Josh Richards: Melancholy Poetry as Inoculation

Melancholy Poetry as Inoculation, a Hogwarts Professor guest post from Prof. Josh Richards

Today, we examine my previous, curious assertion [in ‘The Congealed Fire of Poetry‘] that sad poetry is, indeed, a comfort for the hurting. At first, this may seem counter-intuitive but it is, in fact, quite well-attested. So much so, in fact, that I will merely bring you A. E. Housman’s take on the matter. I won’t even pretend to be a wiser man than he, so let me walk you through his discussion found in the poem “Terence, this is stupid stuff” instead of bloviating myself.

The poem is found here.

And I would encourage you to open the link in a new window, read it aloud, and return afterward.

Now, most objections to poetry, especially of the melancholy sort, are little different than the first stanza of Housman’s poem—allowing for the usual convention of using musical terms and language to refer to poetry.

‘TERENCE, this is stupid stuff:
You eat your victuals fast enough;
There can’t be much amiss, ’tis clear,
To see the rate you drink your beer.
But oh, good Lord, the verse you make, 5
It gives a chap the belly-ache.
The cow, the old cow, she is dead;
It sleeps well, the horned head:
We poor lads, ’tis our turn now
To hear such tunes as killed the cow. 10
Pretty friendship ’tis to rhyme
Your friends to death before their time
Moping melancholy mad:
Come, pipe a tune to dance to, lad.’

After well-meant but heinously awkward inquiries to a poet’s mental well-being, the above is the most likely response to a gloomy poem: “Why not write something cheerful, something we’ll all enjoy?” While it is often true what Shelley wrote in Julian and Maddalo that

Most wretched men
Are cradled into poetry by wrong,
They learn in suffering what they teach in song.

Yet, people misread this quotation and the impulse behind sad poetry. It is “what they teach in song.”  Poetry as published talk-therapy is a relatively new (post-1940’s) and reprehensible thing. Quality poetry of melancholy strain is a product of much reflection and a desire to explain, to codify complicated feelings into something universally applicable. The true lyric poet desires to transform a personal event into something universal, applicable to everyone. Confessional verse satisfies the same voyeuristic impulse as The National Enquirer (or Rita Skeeter’s Witch Weekly) and should be held in similar contempt.

Returning to Housman’s poem, the request for something cheerful and diversionary is humorously thrown back in the face of the speaker of the first few stanzas.

Why, if ’tis dancing you would be, 15
There’s brisker pipes than poetry.
Say, for what were hop-yards meant,
Or why was Burton built on Trent?
Oh many a peer of England brews
Livelier liquor than the Muse, 20
And malt does more than Milton can
To justify God’s ways to man.
Ale, man, ale’s the stuff to drink
For fellows whom it hurts to think:
Look into the pewter pot 25
To see the world as the world’s not.

Housman uses drinking as an example of cheerful, escapist entertainment that people often request of poetry. Now, I’m not critiquing escapist literature, but it is important to realize that, for the suffering, it offers virtually the same experience. When we dive into a good book, it takes us away from ourselves, but upon putting it down,

Heigho, the tale was all a lie;
The world, it was the old world yet,
I was I, my things were wet, 40
And nothing now remained to do
But begin the game anew.

It offers no more comfort than sleep, and sometimes, that’s enough. Mind you, it’s not just fantasy novels that offer such things: for some, sports are. The cliché of lonely businessmen watching the Knicks on Christmas over Chinese take-out is alive and well. Videogames are another such salve for many, but melancholy poetry offers something quite different, Housman suggests.

Therefore, since the world has still
Much good, but much less good than ill,
And while the sun and moon endure 45
Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure,
I’d face it as a wise man would,
And train for ill and not for good.

Here’s the thing, the most powerful and crippling aspect of suffering is the sensation of isolation, which can lend someone down the path to despair. In In Memoriam¸ Tennyson, whose best friend (and soon to be brother-in-law) died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage, writes,

That loss is common would not make
My own less bitter, rather more:
Too common! Never morning wore
To evening, but some heart did break.

Yet, his poem was the comfort to Queen Victoria when Prince Albert died—so much did she owe to his work that she made him Poet Laureate and a Baron—and so many others. Ever heard the phrase (or even said it), “Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all”? That’s In Memoriam. Melancholy poetry comforts the suffering by giving them words for what they feel and reminding them that they’re not alone—cold comfort, but one the prevents the worst of despair.

Housman, though, is wiser yet. Note that he says “train for ill.” For the comforting power to be in full effect, you have to read before tragedy strikes. Now, Housman, the eminent classicist, uses the story of Mithridates to explain this. Now, this story and concept may be more familiar to you in the form of The Princess Bride. Remember the scene where Wesley confronts Vizzini and poisons both cups with Iocaine powder and later asserts that he’s developed an immunity to the stuff by imbibing small amounts for years? That’s based on the old story of Mithridates. As something of an aside, how such a wonderful turn of phrase like “The Many-Venomed Earth” hasn’t become a title to a book or heavy metal album yet is beyond me…

Housman asserts that like Mithridates we should imbibe a little sorrow from many sources to help us deal when suffering comes our way. A melancholy sonnet here and there, a flick through In Memoriam, a dive into the sad narratives of E. A. Robinson can all help us give words to our experience and outlast suffering—for, as Housman, concludes.

—I tell the tale that I heard told. 75
Mithridates, he died old.

Now, let me assert that I think that poetry accomplishes this much better than prose. People have gone to In Memoriam for comfort for 150 years, but last I checked, no one has gone to Anna Karenina. Why do you think that a copy of Tennyson comforts while giving a hurting friend a copy of the collected works of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky will probably result in charges of criminally-negligent homicide?

Thanks for listening to a fusty literature professor do his thing—as ever, if there any questions or comments, let us continue the conversation in the comments section.

Prof. Richards


  1. Oh, as soon as I saw the title of this post, I (a habitual but usually non-commenting reader) knew Housman was in the wings. I’ve chanted that poem to myself for years, since no one in the background I came from understood why I wanted to read the kinds of poems and books that I did.

    And I’ve inveighed in critical prose before this against the kind of poetry that mainly involves “the poet herself, front and center, convinced of her own importance and feeling like mad.”

    Thank you for celebrating one of the wisest poems I have ever read.

  2. Carrie-Ann Biondi says

    This was another wonderful post–thank you! And I especially appreciate this particular sentence: “Poetry as published talk-therapy is a relatively new (post-1940’s) and reprehensible thing.”

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