On a bright corner between Piccadilly and Green Street Stations sits my favorite London destination: two neighboring purveyors. To the left, Fortnum & Mason, department store and tea merchant since 1703; on the right, Hatchards, inimitable vendor of warming poetry (and other books) since 1797.
Fortnum’s presents like a dream. Billowed drapes, exquisite shop windows, costumed attendants slicing fresh nougat. And small, idiosyncratic collectibles like silver jam spoons and porcelain bears, tucked under glass panes. In the back, past the sweets, jams, honeys, curds, biscuits, chocolates, and sumptuous nougat, are the teas. A wall of canisters. An inventive tower allows (olfactory) sampling of the proprietary blends. The names are poetic:
Earl Grey: “Simple and stimulating”
Fortmason: “Perfumed and subtle”
Lapsang Souchong: “Delicious and smoky”
Russian Caravan: “Light and nutty”
Chai: “Spicy and exquisite”
“Poetry is balance of things opposed.”
Who said that? Coleridge? It must be, for it was Coleridge’s own “Kubla Khan” that slaps us with contradiction. He artfully builds paradise with lines like “stately pleasure dome and scared rivers,” crossed by “fertile rivers” and teeming with “giant gardens bright.” Then, harshly, he ignites that lingering doubt—this cannot possibly be real—and destroys everything with “All should cry ‘Beware! Beware!’” 1
Nothing is the ultimate balance.
Coleridge can be a bit nutty. For a softer, more internal warmth might I recommend “Pleasures” by British poet Denise Levertov. An old favorite. I love how the right margin undulates in soothing harmony; 2
I like to find
what’s not found
at once, but lies
within something of another nature,
in repose, distinct.
Gull features of glass, hidden
in white pulp: the bones of squid
which I pull out and lay
blade by blade on the draining board –
tapered as if for swiftness, to pierce
the heart, but fragile, substance
Read it aloud and tap as you go, find the syllables to stress; they are hidden, difficult. They don’t keep to the breaks. There is a delightful something hidden, something simple and stimulating.
Tea has elegance too, in its proportion: hot liquid, cool pot. I hold empty pots to my neck in the summer. Tea to milk (I prefer milk), steeping. And even in the production: a simply plucked leaf, wilted, bruised, oxidized, shaped, and dried, all in proportion. I left with 250g of loose Russian Caravan, smoky and salutary.
An old favorite. Delicious poems await. Tea and poetry. Onward.
Hatchards, once you skoosh past the throngs of tourists, the stacks of best-sellers, and the queue for the till, opens to a large, beckoning interior. Lit shelves, dark wood struts, an ambling staircase.
First, a wonderful sip of Wodehouse (Hatchards has a lovely collection), a stir with Romantic verse, and finally, a selection of Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Traveled.3
Fry cautions: “You can never read a poem too slowly.” He urges a pause, how delightfully British. “Keep calm…” and all that.
Something stirs. A contradiction. Few cultures celebrate tea as extravagantly as the British, how Graham Greene remembered in his memoirs: “The silver pot, the tall tiered cake-stand, like a Chinese temple, two kinds of bread and butter, white and brown, cucumber and tomato sandwiches cut razor-thin, scones, rock-buns, and then all the cakes…”4
Indeed. Yet, it is a culture that rejects indulgence often—from preferred weather-oriented conversation staples to the “Keep calm…” (and do-not-indulge-emotions) mantra. Yet, indulgence in tea and poetry. Why?
Drink tea. Read poetry. Do both indulgently?
In our modern life, there is much need for pause. Although random pauses accomplish little, specific pauses, between moments of stimulation (usually negative) and response, accomplish everything. Someone steps in your way, cuts in the queue, snaps; we can respond (usually negative), or we can pause.
We not only pause, we saturate that pause with comfort, thoughtfulness, and meaning—feelings created by tea, poetry. A reflection on those rich pleasures and the joy they bring… Will we be more likely to find empathy, patience, kindness? Our better selves?
Might we even find “purity and harmony”?
Those aren’t my words; they belong to Kakuzo Okakura, a Japanese scholar and cultural critic who wrote The Book of Tea in 1906 extolling the aestheticism of tea and the delight of the poetic-minded pause.5
It inculcates purity and harmony, the mystery of mutual charity, the romanticism of the social order. It is essentially a worship of the Imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.
The afternoon glow is brightening the bamboos, the fountains are bubbling with delight, the soughing of the pines is heard in our kettle. Let us dream of evanescence and linger in the beautiful and foolishness of things.
Drink tea. Read poetry. Find something, possibly your best self.