I’m going to the hospital today. Every few years I get called up as part of a screening programme. Preparations for the test and the actual test itself are discomforting but nothing to really complain about. The idea behind these checks is to stop me going the way of my father, or two of his sisters (although one of those sisters survived her brush with the dreaded C word). All of these things aside, waiting around for the test gives me a little free time, and as usual when I have some free time I think I will pick up my guitar and play it again. Increasingly I find that this never happens anymore.
A few weeks ago I read this. It coincided with me reading a book about Dorothy Wordsworth, and re-reading for the first time since university some of Wordsworth’s poems. Although I think Wordsworth is very unfashionable I don’t mind his poems from the time he was at the peak of his powers (1797-1807ish). It is a well known saw among people who care about the romantic poets that after a certain point both William and his close friend Coleridge became no good. Both of them noticed that their response to the things that had previously inspired them had diminished. They took different approaches to this problem. William carried on writing poetry for the rest of his life and became the poet laureate. Much of this poetry is considered second rate although his reputation was at its highest at this time. Coleridge went the other way, and more or less stopped writing poetry, although he did write prose and give lectures. Which would be fine for Coleridge if he hadn’t felt so depressed about the loss of what he saw as the most important part of his existence.
Both men wrote about the problem of diminishing response. Coleridge’s poem was Dejection, Wordsworth’s was Intimations of Immortality.
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore; –
Turn wheresoe’r I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.
… But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth.
So says Wordsworth, and so says Coleridge looking out his window at the stars and moon on a stormy night:
I see them all so excellently fair,
I see, not feel, how beautiful they are!
My genial spirits fail;
And what can there avail
To lift the smothering weight from off my breast?
It were a vain endeavour,
Though I should gaze forever
On that green light that lingers in the west:
I may not hope from outward forms to win
The passion and the life, whose fountains are within.
I vividly remember going to see a band called Short at the old Bar Bodega on Willis Street. They were a three piece band that did originals and one killing cover of David Bowie’s Ziggy. They were very tight and on the night I saw them, jammed into one of the pokey spaces of the undersized bar, they seemed to possess an angry intensity. They had that great trick of knowing how to use silence. Suddenly the bass, guitar and drum would stop, the drummer’s stick and the guitarist’s pick suspended, tense, about to strike, and then they would hit together at their next round of short, clipped chords. It was heady stuff. The music seemed to be in me somehow, not just the vibrating bass, and the cymbal crash, but coursing through me, making me free of myself, and the watch on my wrist, and my nervousness at being out late, and all that.
Not to mention the hours and hours I spent cranking up the stereo in the living room after my mother had gone out and pretending to be a rock star. In my own head at least I had quite a stage act although honestly it was probably more or less a fourteen year old boy standing in a room wiggling his fingers around on an invisible guitar, and lip-synching to the words. Moving on from this to learning how to play an actual guitar and forming a band was definitely a good move, but I think I also began moving away from an intensity of feeling for pop music too. Pop music at that time was an addiction. I didn’t just wait for my mother to leave in the morning for work so I could do my shows, I was itching for it, for the moment when I could drop the needle on the vinyl and imagine myself to be Prince, or Frankie, or A-ha, or later on, Guns’n’Roses, Nirvana or Pearl Jam.
There have been times in the past when I have had a break from my guitar. I didn’t play for the first three years in Japan, but I came back to it and Cathy bought me an acoustic guitar and I started playing again. That must have been in 2001. I stopped again at the start of this year. The thing is, I expect a lot from my guitar. It has helped me through some tough times. I have used it to speak to myself about myself. For a woefully inarticulate person, the guitar has been a real release. But what can be done? Sometimes, without even noticing, what was once a life force will die in your hands. Wordsworth and Coleridge had their responses – forge some new path, or withdraw – which I suppose are representatives of more general responses. There are those musicians who move away from music, and those you wish had. Perhaps Joni Mitchell and the Rolling Stones are good examples of both. Reading Maurice Bowra’s description of Wordsworth and Coleridge below I know which type I belong to.
There was in Wordsworth something tough and bellicose which Coleridge lacked. Coleridge’s sensitiveness was part of a gentle, in some ways passive, nature.When things went wrong with him, he did not know what to do and was prone to lament defeat. Wordsworth was made of sterner stuff and sought for a new scheme of life to replace the old.
Maurice Bowra, The Romantic Imagination