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The Devil to Dinner

ISSUE:  Autumn 1928

‘Who euer casts to compasse weightye prise And thinks to throwe out thondring words of threate; Let powre in lauish cups and thriftie bitts of meate, For Bacchus fruite is frend to Phoebus wise.

The Shepheardes Calender

An odd fact was brought home to me the other day when discussing with a Roman Catholic lady the amazing work done in the last hundred years by the R. S. P. C. C. and the R. S. P. C. A. Said I, in a fury over some dreadful case I had been reading in the R. S. P. C. C.’s monthly organ, “The Child’s Guardian,” “I cannot understand why the punishments for cruelty are still so much less severe than the punishments for offences against property. After all, cruelty is the deadliest of the seven sins.” Said she—”Oh, but it isn’t one of the Seven Deadly Sins at all!” and she proceeded to tell me what the Seven Deadly or Cardinal Sins are. What would you say they are? I said— “Cruelty, blasphemy, self-righteousness, malice, uncharity, laziness and lust.” But I only got three right; for according to her the seven deadly sins of the Roman Catholic Church in the middle ages were—and I suppose still are— Covetousness, lust, envy, gluttony, anger, pride and sloth. Self-righteousness and pride are much of a muchness, of course: and anger and envy live next door to malice; but how our fathers could think gluttony a worse sin than cruelty is difficult to understand. My friend had a singular and interesting explanation to give. She said that to people who are concerned entirely with the welfare of the soul cruelty was a minor sin, because cruelty only hurt the body: and the body didn’t matter a rap. Now gluttony was a major sin because a glutton concerned himself entirely with the things of the body and thought no more about his soul than a pig in a sty; therefore he killed his soul by stifling it, which was the very worst form of suicide and a sin of the deadliest kind. It’s an ingenious theory and throws a certain light on such puzzling horrors of humanity’s past as the cruelties of the Inquisition.

But whether her explanation of the reason is right or wrong, the fact remains that to thousands of people gluttony is a deadly sin, which worries a well-meaning reviewer who has looked forward to writing an ecstatic article on “lavish cups and thrifty bits of meat!” Dare we dine with the Devil? Is it worth the risk? He may, you know, have grown grey with the years. Perhaps, too, the Christian world wras rather young when it wrote down gluttony instead of cruelty as a deadly sin. For youth is cruel and youth cannot appreciate good cooking. Don’t we all remember the days when a slice of bread and jam, a glass of fair water, with perhaps a tin of sardines and a chunk of raspberry nougat to end up with, was an enjoyable meal? No more and no less enjoyable was a dinner that included perfectly cooked red mullet and strawberries stewed in wine. Each was equally mere food.

Just so with our taste in literature in those blessed days. “One of Our Conquerors” by George Meredith or “The Crown of Success” by A. L. O. E.—each was a book to be read. But one of the pleasures of growing old (the incredulous ‘teens should read Booth Tarkington’s article on the pleasure of being fifty, in his book of essays “Looking Forward”) is the pleasure of eating and drinking and—don’t laugh—the pleasure of seeing other people eat and drink. The other people, of course, are indispensable to enjoyment. The best cooked meal, the rarest wine, can’t compete with the boiled-egg-on-a-tray meal when a woman is alone with herself. But to be part of a dinner, as host, guest or cook, that is as much fun as to be part of an evening at a theatre, as actor, audience or play-maker. And so I wish I hadn’t found out that gluttony, is so exceedingly wicked: and I think the Devil ought to be contented with having got wine into disgrace.

It is not said in so many words that the Devil took a passage on the Ark, but I think we may be sure that he was at least a stowaway. For one of the first things that Father Noah did when the floods were over and he had offered burnt offerings, was to plant a vineyard and make wine. Now that was a divine deed; for wine, like a fine day or any other gift of God, makes glad the heart of man. But Father Noah didn’t stop at making wine and drinking it: he drank too much. Hence came trouble, even so remote a trouble as the war between North and South in America. If Noah hadn’t got drunk, Ham would not have mocked him: and if Ham had not mocked him, Canaan, his son, would never have been the servant of anyone: and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” would never have been written, and John Brown’s soul would have lain as quiet as his body, moulding in the grave: and America would never have dreamed of trying to avenge herself on Noah by instituting the Puritanical comedy of prohibition. Doesn’t such a chain of misfortunes prove that the Devil was a stowaway on the Ark, and spending his time as usual whispering in the ear of Eve’s daughter? For I am sure that he persuaded Mrs. Noah to be prohibitionist: the Devil loves waste as much as he hates women: and here was a fine way to waste a gift of God and to persuade a lady to make a fool of herself.

For the Devil is a bachelor. I know, of course, that Sin and Death, these monkish abstractions, are supposed to be his wives; but have you ever heard of a real symbolical wife of the Devil, with a name of her own? A devil’s grandmother, yes! But a devil’s wife? I never have. Lilith was his accomplice; but she was Adam’s wife, not his: and the Devil’s love affairs, from Sara to Tamar, have invariably ended in disaster. Our own British Merlin, they say, had the Devil for a father. But Merlin was such a dear and so easily taken in that it is difficult to believe in his diabolical paternity. No, no, the Devil is a bachelor. Worse, he is a teetotaller; forever whispering to Mrs. Noah that stone walls do a prison make and iron bars a cage, and that a mind innocent and quiet is nothing like so good a protection against temptation. The way to cope with the evils of drink is to abolish wine, whispers the Devil, instead of training Shem, Ham, and Japhet to control themselves and to enjoy the genius of wine as the Maker of the grape intended them to. For education is a weary business. How much easier it is to treat men and women as beasts in a Zoo, to be fed and watered as their keepers think good for them, than to train them to know what and how much is good, for themselves. No, no, self-control doesn’t suit Mrs. Noah:

“Take your nasty wine away! We won’t have any wine today!”

is her cry: and so the noble wine is poured into gutters and man is the poorer.

But gluttony is also a sin. One day the Devil and Mrs. Noah, who was born a Grundy, will put their heads together, I daresay, and condemn food because eating leads to gluttony: and then, indeed, there will be a riddance of rubbish in the world. And the Devil will be much amused.

This outburst comes because Mr. Wolfe has been giving us “News of the Devil” which I have been reading turn and turn about with an account of a tour through the wine provinces in France, undertaken one recent autumn by the author of “Tents of Israel,” G. B. Stern. She calls her brilliant little book “Bouquet,” and strikes a blowr for the cause of Bacchus in doing so. For the word does put in a nutshell the view of the wine-lover as opposed to that of the wine-bibber. “Quality not quantity, Bouquet not bulk” is the wine-lover’s motto. And if the prohibitionists would but study that motto of his, they might comprehend at last that he is a man more sinned against than sinning. But they will not. How can they understand the genius of wine, these folks without a palate?

“ ‘A funny thing wine! A mere germ that creeps into and ferments the juice of the grape, and then! . . . It’s a good thing God thought of it,’ said Humphrey one day, ‘because I shouldn’t have.’”. . .

“The chauffeur told us, with vicarious pride, that the wines of Sauternes, vins liquorcuoc, sweet and rich and golden, gracious, mellow, and swooning, would never have existed but for an accident and M. Garosse’s grandfather. It was in 1847, ten years after our good Queen Victoria came to the throne, that M. Garosse’s grandfather noticed that a portion of his vineyard had been left too long un-harvested, and that the grapes lay shrivelled and rotten, most of them, on the ground. Perhaps the weather had been unfavourable, or perhaps he had been away, and . . . At all events, there the grapes lay useless, which had hitherto been plucked at their normal season, and made into ordinary wine; good, plain, inconspicuous white wine; dry, perhaps; dry, not sweet. M. Garosse’s grandfather could not bear waste. Sharply, he ordered even these grapes to be gathered up and pressed out. That barrel could be set aside for the least among his labourers. And that barrel, Messieurs et Mesdames, that marvel of a wine, sweet, rich and golden, was tasted by the Emperor of all the Russias on his tour through Europe, and he bought it for a fabulous sum! So that the haphazard discovery established a precedent; year after year, all the owners of the vineyards of Sauternes allowed their grapes to grow, not only ripe, but rotten.”

Has such an accident no destiny behind it? But the prohibitionist is more likely to sympathise with the waiters than with Miss Stern—

“I am still mourning the wanton destruction of a bottle of 1914 Chateau Cos d’Estournel, which we drank that night; it was our first experience of how little the wine-waiters in that region appreciated the extreme delicacy of the treasures of which they are guardian. I know that a wine which behaves all the time like an invalid wife: ‘You mustn’t shake me! You’re tilting me an inch too much! My dear, do take care of my sediment . . . Just a wee bit too warm! Just a shade too cold!’ does exact the utmost vigilance; but nevertheless I can hardly bear to think of the glorious bouquet of the Cos d’Estournel, . . . and then to remember its brilliance clouded tbicklv with sediment.”

Poor Miss Stern! But a prohibitionist is as little likely to understand her point of view as an ascetic the horror of Miss Stern’s mditre d’lwtel when she—even she — had a lapse—

“The mditre d’hotel gave us his full and interested attention. He was a merry man, but not too merry. You must not be too merry where food and drink are in question—genial, but not jovial, should be the waiter’s motto. He only made one mistake, in suffering three of us to order cold sole in aspic . . . He should have warned us, with a touch of severity, that sole is a fish that loses its flavour when cold. True, it was served with such a wonderful mayonnaise that this in itself was compensation; but Rosemary had decided independently on ‘Cepes Borde-lais/ and they smelt and looked so rich and delicious, and her expression on tasting them was so ecstatic, that Humphrey and Johnny and I could not refrain from begging for alms from her plate, just enough to taste, for she declared that never before had she eaten them so beautifully cooked. . . .

“Unfortunately, the mditre d’hotel turned round just at the moment when the three little dabs of Cepes Bordelais were being shovelled on to the plates that had lately contained sole and mayonnaise. And, poor man, he nearly died of shock! Rushing forward, but too late, he declared, sobbing, that he would have brought clean plates, clean cutlery, more cepes, anything . . . rather than that a royal dish should meet with such indignity!”

I call that maitre d’hotel an artist, who would not fall into the sin of gluttony although his life is concerned with food, and the Devil tempts him every day, poor devil! Indeed the Devil has been having a fit of the pathetics lately. How could a hard-worked Devil live up to the standards that, in their different ways, Milton and Goethe set? In self-defense he was obliged to tempt the nineteenth century to disbelieve him—and for a time succeeded. His rest was short: before the century was out they began writing about him again. Anatole France turned him topsy-turvy (Blake, to be sure, had done that already): Andreyeff drew a thoroughly, mean and unpleasant portrait of him in “Anathema”: and Bernard Shaw an even crueller one, because it was so funny, in “Man and Superman.” Marie Corelli, to be sure, was very sorry for him, you remember, in “The Sorrows of Satan,” but I expect he wished she wouldn’t!

Now comes a new account of him in “News of the Devil” by the poet Humbert Wolfe, though the hero of the satire is one Paul Arthur, a modern business man. Paul Arthur is the proprietor of twenty daily newspapers or more, and has decided to re-organize religion—

“Let others dream, and pray, and quarrel. He could give God, what he lacked—efficiency.”

Amid his schemes he falls ill and, dreaming himself to death, talks with the Devil concerning his life and works, and—

“Self-knowledge — the last penalty of God. . . . But Arthur fiercely cried upon the devil ‘Good shall be good as always, evil evil,’ and the devil laughed until he felt a stitch, and said ‘Precisely, Sire, but which is which-’ and Mr. Arthur tried to make it clear by giving an account of his career.”

Thereafter the beautiful verse turns and twists and tosses itself to and fro like the soul of the bewildered dying man. Paul Arthur is his own god and his own devil and these, his emanations, use each other’s voices and his own to bewilder him, even as he paints his triumphant career and flaunts his motto—

” ‘Nothing’s too high to spoil, too low to use.’ ‘The sole criterion is and must be news.’ ‘There is one only law, one only virtue, desert your friends before your friends desert you.’”

The picture transforms itself under his hand and he finds himself confessing—

” ‘And thus by men applauded and forgiven I ruled in Hell by proving Hell was heaven.’ “

What then? He is brought to understand that he, his god, his devil, his life, his world, his universe, time itself, is but—

. . , “the window through which men look out on God, and look away, again.”

Paul Arthur—

“with all his sins unblessed, unsatisfied,”

is become a part—

“of the immortal movement of the Heart, that does not judge, nor blame, nor yet forgive, but being needed by all things that live, needs all of them—”

What then is God?

“Listen! the stuff that God is woven of is love of loving for the sake of love.” This is a poem not to be comprehended at a sitting or dismissed to its shelf after a discussion or two. It is a piece to ponder; it has great beauty and it has wisdom. I wonder if this “bitter wreath” will fade quite so soon as the author in his Invocation prophesies. I do not think at any rate, that it will fade in our time or our children’s; for it has the peculiar knack of “learning itself” for you, that is so rare a virtue in modern verse. I had read the book through hurriedly to see if it were worth a study, and couldn’t get to it again for a week or two. Yet I found that phrases had stuck in my mind like the gold coins at the bottom of the Merchant’s jar in the “Arabian Nights.” Phrases such as—

“the illimitable countryside of God—” “I know you, devil, and I know you lie—” “The stars in Heaven, a flight of golden sparrows toss up, and each from God its glory borrows—”

Poetries that stick in the mind apart from their context have a trick of making the reader curious about the context : and so the writer earns the reward that the mere sweet singer covets in vain: he is read for his thought as well as ! his tune. And he, one fancies, is the sort of poet whom the j Devil most hates. Humbert Wolfe, it is safe to prophesy, will be read for his thought as well as his tune. Indeed, what with his faculty for making people listen, think and , remember, and his disconcerting hawking of news that a hard-working demon would prefer to keep private, one can j guess that on the day of publication of this remarkable I poem, the Devil’s dinner was completely spoiled.


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