco" a posting in the blog Gypsy Scholar.

No comments:

Post a Comment