Wednesday, September 09, 2009

`Crepuscular Half-Being'

In The Age of Wonders, in the chapter devoted to William Herschel, the self-taught astronomer and telescope builder who discovered the planet Uranus, Richard Holmes devotes a lengthy footnote to Coleridge’s fascination with the moon. He cites “To the Autumnal Moon” (a sonnet written when the poet was 16), “Frost at Midnight,” “Dejection” and “Limbo.” From the last poem he quotes:

“He gazes still -- his eyeless face all eye –
As 'twere an organ full of silent sight,
His whole face seemeth to rejoice in light !”

“Limbo” dramatizes a transmuted version of Coleridge as a blind (“a statue hath such eyes”) old man in a garden at night. Holmes says “he can still sense the moonlight pouring down on him like a benediction.” The great biographer of Coleridge says of the three quoted lines:

“These seem to me three of the most mysterious, moonstruck lines that Coleridge ever wrote. Perhaps he was imagining himself transformed into a sort of human telescope.”

One of Holmes’ accomplishments in the new book is his easy command of both the science and literature of the Romantic Era in England and the rest of Europe. It helps, of course, that the poets and chemists of the day often knew and admired each other, and that Coleridge performed chemistry experiments and the chemist Humphry Davy wrote poetry (admittedly, bad poetry). Specialization in the modern sense was blessedly unknown. Most impressive is Holmes’ placement of “Limbo” in the context of astronomy, elucidating the poem without diluting its mysteriousness.

“Limbo” is rooted in the poet’s drug-tormented life. He wrote while exiled to Hammersmith in 1811. In Dark Reflections (1998), the second volume of his Coleridge biography, Holmes writes:

“…sometimes those summer nights seemed endless, a purgatorial place of continuous twilight, in which his whole life seemed suspended outside time. He turned for consolation to his old friend the Moon, and it was now he began one of his most haunting and enigmatic of all his later poems, which he eventually entitled `Limbo’.”

The poem begins with the wraith-like spirits of Time and Space – conventional figures in Limbo -- “not a Place, / Yet name it so” – but Holmes notes “they also carry a metaphysical weight, being the two Kantian categories by which the human mind normally structures reality.” In “Limbo,” as in much of Coleridge’s best work, the terrible and sublime coexist, a Gothic balance rooted in his Herculean consumption of laudanum, an alcohol-and-opium-derivative cocktail. The travails of narcotic addiction and withdrawal include sleeplessness, hallucinations, anxiety and depression. Limbo is an apt metaphor for a life lived in the region between euphoria and misery. In Coleridge’s schema, Time and Space, “Fettered from flight, with nightmare sense of fleeing, / Strive for their last crepuscular half-being.”

The final phrase recalls the later fiction of Samuel Beckett and its desolate, limbo landscapes. In The Lost Ones, Beckett describes a dim, cylindrical world 16 meters high and 16 in diameter. It inhabitants sit “for the most part against the wall in the attitude which wrung from Dante one of his rare wan smiles.”

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