Melancholy in Literature: Jane Kenyon

In fall of 2016, I returned to Frostburg State University as a post-graduate student. Initially, I wanted to take a few writing classes (and possibly an art class) that I wasn’t able to take my first go-around at FSU. However, I was encouraged to go ahead and finish the English major; I had been an English minor before I graduated in 2015, and I was already close to finishing the major. So, I followed the good advice I was given and enrolled in many English classes.

This semester I have enrolled in a special topics class on Gothic literature. What is Gothic literature? Well, it’s a topic that is sometimes hard to describe. It began during Romanticism literary period in roughly the 17th century. It’s an interesting topic. Authors like Edgar Allan Poe, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the Shelleys aka Mary and Percy. Numerous other authors fit into that literary period. Gothic literature became something like a subset within Romanticism. Do you like ghost stories? Do you like stories with the supernatural? Then, I highly recommend the Gothic.

Gothic literature contains some stories/poems by authors who focus on death; death became a topic that could be discussed, and it led to other topics such as topics on melancholy (depression). John Keats, Coleridge, and other writers wrote on melancholy. In fact, Gothic literature and topics on melancholy still continue in contemporary literature.

My professor for Gothic literature introduced us to 3 poems written on melancholy by Keats and Coleridge, but also by a contemporary author, Jane Kenyon. Keats and Coleridge dealt with melancholy in different ways (and I highly recommend you research their poems and read them). However, Kenyon’s poem, Having it Out with Melancholy, I really connected with. It’s long, but worth the read. Let me share that poem with you….

FROM THE NURSERY

When I was born, you waited
behind a pile of linen in the nursery,
and when we were alone, you lay down
on top of me, pressing
the bile of desolation into every pore.

And from that day on
everything under the sun and moon
made me sad—even the yellow
wooden beads that slid and spun
along a spindle on my crib.

You taught me to exist without gratitude.
You ruined my manners toward God:
“We’re here simply to wait for death;
the pleasures of earth are overrated.”

I only appeared to belong to my mother,
to live among blocks and cotton undershirts
with snaps; among red tin lunch boxes
and report cards in ugly brown slipcases.
I was already yours—the anti-urge,
the mutilator of souls.
BOTTLES

Elavil, Ludiomil, Doxepin,
Norpramin, Prozac, Lithium, Xanax,
Wellbutrin, Parnate, Nardil, Zoloft.
The coated ones smell sweet or have
no smell; the powdery ones smell
like the chemistry lab at school
that made me hold my breath.

SUGGESTION FROM A FRIEND

You wouldn’t be so depressed
if you really believed in God.

OFTEN

Often I go to bed as soon after dinner
as seems adult
(I mean I try to wait for dark)
in order to push away
from the massive pain in sleep’s
frail wicker coracle.

ONCE THERE WAS LIGHT

Once, in my early thirties, I saw
that I was a speck of light in the great
river of light that undulates through time.

I was floating with the whole
human family. We were all colors—those
who are living now, those who have died,
those who are not yet born. For a few

moments I floated, completely calm,
and I no longer hated having to exist.

Like a crow who smells hot blood
you came flying to pull me out
of the glowing stream.
“I’ll hold you up. I never let my dear
ones drown!” After that, I wept for days.

IN AND OUT

The dog searches until he finds me
upstairs, lies down with a clatter
of elbows, puts his head on my foot.

Sometimes the sound of his breathing
saves my life—in and out, in
and out; a pause, a long sigh. . . .

PARDON

A piece of burned meat
wears my clothes, speaks
in my voice, dispatches obligations
haltingly, or not at all.
It is tired of trying
to be stouthearted, tired
beyond measure.

We move on to the monoamine
oxidase inhibitors. Day and night
I feel as if I had drunk six cups
of coffee, but the pain stops
abruptly. With the wonder
and bitterness of someone pardoned
for a crime she did not commit
I come back to marriage and friends,
to pink fringed hollyhocks; come back
to my desk, books, and chair.

CREDO

Pharmaceutical wonders are at work
but I believe only in this moment
of well-being. Unholy ghost,
you are certain to come again.

Coarse, mean, you’ll put your feet
on the coffee table, lean back,
and turn me into someone who can’t
take the trouble to speak; someone
who can’t sleep, or who does nothing
but sleep; can’t read, or call
for an appointment for help.

There is nothing I can do
against your coming.
When I awake, I am still with thee.

WOOD THRUSH

High on Nardil and June light
I wake at four,
waiting greedily for the first
note of the wood thrush. Easeful air
presses through the screen
with the wild, complex song
of the bird, and I am overcome

by ordinary contentment.
What hurt me so terribly
all my life until this moment?
How I love the small, swiftly
beating heart of the bird
singing in the great maples;
its bright, unequivocal eye.

*Poem taken from https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/having-it-out-melancholy*

If you suffer from depression, I’m sure that you could relate to the poem. The way she describes depression is fascinating. Because I’ve always suffered from depression for as long as I could remember, this is a fantastic way of describing it. You can’t run away from it, and it feels like it suffocates you. If you do anything today, read this poem.

 

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