Wednesday, May 26, 2010

"He lies under a world's weight of incubus and nightmare," or, Literary lassitude

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Emerging from ten days utterly absorbed in Dorothy Dunnett's King Hereafter--and thus in the drama and dangers of eleventh-century Scotland--I find myself, perhaps inevitably, a bit out of joint, troubled by a between-books feeling of the worst sort, one that is only compounded by a heat-and-humidity wave that would be more appropriate for August.

I think the apt word is "torpor," a word that always brings to mind Thomas de Quincey, and this description of the prostration brought on by opium addiction:
The opium-eater loses none of his moral sensibilities or aspirations; he wishes and longs as earnestly as ever to realise what he believes possible, and feels to be exacted by duty; but his intellectual apprehension of what is possible infinitely outruns his power, not of execution only, but even of proposing or willing. He lies under a world's weight of incubus and nightmare; he lies in sight of all that he would fain perform, just as a man forcibly confined to his bed by the mortal languor of paralysis, who is compelled to witness injury or outrage offered to some object of his tenderest love:—he would lay down his life if he might but rise and walk; but he is powerless as an infant, and cannot so much as make an effort to move.
Okay, so I'll admit that a between-books feeling, however frustrating, is nowhere near that bad--and, fortunately, it's also far more susceptible to remedy. A remedy that could perhaps be provided by de Quincey himself, even?

Let me turn to his anecdotal, gossipy Recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets (1840), which recently entered my library through a bit of beyond-the-grave hand-selling by Sylvia Beach, and see what I can find . . .

Ah, yes: now that I look at the book, I see that its label clearly notes that the following "ludicrous instance" of the shortsighted absentmindedness of Parson Coleridge, father of Samuel Taylor, is indicated as an effective remedy for all literary lassitude:
Dining in a large party, one day, the modest divine was suddenly shocked by perceiving some part, as he conceived, of his own snowy shirt emerging from a part of his habiliments, which we will suppose to have been his waistcoat. It was not that; but for decorum we will so call it. The stray portion of his own supposed tunic was admonished of its errors by a forcible thrust-back into its proper home; but still another limbus persisted to emerge, or seemed to persist, and still another, until the learned gentleman absolutely perspired with the labour of re-establishing order. And, after all, he saw with anguish that some arrears of the snowy indecorum still remained to reduce into obedience. To this remnant of rebellion he was proceeding to apply himself— strangely confounded, however, at the obstinacy of the insurrection—when the mistress of the house, rising to lead away the ladies from the table, and all parties naturally rising with her, it became suddenly apparent to every eye that the worthy Orientalist had been most laboriously stowing away, into the capacious receptacles of his own habiliments—under the delusion that it was his own shirt—the snowy folds of a lady's gown, belonging to his next neighbour; and so voluminously, that a very small portion of it, indeed, remained for the lady's own use ; the natural consequence of which was, of course, that the lady appeared inextricably yoked to the learned theologian, and could not in any way effect her release, until after certain operations upon the vicar's dress, and a continued refunding and rolling out of snowy mazes upon snowy mazes, in quantities which at length proved too much for the gravity of the company. Inextinguishable laughter arose from all parties, except the erring and unhappy doctor, who, in dire perplexity, continued still refunding with all his might—perspiring and refunding—until he had paid up the last arrears of his long debt.
Should your symptoms persist, you are recommended to take this brief account of the "lisping Whig pedant" Dr. Parr, who, despite being "without personal dignity or conspicuous power of mind," was a frequent guest of Coleridge's friend Mr. Montagu:
Him now—this Parr—there was no conceivable motive for enduring ; that point is satisfactorily settled by the pompous inanities of his works. Yet, on the other hand, his habits were in their own nature far less endurable than Samuel Taylor Coleridge's ; for the monster smoked ;—and how did the "Birmingham Doctor" smoke ? Not as you, or I, or other civilized people smoke, with a gentle cigar—but with the very coarsest tobacco. And those who know how that abomination lodges and nestles in the draperies of window-curtains, will guess the horror and detestation in which the old Whig's memory is held by all enlightened women.
Those in need of a further medicament are probably, I'm afraid, beyond hope. 'Tis limericks and the limehouse for you, my friend.


  1. Congratulations on a beautiful opening sentence. Of the bloggers I follow, you're one of my favorites for crafting damn fine prose. Cheers, K

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Kevin. They popped up after a long morning at the office last week and were a source of great cheer. Thanks for reading.