I just read this poem:

The Englishman
by G.K. Chesterton

St George he was for England,
And before he killed the dragon
He drank a pint of English ale
Out of an English flagon.
For though he fast right readily
In hair-shirt or in mail,
It isn’t safe to give him cakes
Unless you give him ale.

St George he was for England,
And right gallantly set free
The lady left for dragon’s meat
And tied up to a tree;
But since he stood for England
And knew what England means,
Unless you give him bacon
You mustn’t give him beans.

St George he is for England,
And shall wear the shield he wore
When we go out in armour
With battle-cross before.
But though he is jolly company
And very pleased to dine,
It isn’t safe to give him nuts
Unless you give him wine.

My question is about the line about the bacon and beans. The first stanza is about food and beer, the third stanza is about food and wine. But the middle stanza seems to be about food and food, but are one of those words (bacon or beans) suggestive of beer?

  • It's just fertile imagination on the OP's part. Bacon is bacon, beans beans. – Kris Apr 23 '12 at 17:12
  • @kris I guess. Nevertheless it's good to know. You'd think GKC was talking about beer too after reading "The Flying Inn". – Peter Turner Apr 23 '12 at 17:37
  • @Kris: Bacon and beans is rather British (Americans are more into pork and beans). And let's not forget that there are beans and beans - people in the UK eat over 90% of the world's tinned baked beans.. Sure, Americans eat "pork and beans", but that's not beans as we know them. – FumbleFingers Apr 24 '12 at 13:49
  • Either side of the pond, could there be a metaphorical / idiomatic sense to these phrases? (Which is what I think is the Q. about). – Kris Apr 24 '12 at 14:17
  • @Kris - at first glance, my impression is that GKC is talking about exactly what St. George did with the maiden after he rescued her from the dragon. – MT_Head Apr 27 '12 at 7:02

The collocation cakes and ale goes back to Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, when Sir Toby Belch (drunk, as always) rounds on the sanctimonious courtier Malvolio with "Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?".

The Englishman first appeared in The Flying Inn (1914), some months after Nuts and Wine a theatrical revue with lyrics by C. H. Bovill and P. G. Wodehouse was staged in London. Walter Dendy Sadler's painting Over the Nuts and Wine (1889) was extensively reprinted as an icon of relaxed camaraderie among English gentlemen.

I'm not aware of any special connection between Englishmen and bacon and beans, but if you compare that chart with pork and beans it's obvious Brits prefer bacon where Americans go for pork. I suspect the English connotations for bacon and beans were more akin to Jeffrey Archer's Krug (champagne) and shepherd's pie (simple yet convivial fare), where to the average American [salt-]pork and beans would be dreary trail/frontier rations.

The first stanza isn't "about" food and beer, nor is the third stanza "about" food and wine. It's just that every stanza ends with a whimsical couplet involving two things that Chesterton's archetypal Englishman would see as a natural pairing.

EDIT: At the risk of steering into litcrit / social history territory, thanks to OP himself for ferreting out the crucial context. The Flying Inn (a novel interlaced with poems) is set in a future England where the Temperance movement has allowed a bizarre form of "Progressive" Islam to dominate. Chesterton is satirising the fact that from an Englishman's perspective, the natural pairings for cakes, beans, and nuts (i.e. - ale, bacon, and wine) would be prohibited in a Islamic state.

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  • Excellent answer Mr. Fingers. Actually, I think the most surprising thing about the poem is that it doesn't reference cheese. – Peter Turner Apr 24 '12 at 13:17
  • @P. Alan Phillip Turner: I may be wrong, but I think for Chesterton's era and social class, a late-night gathering of friends over nuts and wine would have been what we'd probably call a cheese and wine evening today. But good cheese was always highly-prized among the gentry, of course - witness Samuel Pepys being at great pains to bury his, so it would survive the Great Fire of London – FumbleFingers Apr 24 '12 at 13:41
  • I think you're right about most everything, but I know what the real reason for "Bacon" is and the key word is what goes with "unless". If you've read the Flying Inn (or even a brief synopsis) you'll know what I'm getting at. Let me know if you want me to tell you, I kind of guess that you enjoy figuring these things out so I'll just leave it at that. – Peter Turner Apr 26 '12 at 20:07
  • @P. Alan Phillip Turner: I concede defeat! :) My best guess (St George being the iconic red-blooded, meat-eating Englishman) is that it's a sideswipe against vegetarianism - beans being central to the vegetarian's diet, and the smell of bacon being the archetypal thing he'll often admit causes him to salivate involuntarily. Chesterton's satirical ditty "The Logical Vegetarian" suggests he wasn't exactly a lentil-lover (I think even for his own time, he was a bit of a curmudgeonly, recalcitrant reactionary, to be honest! :) – FumbleFingers Apr 26 '12 at 21:10
  • I didn't realize this until thinking about your post. The Flying Inn was about holding off a Muslim invasion of England (or at least holding off the indoctrination of healthful Islamic practices at the expense of culture and freedom). Bacon, wine and ale would be prohibited in a Islamic state leaving beans, nuts, and cakes without their natural companions. – Peter Turner Apr 26 '12 at 21:17

Neither is suggestive of beer. Instead, along with the other contrasts, this one is between meat and non-meat, saying he requires both.

It also gives a suitable rhyme, of course.

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Sounds to me like the suggestion is that an english breakfast should always have bacon, and if you're going to provide beans then there'd better be bacon with them. This might sound bizarre but if I was served an English breakfast that didn't contain both, then as an Englishman (or partly at least) I wouldn't call it a full English breakfast.

In this case at least, I would not expect that either the bacon or beans reference alcohol, but are there purely to convey what constitutes a proper english breakfast.

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  • I doubt Chesterton thought of bacon & beans as breakfast. Dinner - or more likely, supper. – FumbleFingers Apr 24 '12 at 3:35
  • Why do you say that? As I indicated, bacon and beans are standard fare when it comes to an English breakfast — it would make much more sense given the title of the piece that this is what he's referring to. – Matt Lacey Apr 24 '12 at 3:44
  • Chesterton was brought up in middle-class Victorian England, but the type of full English breakfast you're thinking of only got started in the 1980s when cheap air travel meant working-class Brits could holiday abroad. That's when a dollop of beans started appearing on the breakfast plate. Even today, only Brits and Aussies really eat our kind of "baked beans". Chesterton probably ate kedgeree or devilled kidneys (plus toast and marmalade, of course!) for breakfast. – FumbleFingers Apr 24 '12 at 13:33
  • What's Englishment mean? – James Waldby - jwpat7 Apr 26 '12 at 19:39

This is really just a way of saying St. George is a proper Englishman. If it was about a German, it could be, don't give him any schnitzel, unless you give him `kraut.

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