On the 22nd October 1804, the 32 year old Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote the following:
Yesterday was my birthday, so completely has a whole year passed, with scarcely the fruits of a month.— O Sorrow and Shame… I have done nothing!
But it is not strictly true to suppose that Coleridge ‘did nothing’. Within this year of silence, the poet composed ‘The Pains of Sleep’, climbed Mount Etna twice, attempted to break his addiction to opium, was appointed as undersecretary and then secretary to the British High Commissioner in Malta, and was ill for several months. It is true that there is not much poetry to show for the period, but the life is adequately detailed in his notebooks. O Sorrow and Shame. Coleridge’s silence is nothing compared to that of his contemporary George Crabbe who was in 1804 still immersed in a twenty-year period of not writing. When Crabbe broke this silence in 1807, his first publication was met with reviews along the lines of ‘We thought you were dead.’
Let us not talk of ‘writer’s block’, the earliest reference to which came only in 1950 in Edmund Bergler’s book The Writer and Psychoanalysis. No, let’s not talk of that at all. What I am interested in is what happens during that pause, that lull, those days, months, or years of silence. And let us get drunk to do this.
The reason I suggest this, is because Crabbe did write many things during those twenty years. He wrote three novels, a book on botany and a great deal of poetry, the majority of which he burned in his garden. That is the point. The period of not writing is not a tangible thing in itself (as the term ‘writer’s block’ would have us believe) it is merely a gap between two other points of writing. An interruption, if you will, without its own substance. Perhaps I am not explaining this well; but that is the reason why we must get drunk.
Ideally I would recommend that we took opium to properly experience this interruption. Both Coleridge and Crabbe were opium addicts. However I am not and have no personal experience of the drug, but drunkenness I know, and drunkenness this shall be:
“The man,” says Timon, “who is drunk is blest,
“No fears disturb, no cares destroy his rest;
“In thoughtless joy he reels away his life,
“Nor dreads that worst of ills, a noisy wife.”
Crabbe’s father, a saltmaster and amateur mathematician in the town of Aldeburgh, was also a drunk. The early poem Inebriety is probably a reaction to his father’s often drunken state. The drunk, Timon tells us, is blessed by the lack of interruption in his life: ‘no fears disturb, no cares destroy his rest’. His earthly progress ‘reels away’; it is an unstoppable motion. But the word ‘reels’ is not only that. Whilst certainly it indicates the unstopped progress of the drunkard’s life, it also suggests the giddy, reeling state which inebriety brings.
‘Drink thou: increase the reels!’ Enobarbus cries in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. It is the call to dance and drink, the evocation of the Bacchanalia; the whole point is that drunkenness cannot be interrupted once it is begun, and so whilst Timon in Crabbe’s poem instructs us that life might reel away once we are drunk, it is not just the reeling which speaks of danger, but also the ‘away’. Crabbe sets against one another the real life concerns: a noisy wife, disturbing fears, cares; and the blessings of drink. Note that drink does not give ‘The man’ in the poem anything; it merely places all those earthly concerns in the negative.
So drunkenness removes interruption. And as such it may be the blessing that Timon suggests; but it is because it is an interruption in itself that it does this, as here in Byron’s Don Juan:
I would to heaven that I were so much clay,
As I am blood, bone, marrow, passion, feeling—
Because at least the past were pass’d away—
And for the future—(but I write this reeling,
Having got drunk exceedingly to-day,
So that I seem to stand upon the ceiling)
I say—the future is a serious matter—
And so—for God’s sake—hock and soda water!
Byron, Don Juan,
‘Fragment written on the back of the manuscript of Canto I’
Notice how the fragment begins. It is an address to the self to ward against the future, to be able to deal with all those earthly concerns that might interrupt the individual’s life. ‘I would to heaven that I were so much clay’; from the start the narrator is asking to be placed in an altered state. If ‘I were so much clay’ I would be strong enough to continue uninterrupted, but in truth the individual may not be transformed into clay, so another route must be found. The passage of time is difficult to withstand: ‘at least the past were pass’d away’; the past is easily dealt with — it is dead, but it is the connecting of the past with the future which causes problems.
This is what Coleridge is concerned with in his notebook. He is connecting the past, the years before his 31st birthday, and the future beyond his 32nd, and he is seeing a gap in between. It is not time itself that is difficult, but connecting the past with the future across the gap of silence.
‘And for the future—’; What comes next? Byron asks — or does not ask, he begins to tell us.
But see how that thought is interrupted by a dash. The thought begins with confidence and is interrupted, and interrupted by drunkenness. Silence. The past is still dealt with but ‘to-day’, which is the point that matters in making sense of what follows, is replaced by the interruption. Byron tries again: ‘the future is a serious matter— / And so—for God’s sake—hock and soda water!’; the attempt to deal with the serious matter of the future fails once more: another dash, another interruption and again back to drink.
Drink provides the means to avoid confronting the future, by creating its own reeling momentum. Byron’s ‘reel’ is extreme, literally turning the world upon its head: ‘I write this reeling, / Having got drunk exceedingly to-day, / So that I seem to stand upon the ceiling’. Being turned to clay is not an option for him, but the present may be changed, the lull in the progress of time created by hock and soda water.
Interruption had great resonance for the twentieth century poet Hart Crane. Here is one of his finest poetic interruptions in his poem ‘Lachrymae Christi’:
Whitely, while benzine
Rinsings from the moon
Dissolve all but the windows of the mills
(Inside the sure machinery
And curdled only where a sill
Sluices its one unyielding smile)
Immaculate venom binds
The fox’s teeth, and swart
Thorns freshen on the year’s
First blood. From flanks unfended,
Twanged red perfidies of spring
Are trillion on the hill.
The poem is intentionally unsettling and the interruption, almost imperceptible at first, plays an important part in this ‘lost’ feeling that the reader experiences on encountering the poem for the first time. ‘Whitely’, the poem begins, an unfamiliar but understandable adverb — as assertive in its tone as Byron’s ‘And for the future’. We recognise the word as an adverb even though we are unlikely to ever have cause to use it. But adverbs describe actions, and where is the action attached to ‘whitely’?
The poem does not let us find out until eight lines later: ‘Whitely […] Immaculate venom binds / The fox’s teeth’.
Crane interrupts the flow by telling us what happens concurrently to that action: ‘benzine / Rinsings from the moon / Dissolve all but the windows of the mills’. It is a superb image, the darkness of the night, pierced only by the moon’s reflection in the mills’ windows; but in turn this image is interrupted by another description, this time of the interior of the mills (itself interiorised within brackets); and another interruption; the insertion of a stanza break. Only after these interruptions do we connect the past with the present, and when we do it seems almost disappointing.
It is about drink again. There is a running motif of fluids within the poem; ‘rinsings’, ‘dissolve’, ‘curdled’, ‘sill’, ‘sluices’, ‘venom’, ‘freshen’, ‘blood’. Even that tremendously short line, itself another lull in the progression of the poem: ‘Is still’, evokes still waters.
And still waters are Crane’s concern. Beneath the apparent description of the moon upon mill windows, there lurks a darker danger. The title ‘Lachrymae Christi’, refers to the tears of Christ, but not only that. Lachrymae Christi is also a kind of sweet, rich Neapolitan red wine. Crane was an alcoholic. The poem is about that reeling drunkenness where the present world becomes difficult to comprehend, and interruption forms a necessary part of that portrayal.
Interruption forms the close to Crane’s life. During a steamship crossing from Mexico to New York where he was to be married Crane drank heavily, hitting upon the male cabin crew and being hit by them in return. Reeling drunk, he mounted the railings on the edge of the boat and jumped to his death somewhere off the coast of Florida. And that is, I suppose, the point. Crane’s silence is the ultimate one, the only means of not connecting the past with the future. His passage from Mexico never reached New York where the future was to be found. It is only in this act that Crane makes his silence into something. It is not a gap, it is an ending in its own right.
O Sorrow and Shame… I have done nothing!