The old philosopher is still among us in the brown coat with the metal buttons and the shirt which ought to be at the wash, blinking, puffing,
rolling his head, drumming with his fingers, tearing his meat like a tiger, and swallowing his tea in oceans.
–Thomas Babington Macauley (1800-59), The Life of Johnson
Even so brief a history as this one, however, must linger a little over the story of the age’s greatest devotee of tea and coffeehouse talk, Dr. Samuel Johnson. Although revered for his Dictionary, he can scarcely be considered an original thinker or even a first-rate writer. It is rather as the tireless talker of Boswell’s Life of Johnson that he is remembered. Ensconced in his favorite chair at the Turk’s Head, he would hold forth for hours in conversations with friends like Sir Joshua Reynolds, the portrait painter, the playwright Sheridan, Edmund Burke, the rising young politician, Garrick, the Richard Branaugh of the day, and fellow writers like Goldsmith, with Boswell all the while taking notes.
Boswell was a great tea lover himself, as witness his London Journal for a dismal day indeed–Sunday 13 February, 1763:
This was a most terrible day. None of my friends could come abroad to see me. I was really a good deal low-spirited all the afternoon. In the evening my mind cleared up. I was pleased and lively and my genius was in fine humor for composition. I wrote several fanciful little essays which pleased me highly. Well, the human mind is really curious–I can answer for my own! For here now in the pace of a few hours I was a dull and miserable, and clever and happy mortal, and all without the intervention of any external cause, except a dish of green tea, which indeed is the most kind remedy in cases of this kind. Often have I found relief from it. I am so fond of tea that I could write a whole dissertation on its virtues. It comforts and enlivens without the risks attendant on spirituous liquours. Gentle herb–let the florid grape yield to thee! Thy oft influence is a a more safe inspirer of social joy….
In London one may still visit the room where Boswell was later introduced to his idol Johnson–over tea, course.
To be continued in Tuesdays With Norwood: The Lexicographer – Part 2