Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Coleridge's Bowels

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, letter to his wife (June 5, 1804):
Whoever makes a sea voyage, should above all things provide themselves with aloetic pills, castor oil, & several other purgatives—as sometimes one will answer when others disagree—& everything depends on keeping the Body regularly open.
William Wordsworth, letter to Sir George Beaumont (August 31, 1804, on Coleridge):
He then gives a most melancholy account of an illness which held him during the whole of his voyage from Gibraltar to Malta except the last four or five days, a languor and oppression, and rejection of food, accompanied with a dangerous constipation, which compelled the Captain to hang out signals of distress to the Commodore for a surgeon to come on board. He was relieved from this at last after undergoing the most excruciating agonies, with the utmost danger of an inflammation in the bowels. All this appears to have been owing to his not having been furnished with proper opening medicines. The first week after his landing he was uncommonly well, but was afterwards seized with a fever which left him very low. He ends what relates to his health with saying that he is better on the whole, and that the only thing alarming in his case is a constant oppression in his breathing, the immediate cause of which is flatulence. He adds that the heat intense as it is does not oppress him, and that he is going to Sicily in a fortnight.—This account I consider on the whole as favourable as it is manifest that the obstruction in the Bowels, which would, as it seems, have cost him his life but for the timely aid of the Surgeon was entirely owing to a want of proper opening medicines, and the fever on his arrival is nothing more than what few I believe escape on their first arrival, in such a hot place at that season of the year. The difficulty in breathing I trust will soon disappear.
Excerpt from the first chapter of Richard Holmes, Coleridge: Darker Reflections, 1804-1834 (Pantheon Books, 1999):
On 4 May, a wind got up, and Coleridge composed a grateful sea-shanty for Captain Findlay, "who foretold a fair wind/ Of a constant mind", though "neither Poet, nor Sheep" could yet eat. But the wind turned into a squall, and then a storm, which carried away their foremost yard-arm on 6 May. He sank further into opium, besieged by "these Sleeps, these Horrors, these Frightful Dreams of Despair". He could no longer get up on deck, and was now seriously ill, with violent stomach pains and humiliating flatulence. A flowered curtain was rigged round his bunk, and he began to hallucinate, seeing "yellow faces" in the cloth. The ship was again becalmed, and he thought the flapping sails were fish dying on the deck. Mr Hardy, the surgeon of the Maidstone, was alerted and the rumour went round the convoy that one of the Speedwell's passengers was dying. Coleridge knew he had become the Jonas of the fleet.

The opium doses had completely blocked his bowels. The shame, guilt and horrid symbolism of this seized upon him. His body had closed upon itself, just as his mind had become fruitless and unproductive. He was a vessel full of mephitic horror. His journal becomes extraordinarily explicit, and details his sufferings with weird, unsparing exactitude. "Tuesday Night, a dreadful Labour, & fruitless throes, of costiveness — individual faeces, and constricted orifices. Went to bed & dozed & started in great distress."

Wednesday, 9 May was "a day of Horror". He spent the morning sitting over a bucket of hot water, "face convulsed, & the sweat streaming from me like Rain". Captain Findlay brought the Speedwell alongside the Maidstone, and sent for Mr Hardy. "The Surgeon instantly came, went back for Pipe & Syringe & returned & with extreme difficulty & the exertion of his utmost strength injected the latter. Good God!—What a sensation when the obstruction suddenly shot up!" Coleridge lay with a hot water bottle on his belly, "with pains & sore uneasiness, & indescribable desires", instructed to retain himself as long as possible. "At length went: O what a time! — equal in pain to any before. Anguish took away all disgust, & I picked out the hardened matter & after awhile was completely relieved. The poor mate who stood by me all this while had the tears running down his face."

The humiliation of this experience never left Coleridge. He knew it was caused by opium, and he reverted to it frequently in his Notebooks, and even in his later letters. From now on he dreaded the enema, as the secret sign and punishment for his addiction. The pain of "frightful constipation when the dead filth impales the lower Gut", was unlike any other illness, because it was shameful and could not be talked about "openly to all" like rheumatism, or other chronic complaints. It crept into his dreams, and haunted him with its grotesque symbolism of false birth and unproductivity. "To weep & sweat & moan & scream for parturience of an excrement with such pangs & such convulsions as a woman with an Infant heir of Immortality: for Sleep a pandemonium of all the shames and miseries of the past Life from earliest childhood all huddled together, and bronzed with one stormy Light of Terror & Self-torture. O this is hard, hard, hard."

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