Monday, 28 September 2020

From Hock and Soda to 'the present puddle of the intellectual artistic so-called "world"'

 With a double hat-tip to Dave Lull and Frank Wilson, I pass on this piece from a blog I hadn't come across before, called Idlings. Although there is much else in the post, it was the title that first attracted me – 'Hock and Soda-Water.' It rang a bell – a post-Byronic poetical bell... Yes, of course – John Betjeman's poem, one of his best, 'The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel':

He sipped at a weak hock and seltzer
As he gazed at the London skies
Through the Nottingham lace of the curtains
Or was it his bees-winged eyes?

To the right and before him Pont Street
Did tower in her new built red,
As hard as the morning gaslight
That shone on his unmade bed,

“I want some more hock in my seltzer,
And Robbie, please give me your hand —
Is this the end or beginning?
How can I understand?

“So you’ve brought me the latest Yellow Book:
And Buchan has got in it now:
Approval of what is approved of
Is as false as a well-kept vow.

“More hock, Robbie — where is the seltzer?
Dear boy, pull again at the bell!
They are all little better than cretins,
Though this is the Cadogan Hotel.

“One astrakhan coat is at Willis’s —
Another one’s at the Savoy:
Do fetch my morocco portmanteau,
And bring them on later, dear boy.”

A thump, and a murmur of voices —
(”Oh why must they make such a din?”)
As the door of the bedroom swung open
And TWO PLAIN CLOTHES POLICEMEN came in:

“Mr. Woilde, we ‘ave come for tew take yew
Where felons and criminals dwell:
We must ask yew tew leave with us quoietly
For this is the Cadogan Hotel.”

He rose, and he put down The Yellow Book.
He staggered — and, terrible-eyed,
He brushed past the plants on the staircase
And was helped to a hansom outside.

Wilde, with the 'bees-winged eyes' of the heavy drinker, is clearly taking Byron's hint and attacking his hangover with weak hock and soda, or 'hock and seltzer', which comes to the same thing; 'seltzer' is still, I believe, the preferred usage in America. The French equivalent is 'eau de seltz' – which brings me to a baffling phrase that lodged itself in my memory years ago and has stubbornly stayed there. In those far-off days before the internet, I was unable to work out what on earth Samuel Beckett was talking about in the Foreword to Proust,  a brilliant essay in which the young author is guilty of a good deal of intellectual showing-off. His essay, be declares in the Foreword, makes no allusion to 'the legendary life and death of Marcel Proust, nor to the garrulous old dowager of the Letters, nor to the poet, nor to the author of the Essays, nor to the Eau de Selzian correlative of Carlyle's "beautiful bottle of soda-water'". 
   Only now have I finally teased out the meaning of this cryptic allusion: what Beckett means is that his essay will ignore Proust's devotion to Ruskin. He will not present Proust as the French Ruskin. For the 'beautiful bottle of soda-water' is none other than John Ruskin, as described by Thomas Carlyle. 
  'Ruskin was here the other night,' wrote Carlyle to his brother in November 1855, 'a bottle of beautiful soda-water, something like Rait of old times [a reference that is completely lost on me – anyone?], only with an intellect of tenfold vivacity. He is very pleasant company now and then. A singular element, very curious to look upon, in the present puddle of the intellectual artistic so-called "world" in these parts at this date.'
   'What can you say of Carlyle but that he was born in the clouds and struck by lightning?' said Ruskin to the historian and Carlyle biographer Froude. 'Not meant for happiness,' adds Froude, 'but for other ends; a stern fate which nevertheless in the modern world, as in the ancient, is the portion dealt out to some individuals on whom the heavens have been pleased to set their mark.' 
  You don't hear that kind of talk in 'the intellectual artistic so-called "world"' of today. 

5 comments:

  1. Hock, by the way, is a peculiarly English generic term for German white wines, especially those from the Rhineland.

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  2. Thanks to the one and only Dave Lull, I can identify 'Rait of old times' as one Aeneas Rate or Rait, a companion of Carlyle's brother John. Rate is described as 'a mediocre but highly ambitious poet'.

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