Monday, August 25, 2008

Those Melancholy Poets

This Humble Blogger has been tied up with travel, moving, and getting the kids into a new school year, so for now I'll briefly resort to a poem, "Having it Out with Melancholy," by Jane Kenyon. Recommended to me by a former patient with quite severe and chronic depression, it is one of the best poems I've read about "the black dog."

Kenyon apparently suffered primarily from depression, although according to an essay I once read by her husband, the poet Donald Hall, there were manic phases as well. Ironically (or not) she died of leukemia when she was only 48.

This poem features the strange and harrowing intimacy the melancholic has with an disease that is not a passing affliction--not the spring allergy season, not even the breast cancer that may possibly be eliminated--but rather a lifetime partner of sorts. There are some wonderful lines. "You taught me to exist without gratitude" reflects the all too common view of depression as a failure of character, and also illustrates the reality of depression as a blight upon a state of native health. One has to "learn" not to be grateful for what the non-depressed person takes for granted, an appreciation of the basic fact of life. Indeed, for the depressed, "the pleasures of earth are overrated."

For me the heart of the poem is section five, "Once there was light," in which the speaker, in a temporary reprieve, feels an unaccustomed and transcendent unity with humanity, a unity that is violated all too soon by the return of what is later called "the unholy ghost." The depressed are singled out; their condition is nothing if not solitary. And yet the poem ends with another momentary respite, in which the speaker witnesses a bird's "bright, unequivocal eye." Like that eye, the cruelty of depression is inscrutable, but that it exists in nature (that same nature that most poets find so compellingly beautiful) certainly is "unequivocal."

I would never suggest this poem to anyone with a relatively new diagnosis--it might terrify or even mislead--but it may offer succor to anyone who has learned to live with "the black bile" over the long term.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's a poem that all mental health professionals should have to read since it presents the way depression affects a life so acutely.