Monday, May 23, 2011

This is not about Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poetry, but if I tell you what it is about, you won't read it.

This is going to be one of those roundabout posts where I spend several unnecessary paragraphs setting up a single quote. At least I'm warning you this time so you won't be disappointed at the end because you already knew it wasn't working up to much.

My non-poetic interest in Samuel Taylor Coleridge started when I began reading The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes, which is the most interesting book I have read maybe ever. I know I say that about all the books I read, but this one is seriously great! It's about the history of science during the Enlightenment, which is interesting because during that period, they were still referring to scientists as "philosophers" and thought that heat was an invisible substance named "caloric" and that electricity was an invisible fluid called "electricity." Basically, if you didn't know what was going on, you declared it invisible and gave it a name. Sometimes it worked out, and sometimes it didn't.

What is also interesting, and more to my point, is how many of the Romantic poets show up in this book alongside the scientists, and how many scientists wrote poetry. Disciplines we now think of as opposites were happily united, as if the poet and the scientist were just different kinds of philosophers. I knew from the one class I took on the Romantics that there was a strong connection between science and poetry during that period, but even so, I was surprised at first how often Coleridge came up in the chapter on Humphrey Davy, the chemist who discovered nitrous oxide. Then I thought about it a little and I realized: nothing makes more sense than Coleridge, famous for his opium addiction, getting to be pals with Davy, who, in the name of science of course, inhaled vast, vast amounts of nitrous oxide. Or as it is better known, laughing gas. Unfortunately, Davy was too busy making himself and all his friends artificially hilarious to realize it would make a great anesthetic, and surgeons went on giving their patients nothing but whiskey for another fifty years. Then they started using ether. Nitrous oxide wasn't involved in anesthesia until 1876. That seems totally ridiculous, but then again, someone only just invented a rib-spreader that doesn't break the ribs, like, last week. Clearly we have some distance to go before we are doing the full-on Beverly Crusher and healing people with a painless, non-invasive magic beam.

Anyway, while I was reading this, I realized I knew almost nothing about Coleridge except for his opium addiction. I know Byron, Keats, and Shelley all died very young, and it seemed likely Coleridge did, too, considering his obvious issues. But in fact, he lived to be 61, which is twice the average age of a Romantic poet. Many felicitations to him for surviving so long, especially since it was not easy. Everywhere I looked, people were constantly referring to his terrible health problems, which they blamed on his being a drug addict. I do not doubt being a drug addict is bad for your health, but I started to think maybe he was getting a bad rap. No one ever said what his health problems were, just that he was always "in poor health." Then they would allude to his being morally and spiritually impaired, as if that could cause a physical ailment.

Well, this kind of mystery DRIVES ME NUTS. I subsequently discovered that Coleridge wrote about his health constantly, and if no modern doctor could diagnose him from what is basically the world's most well-written medical chart, I was going to be very annoyed. During my hour at the reference desk today, I asked myself a reference question, "What was wrong with Coleridge?" and then I set about answering it. Here is what I found out: he got a cavity, or cavities, which gave him sinus infections and also infected his tonsils. His tooth was pulled, but somewhere along the way, the infection very likely got into his bones and gave him osteomyelitis, which means bone infection, which is redundant because I just said that, but I like the word. It reminds me we are probably due for another disease week.

But back to poor, suffering Coleridge: on top of what the first article called "chronic sepsis," Coleridge probably also had something else. This is where it gets slightly confusing. Coleridge had one of two types of cholera, neither of which were really cholera, and neither of which he actually had. Thus sayeth article number two. Though Coleridge was convinced he had cholera, what really caused his symptoms was opium withdrawal; he used to quit cold turkey every so often. The symptoms are the same. I could not convince myself to read thirty-five pages on the effects of cholera, so I must omit the specific details. Let's just say, Coleridge should have either quite the opium altogether or not at all. It would have been much less gruesome.

In regard to the moral matter of becoming an opium addict, if I had terribly painful rheumatism due to an ongoing whole-body infection, starting at the age of 24 and lasting almost forty years, I might treat opium like the eighteenth-century equivalent of medical marijuana, too. Plus, severe pain is a much better reason to trot on down to the Pneumatic Institute every evening and get a noseful of happy-making gas than "science" is. (To be fair to Davy, he really did think laughing gas was curative, and when he finally realized it wasn't, he moved on to more productive work.)

Now we're coming to the part which is the entire point. I could have just said, "This is funny," and left it at that, but I felt you needed to know about Coleridge's personal issues because you never know when you'll be on Jeopardy or something. This is Coleridge's account of his general ill-health, early on, right after he's had a bad tooth extracted. The "it" he refers to in this letter is pain:

"On Friday it only niggled, as if the chief had departed from a conquered place and merely left a small garrison behind, or as if he had evacuated the Corsica, and a few struggling pains only remained. But this morning he returned in full force, and his name is Legion. Giant-fiend of a hundred hands, with a shower of arrowy death pangs he transpierced me, and then he became a wolf, and lay a-gnawing at my bones!"

My favorite part is a shower of arrowy death pangs. I'm sure I would not laugh if he were in front of me, suffering in my face, but a shower of arrowy death pangs. I mean my goodness. You'd think the man was a Romantic poet . . . or on drugs . . . or both.

He admits in his next letter: "I wrote you on Saturday night under the immediate inspiration of laudanum, and wrote you a flighty letter, but yet one most accurately descriptive of both facts and feelings." I believe both claims. It's tempting to think he couldn't have been feeling that terrible if he was lying around thinking, "How shall I conclude my pain-as-military-commander conceit? Ah yes, I think 'his name is Legion' would be dramatically Biblical." I've read a lot about writers, and they all cope with adversity by thinking about either how best to describe it later, or how it matches up with what has been described before. The "giant-fiend of a hundred hands" is a reference to the Hekatonkheires, three giants who, in Greek mythology, helped overthrow the Titans. I admit the allusions do convince me that he was in a whole lot of pain. But I also admit that I laughed. A shower of arrowy death pangs. That is immortal.

The two articles I read, or in the case of the cholera one, skimmed with one eye shut, are these:
  • John D. Rea's "Coleridge's Health," Modern Language Notes, January 1930.
  • G. S. Rousseau's "Coleridge's Choleras: Cholera Morbus, Asiatic Cholera, and Dysentary in Eighteenth-Century England," Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Summer 2003.
Incidentally, cholera morbus, Asiatic cholera, and dysentary are all in the running for Disease of the Year, so if you have a preference I will consider your comment a vote, and also did you catch that clever if disgusting pun? I tell you I am on fire here.

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