Melodic medical notes

Coleridge and the Doctors

November 11, 2005

Neil Vickers claims that "Enlightenment medicine" constitutes "an important but neglected melodic line in the Coleridgean symphony of voices", and so devotes the bulk of his study to reconstructing Coleridge's engagement with the medical theories of his age. His efforts to detect the presence of this "melodic line" in Coleridge's poetry are, however, not entirely convincing. The chapters ostensibly addressed to "Dejection" and "The Pains of Sleep" contain little critical analysis, and the suggested links between these poems and Coleridge's medical speculations are never securely established.

The opening chapter sketches the condition of medical knowledge in the 1790s, when the belief that "the most important qualification a physician could have was a humanist education" was just starting to be challenged.

Vickers then outlines the theories to which Coleridge might have turned to understand and alleviate his own maladies, paying close attention to the work of the Scottish physician John Brown and his successors. In true Enlightenment fashion, Brown sought to reduce all illnesses to a single cause - the over or understimulation of an innate quantity of "excitability" in the body. This "Brunonian medicine" was adopted by a number of writers in Britain and Germany, and some of Brown's German followers saw in his work a physiological counterpart to Kant's epistemological revolution.

Coleridge's "abstruse researches" on this topic are, Vickers admits, hard to reconstruct, not least because he never "explicitly acknowledged the influence of any medical writer" on his work. But the evidence suggests that he wavered between "materialist" explanations of some illnesses, which sought their origins in physical processes, and "mentalist" explanations, which acknowledged the possibility of a purely or largely mental aetiology.

Coleridge's unresolved struggle with these explanations made medicine an "important bridge" for him between British philosophical materialism and German idealism.

The phrase "abstruse researches" almost appears in both "Dejection" and the closely linked "Verse Letter" that Coleridge wrote to Wordsworth's sister-in-law Sara Hutchinson. In his reading of these poems and "The Pains of Sleep", Vickers tries to suggest that they draw on this substructure of medical and epistemological speculation. But he considers only relatively small sections of these poems, and the result is an occasional insensitivity to the tone and texture of the poems as a whole. Though implausible, it is arguable that Coleridge does not mean what he seems to mean when he castigates himself for trying "by abstruse Research to steal/ From (his) own Nature all the Natural Man" in the "Verse Letter"; but it is impossible to miss the irony in the line that follows - "This was my sole Resource, my wisest plan!" - as Vickers's reading seems to oblige us to do.

Vickers's narrow focus also produces some impatience with those aspects of the poetry not immediately assimilable to his argument. He criticises the syntax of one section of the "Verse Letter" for being "a little clumsy" without pausing to consider the possible poetic significance of its apostrophe to Wordsworth and his family; and his assertion that "it is often hard to make sense of the transitions" in the "Verse Letter"

contrasts unfavourably with the energy expended on teasing out the nuances of the medical theories on which Coleridge is supposed to have drawn.

Joe Phelan is senior lecturer in English, De Montfort University.

Coleridge and the Doctors

Author - Neil Vickers
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 186
Price - £47.00
ISBN - 0 19 9117 8

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