Ape And Grape

The drinking habits — and political inclinations — of the orang-utan


Thomas Love Peacock was raised in a way which encouraged independence of mind. He did not attend a public school, but was privately tutored, receiving an excellent grounding in Greek, Latin, Italian and French. These languages remained with him, despite a lack of later formal training. Even towards the end of his life, in 1851, he was able to compose a poem in parallel Greek, Latin and English versions to celebrate a particularly good whitebait dinner. The conclusion of the poem records the wines which accompanied the meal:

Thy fields, Champagne, supplied us with our wine,
Madeira’s Island, and the rocks of Rhine.
The sun was set, and twilight veiled the land:
Then all stood up, — all who had strength to stand,
And pouring down, of Maraschino, fit
Libations to the gods of wine and wit . . .

Wine had been a favourite subject of Peacock’s since he first began writing verse. “The Monks of St Mark” was composed in September 1804, when he was only 18. It relates the mishaps of an evening’s drinking, when “the friars, with BACCHUS, not SATAN, to grapple, / The refect’ry have met in, instead of the chapel”:

’Stead of singing TE DEUMS, on ground-pressing knees,
They were piously bawling songs, catches, and glees:
Or, all speakers, no hearers, unceasing, untir’d,
Each stoutly held forth, by the spirit inspir’d,
Till the Abbot, who only the flock could controul,
Exclaim’d: “AUGUSTINE! pr’ythee push round the bowl!”

Augustine manages to spill the hot punch in Pedro’s lap; he helps Pedro to bed, and befuddled in drink, the taper goes out. The monks tumble downstairs, where Augustine suffers an unexpected and unfamiliar spasm of religious sentiment:

Poor AUGUSTINE’S bosom with terror was cold,
On finding his burthen thus slide from his hold:
Then, cautiously stealing, and groping around,
He felt himself suddenly struck to the ground;
Yells, groans, and strange noises, were heard in the dark,
And, trembling and sweating, he pray’d to ST MARK!

But piety, in this poem, is nothing more than the result of error. Once the tapers have been relit, this short episode of religious fervour is concluded: “They reel’d back to their bowls, laughed at care and foul weather, / And were shortly all under the table together.” In letters to Edward Hookham and Thomas Forster of 1810, Peacock revealed that he had long ago discarded Christianity as “a grovelling, misanthropical, blood-thirsty superstition”. The tone of “The Monks of St Mark” is less severe than that. But its levity suggests that by 1804 Peacock was already well on the way to the pagan Epicureanism which remained his creed for the rest of his life. This is laughing satire, and Buchanan was surely right when he observed that Peacock mocked human nature because he loved it.

Peacock was no doubt more original as a writer of prose than of verse. Most of the conversation novels for which he is best known — Nightmare Abbey, Headlong Hall, Crotchet Castle — include semi-dramatised chapters set round the dinner table, which allowed Peacock to put his characters in motion and have them develop their distinctive points of view in dialogue with one another. In chapter five of Headlong Hall, for instance, after the burgundy had “taken two or three tours of the table,” Mr Escot denounces the influence of wine:

The first inhabitants of the world knew not the use either of wine or animal food; it is, therefore, by no means incredible that they lived to the age of several centuries, free from war, and commerce, and arbitrary government, and every other species of desolating wickedness.

This combination of Biblical chronology, anti-commercial primitivism, and utopian vegetarianism was about as far from Peacock’s own views as it was possible to get. A few pages later Mr Jenkison speaks with something much more like authority: “I conceive the use of wine to be always pernicious in excess, but often useful in moderation: it certainly kills some, but it saves the lives of others: I find that an occasional glass, taken with judgment and caution, has a very salutary effect.”

It is however in Melincourt, first published in 1817, that Peacock included his most interesting dinner scene, at least from the point of view of what it reveals about his attitude towards wine. The premise of Melincourt derives from the evolutionary speculations of Lord Monboddo concerning the relation of mankind to other primates, and relates those explosive thoughts to the question of political reform. An orang-utan, Sir Oran Haut-ton, is put forward successfully as a parliamentary candidate for the rotten borough of Onevote. In chapter 16,  as in Headlong Hall, a dinner is described. The bottle circulates after dinner, and the Reverend Mr Portpipe “pronounced an eulogium on the wine”.  Sir Oran Haut-ton “maintained a grave and dignified silence, but demonstrated by his practice that his taste was orthodox”. In fact, he keeps up glass for glass with Mr Portpipe:

Mr O’Scarum sat between Sir Oran and the Reverend Mr Portpipe, and kept a sharp look-out on both sides of him; but did not, during the whole course of the sitting, detect either of his supporters in the heinous fact of a heeltap.

However, the effect of wine on Sir Oran is not to brutalise him, but rather to humanise him. After the bottle has circulated a few more times, Sir Oran produces a flute from his pocket and plays over the air of the glee which the diners have just been singing. This unexpected display of musical skill astonishes the company:

The company was at first extremely surprised, and then joined in applauding his performance. SIR ORAN bowed acknowledgment, and returned his flute to his pocket.

It is a strangely decorous moment. In place of the knockabout comedy and deafness to others of “The Monks of St Mark”,  wine renders men more, rather than less, human, and more attentive to one another. No doubt Mr Portpipe goes too far when, earlier on, he has lavished this praise on wine: “Wine is the elixir of life. ‘The soul’ says St Augustine ‘cannot live in drought’. What is death? Dust and ashes. There is nothing so dry. What is life? Spirit. What is Spirit? Wine.” But even so, he is on the right lines.

What Johnson famously said of marriage might be adapted with some small variations to Peacock’s views on wine: indulgence may lead to mishaps, but sobriety has no pleasures. “Hic non bibitur” is a motto fit to be placed only over the grave.

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