With World Tuberculosis Day just gone by on 24 March, one has to marvel at the strides taken in its prevention, screening, investigation and treatment, even since my medical student days: new vaccines could be on the horizon, as are newer drugs to combat the problem of tuberculosis resistant to earlier multiple drug treatments; and public health efforts in India and beyond continue against this disease that has been the scourge of humanity for thousands of years.
Prior to the scientific advances of the nineteenth century, the disease did not even have a clear name, variously called ‘the White Plague’, ‘consumption’ (due to the wasting away of the sufferer), mal de vivir or mal du siècle in Europe. It was viewed as a ‘romantic disease’, conferring upon the sufferer a ‘heightened sensitivity’, and representing ‘spiritual purity and temporal wealth’. It was almost fashionable to look like one afflicted by the illness, with young upper-class women intentionally powdering their skin to achieve the pallid ‘consumptive’ complexion. British poet Lord Byron wrote that he “would like to die from consumption”, giving it a further stamp of approval as the disease of the creative artist.
The great pianist composer Frédéric Chopin would eventually die of tuberculosis. His lover George Sand doted upon him for most of his illness, calling him her “poor melancholy angel”, and writing to an acquaintance “Chopin coughs with infinite grace.”
In France alone, several novels were written, idealising the suffering brought on by tuberculosis. Two of them, Alexandre Dumas’ La Dame aux Camélias and Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie de Bohème inspired operatic depictions of consumption, in Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata and Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème respectively. Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables and La Traviata were at least in part the stimulus for the 2001 film Moulin Rouge.
In absence of a cure, the disease was relentless, but its slow progress allowed for a “good death”, as sufferers could make preparations for their death.
An example of such a patient is the Scottish Anglican pastor Henry Francis Lyte (1793-1847). He was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1844, and his health progressively deteriorated over the next three years, when he sensed the end was near. He gave his final Sunday sermon to the parish in a little fishing town in Devonshire that he had served for many years. He took a walk along the beach, and retired to his room, emerging about an hour later with the complete text of the hymn we know and love, “Abide with Me”.
It is a prayer that asks God to be present with the supplicant through life with all its trials, until death. The opening line “Abide with me, Fast falls the eventide” is a reference to chapter 24, verse 29 from the Gospel of St. Luke: ‘They urged Him strongly: “Abide with us; for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent”.’ Christ is risen, and appears to two disciples on the road to the village of Emmaus, seven miles from Jerusalem. Failing to recognise Him at first, they are drawn into conversation, and urge Him to stay with them for the night.
Lyte passed away barely three weeks after writing the hymn. It was set to music by William Henry Monk (1823-1889), and was first sung at Lyte’s funeral. Monk’s wife writes: This tune was written at a time of great sorrow — when together we watched the glories of the setting sun. As the last ray faded, he took some paper and pencilled that tune which has gone all over the earth.”
She was right about that. It is popular at religious as well as military services. It was the favourite hymn of Mahatma Gandhi, as well as of King George V. It is played by the combined forces of the Indian Armed Forces during the annual Beating Retreat ceremony on 29 January at New Delhi’s Vijay Chowk, to officially mark the end of the Republic Day celebrations.
The text of the hymn struck a deep chord in the Mahatma. In this current climate of mounting intolerance and bigotry, the final lines of the first verse of the hymn have never rung truer: “When other helpers fail and comforts flee, Help of the helpless, O abide with me”.
Thelonious Monk recorded an instrumental version, and singers from Doris Day to Hayley Westenra have recorded it.
‘Abide with me’ was sung at the weddings of King George VI and of Queen Elizabeth II. It is sung just before kick-off at every FA Cup final and Rugby League, and at annual Anzac Day services in Australia and New Zealand, and in Remembrance Day services in the United Kingdom and Canada.
(An edited version of this article was published on 29 March 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)