“Whenever I find myself growing vapourish [OED: “inclined to depression or low spirits”], I rouse myself, wash and put on a clean shirt brush my hair and clothes, tie my shoestrings neatly and in fact adonize as I were going out – then all clean and comfortable I sit down to write. This I find the greatest relief –”
That would be John Keats in a letter to his brother and sister-in-law, George and Georgiana Keats, in September 1819. The poet was already coughing up blood from tuberculosis, and was dead seventeen months later at the age of twenty-five. Another writer who died from tuberculosis was Laurence Sterne. Even before he started writing Tristram Shandy, Sterne showed symptoms, as does the novel’s narrator. In fact, the book can be read as an account of a comic race against mortality so long as the title character keeps writing, he can continue evading death. Sterne published Tristram Shandy in nine volumes between 1759 and 1766, then A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy in 1786, and then died three weeks later. In Chapter 4, Section LXXII, Tristram, like Keats, also “adonizes”:
“Now in ordinary cases, that is, when I am only stupid, and the thoughts rise heavily and pass gummous through my pen—
“Or that I am got, I know not how, into a cold unmetaphorical vein of infamous writing, and cannot take a plumb-lift out of it for my soul; so must be obliged to go on writing like a Dutch commentator to the end of the chapter, unless something be done—
“—I never stand conferring with pen and ink one moment; for if a pinch of snuff, or a stride or two across the room will not do the business for me—I take a razor at once; and having tried the edge of it upon the palm of my hand, without further ceremony, except that of first lathering my beard, I shave it off; taking care only if I do leave a hair, that it be not a grey one: this done, I change my shirt—put on a better coat—send for my last wig—put my topaz ring upon my finger; and in a word, dress myself from one end to the other of me, after my best fashion.”
A man should always dress and groom well when performing work in which he takes pride, even if he’s dying.