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THE ROMANCE OF THE BOWL.
Now, if men must drink--and sure the vine was given us for use, I do not say for abuse-they had better make it an occasion of friendly intercourse; nothing can be more degraded than the solitary sanctimonious toping in which certain of our Northern brethren are known to indulge. They had better give to the quaffing of that rich gift, sent to be a medicine for the mind, to raise us above the perpetual contemplation of worldly ills, as much of romance and elegance as possible. It is the opener of the heart, the awakener of nobler feelings of generosity and love, the banisher of all that is narrow, and sordid, and selfish; the herald of all that is exalted in man. No wonder that the Greeks made a god of Bacchus, that the Hindoo worshiped the mellow Soma, and that there has been scarce a poet who has not sung its praise. There was some beauty in the feasts of the Greeks, when the goblet was really wreathed with flowers; and even the German student, dirty and drunken as he may be, removes half the stain from his orgies with the rich harmony of his songs, and the hearty good-fellowship of his toasts. We drink still, perhaps we shall always drink till the end of time, but all the romance of the bowl is gone; the last trace of its beauty went with the frigid abandonment of the toast.
There was some excuse for wine when it brought out that now forgotten expression of good-will. Many a feud was reconciled in the clinking of glasses; just as many another was begun when the cup was drained too deeply. The first quarter of the last century saw the end of all the social glories of the wassail in this country, and though men drank as much fifty years later, all its poetry and romance had then disappeared.
It was still, however, the custom at that period to call on the name of some fair maiden, and sing her praises over the cup as it passed. It was a point of honor for all the company to join the health. Some beauties became celebrated for the number of their toasts; some even standing toasts among certain sets. In the Kit-kat Club the custom was carried out by rule, and every member was compelled to name a beauty, whose claims to the honor were then discussed, and if her name was approved, a separate bowl was consecrated to her, and verses to her honor engraved on it. Some of the most celebrated toasts had even their portraits hung in the clubroom, and it was no slight distinction to be the favorite of the Kit-kat. When only eight years old, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu enjoyed this privilege. Her father, the Lord Dorchester, afterward Evelyn, Duke of Kingston, in a fit of caprice, proposed “the pretty little child” as his toast. The other members, who had never seen her, objected; the Peer
THE MEMBERS OF THE KIT-KAT.
sent for her, and there could no longer be any question. The forward little girl was handed from knee to knee, petted, probably, by Addison, Congreve, Vanbrugh, Garth, and many another famous wit. Another celebrated toast of the Kit-kat, mentioned by Walpole, was Lady Molyneux, who, he says, died smoking a pipe. This
club was no less celebrated for its portraits than for the ladies it honored. They, the portraits, were all painted by Kneller, and all of one size, which thence got the name of Kit-kat; they were hung round the club-room. Jacob Tonson, the publisher, was secretary to the club.
Defoe tells us the Kit-kat held the first rank among the clubs of the early part of the last century, and certainly the names of its members comprise as many wits as we could expect to find collected in one society.
Addison must have been past fifty when he became a member of the Kit-kat. His “ Cato” had won him the general applause of the Whig party, who could not allow so fine a writer to slip from among them. He had long, too, played the courtier, and was quite a gentleman.” A place among the exclusives of the Kit-kat was only the just reward of such attainments, and he had it. I shall not be asked to give a notice of a man so universally known, and one who ranks rather with the humorists than the wits. It will suffice to say, that it was not till after the publication of the “Spectator," and some time after, that he joined our society.
Congreve I have chosen out of this set for a separate life, for this man happens to present a very average sample of all their peculiarities. Congreve was a literary man, a poet, a wit, a beau, and—what unhappily is quite as much to the purpose--a profligate. The only point he, therefore, wanted in common with most of the members, was a title; but few of the titled members combined as many good and bad qualities of the Kit-kat kind as did William Congreve.
Another dramatist, whose name seems to be inseparable from Congreve's, was that mixture of bad and good tasteVanbrugh. This author of "The Relapse," the most licentious play ever acted, and builder of Blenheim, the ugliest house ever erected, was a man of good family, and Walpole counts him among those who “ wrote genteel comedy, because they lived in the best company.” We doubt the logic of this; but if it hold, how is it that Van wrote plays which the best company, even of that age, condemned, and neither good nor bad company can read in the present day without being shocked ? If the conversation of the Kit-kat was any thing like that in this member's comedies, it must have been highly edifying.
A GOOD WIT, AND A BAD ARCHITECT.
However, I have no doubt Mr. Van passed for a gentleman, whatever his conversation, and he was certainly a wit, and apparently somewhat less licentious in his morals than the rest. Yet what Pope said of his literature may be said, too, of some acts of his life:
“How Van wants grace, who never wanted wit.” And his quarrel with “Queen Sarah" of Marlborough, though the duchess was by no means the most agreeable woman in the world to deal with, is not much to Van's honor. When the nation voted half a million to build that hideous mass of stone, the irregular and unsightly piling of which caused Walpole to say that the architect “had emptied quarries, rather than built houses," and Dr. Evans to write this epitaph for the builder
“Lie heavy on him, Earth, for he
Laid many a heavy load on thee,” Sarah haggled over “seven-pence halfpenny a bushel :" Van retorted by calling her “stupid and troublesome,” and “that wicked woman of Marlborough,” and after the duke's death, wrote that the duke had left her “twelve thousand pounds a year to keep herself clean and go to law.” Whether she employed any portion of it on the former object we do not pretend to say, but she certainly spent as much as a miser could on litigation, Van himself being one of the unfortunates she attacked in this way.
The events of Vanbrugh’s life were varied. He began life in the army, but in 1697 gave the stage "The Relapse.” It was sufficiently successful to induce him to follow it up with the “Provoked Wife," one of the wittiest pieces produced in those days. Charles, Earl of Carlisle, Deputy Earl Marshal, for whom he built Castle Howard, made him Clarencieux King-atarms in 1704, and he was knighted by George I., 9th September, 1714. In 1705 he joined Congreve in the management of the Haymarket, which he himself built. George I. made him Comptroller-general of the royal works. He had even an experience of the Bastile, where he was confined for sketching fortifications in France. He died in 1726, with the reputation of a good wit, and a bad architect. His conversation was, certainly, as light as his buildings were heavy.
Another member, almost as well known in his day, was Sir Samuel Garth, the physician, "well-natured Garth," as Pope called him. He won his fame by a satire on the apothecaries in the shape of a poem called “The Dispensary.” When delivering the funeral oration over Dryden's body, which had been so long unburied that its odor began to be disagreeable,
he mounted a tub, the top of which fell through and left the doctor in rather an awkward position. He gained admission to the Kit-kat in consequence of a vehement eulogy on King William, which he had introduced into his Harveian oration, in 1697.* It was Garth, too, who extemporized most of the verses which were inscribed on the toasting-glasses of their club, so that he may, par excellence, be considered the Kit-kat poet. He was the physician and friend of Marlborough, with whose sword he was knighted by George I., who made him his physician in ordinary. Garth was a very jovial man, and, some say, not a very religious one. Pope said he was as good a Christian as ever lived, “without knowing it.” He certainly had no affectation of piety, and if charitable and good-natured acts could take a man to heaven, he deserved to go there. He had his doubts about faith, and is said to have died a Romanist. This he did in 1719, and the poor and the Kit-kat must both have felt his loss. He was perhaps more of a wit than a poet, although he has been classed at times with Gray and Prior; he can scarcely take the same rank as other verse-making doctors, such as Akenside, Darwin, and Armstrong. He seems to have been an active, healthy man-perhaps too much so for a poet—for it is on record that he ran a match in the Mall with the Duke of Grafton, and beat him. He was fond, too, of a hard frost, and had a regular speech to introduce on that subject : “Yes, sir, 'fore Gad, very fine weather, sir-very wholesome weather, sir-kills trees, sir—very good for man, sir.”
Old Marlborough had another intimate friend at the club, who was probably one of its earliest members. This was Arthur Maynwaring, a poet, too, in a way, but more celebrated at this time for his liaison with Mrs. Oldfield, the famous but disreputable actress, with whom he fell in love when he was forty years old, and whom he instructed in the niceties of elocution, making her rehearse her parts to him in private. Maynwaring was born in 1668, educated at Oxford, and destined to the bar, for which he studied. He began life as a vehement Jacobite, and even supported that party in sundry pieces; but like some others, he was easily converted, when, on coming to town, he found it more fashionable to be a Whig.
Whig. He held two or three posts under the Government, whose cause he now espoused: had the honor of the dedication of “The Tatler” to him by Steele, and died suddenly in 1712. He divided his fortune between his sister and his mistress, Mrs. Oldfield, and his son by the latter. Mrs. Oldfield must have grown rich in her sinful career, for she could afford, when ill, to refuse to take
* The Kit-kat club was not founded till 1703.
THE POETS OF THE KIT-KAT.
her salary from the theatre, though entitled to it. She acted best in Vanbrugh's “Provoked Husband," so well, in fact, that the manager gave her an extra fifty pounds by way of acknowl. edgment.
Poetizing seems to have been as much a polite accomplishment of that age as letter-writing was of a later, and a smattering of science is of the present day. Gentlemen tried to be poets, and poets gentlemen. The consequence was, that both made fools of themselves. Among the poetasters who belonged to the Kit-kat, we must mention Walsh, a country gentleman, member of Parliament, and very tolerable scholar. He dabbled in odes, elegies, epitaphs, and all that small fry of the muse which was then so plentiful. He wrote critical essays on Virgil, in which he tried to make out that the shepherds in the days of the Roman poet were very well-bred gentlemen of good education! He was a devoted admirer and friend of Dryden, and he encouraged Pope in his earlier career so kindly that the little viper actually praised him! Walsh died somewhere about 1709 in middle life.
We have not nearly done with the poets of the Kit-kat. A still smaller one than Walsh was Stepney, who, like Garth, had begun life as a violent Tory and turned coat when he found his interest lay the other way. He was well repaid, for from 1692 to 1706 he was sent on no less than eight diplomatic missions, chiefly to German courts. He owed this preferment to the good luck of having been a school-fellow of Charles Montagu, afterward Earl of Halifax. He died about 1707, and had as grand a monument and epitaph in Westminster Abbey as if he had been a Milton or Dryden.
When you meet a dog trotting along the road, you naturally expect that his master is not far off. In the same way, where you find a poet, still more a poetaster, there you may feel certain you will light upon a patron. The Kit-kat was made up of Mæcenas's and their humble servants; and in the same club with Addison, Congreve, Vanbrugh, and the minor poets, we are not at all surprised to find Sir Robert Walpole, the Duke of Somerset, Halifax, and Somers.
Halifax was, par excellence, the Mæcenas of his day, and Pope described him admirably in the character of Bufo:
“Proud as Apollo, on his forked hill,
Horace and he went hand in hand in song.”