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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

06 September 2019

Malcolm Guite ponders the days of the Coffee House, which spurred great conversation

WARMING my hands around a mug of good strong coffee, I was musing on the great days of the coffee house: on those gatherings of wits and scholars, warming their hands, too, around their coffee cups, exchanging news, making the stimulus of caffeine such a spur to ingenuity, initiative, and conversation that from the coffee houses sprang the learned societies, the political parties, and, of particular interest to me, the art of the familiar essay.

It was Addison and Steele who founded and, to some degree, perfected that art in The Spectator, whose “copy” was given “from Will’s” or “White’s” or “The Turk’s Head” — whichever coffee house had a reputation for conversation pertinent to that subject. Then Johnson took up the art in The Rambler, in concise, polished, lapidary prose, until, later still, Lamb and Hazlitt and Leigh Hunt breathed into it the new life and warmth of the romantic age. But the familiar essay began in the geniality of coffee and conversation, and often ended, on publication, being read aloud in coffee houses as a further stimulus to more coffee and conversation.

Indeed, Hunt so longed to have witnessed the great days of the London coffee-houses that he wrote a little fantasy in which, while browsing in the back of a secondhand book shop, he finds a dusty old door that opens magically on to an 18th-century coffee house.

I have never yet found that dusty door, but I have found something almost as good. I have in my hands a little book, newly printed from Arc Publications, which contains the original Latin text and a charming new verse translation of Caffaeum, Carmen, (”Coffee, a Poem”): an encomium on coffee composed 300 years ago by l’Abbé Guillaume Massieu, a Jesuit priest turned teacher, and, like most teachers, a serious coffee drinker. His poem was just the kind of thing to recite at your local coffee house, where the other learned coffee-drinkers would enjoy its elegance, wit, and classically perfect Latin metre. Perhaps I should try it at my local Starbucks. Or perhaps not.

There are not many people who can translate neo-classical Latin verse, and, of those, there must be only a handful who can translate it into English heroic couplets in the style of Dryden; but, John Gilmore, a lecturer in English at Warwick University, has done just that, and with great aplomb. Here’s a fine passage that certainly sums up the effect on me of my first morning cup:

And sad cares Coffee chases from our hearts;
Joy to our minds its gentle strength imparts.
One have I seen, who ere the nectar sweet
He tasted, silent entered with slow feet,
And look severe, and brow with wrinkles bound.
Yet he, soon as the beverage sweet he’d down’d
And from his knitted brow fled every cloud,
With witty sayings straightway pleased the crowd.

The poem even has a passage that seems to depict a caffeinated student with an essay crisis, pulling an all-nighter. For coffee, the poet says:

Sleep from the eyes, sloth from the heart wilt drive.
These then themselves should wet with this sweet dew
Who must an end to endless tasks contrive,
Or tireless thumb their books the long night through.

I must say it doesn’t surprise me that the original author of this coffee encomium was a cleric, and by no means the first or last priest to thank God for coffee.

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