Tuesday, September 15, 2009

756 : A Light in winter – from happy days blog (Nytimes.com)

This is writing at its “emotional tugging” best.

Actual article at http://happydays.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/09/13/a-light-in-winter/#more-2235

Reproduced below for easier reading.

September 13, 2009, 9:00 pm

A Light in Winter

By Eric G. Wilson

On March 16, 2002, when daffodils were swaying in the slowly warming wind of a North Carolina spring, I found myself in a snug hospital room with my wife and just-born daughter, only hours old, and I thought of ice.

A poem called “Frost at Midnight,” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, was on my mind. In this verse, written in 1798, Coleridge sits near his infant son, Hartley, on a winter night in England. He recalls events from his troubled life, one fraught with chronic miseries, ranging from melancholy to botched love to opium addiction to writer’s block. With a fervor usually reserved for prayer, the poet envisions a life for his son free of these problems — a vibrant, creative existence. Coleridge then asks nature itself to nurture his parental hope, invoking the potency of green summer but also, and especially, the winter’s “secret ministry of frost,” “quietly shining to the quiet moon.”
As a college professor, I had been teaching “Frost at Midnight” for years, and had decided, soon after my wife became pregnant, to read the poem to commemorate our baby’s birth. And so I did recite the poem to our girl — we named her Una — hoping, like Coleridge, that her life would be perennially blessed by leaves and ice alike, by summery days but also by the chilly periods when she would most need strength.

What intrigued and moved me about the poem was its curious suggestion that gloom and loneliness might actually cultivate a sort of luminous affection. Forlorn most of his life, Coleridge was acutely aware of the bliss of human connection. Had he led a life free of suffering he might have never realized the wondrous fullness that comes during a father’s watch over his child’s midnight sleep.

To be hollow with longing is to be suffused with love. The thirsty person best knows water. Wounded hearts realize the essence of healing.

These are Coleridge’s exhilarating and strangely hopeful conclusions. They are optimistic because they envision a world in which suffering, inevitable and pervasive as gravity, is not meaningless but rather a source of wisdom. Even in the darkest hell, there persists a consoling light, a light that pulsates all the more forcibly against its murky background. I held this hope high the day my girl was born, knowing that she, no matter how adept, would necessarily undergo failure, frustration, loss, and confusion.

Maybe these challenging episodes would push her to explore her life with more honesty, to assess with more rigor her strengths and weaknesses, and thus to discover useful truths unavailable in her more contented moments.

When Coleridge was nine years old, his own father, whom he very much loved, had died. His less-than-affectionate mother then basically orphaned him, sending him away to an inhospitable school for boys. By the time he matriculated to Cambridge, he was vacillating between anxiety and moroseness, discomforts he relieved through drinking and gambling. Perpetually distraught, he left college before receiving his degree and soon after, lonely and desperate for intimacy, married a woman he did not love. Their union turned out to be torment.

The birth of Hartley lightened his mood, but not for long. Calamity after calamity taxed his heart while also inciting a ghastly list of physical ills: insomnia, constipation, night terrors, neuralgia flare-ups, and, of course, the ill effects of laudanum overuse.

These psychological and physical afflictions pushed Coleridge into despair. As he confessed in his notebook, he was constantly beset by a “melancholy dreadful feeling” that reduced him to a catatonic state. No longer capable of conjuring stunning verses like those of “Kubla Khan,” he managed only “fruitless memoranda” on his “own Weakness.” His inability to do anything but dose on opium and jot complaints was to him “Degradation” worse even than suicide. Repulsed by his life but afraid of death, Coleridge drifted impotently between existence and annihilation, a kind of zombie. His harrowing conclusion: “We all look up to the Sky for comfort, but nothing appears there — nothing comforts, nothing answers us — & so we die.”

But if Coleridge made failure his vocation, he was very successful at it. In later life, he produced radiant descriptions of his funereal moods.

In another of his notebook entries, Coleridge compared his torment to that of fish dying on the shore, with the ocean only inches away: “The Fish gasps on the glittering mud, the mud of this once full stream, now only moist enough to be glittering mud/ the tide will flow back, time enough to lift me up with straws & withered sticks and bear me down to the ocean. O me! That being what I have been I should be what I am!”

Another time, he likened his wasted imagination to candle wax, once warm and flexible but now only stiff and dead. “The Poet is dead in me — my imagination … lies, like Cold Snuff on the circular Rim of a Brass Candle-stick, without even a stink of Tallow to remind you that it was once cloathed and mitred with flame.”

These striking images — a fish panting on lustrous muck, creativity reduced to cold tallow — arose from a mournful muse. Coleridge’s dejection begot these beauties.

This tension between grimness and genius marked the mature Coleridge’s most accomplished works: “Dejection: An Ode” (1802), “Limbo” (1810), and “Biographia Literaria” (1817). These works explore the distressing paradoxes — death is life, mystery is insight — that have driven me into my own fits of melancholy knowing.

Only months after that March day in the hospital, I sat in my study preparing for a class on Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” and heard Una in another room gurgle and coo and then cry. I thought about how she would soon grow too old to play with me and then become too jaded to care about me and then leave home for somewhere else and only very seldom come back. I suddenly felt sadder than I ever had before. I felt the pain of losing her and the wonder of loving her. I adored her more for her imminent going. This wasn’t happiness, and it wasn’t pleasure. It was a more profound and durable experience, a moment encompassing both tragedy and euphoria, a child lost and a child found.

C.S. Lewis once claimed that the opening lines of “Kubla Khan” filled him with an unquenchable but rapturous yearning. He believed that such exultant aching is nothing other than joy: “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.”

The German term for this experience is, as Lewis tells us, sehnsucht, and it describes precisely what those instants when we are most alive: so sad we want to cry, so overjoyed that we weep. These antagonistic epiphanies, the inspirations of Coleridge’s genius, mark the transformative epochs of our lives.

I have been blessed by at least one such revelation, a marriage of verdure and frost. It keeps my fatherly affections as fresh as the spring, even though I know snow is never far. It holds me close to my girl as she walks into the cold distance. She is now seven years old and growing fast. She laughs as much as she cries.

Eric G. Wilson

Eric G. Wilson is Professor of English at Wake Forest University. He is the author of several books, including his most recent, “Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy.”


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