Where There’s Smoke: A Spirited Early Defence of Tobacco

Todd H.J. Pettigrew

One of the great satisfactions of scholarship is discovering texts with which one is wholly unfamiliar and yet which one feels a real human connection. From the dim reaches of ages past, a voice finds its way to you, and you realize you have a friend who has not walked this earth for centuries, but with whom you can converse nevertheless.

During the process of preparing the Broadview edition of Francis Beaumont’s play The Knight of the Burning Pestle, I was pleased to discover just such a text and just such a friend in The Metamorphosis of Tobacco (1602) by John Beaumont, the elder brother of the playwright. Because the play frequently raises the question of tobacco smoking as a social practice and a social vice, and because Francis Beaumont was likely familiar with his brother’s work, an excerpt from the poem felt like a perfect addition to the appendices.

The Metamorphosis of Tobacco is set up as a kind of mock-heroic poem, deliberately juxtaposing the workaday subject matter of smoking against the elevated tone of epic—doing, in some ways, what Alexander Pope would gain much more fame doing a century or so later. Inspired by his muse, Beaumont sings in praise of that already much-maligned “sweet simple,” tobacco.

The poem first aims to rebut the claims that smoking is harmful to people’s health. The argument, though the language sounds a little archaic to our ears, makes a point that feels remarkably modern. Anything, even a good thing, done to excess, Beaumont argues, can be harmful. We do not abstain from food, for instance, on the grounds that “a surfeit comes from too much meat.” Even exercise itself, healthy in moderation, can “chafe our veins and stretch our arteries” if one overdoes it. Today, similar arguments, expressed or implied, remain part of our public health discourse. We recognize the dangers of alcohol, for instance, but frequently advise moderation rather than abstinence.

Conversely, Beaumont’s poem sometimes feels distinctly pre-modern in its extolling of the definite virtues of tobacco smoke. Here, he relies less on common-sense reasoning, and more on classically-inspired philosophy and mythology.

For one thing, tobacco smoke naturally rises rather than sinking down to the base and lowly earth, showing its divine nature. Ascending into the sky, he imagines, it mingles with the heavenly smoke of the forges of the mighty Cyclops whose fires fashioned the very thunderbolts of Jove.

Meanwhile back in the earthly hands of the smoker, tobacco, says Beaumont, soothes and heals like “a sponge that wipes out all our woes.” It warms the limbs and, like the waters of Lethe, allows the smoker to let go of “his present griefs and sorrows past.” Smoking calms the angry and makes the cynic amiable. Even dreaming of tobacco can restore the sick person to health.

This praise is deliberately extravagant, of course, but the hyperbole is not to satirize the love of tobacco, but rather to playfully celebrate it.

Such a celebration would, today, likely be met with a shaking head, a clicking tongue, or worse. But as a lover of an occasional cigar myself, I sympathize with Beaumont’s general position. Remember that Beaumont is not speaking here of cigarettes, those cheap rolls of adulterated tobacco inhaled hastily during a quick break from work. Rather, Beaumont would have smoked his tobacco from a pipe. Pipe smoking, and cigar smoking for that matter, is deliberate and mindful. It is the backdrop for genial conversation when with others, and for gentle self-reflection when alone.

I hesitate to praise tobacco even in this cool and mild way, knowing it may invite scorn. And yet, I maintain that an occasional quiet candela does me more good than harm, healing my soul if not my lungs. And even if that calculus is wrong, the error is mine to make.

And I dare say that my friend John Beaumont would agree.

Posted on November 29, 2022