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.
Sir Edward Dyer, ‘My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is’. 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.
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116. 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.
Thomas Traherne, ‘Walking’. 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: ‘To walk is by a thought to go; / To move in spirit to and fro; / To mind the good we see…’
John Keats, ‘Ode to Psyche’. 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.
Emily Dickinson, ‘The Brain is wider than the Sky’. ‘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.
A. E. Housman, ‘The stars have not dealt me the worst they could do’. 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’.
A. Mary F. Robinson, ‘Neurasthenia’. 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.
Wilfred Owen, ‘Mental Cases’. 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.
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?
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).
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.