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Pepys was a regular visitor here
Pepys was a regular visitor here
There is an extensive discussion of the Cock's associations with Samuel and with Tennyson in Henry Shelley's "Inns and Taverns of Old London" --
Pepys knew the old house and spent many a jovial evening beneath its roof. It was thither, one April evening in 1667, that he took Mrs. Pierce and Mrs. Knapp, the latter being the actress whom he thought "pretty enough" besides being "the most excellent, mad-humoured thing, and sings the noblest that ever I heard in my life." The trio had a gay time; they "drank, and eat lobster, and sang" and were "mightily merry." By and by the crafty diarist deleted Mrs. Pierce from the party, and went off to Vauxhall with the fair actress, his confidence in the enterprise being strengthened by the fact that the night was "darkish." If she did not find out that excursion, Mrs. Pepys knew quite enough of her husband's weakness for Mrs. Knapp to be justified of her jealousy. And even he appears to have experienced twinges of conscience on the matter. Perhaps that was the reason why he took his wife to the Cock, and "did give her a dinner" there. Other sinners have found it comforting to exercise repentance on the scene of their offences.
Judging from an advertisement which was published in 1665, the proprietor of the Cock did not allow business to interfere with pleasure. "This is to certify," his announcement ran, "that the master of the Cock and Bottle, commonly called the Cock Alehouse, at Temple Bar, hath dismissed his servants, and shut up his house, for this Long Vacation, intending (God willing) to return at Michaelmas next."
But the tavern is prouder of its association with Tennyson than of any other fact in its history. The poet was always fond of this neighbourhood. His son records that whenever he went to London with his father, the first item on their programme was a walk in the Strand and Fleet Street. "Instead of the stuccoed houses in the West End, this is the place where I should like to live," Tennyson would say. During his early days he lodged in Norfolk Street close by, dining with his friends at the Cock and other taverns, but always having a preference for the room "high over roaring Temple-bar." In the estimation of the poet, as his son has chronicled, "a perfect dinner was a beef-steak, a potato, a cut of cheese, a pint of port, and afterwards a pipe (never a cigar). When joked with by his friends about his liking for cold salt beef and new potatoes, he would answer humorously, 'All fine-natured men know what is good to eat.' Very genial evenings they were, with plenty of anecdote and wit."
All this, especially the pint of port, throws light on "Will Waterproof's Lyrical Monologue," which, as the poet himself has stated, was "made at the Cock." Its opening apostrophe is familiar enough:
"O plump head-waiter at The Cock,
To which I most resort,
How goes the time? 'Tis five o'clock.
Go fetch a pint of port."
How faithfully that waiter obeyed the poet's injunction to bring him of the best, all readers of the poem are aware:
"The pint, you brought me, was the best
That ever came from pipe."
Undoubtedly. As witness the flights of fancy which it created. Its potent vintage transformed both the waiter and the sign of the house in which he served and shaped this pretty legend.
"And hence this halo lives about
The waiter's hands, that reach
To each his perfect pint of stout,
His proper chop to each.
He looks not like the common breed.
That with the napkin dally;
I think he came like Ganymede,
From some delightful valley.
"The Cock was of a larger egg
Than modern poultry drop,
Stept forward on a firmer leg,
And cramm'd a plumper crop;
Upon an ampler dunghill trod,
Crow'd lustier late and early,
Sipt wine from silver, praising God,
And raked in golden barley.
"A private life was all his joy,
Till in a court he saw
A something-pottle-bodied boy
That knuckled at the law:
He stoop'd and clutch'd him, fair and good,
Flew over roof and casement:
His brothers of the weather stood
Stock-still for sheer amazement.
"But he, by farmstead, thorpe and spire,
And follow'd with acclaims,
A sign to many a staring shire
Came crowing over Thames.
Right down by smoky Paul's they bore,
Till, where the street grows straiter,
One fix'd for ever at the door,
And one became head-waiter."
Just here the poet bethought himself. It was time to rein in his fancy. Truly it was out of place to make
"The violet of a legend blow
Among the chops and steaks."
So he descends to more mundane things, to moralize at last upon the waiter's fate and the folly of quarrelling with our lot in life. It is interesting to learn from Fitzgerald that the Cock's plump head-waiter read the poem, but disappointing to know that his only remark on the performance was, "Had Mr. Tennyson dined oftener here, he would not have minded it so much." From which poets may learn the moral that to trifle with Jove's cupbearer in the interests of a tavern waiter is liable to lead to misunderstanding. But it is, perhaps, of more importance to note that, notwithstanding the destruction of the exterior of the Cock in 1888, one room of that ancient building was preserved intact and may be found on the first
floor of the new house. There, for use as well as admiration, are the veritable mahogany boxes which Tennyson knew,--
"Old boxes, larded with the steam
Of thirty thousand dinners--"
and not less in evidence is the stately old fireplace which Pepys was familiar with.
Cock Tavern, Fleet Street, or, as it was at first called, The Cock Alehouse; a celebrated tavern, facing Middle Temple Gate, and till lately famous for its chops, steaks, porter and stout. It was in existence early in the 17th century, and it is on record that in 1665 the master shut up the house while the plague was raging and retired into the country.
The Lyrical Monologue of Will Waterproof, "made at the Cock" by Alfred (now Lord) Tennyson, has spread far and wide the fame of the "plump head-waiter" and the "boxes larded with the steam of thirty thousand dinners," and led many a pilgrim from beyond the Atlantic to take his place among the "silent gentlemen who trifle with the cruet" in the old-fashioned apartment, which was decorated with a chimney-piece of the Jacobean period. The gilt sign was said to have been carved by Grinling Gibbons. The tavern has been pulled down, and the site is occupied by the branch bank of the Bank of England (erected 1888). The tavern itself has been removed to the opposite side of the street, farther east, where the old sign and some of the fittings have been removed. The re-edified Cock was opened in 1888.
---London, Past and Present. H.B. Wheatley, 1891.
Chart showing the number of references in each month of the diary’s entries.