Thursday, October 21, 2021

'Indolence Capable of Energies'

In a momentary lapse into honesty, Samuel Taylor Coleridge sketches a true-to-life self-portrait: “”[M]y face, unless when animated by eloquence, expresses great sloth, and great, indeed almost idiotic good-nature. ’Tis a mere carcass of a face, fat, flabby and expressive chiefly of inexpression.” 

“Great sloth” is an essential component of Coleridge’s demeanor and personality, a quality soon to be exacerbated by liberal applications of laudanum. Self-portraiture is best when written satirically, with a generous dose of irony. That was not Coleridge’s way. In his November 19, 1796, letter to John Thelwall, radical rabblerouser and speech therapist, he continues:


“Yet I am told that my eyes, eyebrows, and forehead are physiognomically good; but of this the deponent knoweth not. As to my shape, ’tis a good shape enough if measured, but my gait is awkward, and the walk of the whole man indicates indolence capable of energies. I am, and ever have been, a great reader, and have read almost everything—a library cormorant.”


That final phrase is inspired. Coleridge, the albatross poet, knew his birds. The OED gives the figurative sense of cormorant: “an insatiably greedy or rapacious person.” Coleridge shared with Dr. Johnson a slothful nature given to dreamy idleness, coupled with a furious capacity for work. Both were prolific and often worked best when deadlines loomed, in order to stave off madness. W. Jackson Bate, who wrote biographies of both men, says in his 1977 life of Johnson:


“[A]s with Coleridge—so different from him in other ways, and different too in the way he faced this problem—the crushing burden of self-demand could make almost any other activity pleasant by contrast. Again as with Coleridge, talking was infinitely preferable. For there one’s powers of expression could be exercised in the highest degree, and yet the result was constantly flying away instead of remaining there on paper to rebuke him.”


Indeed, Coleridge was one of nature’s gasbags, a monologist of heroic proportions, high on the fumes of German Idealism, as he suggests later in his letter to Thelwall: “I compose very little, and I absolutely hate composition, and such is my dislike that even a sense of duty is sometimes too weak to overpower it.”


Coleridge was born on this date, October 21, in 1772, thus continuing our annual observance of the true Poetry Month, not April the imposter. Oh, yes: Coleridge on occasion wrote memorable poetry. “Frost at Midnight” is the finest of his “conversation poems.” With his son Hartley in his arms, the poet writes in its concluding lines:


“Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,

Whether the summer clothe the general earth

With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing

Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch

Of mossy apple-tree, while the night-thatch

Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall

Heard only in the trances of the blast,

Or if the secret ministry of frost

Shall hang them up in silent icicles,

Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.”

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