Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
We all get the blues from time to time; even the jolliest soul sometimes has days when he or she feels a little bit down. More severely, many people suffer from more serious clinical depression. According to one study, reading for just six minutes every day can reduce depression by up to 68%, and poetry isn’t a bad thing to fill a six-minute daily reading window. Poets remind us that we are not alone, and that others have felt – and articulated what we have felt. Many poets have addressed the topic of depression, melancholy, the doldrums – here are ten of the best.
1. Thomas Hoccleve, ‘Complaint’.
Hoccleve (c. 1368-1423) is not as well known as his near-contemporary Geoffrey Chaucer, nor even his nearer contemporary, Thomas Lydgate. But the opening to his ‘Complaint’ is perhaps the earliest example in medieval poetry of a poet expressing his suffering at the hands of ‘SAD’ or Seasonal Affective Disorder: once the harvest is over and dark autumn sets in, the poet confides ‘that chaunge sank into myne herte roote’. Anyone who has felt depressed during late autumn will find that they’re not alone:
After that hervest Inned had his sheves,
and that the broune season of myhelmess
was come and gan the trees robbe of ther leves
That grene had bene and in lusty fresshness,
and them in-to colowre of yelowness
hadd dyne and doune throwne vndar foote
that chaunge sank into myne herte roote
2. Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, ‘The Soote Season’.
This is one of the first sonnets written in English, but it’s not as well known as it perhaps should be. It’s about the coming of summer and the various ways in which a world previously in a sort of stasis or hibernation is now springing into life. (‘Soote’ in ‘Soote Season’ means ‘sweet’.)
However, despite this, the poet’s sorrow also springs into new life at this time. We usually associate autumn and winter with sorrow, but not the summer; yet, surprisingly, many people suffer from depression in the spring and early summer months as part of seasonal affective disorder (SAD):
The soote season, that bud and blome furth bringes,
With grene hath clad the hill and eke the vale:
The nightingale with fethers new she singes:
The turtle to her make hath tolde her tale …
3. William Shakespeare, Sonnet 29.
We could have gone for the obvious one here – Sonnet 18, ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ – but we think this poem, about cursing your lot only to recall that you have the love of that special someone, speaks more immediately to most people’s experience of being in love. How often do we count our blessings and remember that, among those blessings, we can say we are loved? The poem begins:
When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate …
See the link above to read the poem in full.
4. John Keats, ‘Ode on Melancholy’.
One of Keats’s celebrated odes of 1819, ‘Ode on Melancholy’ offers the reader some advice on what to do when a bout of depression descends. Don’t seek to block out melancholy with drugs, he says: seek out beauty and admire it, because all beauty will soon wither and die.
Oddly, Keats reasons, this will cheer you up: it’s a reminder that everything passes, for one, but it also reminds us that our time on Earth is short, and we don’t have long to try to appreciate the brief beauties of the world. The poem includes the stanza:
But when the melancholy fit shall fall
Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,
That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,
And hides the green hill in an April shroud …
Follow the link above to read Keats’s poem in full.
5. Edgar Allan Poe, ‘Alone’.
Written in 1829, ‘Alone’ might have sprung from Poe’s orphaned upbringing: it describes a feeling of being alone that encompasses emotional and psychological loneliness as well as a state of social solitude. A month before Poe wrote the poem, his foster mother Francis Allan had died, in February 1829. The poem remained unpublished until 1875, some 26 years after Poe’s death. The poem begins:
From childhood’s hour I have not been
As others were—I have not seen
As others saw—I could not bring
My passions from a common spring—
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow—I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone—
And all I lov’d—I lov’d alone—
Follow the link above to read the full poem.
6. Emily Dickinson, ‘It was not Death, for I stood up’.
Dickinson (1830-86) often wrote insightfully about dark moods, and this is one of her greatest poems that touches upon the theme of depression:
It was not Death, for I stood up,
And all the Dead, lie down—
It was not Night, for all the Bells
Put out their Tongues, for Noon …
The poem describes the feeling of despair and depression that grips the poet. She begins by describing what it is not: not death, she said, for she was still standing while the dead lie down; it was not night, because all of the bells put out their tongues to announce noon, the middle of the day. She feels neither frost nor fire: it’s as if all feeling, all colour, has left the world.
7. Christina Rossetti, ‘Shut Out’.
The things which we have lost attain a status which far exceeds their actual value, by virtue of being lost. We want the things we cannot have, and – equally – we long to regain the things which have been taken from us:
So now I sit here quite alone
Blinded with tears; nor grieve for that,
For nought is left worth looking at
Since my delightful land is gone.
And those things which we find in the wake of our lost paradise cannot live up to those lost treasures. This is the essential meaning of this melancholy Christina Rossetti poem, and we’ve all felt like this at some point, even if we know that human beings have an in-built and persistent ability to adjust and adapt, and to find new paradises to replace those we have left behind.
8. A. E. Housman, ‘Tarry, delight, so seldom met’.
A. E. Housman (1859-1936) wrote beautifully about depression and feeling heartbreak and melancholy, and his poems are worth seeking out if you don’t know them already. This poem, which was unpublished in Housman’s lifetime, is about the brevity of happiness and the knowledge that it must inevitably pass, leaving us with the daily struggle of living to get on with.
But Housman expresses this sentiment wonderfully through the mythical lovers of Hero and Leander: Leander would swim out to see Hero every night, but knew he would have to swim back afterwards:
Beneath him, in the nighted firth,
Between two continents complain
The seas he swam from earth to earth
And he must swim again.
9. Philip Larkin, ‘Aubade’.
Stephen Fry chose this poem as one of the two poems he likes to reread when he’s depressed, because, oddly, Larkin’s poem helps to cheer him up, despite its bleak message. Larkin’s poem is about waking at four o’clock in the morning and being kept awake by the horrifying realisation that he is going to die, and that each morning brings him closer to death. But what is so affirming about Larkin’s poem, Fry says, is that it reassures him – and us – that great art can come out of very dark moods and thoughts. It’s certainly true in Larkin’s case: this was the last great poem he wrote.
10. Sylvia Plath, ‘Tulips’.
Written in March 1961, apparently after being admitted to hospital for an appendectomy. The view of the world Plath describes in ‘Tulips’ is based around ideas of blankness and emptiness: Plath has, she tells us, given up her clothes to the nurses, her history to the anaesthetist, and her body to the surgeons.
Plath was one of the most high-profile twentieth-century poets to suffer from depression and to put this into her work. ‘Tulips’ offers a stark picture of the depressive state, and of a world devoid of feeling and meaning. We’ve compiled our pick of Plath’s best poems here.
For more classic poetry, we recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market. Continue to explore the world of poetry with our tips for the close reading of poetry, these must-have poetry anthologies, and these poems about growing old. For a change of pace, see our selection of the best ‘so bad they’re good’ poems.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.