In 1735, Alexander Pope wrote Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot. There is a line "a parson much bemus'd in beer." What has beer to do with it?

I came across this in Merriam-Webster:

In 1735, British poet Alexander Pope lamented, in rhyme, being besieged by "a parson much bemus'd in beer." The cleric in question was apparently one of a horde of would-be poets who plagued Pope with requests that he read their verses. Pope meant that the parson had found his muse—his inspiration—in beer.

First of all whose inspiration did the parson find? How did beer became a source of inspiration? What does it mean in this context? Were they having drinks while reading their verses? I am bemused by the use of beer.

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    The consumption of alcohol may disinhibit the imagination, but it rarely leads to the creation of good poetry (or prose), unless one is phenomenally talented. In vino veritas does not apply here. Pope was being ironical.
    – Mick
    Commented Mar 8, 2017 at 17:14
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    I'm fairly certain he means they got wasted and came up some weird idea while drunk.
    – user72
    Commented Mar 8, 2017 at 17:34
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    @Mick is correct. It's worth noting that coffee houses began appearing in England around Pope's time and the stimulant has been credited by some as contributing to the intellectual advances of the Enlightenment. By contrast, alcohol dis-inhibits as a depressant, so it is unlikely to lead to the rigor good poetry demands. "Beer Goggles" would give one a false perception of the verse they had produced.
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Mar 9, 2017 at 15:53
  • @Duke Zhou but 'beer' could mean to have written a bad poetry as Lauren pointed out, right? Thus having it's literal sense.
    – Nikki
    Commented Mar 10, 2017 at 4:13
  • 1
    @Nikki Absolutely! I've heard "[small beer](small beer)" used as a metaphor for something of little significance.
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Mar 10, 2017 at 14:22

2 Answers 2


If you read the entire poem, the speaker is complaining to his friend that every Tom, Dick, and parson who can dip a quill thinks he or she is a poet, and then brings or sends the poem to him for his opinion.

Is there a parson, much bemus'd in beer,
A maudlin poetess, a rhyming peer,
A clerk, foredoom'd his father's soul to cross,
Who pens a stanza, when he should engross?
Is there, who, lock'd from ink and paper, scrawls
With desp'rate charcoal round his darken'd walls?
All fly to Twit'nam, and in humble strain
Apply to me, to keep them mad or vain.

If he likes the crap poetry they're happy; if he doesn't they're furious.

Bless me! a packet—"'Tis a stranger sues,
A virgin tragedy, an orphan muse."
If I dislike it, "Furies, death and rage!"
If I approve, "Commend it to the stage."

But he (the speaker of the poem) is exhausted with providing free editing and critique services for terrible amateur writers. One such amateur is a parson (who has to write a weekly sermon and so thinks himself "a writer") who builds up Dutch courage with a German import and can only write his (apparently horrible) verse when drunk.

  • 1
    Oh! Now it makes much more sense to me! So beer is used in its literal sense of inebriation, right? Thankyou so much.
    – Nikki
    Commented Mar 8, 2017 at 19:17
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    @Nikki bemused means confused (or puzzled), not inspired.
    – Mick
    Commented Mar 8, 2017 at 19:49
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    @Mick It does now, but rather fascinatingly, if you read the MW link Nikki posts in the original question, it used to mean "be-mused," as in "adorned with a muse, inspired by a muse, muse: I haz it." But later readers interpreted Pope's line to mean that the parson was confused or inebriated by the beer, thus leading to the current meaning. Commented Mar 8, 2017 at 20:51
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    @LaurenIpsum "muse: I haz it" I'm both happy and sad that phrase doesn't appear in any dictionary I've ever used.
    – anon
    Commented Mar 9, 2017 at 5:15
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    @Nikki It is possible that Pope was just being peevish. Since alcohol inhibits good judgement, inebriation (or tiredness) will inevitably lead to poor poetry (or prose). I know that it does with me, and my evening ramblings can appear terrible in the cold light of day. Of course, many people can't write good poetry at all, even when they are stone-cold sober. See here (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy).
    – Mick
    Commented Mar 10, 2017 at 5:12

Fowler's Dictionary considers "bemused" a pun on the name of Laurence Eusden, a notable poet and notable drunkard.

So it sounds to me as if "bemused" here primarily means "drunk". While the term is etymologically related to "inspired by muses", it has meant (at least since the early 18th century) simply "confused". Pope was aware of the pun on "muse"; the Online Etymology Dictionary quotes that he 'punned on it as "devoted utterly to the Muses."' but I can't find a citation for that.

  • Eusden's reference makes it all clear. So the line does state that the parson wrote a bad poetry as he was drunk, right?
    – Nikki
    Commented Mar 10, 2017 at 4:21
  • 1
    Pope certainly didn't like it. Eusden was Poet Laureate, though that job seems to have consisted primarily of producing overblown poems in praise of various people. There's a sample of his work (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laurence_Eusden). I'm not sufficiently expert in the poetry of the period to evaluate it in context (styles change, after all), but three exclamation points in twelve lines is a red flag. It looks like he's trying to emulate a style that was already way out of date. "Eusden set out well in life, but afterwards turned out a drunkard and besotted his faculties". Commented Mar 10, 2017 at 15:06

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