Diets of the Romantic poets

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.
Christ's_Entry_into_Jerusalem
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.

William Wordsworth by Richard Carruthers, Wordsworth Trust

William Wordsworth by Richard Carruthers, Wordsworth Trust

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.

William Blake by Thomas Phillips, National Portrait Gallery, London

William Blake by Thomas Phillips, National Portrait Gallery, London

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.

Coleridge in 1814. By Washington Allston, National Portrait Gallery, London

Coleridge in 1814. By Washington Allston, National Portrait Gallery, London

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.

George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron by Richard Westall

George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron by Richard Westall, National Portrait Gallery, on display at Dove Cottage

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.

Percy Bysshe Shelley by Amelia Curran

Percy Bysshe Shelley by Amelia Curran, National Portrait Gallery

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.”

John Keats by William Hilton, after Joseph Severn. National Portrait Gallery.

John Keats by William Hilton, after Joseph Severn. National Portrait Gallery.

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.
Andy Stott

Romantic readings: Jerusalem, by William Blake

by Pamela Davenport

William Blake was a favourite poet both for me and my father, Jack. Blake was a poet, painter and engraver, who used his artistic skills to condemn the institutions of government, army and the church, and the way the poor and vulnerable people were disenfranchised and marginalised. Some people view Blake as a complex character and an isolated mystic, seeing “a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower. Hold infinity in the palms of your hand and eternity in an hour”. However, to me Blake was a radical prophetic poet and a visionary. At school, I was introduced to Tyger Tyger , and I became fascinated with the brilliant optical illusion and imagination contained within the poem. “Tyger Tyger burning bright In the forests of the night”. The pounding rhythm of the poem was an earworm, with the words constantly repeating themselves in my head.
However, it was through my Dad, who loved reading but was denied the chance of higher education, that I came to see Jerusalem as a fascinating commentary on industrial society. Jerusalem was my Dad’s favourite poem. I have lovely memories of how he would laugh out loud when key ‘institutions’ used it as their anthem, given the anti-establishment views the poem expresses. I also remember how pleased he was to see it used in the Opening Ceremony for the Olympic Games in 2012.
Since Sir Hubert Parry set the poem to music in 1916, Jerusalem has gained in popularity. For some people the Last Night of The Proms would not be complete without the rousing renditions of this beautiful piece of work, and many it would be their preferred national anthem. But personally, I have never been entirely sure that Jerusalem fits comfortably with Land of Hope and Glory and Rule Britannia. As the poem gained in popularity, people have interpreted it as a view of an idealised England, but this distracts from the ideals and values which Blake hoped to express. The poem is open to many different interpretations, and some see it as an expression of nationalism. But to my Dad, Blake was far from a nationalist, and a much more complex religious and revolutionary character.

William Blake by Thomas Phillips, National Portrait Gallery, London

William Blake by Thomas Phillips, National Portrait Gallery, London

This is apparent at the beginning of the poem, where Blake wonders whether Jesus once visited England to establish a society of universal peace. “And did those feet in ancient time Walk upon England’s mountains green? And was the holy Lamb of God On England’s pleasant pastures seen?” The rest of the poem forms a series of questions, which are left for the reader to answer, from their own thoughts and imaginations.
The poem then moves quickly onto the clouded hills and the unforgettable image of the dark, satanic mills. Originating from Lancashire and from a family of mill workers, these words are tremendously powerful to me. Even in the twentieth century, life for mill workers was harsh, with long working days, excessive heat, air thick with cotton dust, and the deafening noise from the machinery. Health and well-being was not a major consideration. The success of the factory system came at a cost, a human cost.
Jerusalem contrasts the rural ideal of a harmonious and peaceful society with the crushing reality of an industrialised world: “And did the Countenance Divine Shine forth upon our clouded hills? And was Jerusalem builded here Among these dark Satanic Mills?” The poem then becomes a rallying call, and Blake demonstrates his determination to fight for justice and change. In this way, the dark satanic mills became my Dad’s and Blake’s reality, as the green and pleasant land was not.
When I hear Jerusalem I think of my Dad and the values he instilled in me: for me, the poem represents the struggle for human not national identity, whether that’s against the ‘dark satanic mills’, or other more contemporary problems. That’s why I believe that it resonates with those who have no faith, as well as those who do. Like all favourite poems, Jerusalem has meant different things at different times of my life. I saw the film Suffragette, which tells the story of women’s fight for votes, and a fairer and more equal society. It reminded me that the rights to the poem were owned for many years by the Suffragette Movement. The prison cells, the forced feeding, and the continued fight for equality became their own version of the ‘dark Satanic mills’. For women it would take many years for any form of Jerusalem to be ‘builded here’.
So whatever the interpretation of Jerusalem, one thing is certain: the poem has staying power and has ensured that William Blake is still remembered today. His words are as relevant now as they were in the early 19th century: “I will not cease from mental fight, Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand Till we have built Jerusalem In England’s green and pleasant land”. To my Dad and me, the poem became an expression for our shared desire for social change, and our hope for a better future. We sang it with pride at Dad’s funeral, a fitting tribute.

Pamela Davenport is an experienced Higher and Further Education teacher, who has substantial experience working with children and young people in social care, community and educational settings including the British Council’s Erasmus/Socrates Teacher Mobility Project. Writer on social Care Values in Practice, The Invisible Child, The Rights of Children and co-author for Teacher’s Handbook for HUGS Charity. She is a passionate lover of art and literature, in particular Shakespeare, the Romantics, and the work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.Pamela D