Tuesday, April 25, 2017

`Or Any Other Reason Why'

First, the title grabbed me: A Tankard of Ale. Then the subtitle rewarded my curiosity:  An Anthology of Drinking Songs. The anthologist is Theodore Maynard (1880-1956), an English-born Roman Catholic apologist, follower of G. K. Chesterton and longtime resident of the United States. His collection was published by Erskine Macdonald, Ltd., London, in 1919, the year the Volstead Act became law in the U.S. Maynard expresses his thoughts on the subject in the first sentence of his introduction: “With the advent of the social reformer the very word `beer’ seems to have taken on a sinister sound, and is as much tabooed in polite society as the word `trousers’ was once said to have been.” Macdonald claims “conviviality is a lost art” and that his book is “rather intended for tapsters than for antiquaries.”

Most of the poets in Maynard’s anthology are unfamiliar to me. His first selection is “Reasons for Drinking” by Henry Aldrich (1647-1710):

“If all be true that I do think,
There are five reasons we should drink:
Good wine, a friend, or being dry,
Or lest we should be by and by,
Or any other reason why.”

This works because it replicates a drinker’s logic, and because the lines come with a built-in melody. You can sing them. Henry Carey (c. 1687-1743) embodies generosity of spirit in “With an Honest Old Friend”:

“I envy no mortal though ever so great,
Nor scorn I a wretch for his lowly estate;
But what I abhor and esteem as a curse,
Is poorness of spirit, not poorness of purse.”

Maynard obviously associates drinking not with DT’s and moral turpitude but with celebration of life. In a gather-ye-rosebuds vein is “Drinking Commended” by Sir John Suckling (1609-1642):

“Come, let the State stay,
And drink away,
There is no business above it:
It warms the cold brain,
Makes us speak in high strain.
He’s a fool that does not approve it.

“The Macedon youth,
Left behind him this truth.
That nothing is done with much thinking;
He drank and he fought,
Till he had what he sought:
The world was his own by good drinking.”

And here is the gather-ye-rosebuds man himself, Robert Herrick (1591-1641):

“Come sit we by the fireside,
And roundly drink we here;
Till that we see our cheeks ale-dyed
And noses tann’d with beer.”

In his introduction, Maynard disparages “intemperate teetotalism” and captures the sour spirit of Prohibition’s boosters: “the earnest face of the Puritan, whose pale disgust is like a skeleton at his feet.” He declares: “Perfect social reform casteth out conviviality.” Maynard’s thinking has a political subtext, particularly welcome in our age of micro-regulation and social engineering: “The political mind, which can only find a complex solution (which by the way never does solve) for what it euphemistically terms the `drink problem,’ always misses what is direct and effective.” To which Maynard appends these anonymous lines:

“Damn their eyes if ever they tries
To rob a poor man of his beer—
For I likes a drop of good beer.”

For those of us who drank our share (and more), and no longer indulge, Maynard’s anthology is a consolation prize, a reminder of good times and bad behavior. My incapacity is no reason to spoil your party.

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