“The wit of Shakespeare is like the flourishing of a man’s stick, when he is walking, in the full flow of animal spirits: it is a sort of overflow of hilarity which disburdens, and seems like a conductor, to distribute a portion of our joy to the surrounding air by carrying it away from us.”
Since having surgery on my right knee three weeks ago, I’ve been hobbling and limping and generally bumping along with even less than customary grace. We fancy ourselves gliding across a room like Cary Grant, when Walter Brennan is closer to reality. Friends have suggested I use a cane, but unsuspected reserves of vanity say no. Instead, I’ve carried my umbrella, a cane-in-disguise, even when the sun shines. It works, keeping me upright and ambulatory, until the rain starts falling, when the faux-cane turns again into an umbrella. What I really covet is a sword cane like the one G.K. Chesterton carried, or “Ham” Brooks in the old Doc Savage pulps. When I was twelve, that seemed like the ultimate in lethal suavity.
The passage at the top is drawn from “On Shakespeare’s Wit” in Coleridge: Lectures on Shakespeare (1811-1819) (ed. Adam Roberts, Edinburgh University Press, 2016). Coleridge is so often an overinflated gas bag, the very model of a contemporary “public intellectual.” And then he redeems himself with a beautiful metaphor like this, one that grows more complex the longer you ponder it. It starts realistically. When carrying a cane (or umbrella), it’s difficult to do anything other than flourish it. Then Coleridge’s cane becomes a sort of lightning rod for the poet’s “animal spirits.” In Shakespeare, his words are charged with the electricity of meaning and music, an “overflow of hilarity.” Here, Coleridge is at his best: “to distribute a portion of our joy to the surrounding air by carrying it away from us.”