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A Sentimental Cellar

By George Saintsbury

[It would appear from the reference to a ” Queen ” that the following
     piece was written in or with a view to the reign of Queen Anne,
    though an anachronism or two (such as a reference to the ’45
    and a quotation from Adam Smith) may be noted. On the
    other hand, an occasional mixture of ” you ” and ” thou ” seems
    to argue a date before Johnson. It must at any rate have been
    composed for, or in imitation of the style of, one or other of the
    eighteenth-century collections of Essays.]
IT chanced the other day that I had a mind to visit my old
friend Falernianus. The maid who opened the door to me
showed me into his study, and apologised for her master’s absence
by saying that he was in the cellar. He soon appeared, and I
rallied him a little on the gravity of his occupation. Falernianus,
I must tell you, is neither a drunkard nor a man of fortune. But
he has a pretty taste in wine, indulges it rather in collection than
in consumption, and arranges his cellar (or, as he sometimes calls
it, ” cellaret “) himself, having no butler or other man-servant.
He took my pleasantry very good-humouredly ; and when I
asked him further if I might behold this temple of his devotions
he complied at once. ” Tis rather a chantry than a temple,


                        A Sentimental Cellar
Eugenius,” said he, ” but you are very welcome to see it if you
please ; and if you are minded to hear a sermon, perhaps I can
preach one different from what you may expect at an Oracle of
the Bottle.”

We soon reached the cavern, which, indeed, was much less
magnificent than that over which Bacbuc presided ; and I
perused, not without interest (for I had often tasted the contents),
the various bins in which bottles of different shapes and sizes were
stowed away with a modest neatness. Falernianus amused him-
self, and did not go so far as to weary me, with some tales of luck
or disappointment in his purchases, of the singular improvement
of this vintage, and the mortifying conduct of that. For these
wine-lovers are curious in their phrase ; and it is not disgusting to
hear them say regretfully that the claret of such and such a year
“has not spoken yet”; or that another was long “under the
curse of the seventies.” This last phrase, indeed, had a grandilo
quent and romantic turn which half surprised me from my friend,
a humourist with a special horror of fine speech or writing, and
turning sharply I saw a smile on his lips.

” But,” said I, ” my Falernianus, your sermon ? For I scarce
think that this wine-chat would be dignified by you with such a

“You are right, Eugenius,” answered he, ” but I do not quite
know whether I am wise to disclose even to you the ruling fancy
under which I have formed this little liquid museum, or Baccheum
if you prefer it.”

” I think you may,” said I, ” for in the first place we are old
enough friends for such confidences, and in the second I know
you to be too much given to laugh at your own foibles to be
greatly afraid of another’s ridicule.”

” You say well,” he said, ” so mark ! For if my sermon inflicts


                        By George Saintsbury
what our toasts call ennui upon you, remember that in the
words of their favourite Molière, “You have willed it.””

“I do not, Eugenius, pretend to be indifferent to good wine in
itself. But when I called this little cellar of mine just now a
museum I did no dishonour to the daughters of Mnemosyne.
For you will observe that wine, by the fact of its keeping powers
and by the other fact of its date being known, is a sort of calendar
made to the hand of whoso would commemorate, with a festive
solemnity, the things that are, as Mr. Drydensays,

” Hid in the sacred treasure of the past.”

“If not the mere juice of the grape (for the merit of the strongest
wine after fifty or sixty years is mostly but itself a memory), strong
waters brewed on the day of a man’s birth will keep their fire
and gain ever fresh mellowness though he were to outlive the
longest lifetime ; and in these little flasks here, my Eugenius,
you will find a cup of Nantz that was born with me, and that
will keep its virtues long after thou and I have gone to solve
the great enigma. Again, thou seest those pints of red port
which nestle together ? Within a few days, Eugenius, of the
time when that must was foaming round the Douro peasants, I
made mine entrance at the University. You can imagine with
what a mixture of tender and humorous feelings I quaff them now
and then. When their juice was tunned, what amiable visions,
what boyish hopes floated before my eyes ! I was to carry off
all that Cam or Isis had of honours or profit, all that either
could give of learning. I was to have my choice of learned
retirement on the one hand, or of ardent struggle at the hoarse
bar on the other, with the prizes of the senate beyond. They
were scarce throwing down their crust when that dream faded ;


                        A Sentimental Cellar
they had scarce become drinkable by a hasty toper before I
saw clearly that metaphysical aid was wanting, and that a very
different fate must be mine. I make no moan over it, Eugenius,
and I puff away like a worse than prostitute as she is, the demon
Envy when she whispers in my ear the names of Titius or Seius,
and adds, Had they better parts, or only better stars than you ?
But as they fable that the wine itself throbs with the early move
ment of the sap in the vines, so, Eugenius, when I sip that cordial
(and truth tis a noble vintage) the old hopes, the old follies, the
old dreams waken in me, and I am once more eighteen.”

” Look yonder again at those cobwebbed vessels of various
shapes that lie side by side, although of different vineyards, in the
peaceful bins. They all date from a year in which the wheel of
fortune brought honest men to the top in England ; and if only
for a brief space, as, I am told, they sing in North Britain, the
de’il went hame wi’ a’ the Whigs before him (I must tell you,
Mr.——, that Falernianus, though a loyal subject to our good
Queen, is a most malignant Tory, and indeed I have heard him
impeached of Jacobitism by ill-willers). But no more of politics.”
He paused a moment and then went on: “I think I see you smile
again, Eugenius, and say to yourself, These are but dry-lipped
subjects for so flowing a calendar. And to tell the truth, my
friend, the main part of my ephemerides of this kind has been filled
by the aid of the goddess who was ever nearest and kindest to
Bacchus. In yonder bin lie phials of the mightiest port that
Lusitanian summers ever blackened, and flasks of sack from the
more southern parts of that peninsula, which our Ben or his son
Herrick would have loved. In the same year which saw the
pressing of these generous juices the earth was made more fair by
the birth of Bellamira and Candiope. The blackest purple of the
Lusitanian grape is not so black as the tresses of Candiope’s hair,


                        By George Saintsbury
nor doth the golden glow of the sherris approach in flame the
locks of Bellamira; but if I let the sunlight play through both,
Love, with fantastic triumph, shows me, as the bright motes
flicker and flee through the sack, the tawny eyes of Candiope, and
the stain, no longer black or purple, but rosy red, that floats from
the Oportian juice on the white napery, recalls the velvet blush of
Bellamira’s cheek.”

” And this ? ” I said, pointing to a bin of Bordeaux near me.
” Thou shalt try it this very day,” said Falernianus with a laugh,
which I thought carried off some feelings a little overstrained ;
” tis a right pleasant wine, and they made it in the year when I first
saw the lips of Damaris. The flavour is not unlike theirs, and if
it should fluster thine head a little, and cause thee what men call
heartburn, I will not say that the effects are wholly dissimilar. “
It is not like Falernianus even to jest at women, and I turned to
another. His face cleared. ” Many a year has passed,” he said,
“since the grape that bore that juice was gathered, and even as it
was ripening it chanced that I met Lalage and won her. The
wine was always good and the love likewise ; but in neither in
their early years was there half the pleasure that there is now. But
I weary you, Eugenius, and perhaps the philosopher speaks truly
in saying that these things are not matters of sympathy, or, as the
Scripture saith, a stranger is not partaker of them. Suffice it to
say that these imprisoned rubies and topazes, amethysts and
jacinths, never flash in the glass, nor collect their deeper body of
colour in the flagon, without bringing a memory with them, that
my lips seldom kiss them without recalling other kisses, my
eye never beholds them without seeing other colours and other
forms in “the sessions of sweet silent thought.” At the refining
of this elixir I assumed the virile gown ; when that nectar was fit
for drinking I made my first appearance in the field of letters ; and

The Yellow Book—Vol. I. H


                        A Sentimental Cellar
this again recalls the death of dear friends and the waning of idle
hopes. When I am dead, or if any reverse of fortune makes me
part with this cabinet of quintessence, it will pass to heirs or pur-
chasers as so much good wine and nothing more. To me it is
that and much more—a casket of magic liquors, a museum, as I
have called it, of glasses like that of Dr. Dee, in which I see again
the smile of beauty and the hope of youth, in which once more I
win, lose, possess, conquer, am defeated ; in which I live over
again in the recesses of fantasy the vanished life of the past.”

” But it is not often that I preach in this fashion. Let us take
a turn in the garden while they get dinner ready, that you may
taste,” and he smiled, “that you may taste—if you dare—the wine
that I have likened to the lips of Damaris.”

MLA citation:

Saintsbury, George. “A Sentimental Cellar.” The Yellow Book, vol. 1, April 1894, 119-24. Yellow Book Digital Edition, edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2010-2014. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019.