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  • A Revolutionary Beverage:The Politics of Tea in Nahum Tate's Panacea
  • Mercy Cannon

Nahum Tate, poet laureate from 1692 to 1715, lives in infamy for giving King Lear a happy ending—so much so that his fascinating poem, Panacea: A Poem on Tea (1700), has received virtually no attention.1 Yet the Restoration and Revolutionary politics that galvanized his adaptation of Shakespeare's powerful tragedy are put to important uses in Panacea. In this poem, Tate develops a vision of English identity that anticipates later cultural developments and lends support to arguments that the political chaos of the 1690s modernized English attitudes toward governmental authority, economic organization, and social decorum. Panacea is a mock-epic structured by two cantos: Canto 1 offers a mythologized account of tea as a magical beverage given to the suffering Chinese people after the wicked King Ki is defeated, and Canto II presents a debate among Roman goddesses who wish to become the patroness of tea.2 (See Appendix for the entire poem.) According to Markman Ellis, Richard Coulton, and Matthew Mauger, Panacea is the earliest "tea exaltation" poem. They note that the tale of King Ki creates analogues to recent history and turns Tate into a Whig apologist who justifies the Revolution.3 To the extent that Tate acts as a Whig supporter who affirms the Revolution and promotes "a narrative that established the unquestionable rightness of [Parliament's] actions and the legitimacy of the current order,"4 Ellis, Coulton, and Mauger's reading is accurate. My analysis extends their brief claim, but puts pressure on reading Tate's depiction of the Revolution as "peaceful ease."5 I argue that Tate instead grapples with the chaos, dissension, and violence of 1688 and its aftermath, which was rekindled by the assassination attempt on William only four years before the poem was published. I also argue that the poem maps out the future identity of tea as a national symbol by focusing on specifically [End Page 73] public (rather than royal) virtues, which the English must cultivate in order to bring about a peaceable nation. As the first poet to address tea in an extended literary form, Tate transforms tea into a political, revolutionary beverage, and in a twist, he imbricates foreign trade, national attributes, and female consumption into this political message.

Panacea treats tea as a metaphorical blank slate on which to map the emerging modern state. In order to do so, Tate has to make several rhetorical moves. First, he sidesteps coffee, which was thoroughly politicized by 1700. Coffee would seem to be a more obvious choice to recuperate for his purposes: Markman Ellis, in his introduction to Tea and the Tea Table in Eighteenth-Century England, asserts that coffee dominates satires from 1660 to 1700, while tea rises in public discourse from 1700 to 1740.6 As the center of news and public talk, coffeehouses invited worrisome subversive activities, "seditious behavior," and "seditious chatter" which Charles II and James II worked to suppress.7 Additionally, when Tate wrote Panacea, tea was an elite beverage that was far eclipsed by coffee. While tea is mentioned in advertisements and diary entries as early as the 1650s, it was not until the first decade of the eighteenth century that tea became a regular import of the East India Company.8 One of the earliest literary representations, Edmund Waller's "Of Tea, commended by her Majesty" (1663) associates tea with Queen Catherine, whose marriage to Charles II helped establish trade routes to "the fair region, where the Sun does rise."9 A luxury good during Tate's lifetime, tea was heavily taxed and subject to trade disruptions. In 1701 the East India Company imported just over 121,000 lbs. of tea, while in 1706, the total was a mere 460 lbs.10 Thus, in first decade of the eighteenth century, coffee was consumed about ten times more than tea. After 1720, however, coffee's popularity dwindled in comparison, and by the mid-eighteenth century, tea was the dominant beverage with an estimated 2,000,000 lbs. being consumed in 1740.11 Clearly pointing to a post-Stuart future, Tate abandons coffee's political possibilities for another...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1941-952X
Print ISSN
0162-9905
Pages
pp. 73-105
Launched on MUSE
2019-07-19
Open Access
No
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