Are these the greatest poems about the brain? Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Poets are often introspective people. ‘Look in thy heart, and write,’ Sir Philip Sidney’s muse commanded him, chiding him for a ‘Fool’ for not thinking of doing this in the first place – and ‘heart’ in Sidney’s time was pretty much synonymous with ‘mind’ in this sense. Below are ten of the greatest poems written about the mind and mental conflict, introspection, meditation, and other brainy matters. We haven’t included any Wordsworth, controversially, but if you want a ‘bonus ball’ or ‘Easter egg’ by way of suggestions, we’d recommend Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’, which is not so much ‘about’ the mind’ as a fine example of meditation and personal recollection.
1. Sir Edward Dyer, ‘My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is’.
My mind to me a kingdom is;
Such present joys therein I find,
That it excels all other bliss
That earth affords or grows by kind:
Though much I want that most would have,
Yet still my mind forbids to crave.
No princely pomp, no wealthy store,
No force to win the victory,
No wily wit to salve a sore,
No shape to feed a loving eye;
To none of these I yield as thrall;
For why? my mind doth serve for all …
We’ve followed convention in attributing this poem to Dyer, although some scholars believe that the Earl of Oxford wrote it. ‘My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is’ expresses the sentiment that one’s own mind contains a whole world, and, indeed more than the world, since the only limit on it is the limit of our own imagination, or what we are able to conceive of.
2. William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116.
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove …
This sonnet earns its place on this list because of its reference to ‘the marriage of true minds’ in the opening line. Sonnet 116 is often analysed as a poem about a ‘marriage of minds’ between any two people – but the specific context of the poem (in a sequence of Sonnets addressed to, or about, a young man: the first 126 poems in Shakespeare’s Sonnets focus on the Fair Youth) gives such an interpretation a twist: it is marriage of minds, a Platonic love, which can never be recognised in the way that heterosexual love can be recognised through the solemn and binding covenant of marriage.
3. Thomas Traherne, ‘Walking’.
To walk is by a thought to go;
To move in spirit to and fro;
To mind the good we see;
To taste the sweet;
Observing all the things we meet
How choice and rich they be …
Long before the Romantics espoused such a view, the seventeenth-century poet Thomas Traherne – whose work only became widely available, or known about, in the early twentieth century – was praising the power of a good long walk to stimulate the mind.
4. John Keats, ‘Ode to Psyche’.
I wander’d in a forest thoughtlessly,
And, on the sudden, fainting with surprise,
Saw two fair creatures, couched side by side
In deepest grass, beneath the whisp’ring roof
Of leaves and trembled blossoms, where there ran
A brooklet, scarce espied …
In this early ode, Keats muses upon the power of imagination, embodied by the goddess Psyche; the poet decides he will be Psyche’s priest and built her a temple in an ‘untrodden region’ of his mind. Although this is probably the least-admired of Keats’s classic odes, it’s a fine paean to poetic creativity and the power of the imagination.
5. Emily Dickinson, ‘The Brain is wider than the Sky’.
The Brain — is wider than the Sky —
For — put them side by side —
The one the other will contain
With ease — and You — beside —
The Brain is deeper than the sea —
For — hold them — Blue to Blue —
The one the other will absorb —
As Sponges — Buckets — do …
‘The brain is wider than the sky’: the mind and all that it can take in – and imagine – is far greater than even the vast sky above us. This is the starting point of one of Emily Dickinson’s great meditations on the power of human imagination and comprehension.
Just as the brain is wider than the sky because of the breadth of human imagination, so it is deeper than the sea because it can contain and carry thoughts of all the oceans, much like a sponge soaking up the water in a bucket. (The comparison works especially well: it’s not the exclusive province of the poet, as anyone who’s described a friend with a head for facts as having a brain like a sponge will attest.)
6. A. E. Housman, ‘The stars have not dealt me the worst they could do’.
The stars have not dealt me the worst they could do:
My pleasures are plenty, my troubles are two.
But oh, my two troubles they reave me of rest,
The brains in my head and the heart in my breast …
This poem, which remained unpublished until after Housman’s death in 1936, is about that continual theme in Housman’s poetry: the heartsick lovelorn man. Housman asks for ‘guts in the head’ to help him steel himself to life’s travails, to toughen up the ‘brains in my head’.
7. A. Mary F. Robinson, ‘Neurasthenia’.
I watch the happier people of the house
Come in and out, and talk, and go their ways;
I sit and gaze at them; I cannot rouse
My heavy mind to share their busy days …
A. Mary F. Robinson’s poetry is little-read now, which is a shame, as this fine sonnet, about the condition known as neurasthenia, attests. Although its title announces its subject as neurasthenia, Robinson’s evocation of what it’s like to feel cut off from the world around you by psychological and neurological illness chimes with many sufferers’ descriptions of the blackest moods experienced during depression.
8. Wilfred Owen, ‘Mental Cases’.
Who are these? Why sit they here in twilight?
Wherefore rock they, purgatorial shadows,
Drooping tongues from jaws that slob their relish,
Baring teeth that leer like skulls’ tongues wicked?
Stroke on stroke of pain, — but what slow panic,
Gouged these chasms round their fretted sockets?
This began life as a poem titled ‘The Deranged’ in late 1917, following Wilfred Owen’s famous meeting with fellow war poet Siegfried Sassoon in Craiglockhart Hospital. As its final title suggests, ‘Mental Cases’ explores the terrifying mental landscape of those men fighting in the trenches during the First World War. ‘Mental Cases’ is a powerful evocation and analysis of the psychological effects of the world’s first mass industrial war on the young men who experienced it.
As well as conveying the physical effects of warfare, Owen’s poetry also often captures the psychological damage wrought by the industrial-scale slaughter on the Western Front. Perhaps no poem better encapsulates this than ‘Mental Cases’, in which Owen describes those ‘men whose minds the Dead have ravished’. This poem also features one of Owen’s most arresting uses of surprising imagery: the description of how ‘night comes blood-black’.
9. Allen Ginsberg, ‘Howl’.
‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness’, this classic poem of the Beat Generation famously begins. Completed in 1955, ‘Howl’ is dedicated to Carl Solomon, whom Ginsberg had met in a mental institution, and the poem is, in one sense, an extended meditation on mental instability and despair. Are those who we consider ‘sane’ really so? And are those who are branded ‘mad’ really insane?
10. Sylvia Plath, ‘The Moon and the Yew Tree’.
Referring in its opening line to the moonlight as ‘the light of the mind, cold and planetary’, ‘The Moon and the Yew Tree’ immediately signals Plath’s intention to address her own inner turmoil – including her internal conflict about her mother and father (represented in the poem, respectively, by the moon and yew tree) and about organised religion (her longing, but inability, to believe in Christianity).
Sylvia Plath wrote ‘The Moon and the Yew Tree’ in 1961 while she was suffering from writer’s block. Plath’s husband, the poet Ted Hughes, suggested that she write a poem about the view outside their bedroom window. Hughes later recalled that, from the window of their house in Devon, they could see a yew tree in the churchyard to the west of their house. On the morning in question, the full moon was visible just behind the yew tree, and Hughes gave Plath the idea of writing about the scene.
Continue to explore great poetry with these poems about madness and these poems of melancholy and depression. For more classic poetry, we also recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market (we offer our pick of the best poetry anthologies here, and list the best books for the poetry student here).
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.