‘So shall the Muse from Smoke elicit Fire’: The Poetics of Tobacco in England, 1700–1740

Posted by Laurence Williams on Tuesday, July 26, 2011 with 2 comments
One of the most interesting aspects of our work on the Digital Miscellanies Index is its potential to improve our understanding of how eighteenth-century poetry responds to (or shapes) the changing tastes, recreations, and social practices of everyday English life. The miscellanies we’ve catalogued so far, from the first four decades of the century, offer plenty of opportunity to explore the poetic debate surrounding one of the most common social habits of the period: the English love affair with tobacco, whether smoked in pipes, chewed, or taken as snuff. So far, the DMI includes over twenty-five poems on the herb, across a range of poetic forms: eulogies upon the (supposed) health benefits of the pipe, spiritual meditations on the act of smoking, and satires on snuff’s effects on English society. There’s even a mock-eulogy to Sir Walter Raleigh, from a self-professed ‘Convert to Tobacco’, in gratitude for his role in introducing the herb to England:
To Thee we owe our Country’s Wealth,
And smirking Glee, and lusty Health.
From Ashes white as driven Snow,
Tobacco Clouds (’tis what we owe)
In fragrant Wreaths ascend the Sky
To Thee the Smoaker’s Deity. [1]

The Triumph of Tobacco

The popularity of this theme reminds us that literary circles in early eighteenth-century London were steeped in the culture of tobacco. It can seem as if virtually every prominent male author during the period—including Addison, Pope, Prior, Steele, and Swift—was an occasional or frequent user of the drug. Social gatherings were often shrouded in the ‘fragrant Wreaths’ of pipe-smoke: Macaulay’s History of England describes how the coffee-houses of the period ‘reeked with tobacco like a guard room; and strangers sometimes expressed their surprise that so many people should leave their own firesides to sit in the midst of eternal fog and stench’ (The description is corroborated by John Gay’s account of Will’s coffee-house in 1715 as choked in ‘clouds of Tobacco’).[2]

The Coffeehouse Mob’, from Vulgus Britannicus: or the British Hudibras (1711). Note the tobacco-pipe on the table.

But tobacco usage in eighteenth-century Britain also extended far beyond the metropolitan elite. By the beginning of the century, over thirty million pounds’ weight of tobacco were imported annually from the Chesapeake Bay colonies (Maryland and Virginia), serving a domestic market that encompassed all regions and social classes.[3] Indeed, one of the most common themes in the poetic representation of leaf tobacco is of the drug as a universal refinement. Less genteel than tea, less associated with the urban poor than gin, smoking could be imagined as a social pursuit uniting the nation. The ‘Convert to Tobacco’ describes how tobacco offers equal pleasure to the ‘Justice grave’, who holds court at his table after dinner ‘Whilst sober whiff fills each Hiatus’; to the ‘Country vicar’ poring over ‘Text obscure’, pipe in hand; and to the Welsh farmer trudging through snowdrifts (‘With thee he warms his dripping Nose, / And scrubs, and puffs, and on he goes’).[4] Another anonymous poem titled ‘The Triumph of Tobacco’ presents an even more wide-reaching vision of the popularity of the drug:
Tobacco engages
Both Sexes, all Ages,
The Poor as well as the Wealthy,
From the Court to the Cottage,
From Childhood to Dotage,
Both those that are sick and the healthy.[5]

The ‘Filthy Smoaker’

But poetic praise of tobacco is often balanced by depictions of it as an unclean habit and, less commonly, as a source of disease. The debate often divides along lines of gender, with aversion to the drug seen as an important indication of feminine delicacy. One bawdy ballad of battle between the sexes tells of a widow who (perhaps accurately expressing the attitudes of many contemporary women) resolves ‘Never to wed with filthy Smoaker’, and devises a test in which her suitors are presented with a wine and tobacco board, and then thrown out when they succumb to temptation and fill the room with ‘spicy Whiffs’. Her plan is eventually subverted by an Irishman who learns the secret by bribing her maid and successfully conceals his addiction before announcing, on their wedding night:
Nat, Fetch the Pound of Sly’s Virginia,
All the new Pipes, and a fresh Light,
Your Master says he’ll smoke all Night.[6]

A handful of early eighteenth-century poets, anticipating later medical research into the dangers of tobacco use (such as John Hill’s Cautions Against the Immoderate Use of Snuff, 1761), also connect tobacco with physical sickness. One ‘Country Parson’ figuratively compares the snuff-box to the ‘Box of Pandora’, complaining that ‘Politeness, which Men in this Age so admire, / Hath taught us in Snuff against Health to conspire’.[7] The poet and playwright Thomas Brown (c.1663–1704) strikes a more elegiac note in his short poem 'On Owen Swan’s Tobacco Papers', which depicts his friend Swan (innkeeper of the Black-Swan Tavern in Bartholomew Lane) as, quite literally, smoking himself into the afterlife:
The aged Swan, oppress’d by time and cares,
With Indian sweets his funeral prepares;
Light up the pile, thus he’ll perfume the skies,
And, phoenix-like, from his own ashes rise. [8]

Inspired by the Pipe

But, overall, eighteenth-century poets seem more interested in tobacco’s effects on the mind, than on the body. As Brown’s image of a ‘Swan’ transfigured by smoking into a phoenix suggests, nicotine can be presented as an experience that literally ‘inspires’ (in the literal sense of ‘breathes in’) and elevates the mind. For the ‘Convert to Tobacco’, smoking offers a moment of mental clarity, as ‘lighted Pipe’s prevailing Ray, / Like Phoebus, drives the Fog away’ (111).

One Scottish Secessionist minister, Ralph Erskine (1686–1752), even presents smoking as a spiritual experience which brings the mind closer to God. Erskine’s ‘Smoking Spiritualised’ (1739), a religious meditation in the tradition of Robert Boyle’s Occasional Reflections (1665) upon everyday objects, is one of the most unusual of eighteenth-century tobacco poems. Published at the end of a collection of elegies addressed to a recently deceased friend, with the hope ‘that it may be acceptable to some who love to be spiritually minded’, the poem draws a series of analogies between tobacco’s effects on the body and the Holy Spirit’s action on the soul.[9] For Erskine, the ‘medicinal effect’ of tobacco leaves parallels the greater healing power of ‘Jesse’s Flower’; the fire inside the pipe suggests the hell-fires waiting for the sinner’s soul; and the clouds of tobacco smoke, although suggestive of the vanity ‘Of worldly stuff / Gone with a puff’, may prefigure the soul’s ascent to heaven.
In vain th’unlighted Pipe you blow,
Your pains in outward Means are so,
Till heavenly fire,
Your heart inspire.
Thus think and smoke Tobacco.

The Smoke, like burning Incense, tow’rs.
So should a praying heart of yours
With ardent cries
Surmount the skies.
Thus think and smoke Tobacco.

It is more common, however, for eighteenth-century poets to approach the idea of finding ‘inspiration’ in tobacco with scepticism or satire. In the work of the most accomplished and prolific tobacco-satirist of the period, the poet (and occasional lawyer and parliamentarian) Isaac Hawkins Browne (1706–60), the ‘Muse from Smoke’ is presented as a disreputable cousin to the classical Muses: although it seems to offer a sublime elevation of perception and thoughts, it often collapses into the bathos of fleshly cravings, addiction, and uncleanness.

Browne’s tobacco poems, written as parodies of six contemporary poets (Cibber, Ambrose Philips, Thomson, Young, Pope, and Swift), are published in 1736 as A Pipe of Tobacco (also pirated the same year in two miscellanies by Edmund Curll).[10]

Isaac Hawkins Browne, A Pipe of Tobacco, 3rd edition (1744)

Browne’s underlying satirical strategy is to suggest that, although these celebrated authors claim more elevated sources of poetic inspiration, in reality they rely on the more illicit ‘inspiration’ provided by tobacco. As he puts it—in a mischievously misapplied quotation from Horace’s Ars Poetica—the practice of modern poets is ex fumo dare lucem: to give light from smoke. Jonathan Swift, debating politics at home in Ireland with the neighbouring vicar, relies on tobacco (rather than patriotism) to spur him into anti-government fervour. Ambrose Philips’s sugary ode to the young Miss Carteret is parodied (in a poem by another author, John Hoadly) as an erotic ode to Philips’s tobacco pipe: ‘Little Tube of mighty Pow’r, / Charmer of an idle Hour, Object of my warm desire, / Lip of Wax and Eye of Fire’. And James Thomson, famous for his praise of the natural world in The Seasons (1726–30), is shown to be most enthusiastic about one particular herb:
O Thou, matur’d by glad Hesperian Suns,
Tobacco, Fountain pure of limpid Truth,
That looks the very Soul; whence pouring Thought
Swarms all the Mind, absorpt is yellow Care.
And at each Puff Imagination burns.

Opening Pandora’s Box

Anti-tobacco satire is far more prominent and abusive, however, in poems and pamphlets discussing another popular method of taking tobacco: the snuff-box. Snuff—a powdered form of tobacco snorted through the nose rather than smoked—was a relatively recent innovation, having been introduced to England around the time of the Restoration. Unlike leaf tobacco, which could be understood as a source of pleasure to all sections of society, from farm labourer to country vicar, snuff remained narrowly associated with the mannerisms and vices of the aristocratic fop. And although the ubiquity of pipe tobacco can be interpreted by poets as a sign of modern British refinement, any signs that the use of snuff had become more widespread are opportunities for satires on class instability and the decay of manners. An anonymous 1706 satire ‘On the great Mode of Snuff taking’ argues that this fashionable powder has reduced all London to the level of the ‘Man of Mode’:
The Gentleman bedaubs his Snout
With Thee, i’th’ inside and without;
The Footman too with’s Plague and Pox,
At ev’ry Oath must ope his Box,
And’s mangy Thumb and Finger thrust
To pinch from thence a Shoal of Dust;
Then smears his Nose and Stale-beer Beard,
So justles in ’mongst Modish Herd.[11]
For Alexander Pope, the physical form of a snuff-box—a tiny, gaudily-decorated object, showily and self-consciously produced, containing nothing but dust—provides an ideal metaphor for the wit of its owners. His mock-heroic poem The Rape of the Lock (1712) ends with a vision of a lunar realm in which ‘Heroes’ Wits are kept in pondrous Vases, / And Beaus’ in Snuff-boxes and Tweezer-Cases’ (V.115–16).

Other satirists similarly connect the opening of the snuff-box with the diffusion of the lax morals, witless repartee, and doggerel poetry characteristic of the fop. An essay deploring ‘The Foppish Mode of Taking Snuff’ (1722) allows that snuff might be beneficial ‘if taken in a moderate Way to cleanse the Head or Brain’, but complains that its current popularity among the lower classes—and especially among women—has created a ‘Sham-Gentry’, ready to ‘sin as ingeniously as the expertest Fop that ever appear’d in the Side-Boxes and Pit of a Play-House’.[12] Another mock-panegyric to tobacco describes how this ‘Indian Plant’, often considered ‘The Old Man’s Solace, and the Student’s Aid’, has radically different effects on the body when crushed into snuff:
… when pulveriz’d in smart Rappee [a type of coarse snuff]
Thou’lt reach Sir Fopling’s Brain, if Brain there be;
He shines in Dedications, Poems, Plays,
Soars in Pindaricks, and asserts the Bays.[13]

The Deceiving Muse

But for a more nuanced and personal account of the connections between tobacco, poetic inspiration, addiction, and sickness we turn away from these satires to the works of the Oxfordshire poet John Philips (1676–1709). Biographical accounts of Philips, who is best remembered for his Miltonic poem on Marlborough’s victory at Blenheim (1705) and for a georgic poem on cider (1708), present tobacco as a recurring theme in his life and poetic career. Samuel Johnson, in his essay on Philips in Lives of the Poets, remarks on his ‘addiction to tobacco’—‘in all his writings, except Blenheim, he has found an opportunity of celebrating the fragrant fume’—and adds, of his character, that ‘I have been told, that he was in company silent and barren, and employed only upon the pleasures of his pipe’.[14] It is probably not an unconnected fact that Philips also suffered lifelong lung problems, eventually dying (according to the DNB) of a ‘lingering consumption, attended with an asthma’.

One of Philips’s last completed poems is ‘An Ode to Henry St. John, Esq’ (1707), which was written in Latin in partial imitation of Horace, and later translated into English by Thomas Newcomb.[15] Written to thank St. John for a gift of pipe-tobacco and alcohol, the ode explores Philips’s passion as an intoxicating, but ultimately deceiving muse. It begins with one of the most heartfelt invocations of the pleasures of tobacco to be found in eighteenth-century poetry:

O Thou from India’s fruitful Soil,
Who dost that sov’raign Herb prepare;
In whose rich Fumes I lose the Toil
Of Life, and ev’ry anxious Care:
While from the fragrant lighted Bole,
I suck new Life into my Soul. (13)
Carried ‘Aloft, above the liquid Sky’ on the soothing fumes of his pipe, Philips is transported back to the classical gardens where ‘Maecenas deign’d to hear his Songs, / His Muse extoll’d, his Voice approv’d’ (17). But, at the same time, Philips reminds us that his ‘Muse from Smoke’ is of an inferior order to Horace’s: even as it elevates the mind, it weakens the body, and causes the sublime to falter into bathos. As he prepares to sing St. John’s praises, he is overcome by a fit of wheezing, and—in perhaps the first eighteenth-century poetic representation of emphysema—his oration sputters to a halt:
But, O! as greatly I aspire
To tell my Love, to speak thy Praise,
Boasting no more its sprightly Fire,
My bosom heaves, my Voice decays;
With Pain I touch the mournful String,
And pant and languish as I sing.

Laurence Williams

[1] ‘The Convert to Tobacco. A Tale’, in A Collection of Merry Poems (London, 1736), pp.111–114, p.111.
[2] Macaulay, Thomas Babington, The History of England from the Accession of James II, vol. 1 (Boston, 1849), p.288; John Gay, letter to Congreve, quoted in Nokes, David, John Gay: A Profession of Friendship (Oxford, 1995), p.191.
[3] See Best, JM, ‘The Economic Growth of the Chesapeake and the European Market, 1697–1775’, Journal of Economic History 24 (1964), pp.496–511, p.497.
[4] ‘Convert to Tobacco’, pp.111–112.
[5] ‘The Triumph of Tobacco over Sack and Ale’, in A Collection of Old Ballads, vol. 3 (London, 1725), pp.154–56, p.154.
[6] ‘Convert to Tobacco’, p.114.
[7] ‘On a Snuff-Box, By a Country Parson’, in The Scarborough Miscellany (London, 1732), p.38.
[8] Brown, Thomas, ‘On Owen Swan’s Tobacco Papers’, in A Collection of Epigrams (London, 1727), n.p., poem no. CCLXXVIII.
[9] Erskine, Ralph, ‘Smoking Spiritualized’, in An Elegy: or Funeral Poem on the Much Lamented Death of ... Mr. Alexander Hamilton (Edinburgh, 1739), pp.23–24, p.23.
[10] For Curll’s miscellanies, see ESTC nos. T114926 and N48266 (both 1736).
[11] ‘On the great Mode of Snuff taking’, The Poetical Courant, no. 6, 2 March 1706, n.p..
[12] ‘The Foppish Mode of Taking Snuff’, in Whipping Tom: or, a Rod for a Proud Lady, 4th ed. (London, 1722), pp.[1]-12, pp.8–10.
[13] ‘Hail Indian Plant’, in The London Medley (London, 1731), pp.8–9.
[14] Johnson, Samuel, Prefaces … to the Works of the English Poets, vol. 4 (London, 1779), p.10.
[15] Philips, John, ‘An Ode to Henry St. John, Esq.’, in The Rape of the Smock, 3rd. ed (London, 1736), pp.[9]–23. The poem is included in parallel English and Latin translation, with a prefatory letter by Newcomb.