A Poet’s Empty Cellar
Does anyone aside from me now read the poetry of Leonard Welsted? If Welsted is mentioned at all today, it is usually in the context of book three of The Dunciad, where he was memorably mocked in a parody of the famous apostrophe to the Thames from Sir John Denham’s topographical poem, “Cooper’s Hill”. Denham had praised the Thames as a river proper to inspire a poet because it reconciled within itself apparently discordant qualities:
O could I flow like thee, and make thy streamMy great example, as it is my theme!Tho’ deep, yet clear; tho’ gentle, yet not dull;Strong, without rage; without o’erflowing, full.
Pope brilliantly twisted these lines to skewer the failings of his poetic rival:
Flow, Welsted, flow! like thine inspirer, Beer,Tho’ stale, not ripe; tho’ thin, yet never clear;So sweetly mawkish, and so smoothly dull;Heady, not strong; and foaming tho’ not full.
Unforgettable and unanswerable though these lines are, there is — when one thinks about them carefully, rather than just marvelling at them — something mysterious. Unless Welsted had the well-established reputation of being a beer-drinker it is hard to see where the joke lies. And yet no corroboration of Pope’s slur (if indeed it is a slur) has ever been found. In fact, such evidence as we have points towards Welsted’s being a sane and perhaps even unusually well-informed enthusiast for wine.
Welsted was orphaned when still young, and raised by relatives. He nevertheless received a very good education, following the well-beaten path from Westminster to Trinity College, Cambridge, although he never took a degree. He began by hunting for patronage from the Tories. Several poetic begging letters addressed to Robert Harley, and as yet unpublished, are preserved in the Portland papers. But in 1714 Welsted saw which way the political wind was now blowing, and attached himself to the Whigs. He became an assistant to Sir Richard Steele, and may have been involved in some mild “cloak and dagger” transactions involving secret service money — certainly Pope insinuates that Welsted dipped into these funds for his own benefit.
Eventually, in 1717, Welsted received some solid patronage. He was appointed to an extraordinary clerkship in the Ordnance office which brought with it a salary of £50 and (perhaps just as valuable) an official residence within the Tower of London. This was the house Welsted described in what is undoubtedly his most human and charming poem, “Oikographia” (1725).
The poem, addressed to the Duke of Dorset, takes the form of a tour of his house:
At length, I’ve gained, as Men will guess,What not great Cunning, nor Address,But Fortune in my Way has thrown,A House, that I may call my own: . . .
We move from a description of the floor plan and elevation to an account of its interior, where Welsted shows an engaging poetic self-deprecation:
pass the Entry, which we callSometimes, in Raillery, a Hall; . . .
As Welsted proceeds through his dwelling, the plainness and lack of ornament evokes the modesty of his family background, coming as he did from ancestors “Who, gravely, nothing made their Care,/But to leave nothing to their Heir!”
However there is one particular part of the house which is not so much plain as deserted — namely the cellar, which Welsted makes the climax of his poem:
The only Place, the humble Grief,That of your Grace implores Relief,Is yet unsung — all wan it lies,And, deep, beneath the Azure Skies;Here, oft, to nourish Spleen I go,A darksome Path! descending low;Here, Fate so will’d, the Scene begins; Fit Penance for a Life of Sins!Aid me, great Shades, Milton and Kneller,To paint the Horrors of the Cellar; . . .
This is plainly “a Cellar, but in outward Plan! / As Senesino is a Man”-the reference, topical enough in its day, is to the celebrated castrato contralto, Francesco Bernardi (1686-1758), known as “Senesino” because of his birth and upbringing in Siena. In 1725 Senesino was five years into what would be (until they fell out) a 16-year collaboration in London with Handel.
Welsted proceeds to list the wines that are currently absent from his cellar but which he’d like to find there. The first vacancy he mentions, however, is not a wine at all, but rather an item of early modern cellar equipment:
Lo! a sad Void! and void of Cheer!No Bellarmine, my Lord, is here;Elisa none, at hand to reach,A Betty call’d in common Speech!
A “Bellarmine” is carved stone jug, typically made to look like a bearded man (the name for it in German is “Bartmann”), which was used to bring wine from the cask to the table. A great number of them were produced in the area round Cologne. They may have been called “Bellarmines” in England to mock the famous cardinal. When he goes on to specify the wines he’d like, Welsted’s taste looks predictable: Muscat, Frontignac, the famous Bordeaux wines of Margaux (here spelled “Margou”) and Haut-Brion (here referred to by the surname of its then owner, “Pontac”), Hermitage, and Cyprus. But when Welsted begins to list recent European poets who have been inspired by wine, we come across something unexpected:
And Ramsay, Offspring of our own,Thro’ the Northward Islands known,Rich Fumes of Chianti does inspire,Then strikes the Caledonian Lyre: . . .
“Ramsay” is the Scottish vernacular and Jacobite poet Allan Ramsay (1686-1758), father to the more famous portrait painter. It is however very surprising to find a reference to Chianti as early as 1725. Although the “Classico” heartland had been delimited nine years before, in 1716, the permissible grape varieties for Chianti would be specified only as late as 1872 by Baron Ricasoli. Before Welsted Chianti is hardly mentioned by English writers. The 1615 English translation of Pierre d’Amity’s The Estates, Empires, and Principallities of the World notes that “Valdarne aboundeth greatly in corn, Chianti in wines, and Mugelle in fruits.” Edmund Smith’s poem on the death of his fellow-poet John Philips makes a passing reference to Chianti as does Richard Bradley in his New Improvements of Planting and Gardening.
It is hard to say which is the more surprising: that this supposedly bigoted Whig writer should have admired the vernacular Jacobite verse of Allan Ramsay, or that this alleged beer drinker should have been unusually aware of Italian wine. Either way, we are reminded that it is unwise implicitly to trust Pope’s accounts of his fellow-poets, no matter how brilliantly phrased.