Some subjects are considered more fit for poetry than others and ailments of the stomach are not generally among them. Over the last year or so my wife and I have been experimenting with eighteenth-century cookery, which seems to involve huge pies (“Take two fowl …”), gallons of goose dripping, and the dumpling-sized and nowadays forbidden brains of sheep. Lovely grub indeed, but even so it is probably inevitable that this poem about bile and the dangers of overeating, written by Scottish MD John Armstrong (1709-1779), speaks to me. I suspect the eighteenth-century middle classes staggered most of the time half drunk between agonising toothache and bilious uprisings of a most unpleasant kind. Armstrong is probably unique among poets in that his collection entitled Art of Preserving Health, offers advice to readers on the workings of their stomachs. One has to hope that Armstrong was a better doctor than he was a poet, but frankly I doubt it.
‘Advice to the Stout’
The languid stomach curses even the pure
Delicious fat, and all the race of oil:
For more the oily aliments relax
Its feeble tone; and with the eager lymph
(Fond to incorporate with all it meets)
Coyly they mix, and shun with slippery wiles
The woo’d embrace. The irresoluble oil,
So gentle late and blandishing, in floods
Of rancid bile o’erflows: what tumults hence,
What horrors rise, were nauseous to relate.
Choose leaner viands, ye whose jovial make
Too fast the gummy nutriment imbibes.
Posted by Chris Routledge