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Review: Coffee: A Poem, by Guillaume Massieu

... Coffee: A Poem by Guillaume Massieu , translated and introduced by John T. Gilmore (Arc Publications, Nanholme Mill, Shaw Wood Road, Todmorden, OL14 6DA. 50pp.; £9.99 pbk., £12.99 hdbk.). Massieu produced French translations of classical texts and literary histories, while, it seems, writing his 'original' verse in Latin. He is probably best remembered (though hardly famous!) for Caffaeum , Carmen; quite when he composed the poem doesn't seem to be known. It was first published posthumously in the anthology Poetarum ex Academia Gallica Carmina Selecta (Paris, 1738). This provides the Latin text reproduced in this new bilingual edition (with some textual accidents modernised) - Gilmore's translation being printed on the facing pages. John Gilmore has chosen to translate Massieu's Latin poem into English heroic couplets - not because they are in any way the equivalent of the original's quantitative Latin verse (unrhymed, of course), but so as to give the translation an eighteenth-century flavour, reminiscent of the couplets of many an English Augustan. The result is attractive and invitingly readable, having a light touch, the right dash of humour and some fair variety of tone. Like most English Augustan poets, Gilmore allows himself an occasional triplet. His translation has a genuine fluency as in these lines:

sad cares Coffee chases from our hearts;
Joy to our mind its gentle strength imparts.
One I have seen, who ere the nectar sweet
He'd tasted, silent enter with slow feet,
And look severe, and brow with wrinkles bound.
Yet he, soon as the beverage sweet he'd down'd
And from his knitted brow fled ev'ry cloud,
With witty sayings straightaway pleas'd the crowd.

Massieu tells his readers of coffee's (supposed) origins; of how it was discovered (supposedly); how to make a good cup, of how it was a gift from Apollo and of coffee's remarkable (supposed) properties. He is particularly insistent on the claim that coffee has the power to restore the weary spirits of poets and those "whose life to study is giv'n o'er".

As seemed appropriate I first read Caffaeum / Coffee in my favourite local coffee house. I recommend it, though it certainly isn't essential to read it while drinking coffee; I enjoyed my second reading in the library just as much.