Wednesday 2 March 2011

Keats and Starbucks

So what does the opening of La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Keats have to do with the world's largest chain of coffee shops?

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge is wither'd from the lake.
And no birds sing.

Give up? I thought so. You never were one for hard work, were you, dear reader? The connection is in the sedge.

Sedge is any kind of plant that grows on the banks of a lake or stream. More recently its meaning has dwindled to refer to plants of the cyperaceae family; and, really, unless you're a water-vole, the only place that you'll have heard of it is in the Keats poem.

This takes us to a suburb of Harrogate in Yorkshire with a small stream flowing through it. Here is a picture of that stream*:

You will notice the depressing lack of sedge. It must have wither'd, for there was sedge there once, as the suburb's name is Sedge-stream, except it's not. Yorkshire was, a thousand and bit years ago, overrun by Vikings, so most of their place names are Scandinavian, and the Viking word for Sedge-stream is Star-beck.

Starbeck is only recorded from 1817 but it must have been around before because a) It has a Viking name and b) there were people there who had sex as early as 1379. This sex produced families, and those families were called, by a slight alteration in the name, Starbuck. Since 1379 two things have happened: the Quaker movement was founded and America was discovered.

The result of this double-catastrophe was that among the first settlers on Nantucket Island was a Quaker family called Starbuck. Nantucket was a centre of the whaling industry and the Starbucks took up their harpoons and set off to seek their oily fortunes at sea. Valentine Starbuck met the King and Queen of Hawaii and took them to London where they got measles and died. Obed Starbuck sighted a coral atoll in the middle of the Pacific which was later named Starbuck Island in Valentine's honour. The point is that the Starbucks were famous whalers, which brings us to Moby Dick.

Moby Dick is about a bunch of sailors having a whale of a time (whale, in case you were wondering, was early C20th American slang for a lot - whale of a job etc). The first mate of the whaling ship Pequod is called Starbuck, because the Starbucks were such prominent whalers. Moby Dick, aside from having a vaguely amusing name, is a favourite with American schoolteachers, which brings us to Jerry Baldwin.

Jerry Baldwin was an English teacher from Seattle, who in 1971, along with a couple of friends, decided to start a coffee shop. He wanted to name it Pequod, after the ship in Moby Dick but was shouted down by his partners who pointed out that Pee is not a good syllable to have in a shop selling liquids.

So the others cast around for a local name and found that there was an abandoned mining town near Mount Ranier called Camp Starbo. At this point Jerry Baldwin piped up and suggested a compromise. If he couldn't have Pequod, what about Starbucks,which sounds a little like Starbo and is a character in Moby Dick. They decided that this was a good name, and the rest is bad coffee.

And it all goes back to a sedge-covered stream in Yorkshire.

Gone fishin'

*Stolen from Flickr without a flicker of conscience.


  1. Jerry van Kooten2 March 2011 at 13:34

    Just as far-fetched but to some probably just as interesting is the link to a(n almost) famous song by hard rock / blues band Mountain, titled Nantucket Sleighride. This song tells of some whalers.

    (They drift off, cannot get back to land, draw straws to decide who is offering himself to be killed and eaten by the rest to help them survive. The in this case oddly named Owen Coffin draws the short straw. But that is besides the point of my comment here.)

    The sleighride is what whalers' boats are doing (over and under water) when pulled by a harpooned whale. The whalers were from Nantucket so they called this a Nantucket Sleighride.

  2. Wynn Ældormann2 March 2011 at 13:59

    But how, how can you explain the Starbucks logo? Why a Melusine instead of a caffeinated whaler (or, for that matter, a caffeinated whale)?

  3. I agree about the bad coffee. But for the rest, I wouldn't have a clue were it not for your research, time and delightful putting together of it all. Sheer pleasure.

  4. Jerry, that would be a song about the wreck of the whaleship Essex (which was an influence on Melville).

  5. Wynn:
    The logo is a naiad, or water nymph, which brings things all the way back around to the original star-beck.

  6. Thanks for the explanation. I swear I saw a flag or feather type item in some back room at the Bishop museum in Hawaii - something about starbuck pattern and I thought that same pattern was in an old Starbucks logo, but I can't find references to it online anywhere, so maybe it was a sunburn psychosis.

    (And sorry, I like Starbucks lattes if they are made well. Even though as they say in California, (pronounced "Cal e forn ya" thanks to Arnold) Starbucks is "Corpo co-opted". Maybe it's my American bias showing.)

  7. Actually Got Medieval had a special about the logo: