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John Keats

“Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”

-Epitaph on John Keats’ tombstone

John Keats

“Ode on Melancholy” is John Keats’ argument against depression and melancholy.  He is, in my mind, like a poetic psychotherapist, giving the reader advice on what to do when they are faced with sadness or difficulty.  He tells us not to give up, not to allow our sadness to take over our mental capacities and render us unable to find joy and inspiration.  He tells us to open our eyes, to drink in the fleeting beauty in our natural environment and in the people we love.  Keats describes melancholy as a throned woman and warns us that she resides in the “temple of delight” who will take us as her trophy if we are weak and give in to our sadness.  There are wonderful examples of pathetic fallacy in this poem.  For example, he describes melancholy descending “like a weeping cloud,” and urges, “nor suffer thy forehead to be kiss’d / By nightshade.”  This descriptive power is what makes Keats so enjoyable and so exemplary of Romantic Period poetry.  The Norton Anthology writes that Keats believed that “the height of poetry can be reached only by ‘those to whom the miseries of the world / Are misery, and will not let them rest.”  So much of Keats’ poetry is filled with this tenacity and strength.  He lived for only 26 years, yet he produced work that will continue to inspire readers indefinitely.  If there is a single poet with whom I believe I fell in love with through his work, it is John Keats.

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“Ode on Melancholy”

Christina Rossetti

“Life is difficult, sometimes very hard. This is what the poets tell us. Lucky most of us already knew. So, who said that poetry was soft? Maybe people don’t read it much any more exactly because it forces us to look at how serious and up-hill life frequently is. I’m glad there are also companions on the way, companions at least in the poets.” -Renae Hanson 3/16/09

Painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Portrait by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

My intense connection with Christina Rossetti was created upon my first reading of one of her poems.  She remains my favorite poet from British literature.  No matter how much of her work I read, and she left behind a vast amount of it, she never ceases to inspire and comfort me. She will remain “my companion” for the remainder of my life, I am sure.  Her ability to channel the deepest of sorrow as well as the greatest of faith and perseverance, is truly one-of-a-kind.  As a woman who lived a very pious and dedicated life as a nun, you would expect Rossetti to write only of God and faith.  In fact, she is unafraid to tackle topics such as emotional and sexual love, the life of an artist (her brother was the famous painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti), the fear of growing old, and her doubts about religion and faith.  Her common sense as a woman is unrivaled by any other author, as indeed is her understanding of what it meant to be a woman during the period in which she lived.  Her poem, “Later Life,” addresses aging and the accompanying depression and frustration which Rossetti felt.  The poems which she wrote during her “later life” are among the most heart-wrenching of all her work.  In the words of essayist Nesca Robb, the loss of youth “is one of the central human tragedies” for Rossetti.

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Robert Browning

Robert Browning is probably most famous for his poem, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.”  Written entirely in iambic pentameter, it is the story of a knight on a quest to a mysterious dark tower.   Browning wrote this poem in one day, which is very hard for me to believe as it took days and days of studying it before I was to the point where I was comfortable with recording it.  Browning himself wrote, “Childe Roland came upon me as a kind of dream. I had to write it, then and there, and I finished it the same day, I believe. But it was simply that I had to do it. I did not know then what I meant beyond that, and I’m sure I don’t know now.” Part of what is so difficult about reading this poem aloud is Browning’s excellent use of alliteration, which was very easy for me to stumble over when I was caught up in the story.  A few examples of my favorite “impossible to read aloud” lines fromRobert Browning this poem are “For, what with my world-wide wandering (line 19),” and “…Dunce, / Dotard, a-dozing at the very nonce (lines 178-9).”  This poem twists and winds through a dreary, nightmarish landscape that is perhaps a metaphor for the innermost dark emotions of men. In the words of Jean-Charles Perquin, the underlying meaning or symbolism of this poem seems to always be just out of reach of the reader, “as if Childe Roland’s pilgrimage were an illustration of the reader’s own pilgrimage and quest for an ever-elusive meaning.” Perquin wrote an extensive essay exploring this poem (which can be found in the related websites bar), and I believe I agree with him that the deeper you read into the meaning of Roland’s quest, the more you become as lost as Roland himself .   Every question asked leads to no answers, only to more perplexing questions, “…if the journey is only made of perceptions, dreams, fears, and images, it loses its original status and meaning, and ultimately becomes the powerful imaginary representation of a literally frozen landscape, which is itself the terrifying image of an inner landscape.”  A wonderful interpretation of the psychological and philosophical context of  “Childe Roland” comes from classmate Ruth Bailey.  She explains her opinion that this poem could be read as “an assertion of the human character. We realize at the end of our meaningless lives that it was for nothing, but that we were not alone.  Others came before us, bold and strong… I think the last line is a celebration of the human race… Maybe it’s all for nothing, but isn’t it beautiful how we never give up.”


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*note:   This is the entire poem, which is about 13 minutes long.  You do not by any means have to listen to the entire thing, unless you want to!*

Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing’s “To Room Nineteen” is a literary exploration of a woman’s descent into depression and eventual suicide.  This short story is so haunting because of its honest and heartbreaking main character Susan.  Written in third person narrative, the reader is given insight into Susan’s most personal ruminations over her own emotional state.  Lessing documents with such clarity how the “perfect marriage” and indeed the “perfect life” can still leave a woman wanting, in the author’s clever nod-of-the-head to Virginia Woolf, a room of her own.  Susan’s disillusionment with her life seems to begin when her husband cheats on her, a “silly” event which she is determined not to allow to shatter their carefully constructed existence together.  However, this one event seems to trigger the beginning of a deep depression in Susan.  She enters an almost dissociative state where all she craves is to escape from her life as a wife, mother, and homemaker.  Her husband feels ever more distant, her children become oppressive, and even her own garden harbors a terrifying presence which she must avoid.  Lessing describes Susan slowly losing her interest in life and the energy to continue to live.  This is the type of depression that does not result from pain or trauma; this is true depression, a wicked beast that holds no logic, no reason, and from which there is no escape.   Susan calmly and deliberately plans her own death, with nothing but casual thoughts of what her family will do after she is gone.  She simply has no choice but to surrender to the beast that has taken her life away from her. Lessing’s insight in this work is so tangible; “if you understand something, you don’t forgive it, you are the thing itself; forgiveness is for what you don’t understand.”  Her sense of humor and irony is so bittersweet; “sadness because so much is after all so little.”