In a Dark Wood: An Anthology of Depression: Poem 7 – Emily Dickinson

In a Dark Wood: An Anthology of Depression: Poem 7 – Emily Dickinson

Hi all,

Here’s the seventh poem!

I first came across this poem in Andrew Solomon’s magisterial book on depression, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression. Solomon’s book truly lives up to its subtitle, as he investigates depression both in his own native US and throughout the world. In the book, he travels to Africa and Greenland, and catalogues many pioneering treatments for depression, all while meeting a stellar cast of people along the way. It’s one of the few absolutely essential books of prose on depression, alongside William Styron’s Darkness Visible. Both are utterly excellent reads, and invaluable insights into depression. In The Noonday Demon, Solomon writes that Dickinson’s poem is his favourite poem, and his go-to poem for describing depression to others, and I can certainly understand why. Dickinson’s poem, more than any other I’ve read, captures the way in which you can slide into a depression, observing it, yet being utterly powerless to stop its incessant progression. Dickinson’s poem perfectly illustrates what Fitzgerald called the loneliest moment of a person’s life. Fitzgerald wrote, “The loneliest moment in someone’s life is when they are watching their whole world fall apart, and all they can do is stare blankly.” Fitzgerald was no stranger to depression, and if you’re interested, he wrote a brilliant essay called ‘The Crack-Up’ about his own breakdown, which is available online!

While Dickinson’s poem is a brilliant evocation of what a slow descent into depression feels like, I would be hesitant to say with any absolute certainty that Dickinson suffered from what we would today call a clinical depression. Diagnosticians and historians continue to be indecisive about what may caused Dickinson’s famous, decades long seclusion (she rarely left her house in Amherst); over the centuries since her death, Dickinson has been diagnosed with epilepsy, agoraphobia, and depression. Given the inconclusive nature of this evidence, I wouldn’t be so bold as to say that Emily Dickinson, without a shadow of a doubt, suffered from depression. Certainly, her work is preoccupied by death, madness and mood states, but this doesn’t come close to constituting a diagnosis of clinical depression. Regardless of whether she suffered from depression or not, I agree with Andrew Solomon; her poem is a brilliant insight into the decaying and fractured mind, that is powerless to do anything as it watches itself wither and die. It’s a staggering and immensely rewarding poem, that with poise and urgency documents the “loneliest moment” that Fitzgerald wrote of. Enjoy, and check back tomorrow for the eighth poem in the anthology!

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain, (340)
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through –

And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum –
Kept beating – beating – till I thought
My mind was going numb –

And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space – began to toll,

As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race,
Wrecked, solitary, here –

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing – then –

In a Dark Wood: An Anthology of Depression: Poem 6 – Bai Juyi

In a Dark Wood: An Anthology of Depression: Poem 6 – Bai Juyi

Hi all,

Here’s the sixth poem! It’s one of the most surprising and invigorating poems that I have found for the anthology so far, and let me explain why. As a part of the research for this anthology, I’m surrounded by an ungodly amount of other poetry anthologies, from many cultures and languages, trying to find depression poems where ever I can scavenge them (I would have it no other way). Before I found this poem, in a collection of Arthur Waley’s translations from the Chinese, the anthology didn’t have a great deal of poems dating from ancient times. It was a fact I resented, as I knew that such poems must exist! I was ecstatic when I found this poem, as the date of composition (812 A.D.) was a nail in the coffin of people who believe the ludicrous notion that mental health issues are somehow an invention of the twentieth or twenty-first centuries. Of course, mental health issues have existed for as long as homo-sapiens have existed. In ancient Greece. all the Greek doctors and philosophers – Hippocrates, Aristotle and Plato among them – documented mental health issues. To have a poem hammer this fact home – that depression is an ancient affliction – was an enormous blessing, and I’m immensely glad that I was able to find ancient poems, firstly that were so good, and secondly that were so accessible! Both of these qualities are present in Arthur Waley’s stellar translation of Bai Juyi’s poem.

Bai Juyi (772-846) was a renowned and divisive Chinese poet. Today, in his native China, Bai Juyi is widely read, however he sadly remains a historical footnote for English poetry readers. Within his life, Bai Juyi, while also being a poet, was a government official of the Tang dynasty. In the original Chinese, his poems are known for their elegant simplicity, and Arthur Waley, the translator of this poem, has done a spectacular job of transmitting this aspect of Juyi’s work into English ears. However the simplicity of Juyi’s work has been met with scorn by both Juyi’s contemporaries and modern Chinese critics. Personally, I adore it. But I’ll let you make up your own minds…

Be sure to check back tomorrow for poem number seven! You can also subscribe to this blog so you  never miss a poem! 🙂

Poems in Depression, at Wei Village

[a.d. 812]


I hug my pillow and do not speak a word;
In my empty room no sound stirs.
Who knows that, all day a-bed,
I am not ill and am not even asleep?

Turned to jade are the boy’s rosy cheeks;
To his sick temples the frost of winter clings….
Do not wonder that my body sinks to decay;
Though my limbs are old, my heart is older yet

In a Dark Wood: An Anthology of Depression: Poem 5 – John Clare

In a Dark Wood: An Anthology of Depression: Poem 5 – John Clare

Hi all,

Here is poem number five. If you wish to find out more about this project, click here, or alternatively, click on the category tab  ‘In a Dark Wood: An Anthology’, below this post. If you don’t want to miss a poem (there’s one each day), you can subscribe to my blog, using the button in the bottom right corner of this page (don’t scroll down)!

John Clare is the most heartbreaking poet of his century. Clare rose to fame as a prominent ‘peasant poet’, however he suffered from a manic-depressive illness (or what would today be called Bipolar Disorder). As their were no effective treatments in Clare’s lifetime, his illness worsened as he grew older – his depressions and manias became more frequent. For the last twenty-seven years of his life, Clare was confined to an asylum, as his illness had ascended into psychosis – at various points he believed himself to be Shakespeare, Lord Byron, and Mad Jack, a popular boxer of the day. When he wasn’t psychotic, he was acutely depressed, and wrote little. However, like a light piercing through the fog, Clare had moments of clarity amidst his worsening illness. It was within these moments of clarity and clearsightedness that Clare penned some of the most heartbreaking verse I’ve ever read, or, I think, ever will read. Clare’s most famous lyric from his asylum period is a poem called ‘I Am!’, which you can read here. However I’ve chosen one of his lesser known verses from the same period, the poem titled ‘Left in the world alone’. Like a vast majority of Clare’s asylum verse, it’s utterly heartbreaking to read, however there’s an oxymoronic quality to Clare’s despair, in that there’s joy in the fact, for the reader at least, if not for Clare himself, that Clare has mapped the landscape of desolation and depression with such piercing accuracy and depth, all while being within the abyss itself.

John  Clare’s poetry also has a strange and elliptical presence in my own breakdown. In my first year of university, the one mandatory module that all English students took was Romanticism.  For the most part, like most students, I loathed it. The language seemed archaic and resembled a decayed corpse. In the weeks that preceded my breakdown, I was due to lead a two hour seminar on Clare’s work. In preparation for the seminar, I had read Clare’s early work, though I focused on the late asylum poems. Due to my own worsening illness (in my case, a recurrent depressive disorder), I was unable to concentrate enough to do the work required for the seminar. Every time I so much as thought about Clare’s work I was reduced to tears, and I find it difficult to read his work – utterly brilliant though it is – even to this day.  As it happened, I never delivered the seminar, as by the time it was due to be delivered, I had been sectioned. However upon my return to university two months later, I insisted on doing the aborted Clare seminar, I felt as though I at the very least owed that much to him. I did it, though it was emotionally ravaging. I’m glad I was able to champion Clare’s work, even to a small group of people. His work is the most rending and the most startlingly modern of all the Romantics. He’s the only Romantic that I don’t want to vomit at the mention of. Funnily enough, during my time in hospital I met a man who worked at Clare’s old asylum, it’s now a psychiatric hospital, and Clare has a ward named after him.

Above, I’ve attached the only known photo of John Clare. It took me by surprise when I found it, in Jonathan Bate’s utterly extraordinary biography of Clare. There’s a danger that authors who are centuries old become abstractions to students rather than people, and I think what startled me about this photograph was that Clare was, in some small way, asserting his personhood, suddenly his immense suffering was rendered real, all of his loves and pains hit me so hard that I’ve never forgotten the photographs effect.

For anyone interested in Clare, I’m happy to recommend a few books. The best single volumes of Clare’s poetry are those edited by Geoffrey Summerfield, which was published by Penguin, and Jonathan Bate’s selection, published by Faber and Faber. Summerfield’s book, where the poem below originates from, is blissfully available for very low prices on Amazon (I got my copy for £2). Anyone interested in Clare the man needs to look no further than Jonathan Bate’s staggeringly brilliant biography, simply called John Clare: A Biography. If you haven’t read Clare before today, I envy you. You have one of the best authors on alienation, depression, childhood and nature before you.

Be sure to check back tomorrow for poem number six, it’s one of my favourite finds!

‘Left in the world alone’

By John Clare

Left in the world alone,
Where nothing seems my own,
And everything is weariness to me,
‘Tis a life without an end,
‘Tis a world without a friend,
And everything is sorrowful I see.

There’s the crow upon the stack,
And other birds all black,
While bleak November’s frowning wearily;
And the black cloud’s dropping rain,
Till the floods hide half the plain,
And everything is dreariness to me.

The sun shines wan and pale,
Chill blows the northern gale,
And odd leaves shake and shiver on the tree,
While I am left alone,
Chilled as a mossy stone,
And all the world is frowning over me.

In a Dark Wood: An Anthology of Depression: Poem 4 – Dorothy Parker

In a Dark Wood: An Anthology of Depression: Poem 4 – Dorothy Parker

Hi all,

Here’s today’s poem. If you want to find out more about this project, click here (and follow the hyperlinks), or alternatively click  on the category, ‘In a Dark Wood’, at the bottom of this post.

Today’s poem is from the tremendously witty Dorothy Parker. Parker was the toast of the literary world in the jazz age, where she was known for her caustic wit, her short stories, satires, literary criticism, and most of all – for her poems. Parker suffered from depression from the 1920’s onwards. She died in 1967, aged 73, of a heart attack. As the poem records, Parker attempted to take her own life on numerous occasions, however the poem is anything but grim. Even the title shows Parker’s famous wit being employed to great effect. However it’s important to note that while employing her wit in the poem, her wit doesn’t denigrate the sincerity and seriousness of the poem itself. It’s a fine line to cross, but Parker does it beautifully and with gusto. For fear of rambling on, I’ll leave you with this spectacular poem. Check back tomorrow for poem number five!

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

In A Dark Wood: An Anthology of Depression: Poem 3 – Czeslaw Milosz

In A Dark Wood: An Anthology of Depression: Poem 3 – Czeslaw Milosz

Hi all,

Here’s the third poem in the anthology. If you missed yesterday’s poem, or if you want to find out more about this project, click here.

Today’s poem is from Czeslaw Milosz, and it’s in something of a dialogue with yesterday’s poem. Within the anthology, it belongs to a section tentatively called ‘Ripples’. This section focuses on  the effects that those who are mentally ill can have on those around them – such as family, loved ones and friends. Czeslaw Milosz’s poem is one of an extraordinary candour, and Milosz does not spare himself in any way. He addresses the stigma laden attitudes he used to hold, and acknowledges an important point – that we all have the capacity for madness within us; that we’re always a few steps away from a darkened door. It’s an extraordinary poem of an all too rare candour. Milosz, like Robert Lowell, will rear his head again in this anthology.

Milosz was an extraordinary man in his own right, and he’s an unsparing witness to the twentieth century.  Milosz was a teenager in the Warsaw ghetto, and he was active in the Polish underground movement. In 1951 he defected from Poland, initially settling in Paris, then to the United States. Shortly thereafter his work was banned in his native Poland. It was only when the iron curtain  fell that he could return to his native Poland. I can’t speak for the original Polish, but his English  translators (mainly Robert Hass and Robert Pinsky) translate Milosz beautifully. His work is shot through with a clarity and a precision that I’ve found difficult to find elsewhere. Anywho, I’ll leave you to mull over the poem. Be sure to check back tomorrow for poem number four!

To Robert Lowell

I had no right to talk of you that way,
Robert. An émigré’s envy
Must have prompted me to mock
Your long depressions, weeks of terror.
Presumed vacations in the safety of the wards.
It was not from pride in my normalcy.
Insanity, I knew, was insinuating itself
In a thin thread into my very being
And only waited for my permission
To carry me into its murky regions.
And I was watchful. Like a lame man.
I used to walk upright to hide my affliction.
You didn’t have to. For you it was permitted.
Not for me, a refugee on this continent
Where so many newcomers vanished without a trace.
Forgive me my mistake. Your will was of no use
Against an illness that held you like a stigma.
And beneath my anger was the vanity,
Unjustifiable, of the humiliated. A bit belated,
I write to you across what separates us:
Gestures, conventions, idioms, mores.

In a Dark Wood: An Anthology of Depression: Poem 2 – Robert Lowell

Hi all,

In case you missed it yesterday, find out more about my new project, an anthology of poetry about depression, here!

Today’s poem is from Robert Lowell. Within his lifetime, (1917-1977) Lowell was considered the best poet of his star-studded generation, and he attained a level of fame that is difficult to fathom today. He found himself on the cover of Time, and during the Vietnam War Lowell was that rare bird – a public, conscientious poet.

Today, Lowell’s reputation and stature as a poet is in something of dilapidation. Unfortunately, Lowell seems to be slowly becoming a poet who is more studied than read, which is a great shame. When the late and dearly missed Seamus Heaney was asked why Lowell’s reputation had shifted, he replied that “Lowell is taking the punishment that’s always handed out to the big guy eventually” – I hope that Heaney is right. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of all of his work, however the poems that I do like I intensely love.

I chose this poem today as it seems to be in dialogue with yesterday’s poem. Robert Lowell suffered from a manic-depressive illness, or what would today be called bipolar disorder, for the entirety of his adult life. This particular poem, ‘Robert Frost’, comes from a book of Lowell’s called Notebook 1967-68. It’s the final part of a sequence called ‘Writers’. Lowell later revised the poem, and included it in his collection, History (1973). The poem is utterly stupendous,  and is filled with the autobiographical poetics that made Lowell famous. The poem is an interesting one, as it catalogues a meeting of a depressive (Frost), and a Manic-Depressive (Lowell). The poem is tinged with themes that permeate all of Lowell’s work – personal responsibility, guilt, and what George Orwell would have called “the power of facing”. Indeed, in the power of facing Lowell never faltered.

In his life,  Lowell was hospitalised over twenty times for severe mania, and once for the depression that followed mania. Deftly, Lowell described mania as an illness for one’s friends, and depression as an illness for one’s self. Elsewhere, in his poetry, letters and diaries, Lowell described his mood states with a searing, awe-inspiring clarity and concision. Lowell described depression alternatively as “dust in the blood,” a “jaundice of the spirit,” and he described mania as his “pathological enthusiasms”, or as a “holocaust of irrationality”. Simply put, it’s some of the best descriptions of mood states that I have ever come across, and for this reason you’ll be seeing more of Lowell in this anthology, in various voices, forms and emotions.

For anyone interested in finding more of Lowell’s writings on his illness that aren’t his poetry, I can’t recommend two books highly enough. Firstly, seek out Lowell’s Selected Letters, which is edited by Saskia Hamilton, and published by FSG. It’s an astounding document of a life’s many pains and ecstasies. Secondly, seek out Kay Redfield Jamison’s recent book, Setting the River on Fire. It’s an utterly brilliant book, and it was the catalyst for me returning to Lowell’s work with new eyes. Quite simply, it’s one of the best biographies I’ve ever read. After reading the book, you will find yourself wishing that you had known ‘Cal’, as his friends called him. Anywho, I will leave you to mull over the poem…be sure to check back tomorrow for poem number three!IMG_7081

In a Dark Wood: An Anthology of Depression: Poem 1 – Robert Frost

Hi all,

I’m currently embarking on a very exciting project, called In a Dark Wood. In a Dark Wood is an anthology of poems about depression. Every day, I’m going to share a poem from the anthology here, and in the course of the anthology you’ll find poets old and new, the popular and the obscure, English speakers and poetry in translation, and most of all, poets of great wonder and surprise. But why am I creating an anthology of poems about depression? Allow me to explain. When I was sectioned, I kept thinking about, and looking for, a book of poetry about depression, a book that would write about depression from inside the forest fire. I found no such book in hospital (the shelves were bare), and ever since I have been looking for such a book, and I’ve found nothing…so I had resolved to create the book that I kept envisioning in hospital.

I also believe that poetry is uniquely suited to those suffering from mental health issues, for many reasons – principally because they’re usually short! When I was in hospital, like most depressives, I had next to no concentration or memory. I read nothing. I did nothing. My memory was often so bad that I couldn’t remember what I had done that day, or the day previously. Often I couldn’t remember where I even was. So it was particularly striking that the last stanza of this poem stuck in my mind at the worst of times. Frost’s poem took on the quality of incantation for me, I would often mutter it to myself at night, or when I was in crisis. From reading the poem, I had suspected that Robert Frost suffered from depression, and an even cursory read of all the major Frost biographies confirmed this. Despite his depression, Frost won a staggering four Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry in his lifetime, and he lived to the grand old age of 88. I can’t remember who said it, but someone once said that Frost was the most terrifying poet of his age, far from the pastoral imagery that people usually associate with Frost, and I think this is very true from even a glance at his work. This poem is one of my favourites from the anthology, and I am immensely excited to share with you the inaugural poem from In A Dark Wood: An  Anthology of Depression.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.