'It cheers but not inebriates,' as Mr. Swinburne so beautifully observes," replied his cousin.This sounds very unlike Swinburne; for the last 30 years of his life he was a reformed drunk, but not so reformed as to come out with such a platitude. No, Googling finds "the cup that cheers but not inebriates" - a widespread aphorism about tea beloved of the 19th century temperance movement - is a cliché of largely forgotten attribution, almost invariably misquoted from William Cowper's A Winter Evening, Book IV of The Task (which I first identified via William Shepard Walsh's 1909 Handy-book of Literary Curiosities).
Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast,As The Literary Encyclopedia explains, this 1785 epic of blank verse was written for a challenge:
Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa around,
And while the bubbling and loud-hissing urn
Throws up a steamy column, and the cups
That cheer but not inebriate, wait on each,
So let us welcome peaceful evening in.
according to his prefatory “Advertisement”, “A lady [Lady Ann Austen], fond of blank verse, demanded a poem of that kind from the author, and gave him the Sofa for a subject”. The opening line proclaims, “I sing the Sofa”. But the poem soon expands in scope and subject matter far beyond that beginning, to embrace, as Vincent Newey suggests, “practically the entire spectrum of contemporary English life” (Cowper’s Poetry 93).The Task is, essentially, a verse essay on Cowper's experience of English landscape, culture and Englishness. It's online in full - Project Gutenberg EText-No. 3698 - and begins thus:
- William Cowper: The Task, The Literary Encyclopedia
I sing the Sofa. I, who lately sangSwinburne does, it turns out, have some connection with the Cowper quote. A few Victorian publications quote him as snarking about it, tracking back to this article:
Truth, Hope, and Charity, and touched with awe
The solemn chords, and with a trembling hand,
Escaped with pain from that advent'rous flight,
Now seek repose upon a humbler theme:
The theme though humble, yet august and proud
The occasion--for the Fair commands the song.
I suppose that it was these descriptions of the tea-table which drew from Mr. Swinburne the sneer, "Happy is the country that is fed with the tea-pot pieties of Cowper."But this too seems a product of the powerful editorial urge to rehash quotations into epigrams their supposed authors never said. Swinburne - writing about the inability of both the English religious mainstream and English non-religious radicals to accommodate a maverick religious mystic like William Blake - actually wrote:
- Tea, Once a Week, July 31 1869
What could be made of such a man [Blake] in a country fed and clothed with the teapot pieties of Cowper and the tape-yard infidelities 1 of Paine?Swinburne may not even have been referring to the "cups that cheer" quote but to the overall cosiness of Cowper's works; but this trail of increasingly flexible attribution explains how the quote came to be pinned to him in Maxwell Gray's mind.
- Algernon Swinburne, William Blake: A Critical Essay, 1868
1. A tape-yard is a histrorical term for a tape measure; I can't imagine what this phrase means. Any thoughts?
Addendum: upgrade from comments. Fuchsoid has rightly pointed out that
"Cheers but does not inebriate" seems to have first been used by Bishop Berkeley (the one refuted by Dr Johnson) about tar-water, a rather nasty-sounding remedy of this day, now happily supplanted by real tea.I stand corrected. Googling finds that it appears in section 217 of his book in praise of tar-water, Siris (of which more later):
... whereas the luminous spirit lodged and detained- in the native balsam of pines and firs, is of a nature so mild and benign and proportioned to the human constitution, as to warm without heating, to cheer but not inebriate ...Cowper, however, popularised the phrase in relation to tea. Fuchsoid adds:
Might the "tape-yard" remark have been a reference to Paine's early apprenticeship to a stay-maker?That sounds a highly plausible explanation.