Even if you think this blog post is terrible and doesn’t make any sense, please do read A History of the World in Six Glasses if you haven’t already! Tom Standage makes way more sense than I do.
I know you guys probably don’t want even more reading to do, but hear me out. Allow me to introduce you (if you haven’t been acquainted already) to A History of the World in Six Glasses by Tom Standage. Standage’s main idea – his thesis, if you will – is that, in pivotal eras in world history, there are certain beverages that have proven to be highly influential in shaping the course of events. One of the eras that Standage covers in his book is none other than the Age of Reason, which spans both the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. The beverage that Standage attributes to that era is coffee. According to Standage, rational thought was emphasized in the time not only because the new scientific method demanded it, but also because people were more able to think rationally thanks to the effects of the caffeine in coffee.
The next era that Standage covers (spoiler alert?) after the Age of Reason is the rise of colonial empires – a time that was shaped by tea. Tea, which came from places further east than coffee (which originated in the Middle East) came to represent the age of expansion. This is the closest Standage gets to Romanticism.
Where does Blake fit into Standage’s timeline? Songs of Innocence and of Experience is interesting in that it straddles both the end of the Age of Reason and the birth of Romanticism. Songs of Innocence was finished in 1789, which just so happened to be the same year that the French Revolution began. Songs of Experience was finished in 1794, which marked the end of The Terror: the period in the French Revolution that saw thousands of people guillotined. The French Revolution was the crash that effectively ended the caffeine high that was known as the Age of Reason. It’s funny how these events coincide with his works.
I wonder if William Blake drank coffee, or if it was too mainstream or unnatural for him. Maybe he didn’t like the way it made him feel and instead preferred some form of alcohol to numb the pain of living in a cold and indifferent world – or maybe he just didn’t have anything else to drink because water was still unsafe. You could really argue both ways. On one hand, you could say his works were fuelled by the same caffeine that powered the Enlightenment, except that energy was redirected towards long walks in nature and writing poems that rhyme. You could say that, because Blake’s romanticism was a response to the Enlightenment, so it must be that his works were not influenced by coffee or caffeine; rather, he looked back on the “good old days” when people drank alcohol, had a little too much, and revealed their true, “natural” selves.