Tea chronicles

Tea chronicles

Great poets and prose writers have thought it worthy to celebrate this beverage in verse and prose

Representative image. Credit: Getty Images

The resounding slurp of tea from the rim of a cup or a saucer into which it has been poured audibly proclaims the status of tea as a beverage. How the tea outdid coffee as a popular drink dates back to when Thomas Garway first sold tea at Exchange Alley in England in 1657 and it caught on in such a way that Thomas Twining’s Coffee House in the Strand switched over to tea, catering to generations of royalty. With the merchants of East India Company proffering monarchs with substantial quantities of tea, sipping the beverage elegantly became an indispensable part of courtly pastimes.

Great poets and prose writers have thought it worthy to celebrate this beverage in verse and prose. Alexander Pope, in his encomium to Queen Anne of the triple domain, writes: "Hear thou great Anna! whom three realms obey, does sometimes counsel take... And sometimes tea!" And if the Wren and Martin has chosen to classify this as an anticlimax in its section on figures of speech, that for sure is not how Pope meant it to be.

Anytime was tea time for the renowned Dr Samuel Johnson whom Boswell described as a “hardened and shameless tea drinker, whose kettle had scarcely time to cool" and who with tea, “amused the evening, solaced the midnight and welcomed the morning." Little doubt that Boswell, too, enjoyed the tea sessions with Dr Johnson.

In the 1780s, tea parties were Lollapalooza. Among the nobility that spruced up tea time was the wife of the seventh Duke of Bedford, whose lavish afternoon teas were served in fabulous silver and porcelain. Samuel Pepys was so exhilarated by his first sip of this beverage that he deemed it merited an entry in his immortal work. That these high teas, though graced by the prim and proper, were laced with juicy gossip. This is testified to in a line from Samuel Rogers: “Her tea she sweetens, as she sips, with scandal.”

Mark Twain’s introduction to tea turned out to be an unsavoury episode. It was at Nebraska Railway station that he had his first cup, which he described as “slumgullion” and which tasted “too much of dish-rag and sand to deceive the intelligent traveller.” The Chinese with their repository of sententious double-speak declared that “Tea is better than wine for it leadeth not to intoxication, neither does it cause a man to say foolish things and repent thereof in his sober moments.”

Rev. Sydney Smith, clergyman, writer and noted wit, who no doubt preached that one should not use the name of God in vain, slipped up on one occasion. The tribute that he came out with after his first cup of Tea: “Thank God for tea. What would the world do without tea? How did it exist? I am glad I was not born before tea.”