Thursday, December 29, 2016

`I Could Even Be Witty'

It doesn’t surprise me to learn that a certain writer rehearsed his own death and resurrection:

“In May 1830 he collapsed in his bedroom, and the crash of his falling body brought the Gillmans hurrying up the stairs. Seeing him unconscious on the floor, they assumed that all was finally over. But [he] was merely practicing for his resurrection, and to their astonishment and relief soon burst back to life.”

If you guessed Coleridge, ever in the spotlight on the stage of his own life, you are correct. Despite the daunting observation of his beloved Spinoza – “A free man thinks of death least of all things; and his wisdom is a meditation not of death but of life.” -- Coleridge was as death-haunted and death-dramatizing as any junkie. After the episode described above by Richard Holmes in the second volume of his biography of the poet, Coleridge wrote about it to his friend William Blackwood:

“All my faculties returned entire, and in the first instance exactly as from ordinary sleep. Indeed, before I had opened my eyes, I merely found that my medical friends and Mrs Gillman were flustering over me: my first words were, `What a mystery we are! What a problem is presented in the strange contrast between the imperishability of our thoughts and the perishable fugacious nature of our consciousness . . .

One can picture Coleridge, among the Olympic-class bloviators of humanity, saying precisely that after a near-death experience, including “fugacious” (OED: “of immaterial things: Tending to disappear, of short duration; evanescent, fleeting, transient, fugitive”). For a visual representation, see Max Beerbohm’s rendering of Coleridge. Though he lived for four more years, the poet went on to compose his own epitaph and spoke endlessly of the design of his tombstone. First he toyed with the idea of “a tender, voluptuous Muse figure,” Holmes tells us, and then a broken harp, before settling on an old man under an ancient yew tree.

By early 1834, Coleridge was genuinely sick, and Dr. Gillman switched him from a drinkable tincture of opium to hypodermic injection. In his final Table Talk entry, dated July 10, Coleridge said: “I am dying, but without expectation of a speedy release. Is it not strange that very recently by-gone images, and scenes of early life, have stolen into my mind, like breezes blown from the spice-islands of Youth and Hope . . .”

In death, Coleridge is at once noble and eloquent, self-absorbed and deluded. We sympathize with his suffering but recall that most of it was self-inflicted. Holmes concludes his final chapter:

“At 6:30 a.m. on 25 July 1834 he slipped into the dark. He was talking almost to the end. As he closed those extraordinary eyes, he told [Joseph Henry] Green that his mind was clear and `quite unclouded.’ Then he added with growing interest: `I could even be witty . . .’”

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