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January/February 2012


Swift thought that wine was indispensable for those unfortunate enough (as he saw it) to live in Ireland.  "I tell you", he wrote to the abstemious Pope in February 1730, "good wine is 90 per cent in living in Ireland"; before concluding morosely that "in you, I sing to the deaf". Certainly, Swift did not indulge in false economies over wine. In 1734 he estimated his consumption at "between five and six hogsheads a year", in 1732 at six hogsheads. In Swift's day the hogshead was equivalent to 63 gallons, and so five and half hogsheads would equate to just over two thousand of today's 75cl bottles of wine. Six bottles a day is a fairly fearsome rate of consumption, even if we assume (as seems likely from the context) that Swift is talking about the total consumption of his household. The account he gave Gay in 1732 of his drinking gets nowhere near this figure:

I would know how your own health is, and how much wine you drink in a day. My Stint in company is a pint at noon, and half as much at night, but I often dine alone like a Hermit, and then I drink little or none at all.

In 1735 he substantially confirmed this rate of consumption: "Wine is good for me, and I drink a Bottle to my own share every day, to bring some heat into my Stomach."

The medicinal motive in wine-drinking for Swift was not entirely a pose. Writing to his friend the medical doctor John Arbuthnot in 1734, Swift's prose tilts slightly towards the language and manner of a patient seeking a private consultation: "I drink a bottle of French wine myself every day, though I love it not; but it is the only thing that keeps me out of pain." Mindful of those five or six hogsheads per annum, we may pause in polite disbelief over Swift's claims not to like wine particularly. But it was a claim he repeated to Pope in 1733, while hinting at the reason why he steadily drank something of which he claimed not to be especially fond: "I drink less than usual...and yet I do not love wine, but take it purely as a medecine [sic] and I love Mault liquor, but dare not touch a drop."

Swift's cautiousness with beer goes back to problems with his health in the winter of 1708-9. It was then that Swift suffered the first attack of the Ménière's syndrome which would plague him with nausea and dizziness for the rest of his life. Writing to Archbishop King, he complained of "a cruel distemper, a giddiness in my head, that would not suffer me to write or think of anything, and of which I am now slowly recovering". Swift connected the onset of this complaint with a coincidental indulgence in soft fruit and beer, and although he was desperately fond of them, thereafter he strictly limited his intake of both. Quite unnecessarily so, since there seems to be no strong connection between diet and Ménière's syndrome.

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