Hitherto overlooked medical sources ascribing Coleridge’s ill health to a deadly strain of rheumatic fever should prompt us not only to reinterpret ‘Dejection: An Ode’ as an empirical narrative of respiratory distress as much as a lament for lost or lessened imaginative power, but also to reconsider its long-standing classification as a ‘conversation poem’ and to reassess the relation of the ode to the letter from which it derives.
Whereas discussion of air and breathing in Romantic literature tends to be metaphysical, this thesis addresses the question of what happens when we place the physiology and pathology of respiration at the centre of an analysis of a major Romantic poem. Analysing Coleridge’s response to his rheumatic fever as a case study of respiratory writing, I trace the ways in which the poet’s facility for literary osmosis transforms daily management and mismanagement of his bodily ailments into poetic legacy. Coleridge’s rheumatic fever inextricably knots together his body and imagination, such that breathlessness figures in his writing as both a conventional poetic trope and a frightening lived experience. Coleridge’s acute awareness of sensation and relationship with pain led him to understand breathing within material and ethereal spaces. His rheumatic reflections in letters and notebooks play a large part in shaping his literary identity, and respiratory dysfunction, especially the sense of smothering oppression, is crucial to an understanding, his own as much as ours, of his deeply dejected state.
This thesis examines papers published by physicians close to Coleridge, such as William Cullen, David Dundas, and William Charles Wells; records pertaining to Coleridge’s autopsy; and an editorial from the London Times reflecting on his death, in order to identify rheumatic fever as Coleridge’s primary ailment, against countervailing diagnoses of opioid addiction, scrofula and lassitude.
The scientific investigation of breathing was familiar to Coleridge from his youth, during which the study of pneumatic chemistry and pneumatic medicine flourished. He immersed himself in a world of ‘new airs’ including Joseph Priestley’s Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air. Engagement with a pneumatic zeitgeist that deconstructed elemental air saw him act on medical advice from Thomas Beddoes’ Pneumatic Institute. With his close friend, Humphry Davy, he experimentally inhaled nitrous oxide and to Davy confided his rheumatic grief. Yet the alarm Coleridge felt about the spiritual consequences of such novel scientific enquiries must inform any exegesis of ‘Dejection: An Ode’ even as we must also look beyond his nostalgia for an older vitalist response to breath to affirm the centrality of the physical body in his ode’s deeper poetic truth. I find all the ode’s motifs invite respiratory comment, from the lost screaming child and trampled men to the suffocating nightmares and crushing vipers. (499 words)