Spilt tea: a poem

Served in delicate porcelain cups without handles, tea was as easy to spill in the eighteenth century as it is today. Such an event was recorded in a little-known poem by Samuel Whyte in 1772, entitled ‘Epigram. On a Cup of Tea, spilt in a Lady’s Lap’:

Mourn not, AMIRA, that to Love’s Abode
The warm, adventurous Stream presum’d to press.
Not Chance, but some unseen, admiring God
In rapturous Ardor sought the sweet Recess:


Nor doubt what Deity, so greatly bold,
In Form unusual thus should visit thee;
The God, who ravish’d in a Shower of Gold,
Can charm the Fair-one in IMPERIAL Tea.[1]

Samuel Whyte was born into a prosperous and wealthy family in Ireland and was, as such, a member of the Protestant Ascendancy. He was a relation of the Sheridan family. He was the Principal of the English Grammar School, a day school that opened in 1758, which – most unusually for the period – took both male and female students. Among his pupils were Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Thomas Dermody, and Thomas Moore.

Whyte epigram

His poem concerns an encounter between a cup of tea and ‘Amira’, a young woman of his acquaintance. The poet observes what happens when Amira spills her tea, and then speculates amusingly about the metaphorical consequences of the event. The tea is ‘Imperial’ – a kind of green tea also called ‘Bing’ in the early eighteenth century: in John Ovington’s description in 1699 it ‘looks both green to the Eye, and is crisp in the Mouth, and the Smell of it is very pleasant’;[2] according to John Coakley Lettsom in 1772, ‘Bing, imperial or bloom Tea’ was ‘a large loose leaf of a light green color, and faint delicate smell’.[3] Whatever the kind of tea, it was served hot, and would have been most unwelcome when spilt in Amira’s lap.

An epigram is a short witty form of poem: this is quite a long one for the kind. The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (1993) defines it as ‘A form of writing which makes a satiric or aphoristic observation with wit, extreme condensation, and, above all, brevity’. Whyte’s poem was published in an extensive anthology of poems and essays Whyte published in 1772 called The Shamrock: or, Hibernian cresses. Not much is known about this volume: it is probably a miscellany collection he made up from contributions from his friends and pupils, but it could be his own production. Dublin was the centre for a very active literary scene in the eighteenth century, with numerous English-language poets and novelists writing and publishing in Ireland. The anthology was popular enough to be reprinted in London the next year, entitled A collection of poems, the productions of the kingdom of Ireland: selected from a collection published in that kingdom, intituled, The shamrock; or, Hibernian cresses. The spilt tea epigram was not considered good enough for inclusion however, and so it was only published in Ireland.

Tea is easy to spill: looking up ‘spilt tea’ on Google today, it seems it is easy to spill accidentally on laptop keyboards (turn off power, pour away the excess liquid and leave to dry thoroughly in a warm place). The Daily Mail (a newspaper) reported the story in March 2010 of a seventeen-year-old boy who suffered burns from spilling a paper cup of tea from Macdonalds in his lap. Serving hot tea hot is however considered an acceptable risk to consumers.


James Gillray ‘Advantages of wearing Muslin Dresses!’ (1802) British Museum number

But Whyte’s poem does not seem to care much whether Amira was hurt by the spilt tea. Rather, it is the poet’s own curiosity that is raised by events. The first stanza turns on some rather lubricious innuendo about the ‘sweet recesses’ of Amira’s lap, which, he speculates, have been ‘pressed’ or invaded by the ‘warm adventurous stream’ of hot tea. The admiring god directing this stream of tea has been sent into ‘rapturous ardor’ at the event. This is supposed to be flattering to Amira, one suspects, but is also laced with a licentious tone of misogyny.

The mention of this ‘Admiring god’ — a most flattering self-description — keys the second stanza’s neo-classical allusion to Danaë and the shower of gold. In Greek mythology, Danaë was a princess, whose father, King Acrisius of Argos, was told in a prophecy that he would be killed by her son. Accordingly, the father has his daughter immured in a tower. But despite his precautions, Zeus came to her in the form of a shower of gold, and ravished her. Numerous artists, including here Titian, have been intrigued by this scene. The child born as a result of their union, Perseus, went on to kill his father, fulfilling the oracle.

Whyte flatters the Imperial tea by likening it to a golden shower, poured into Amira’s lap. He makes light of the event by making a mountain out of it: hoping to diminish the pain and embarrassment of the spilt tea by making it appear ridiculous, cast into the rarified company of Zeus and Danaë. Even so, the neoclassical aggrandizing doesn’t entirely remove the taint of misogyny.

Tizian_011Titian, Danaë with Eros (1544). 120 cm × 172 cm. National Museum of Capodimonte, Naples


[1] Samuel Whyte, 1733-1811, ‘Epigram. On a Cup of Tea, spilt in a Lady’s Lap’, in The Shamrock: or, Hibernian cresses. A collection of poems, songs, epigrams, &c. Latin as well as English, the original production of Ireland. To which are subjoined, thoughts on the prevailing system of school education, respecting Young Ladies as well as Gentlemen: with Practical Proposals for a Reformation. By Samuel Whyte, Principal of the English Grammar School (Dublin, 1772), p. 356

[2] John Ovington, An Essay on the Nature and Qualities of Tea (London, 1799), p. 13.

[3] John Coakley Lettsom, The Natural History of the Tea-Tree (London, 1772), p. 25.

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