A Poet’s Empty Cellar
Does anyone aside from me now read the poetry of Leonard Welsted? If Welsted is mentioned at all today, it is usually in the context of book three of The Dunciad, where he was memorably mocked in a parody of the famous apostrophe to the Thames from Sir John Denham's topographical poem, "Cooper's Hill". Denham had praised the Thames as a river proper to inspire a poet because it reconciled within itself apparently discordant qualities:
O could I flow like thee, and make thy streamMy great example, as it is my theme!Tho' deep, yet clear; tho' gentle, yet not dull;Strong, without rage; without o'erflowing, full.
Pope brilliantly twisted these lines to skewer the failings of his poetic rival:
Flow, Welsted, flow! like thine inspirer, Beer,Tho' stale, not ripe; tho' thin, yet never clear;So sweetly mawkish, and so smoothly dull;Heady, not strong; and foaming tho' not full.
Unforgettable and unanswerable though these lines are, there is — when one thinks about them carefully, rather than just marvelling at them — something mysterious. Unless Welsted had the well-established reputation of being a beer-drinker it is hard to see where the joke lies. And yet no corroboration of Pope's slur (if indeed it is a slur) has ever been found. In fact, such evidence as we have points towards Welsted's being a sane and perhaps even unusually well-informed enthusiast for wine.
Welsted was orphaned when still young, and raised by relatives. He nevertheless received a very good education, following the well-beaten path from Westminster to Trinity College, Cambridge, although he never took a degree. He began by hunting for patronage from the Tories. Several poetic begging letters addressed to Robert Harley, and as yet unpublished, are preserved in the Portland papers. But in 1714 Welsted saw which way the political wind was now blowing, and attached himself to the Whigs. He became an assistant to Sir Richard Steele, and may have been involved in some mild "cloak and dagger" transactions involving secret service money — certainly Pope insinuates that Welsted dipped into these funds for his own benefit.
Eventually, in 1717, Welsted received some solid patronage. He was appointed to an extraordinary clerkship in the Ordnance office which brought with it a salary of £50 and (perhaps just as valuable) an official residence within the Tower of London. This was the house Welsted described in what is undoubtedly his most human and charming poem, "Oikographia" (1725).