For Jonathan Swift, a medicinal hogshead was the perfect measure of wine


Swift thought that wine was indispensable for those unfortunate enough (as he saw it) to live in Ireland.  “I tell you”, he wrote to the abstemious Pope in February 1730, “good wine is 90 per cent in living in Ireland”; before concluding morosely that “in you, I sing to the deaf”. Certainly, Swift did not indulge in false economies over wine. In 1734 he estimated his consumption at “between five and six hogsheads a year”, in 1732 at six hogsheads. In Swift’s day the hogshead was equivalent to 63 gallons, and so five and half hogsheads would equate to just over two thousand of today’s 75cl bottles of wine. Six bottles a day is a fairly fearsome rate of consumption, even if we assume (as seems likely from the context) that Swift is talking about the total consumption of his household. The account he gave Gay in 1732 of his drinking gets nowhere near this figure:

I would know how your own health is, and how much wine you drink in a day. My Stint in company is a pint at noon, and half as much at night, but I often dine alone like a Hermit, and then I drink little or none at all.

In 1735 he substantially confirmed this rate of consumption: “Wine is good for me, and I drink a Bottle to my own share every day, to bring some heat into my Stomach.”

The medicinal motive in wine-drinking for Swift was not entirely a pose. Writing to his friend the medical doctor John Arbuthnot in 1734, Swift’s prose tilts slightly towards the language and manner of a patient seeking a private consultation: “I drink a bottle of French wine myself every day, though I love it not; but it is the only thing that keeps me out of pain.” Mindful of those five or six hogsheads per annum, we may pause in polite disbelief over Swift’s claims not to like wine particularly. But it was a claim he repeated to Pope in 1733, while hinting at the reason why he steadily drank something of which he claimed not to be especially fond: “I drink less than usual…and yet I do not love wine, but take it purely as a medecine [sic] and I love Mault liquor, but dare not touch a drop.”

Swift’s cautiousness with beer goes back to problems with his health in the winter of 1708-9. It was then that Swift suffered the first attack of the Ménière’s syndrome which would plague him with nausea and dizziness for the rest of his life. Writing to Archbishop King, he complained of “a cruel distemper, a giddiness in my head, that would not suffer me to write or think of anything, and of which I am now slowly recovering”. Swift connected the onset of this complaint with a coincidental indulgence in soft fruit and beer, and although he was desperately fond of them, thereafter he strictly limited his intake of both. Quite unnecessarily so, since there seems to be no strong connection between diet and Ménière’s syndrome.

Swift’s taste in wine was formed by the years he spent in London working as chief of propaganda for the Oxford-Bolingbroke ministry during the last four years of the reign of Queen Anne. The journal he kept of those years, written as almost daily entries which he collected up and periodically sent to Esther Johnson, or “Stella”, and her companion Rebecca Dingley in Dublin, give us the most detailed and intimate picture we possess of any period of Swift’s life.

He had fallen in with a hard-drinking set. Oxford scandalised Queen Anne by the frequency with which he would appear before her incapacitated by drink, and Bolingbroke was a notorious libertine. The entry in the Journal to Stella for January 18, 1711 is typical of many. A meeting when Oxford, Bolingbroke and Swift were to dine alone “about some business of importance” degenerated into a drinking party orchestrated by Bolingbroke and from which Swift could not extricate himself: “I wonder at the civility of these people; when he [Bolingbroke] saw I would drink no more, he would always pass the bottle by me, and yet I could not keep the toad from drinking himself, nor he would not let me go neither.” It was a way of life that took its toll on even its most hardened practitioners. Also typical is the account Swift gives of calling on Bolingbroke and finding him “very ill with the gravel and pain in his back, by Burgundy and Champagne…I found him drinking tea while the rest were at Champagne, and was very glad of it.”

However, the aristocratic wines favoured by Bolingbroke did not suit Swift, and drinking them turned his thoughts into that  hypochondriacal stream to which he was in any case naturally disposed. On July 30, 1711 he wrote in a mood of anxious self-pity: “In my conscience I fear I shall have the gout. I sometimes feel pains about my feet and toes; I never drank till within these two years, and I did it to cure my head. I often sit  evening with some of these people, and drink in my turn; but I am now resolved to drink ten times less than before.”

But no such guilty apprehensions were raised by a different drinking party in the City on October 18, 1710: “To-day I dined, by invitation, with Stratford and others, at a young merchant’s in the city, with Hermitage and Tockay, and staid till nine, and am now come home.” Do we have here a hint about the social geography of wine in early 18th-century London, with the aristocrats of Westminster drinking Champagne and Burgundy, and the merchants of the City preferring the great wine of the northern Rhone, Hermitage, and the wonderful sweet wine of Hungary (now happily much restored after the depredations of the Communist period)?

Swift’s tastes cleaved to those of the City rather than the West End. In his later correspondence a particularly melancholy letter describes how a parcel of Hermitage which Swift had bought from Arbuthnot’s brother Robert failed to give satisfaction. “I complain to you”, Swift wrote to Gay in March 1730, “as I did to Mr Pope” before describing how Arbuthnot had sent him “150 Bottles of Hermitage, that by the time they got into my Cellar cost me 27ll and in less than a year all turned sowr; tho’ what I had formerly…was not fit to drink till two years, and grew better at seven, as a few left, yet shew.” It was unlikely that this wine was shipped in bottle. Much more probably a half-hogshead of Hermitage was sent by boat down the Rhone, and then shipped to Dublin from Marseille, which was a focus for the Irish linen trade and from which ships frequently set sail for Ireland. On its arrival in Dublin Swift would have had the wine bottled in his own cellar. The wine might have spoiled when still in barrel, or during the bottling. Either way, this attempt by Swift to revive that carefree evening in the City with the anonymous young merchant and his friends was doomed to end in a very Swiftian vexation.

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