Spes Phthisica and the Heights Of Consumption
A while ago Tamara bought me a book, ‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire‘, and I opened it and started reading where it fell open, at the chapter on the skylark.
You can see the words spes phthisica near the end of the text that I have quoted here, and I wondered whether the authors were being figurative or whether it was a real medical condition.
RICHARD JEFFERIES AUTOBIOGRAPHY, The Story of My Heart, tells us almost nothing of its author’s short, sad life. It was written in 1883, as the tuberculosis that would kill Jefferies began to show itself in bloodspotted handkerchiefs and digestive complaints. He would live for four more years, long enough to see his third child die of meningitis, long enough to write his mesmerising post-apocalyptic masterpiece, After London. He was thirty-eight when he died, the age I will be when these words are published, and he’s buried in Broadwater Cemetery, Worthing, not ten minutes’ walk from where I grew up, on the rim of land between the chalky South Downs and the sea. The Story of My Heart is the record of Jefferies’ spiritual development, of the way that, through nature, he accessed his ‘strong inspiration of soul thought’. It is a lavish, joyful book, some passages coming close to madness, touched perhaps by the spes phthisica that is said to induce a kind of euphoria in consumptives…
I looked up spes phthisica and found that it is a medical term that means a state of euphoria occurring in patients with pulmonary tuberculosis.
The phrase is pronounced SPACE THIZICA.
I also found an article that suggested that the Romantic poets and artists were romantic precisely because they suffered from TB and were given to romantic euphoria because of spes phthisica.
As we know, TB causes anaemia and worse symptoms. And anaemia is characterised by a deathly pallor to the skin.
Because of that effect, the article also suggested that various pale and ghostly figures that appeared in Romantic books and paintings were the deadly embrace of TB.