by Andrew McConnell Stott
Cartoon by Mike Barfield
The most notable meal in the history of English Romantic poetry took place on a Sunday afternoon in late December, 1817, as a garrulous group of men assembled at the London home of the artist, Benjamin Robert Haydon.
The guests included William Wordsworth, the essayist Charles Lamb, one of Haydon’s models, a gatecrasher, and a young unknown named John Keats. According to Haydon’s diary, it was a great success—a big boozy incitement full of laughter, argument, and discussion of topics as diverse as Homer, mathematics, and postage stamps—all in the shadow of the host’s enormous, jostling masterpiece, Christ’s Entry Into Jerusalem, which hung on the dining-room wall.
But while Haydon’s “immortal dinner” is never to be forgotten as a high point of Romantic conviviality, there is no record of what the men actually ate. This is perhaps not so surprising given that Romantic poetry is largely unconcerned with food beyond the occasional ripening ear of corn or grapes dangling above the lyre. But even poets have to eat—so what do we know of their diets?
Perhaps it’s telling that the most influential Romanticist was also the least concerned with food. Wordsworth paid scant attention to gustatory matters, celebrating at his table, as in his work, simple country provisions such as fresh bread and milk, cheese, and “hasty pudding,” a gruel of oatmeal boiled in brine. He did, however, accept edible gifts from admirers, and was once given an entire calf’s head.
In contrast, William Blake loved to eat and his wife Catherine was an excellent cook. She also had a habit of serving him up with empty plates as a reminder that he needed to start bringing home some money. Habitually broke, Blake maintained temperate appetites, eating cold mutton and drinking pints of porter from the local pub. (He was particularly offended by wine glasses, which he considered an absurd affectation.) Blake also accepted gifts from admirers, and having once been given a bottle of walnut oil that he didn’t know what to do with, decided to drink it all in one go.
Two decades of opium addiction wreaked havoc on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s digestion (one of its chief side-effects was an awful, binding constipation). Subject to frequent and recurring “bowel attacks” that made him “weep and sweat and moan and scream,” he was off solid food for weeks at a time, and accordingly ate a lot of broth. He even dabbled in vegetarianism for a while, but believed it gave him insomnia. When he was well, Coleridge loved to go out to dinner, and his hosts never failed to find him the consummate companion—witty, erudite, able to recite long poems by heart, and with more natural intelligence than any writer of his generation—although he could also be a handful. At one dinner party, encouraged by the host, he smashed a window and several wine glasses, and started pitching the cutlery at the tumblers. Coleridge particularly loved apple dumplings.
If the first generation of Romantic poets had an unhappy relationship with food, the second were little better. Lord Byron, scarred by being a “fat school-boy,” had transformed himself into a “leguminous-eating Ascetic” by the time he went up to Cambridge in 1805. But the fat wanted him, and he spent his entire life dieting, caught up in a vomitous cycle of binge and purge, fasting all week and then gorging himself on “a pint of bucelles [Portuguese wine] and fish.” While convinced that he always felt better when he was a bit heavier, he was similarly certain that the extra weight caused him to misbehave, and that it was his duty to “starve the devil out.” Byron rarely accepted dinner invitations and claimed to be especially repulsed by the sight of women eating, although at least some of this can be attributed to the creation of his own myth. When Byron went to Samuel Rogers’ house for dinner, he refused soup, fish, mutton, and wine, and when asked what he did eat, replied, “nothing but hard biscuits and soda-water” (Rogers eventually served him potatoes, “bruised down on his plate and drenched with vinegar.”) A few days later, Rogers met Byron’s best friend John Cam Hobhouse, and asked him how long Byron intended to continue with his diet. “Just as long as you continue to notice it,” was the reply.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was prone to forgetting where he was and who he was married to, frequently became so absorbed in thought that he also forgot to eat. A vegetarian from his teenage years, Shelley’s pamphlet On the Vegetable System of Diet (1813) equated rearing livestock and eating meat with man’s murderous urge to war and dominion. When he did eat, his sweet tooth held sway over an array of jam tarts, penny buns, and “panada”—a kind of boiled dough covered in sugar and raisins—and glasses of “spurious lemonade.” He also liked to test the inspirational qualities of various foods, and once badly poisoned himself by eating laurel leaves. Laurel is the garland of the poets, and also contains prussic acid. He also liked to lick tree sap.
Finally, as poor, sickly John Keats spent most of his life battling the twin poetic evils of poverty and illness, he was forced to endure many months on restrictive diets that were intended to restore his health, but only made him weaker. When in good spirits, he was particularly partial to game—hare, partridge, grouse, woodcock and pheasant, which it was the fashion to hang almost to the point of putrefaction before cooking. He washed it all down with buckets of claret, and while the stereotypical image of a weakling Keats doesn’t really permit for him to be an heroic drinker, claret, he said, transformed him into “Hermes.” It was “the only palate affair I am at all sensual in.”
Andrew McConnell Stott’s books include The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi: Laughter, Madness, and the Story of Britain’s Greatest Comedian, which won the Royal Society of Literature/Jerwood Award for Non-Fiction and was a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week, and The Vampyre Family: Passion, Envy and the Curse of Byron which we review here. He is Professor of English at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. His Twitter ID is @amstott1789.