A Note on English Melancholy


There is a word in Old English which belongs wholly to that civilisation— “dustsceawung,” meaning contemplation of dust. It is a true image of the Anglo-Saxon mind, or at least an echo of that consciousness which considered transience and loss to be part of the human estate; it was a world in which life was uncertain and the principal deity was fate or destiny or “wyrd.”

There are six extant poems in Old English which are governed by this vision of decay and desolation; they have been given titles, where none existed before, and they have been called “elegies” for the reason that they anticipate and indeed help to fashion a body of subsequent English poetry. The laments of “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer” are filled with the sorrows of exile and isolation; the singers have left the warm halls and contemplate the “hrimcealde sae,” the rime-cold sea. “The Seafarer” recalls his life upon the wilderness of the waters, and it becomes clear how the cold waste of the ocean has entered the Anglo-Saxon soul. Everything “toglideth,” glides away like the waters; nothing endures; I depart while friends are left weeping by the shore’s edge; the music of harps and the sound of horses must fade; I am alone, but I must endure, this is my “wyrd.” “Wyrd” in its literal sense signifies “what will be” and this covers the accomplishment of all destinies; the judgement is executed, or the dream fulfilled. Many scholars have considered such works to harbour the keening of Celtic lament, but embedded within them are elements of endurance and reticence which arise from the Old English tradition. The poetry has an impersonal force, eschewing place-names or personal names, guided by litotes and understatement towards a powerful compression of feeling.

There is another poem, entitled “The Ruin,” which throws a curious light upon the elegiac tendencies of the Anglo-Saxons. It is a topographical poem—a much loved genre in the eighteenth century—concerning a ruined city; written in the eighth century, it is some fifty lines in length and is itself a ruin or, rather, a fragment. It describes an ancient city where now the walls have fallen, the roofs decayed and the pillars crumbled into heaps of stone. Once it contained bright halls and majestic houses, but a hundred generations have passed leaving only silence and decay. These ruins represent “enta geweorc,” the work of giants. It is a familiar phrase in Anglo-Saxon poetry, appearing in both sacred and secular contexts; it is alike a tribute to the past inhabitants of this island and a homage to transience itself. It does not reflect any vainglory of the victorious invader but, rather, a genuine and sophisticated awareness of passing civilisations.

The critical and technical term “elegy” did not enter the language until the early years of the sixteenth century but it quickly acquired a peculiarly English tone; the lament is part of the tradition, with Milton’s Lycidas and Tennyson’s In Memoriam, Spenser’s “Astrophel” and Shelley’s Adonais as quite different and unusual demonstrations of its power. The “graveyard” school of Anglo-Saxon poetry also has its own specific lineage. The homiletic sequence known as Soul and Body, in which the spirit addresses the decayed or decaying corpse, rehearses what one scholar has called the “macabre emotionalism” and “unmitigated pessimism”1 that are associated with Anglo-Saxon poetry. That tone dominates much medieval English poetry, also, and continues well into the eighteenth century.

It would also be possible to elaborate, in this context, upon the argument which Bishop Percy advanced in one of the editorial comments in his collection of Reliques of Ancient English Poetry published in 1765. “It is worth attention,” he wrote, “that the English have more songs and ballads on the subject of madness than any of their neighbours.” This might be connected with the madness portrayed upon the Jacobean stage, and the popularity of the eighteenth-century “graveyard” school of English poetry; but there are more elusive associations. In the nineteenth century London became known as the “suicide capital” of the world but, even before that date, there was a more general belief that the English were a race subject to melancholia. The prevailing gloom was variously ascribed to the damp climate of the island or to the diet of beef, but we need only turn to the prevalence of elegies in the English tongue to suggest that melancholy may have found its local habitation.

It has always been there. That long sweet note of pathos can be heard equally in the music of Delius and the poetry of Keats, in the plangent harmonies of Purcell and the stately threnodies of Spenser, in the funereal meditations of Donne and the lachrymose comedy of Sterne. When the Anglo-Saxon poet of “Judgement Day” uttered a complaint against “this gloomy world,” he was the harbinger of a powerful and sustained emotion. It has often been remarked that Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country ChurchYard,” composed fitfully between 1746 and 1750, was the most popular English poem for some two hundred years. What other nation would cherish such mournful music?

The earliest English lyrics are suffused with melancholy. “Ey! Ey! What this night is long!” comes from the early thirteenth century, so that the transition from Old to Middle English is not without its continuities. The songbook, of which it is a part, survives still and a scholar of English music has noted that “its sense of weary desolation”2 resounds across the centuries. In similar fashion another early song, with its complaint “Blidful biryd on me thou rewe,” is indeed a “highly pessimistic” fragment3 with its own successors. The woefulness of Chaucer’s Reeve has all the sad music of seasonal change which seems so integral to the English genius:

Deeth drough the tappe of lyf and leet it gon, And ever sithe hath so the tappe yronne Til that almoost al empty is the tonne

There have been periods in which melancholy became the prevailing mood or the spirit of the age. The first surviving English morality play takes as its theme the advent of death. It is an abiding preoccupation, this terror of mortality, aligned with a yearning towards transcendence. As one fifteenth-century writer expresses it,

Me thynk thys world is wonder wery And fadyth as ye brymbyll bery

The great national epic of that century, Malory’s Le Morte Darthur (as its printer, William Caxton, named it), is charged with intimations of transience and filled with plaintive passages of nostalgia. “Then there was wepyng and dolour out of mesure.” One medievalist has spoken of its “haunting elegiac undertone,”4 which is in part related to the simplicity of a prose which has not divested itself of its Anglo-Saxon origins: “And syr Lancelot awok, and went and took his hors, and rode al that day and al nyght in a forest, wepyng. And atte last he was ware of an ermytage and a chappel stode betwyxte two clyffes, and than he harde a lytel belle rynge to masse.”

There is something within the language itself which propels the writer towards plangency; if we were to compare one of Macbeth’s soliloquies with the Anglo-Saxon monologues of “The Wanderer” or “The Seafarer,” we would notice the same open vowel sounds which create the syllabic equivalent of a long protracted “oh”—“ geond lagulade longe sceolde,” “To morrow, and to morrow, and to morrow.” In Edmund Spenser, too, the melody engages the themes of loss and decay, as if the words themselves were tokens of transience; perhaps it represents the nostalgia for Adam’s unfallen language, before the babble of other voices. There is nothing more splendid, however, than Spenser’s “Two Cantos of Mutabilitie” which are appended to The Faerie Queene, where the old alliterative line is charged with the awareness of frailty and loss: “What man that sees the euer-whirling wheele . . .” The alliteration of Old English may indeed be the “pure well head of Poesie,” to which Spenser alludes in the same poem. The language that speaks of decay falls back into its original patterns, like the countenances of those about to die.

For the melodic expression of grief, however, John Dowland bears the palm. His first songbook of 1597, containing compositions for the accompaniment of the lute, expresses what one musical historian has called his “disposition to melancholy,” his “feelings of isolation” and his “emotional sensitivity.”5 In songs such as “Go Crystal Tears,” “In Darkness Let Me Dwell,” “Forlorn Hope” and “Sorrow Stay,” the full flood of English melancholia can be experienced, with all the sonorous languour of its pathos and all the chromatic range of its grief. In an air published in the third volume— “Time can abate the terror of every pain/But common grief is error, true grief will still remain”—the “ ‘dropping’ refrain seems . . . to annihilate time itself.”6

It is the strangest coincidence that Dowland was for some time resident musician at the court of Elsinore, upon whose walls Hamlet walked; melancholy indeed was so favoured and so familiar a theme that in the late sixteenth century it became an English device for which only the barest signification was necessary. The melancholic was a stock figure of tragedy and even, sometimes, of comedy. He could be a malcontent, a rebel, or a scholar; he would be dressed in black, with solemn visage, his arms folded and his eyes cast down. There was the melancholic of love, like Orsino sighing for music in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, or the melancholic of learning, who like Hamlet enters reading a book. That book might be one of many learned English tomes written in the period, such as George Gascoigne’s The Droomme of Doome’s Day, John Moore’s A Mappe of Man’s Mortalitie, or George Strode’s The Anatomie of Mortalitie. Childhood is foolish, youth vain; maturity a cause of pain, and old age a cause of mourning. Thus Hamlet becomes one of the central figures of English drama.

Yet melancholy served many purposes in the sixteenth century; the melancholic was often a man of learning, and could serve as a target for the predominant bias towards anti-intellectualism in England. The sick man could also be the epitome of a sick world, and the matter of satire. Those who feigned melancholy could also adopt a number of “mad” poses, as did Hamlet, and thus play the chameleon. As Edmund expresses it in King Lear: “My cue is villainous melancholy, with a sigh like Tom O’ Bedlam.” It was also often an excuse for that morbid sensationalism so close to the English imagination. This delight in what has been called “English Gothic” suffuses the work of Robert Burton, whose The Anatomy of Melancholy, published in 1621, is a formidable digest on the pleasures and perils of that condition. Samuel Johnson declared that “it was the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise,” and Charles Lamb referred to Burton himself as “that fantastic great old man.” Byron acquired all his classical learning from it, and thus became the melancholy Manfred; Keats used the book as a form of personal diary, and thereupon composed an “Ode on Melancholy.” In this compendious volume, too, is the story of Lamia which directly inspired Keats to write his long poem of the same name. The treatise is indeed fantastic. Although Burton disclaims “big words, fustian phrases, jingling terms, tropes, strong lines, that like Alcestes’ arrows caught fire as they flew, strains of wit . . . elogies, hyperbolical exornations, elegancies etc. which many so much affect,” he employs all of these devices in a great phantasmagoria of prose. It is an opéra bou fe of paraphrase and quotation, as Burton whispers to the great authors across the centuries or overhears them murmuring in his Oxford library. His own book is “a rhapsody of rags gathered together from several dung-hills, excrement of authors, toys and fopperies confusedly tumbled out . . . thou canst not think worse of me than I do of myself.” So it is that “we weave the same web still, twist the same rope again and again.” It is a line and a sentiment which more than a hundred years later, in the mid-eighteenth century, Laurence Sterne borrowed for the pages of Tristram Shandy, thus proving the truth of the dictum in an eminently witty manner. But it is also one of the sources of Burton’s melancholy, this belief that the fine lines of the imagination may become a web or a prison— “we skim off the cream of other men’s wits, pick the choice flowers of their tilled gardens to set out our own sterile plots.” We can write nothing that has not already been written, only rearrange the inheritance in a pleasing pattern.

Burton wrote one book for the rest of his life, expanding it in the course of several editions, and it came to a conclusion only at his death. Yet this melancholy Englishman did not believe that mortality broke the charmed circle of his melancholic imagination. “We keep our madness still, play the fools still . . . we are of the same humours and inclinations as our predecessors were, you shall find us all alike, much at one, we and our sons.” That is why the melancholy man understands the great globe itself:

thou shalt soon perceive that all the world is mad, that is melancholy, doting: that it is (which Epicthonius Cosmopolites expressed not many years since in a map) made like a fool’s head (with that motto, Caput helliboro dignum) a crazed head, cavea stultorum, a fool’s Paradise or, as Apollonius, a common prison of gulls, cheaters, flatterers, etcetera.

This is the closest English prose reaches to abstract learning, this wistful, pedantic, digressive, solicitous and magniloquent style not untouched by irony or condescension. Like John Donne and Francis Bacon, Burton is interested in the “new” philosophy only when it affords him fresh metaphors; but he still prefers the ancient wisdom of “Robin Goodfellows ” or “Puck in the Night” as well as the knowledge contained in biographical anecdote. This tendency, too, he inherits from the native genius. Is it a peculiar disposition, also, to feel compelled to include no less than everything—just as Dickens filled his novels with crowds and Shakespeare filled the world with his characters—before concluding that all is vanity and empty striving? Even in the act of reaching out to grasp the world, English writers are troubled by melancholy contemplations.

There is a native strain, too, in Burton’s false learning and in his concocted quotations, designed to confuse or tease the reader. Like the notebooks of Coleridge, his narrative endlessly repeats and anticipates itself. He quotes Chaucer and, like the poet, creates a strange embarrassed and understated persona—“But where am I? Into what subject have I rushed? What have I to do with Nuns, Maids, Virgins, Widows? I am a bachelor myself, and lead a Monastick life in a college.” But then, in the synopses of his books or “partitions,” he parodies the continental learning of the logician Ramus. Burton refers to Malory, Marlowe, Sidney, Spenser, and alludes to melancholy Hamlet. He copies the ecclesiastical histories of the medievals and the Anglo-Saxons with his accounts of visions and miracles. So “our Melancholy” is demonstrated by “that which Matthew Paris relates of the Man of Ersham who saw heaven and hell in a vision; of Sir Owen, that went down into St. Patrick’s Purgatory in King Stephen’s days, and saw as much; Walsingham of him that was showed as much by St. Julian.” Burton, having been raised in Leicestershire and educated at Brasenose College, Oxford, spent his life as a student of Christ Church, Oxford. He pored over the books of the Bodleian Library in order to write his treatise, with the purpose of relieving or reliving his own melancholy; yet it increased to the point that, according to an old account, “nothing could make him laugh but going to the bridge-foot and hearing the ribaldry of the bargemen, which rarely failed to throw him into a violent fit of laughter.” It is rumoured that he committed suicide, and on his epitaph in Christ Church it is recorded that “Melancholia” gave him both life and death.

Hobbes was a flicted with melancholy; in Leviathan he created a vision of the world born out of fearfulness and nourished by desperation. Sir Godfrey Kneller’s portraits of Hobbes’s noble contemporaries are distinguished by “sensitive penetration of character and melancholy.” 7 The portrait of Charles I at his trial depicts him dressed in “the uniform of Melancholy” with black coat and broad-brimmed black hat. Yet melancholy was as much at home among the Puritans as the defeated Royalists, leading one historian of the seventeenth century to suggest that it was “a cultural mode available to the whole ‘educated’ class.”8 We know also of Milton’s “Il Penseroso.” When John Donne sat for a painting towards the end of his life, he chose to drape himself in a shroud and stand upon an urn. When he mounted the pulpit of St. Paul’s Cathedral he carried with him an hour-glass to remind the congregation that “from the first minute that thou beganst to live, thou beganst to die too.” He desired to die in the pulpit. It was indeed in the pulpit that he preached his funeral sermon known as “Death’s Duell”; a few days later, at the end of March 1631, he expired. He was killed by the power of his own oration.

He mused upon “a handful of dust” and truly became, in the Anglo-Saxon term, an avower of “dustsceawung.” He was a disciple of death and a voluptuary of decay. His was a fantastic melancholy, dwelling upon the surcease of breath with morbid and fascinated relish; he created an elaborate patterning of graveyard themes, an embroidery, an opus anglicanum. Like Burton, he proceeds by association and paradox, the whole panoply of words determined by consonance and contrast; it is a syllabic rhetoric in which tone and colour play as much part as argument. We are approaching once more the genius loci. And the familiar cry goes up. “They tell me it is my Melancholly; Did I infuse, did I drinke in Melancholly into my selfe? It is my thoughtfulnesse ; was I not made to thinke?” As with so many other English artists and writers, his taste for the macabre and for the grotesque encouraged theatricality of various kinds. One of his predecessors as Dean of St. Paul’s, John Colet, insisted upon wearing mournful black rather than the required scarlet; the image of Donne wrapped in his winding sheet, facing east to greet the rising Christ, is perhaps sufficiently theatrical. There is sensationalism, too, within the melancholia of his sermons. “Between that excrementall jelly,” he wrote, “that thy body is made of at first, and that jelly which thy body dissolves to at last; there is not so noysome, so putrid a thing in nature.”

It is all of a piece with Jacobean tragedy, and the sensational Gothic drama of the eighteenth-century London patent theatres. With such a distinguished ancestry it is perhaps not surprising that the most successful exhibition of contemporary English art was entitled, simply, “Sensation.”

When John Donne stood upon his urn, the knots of the winding sheet clutched in his hand, he might have been anticipating Thomas Browne’s Hy driotaphia,or Urne-Buriall in which, as Browne intimates elsewhere, “I perceive I doe Anticipate the vices of age, the world to mee is but a dreame or mockshow, and wee all therein but Pantalones and Antickes to my severer contemplations.” Thus “ ’tis all one to lie in St. Innocent’s Church-yard, as in the Sands of Aegypt: Ready to be anything, in the extasie of being ever, and as content with six foot as the Moles of Adrianus.” And so “The Iniquity of Oblivion blindly scattereth her poppy.” Browne was born in 1605, but he continued his life apparently undisturbed by the vagaries of civil war, Commonwealth and Restoration. He was educated at Winchester and at Oxford, where he learned six languages, but he pursued his real studies in anatomy and medicine. He practised as a doctor in Halifax but most notably in Norwich, during which period he completed his most celebrated and erudite work. He was an expert in witchcraft and delighted in scientific experiments of any kind. “All places, all airs, make unto me one Country,” he once wrote, “I am in England everywhere and under any Meridian.”

Here, then, are the makings of a wholly English measure—this gravity, this grandiloquence, this sombre rhetoric always in peril of decay and dissolution into its component parts. The melancholy imagination has of course also been associated with the movement of German romanticism but, under English skies, it takes on a wholly native hue. In particular the delight in demonstration, the vast expenditure of energy into words, characterises this prose; there is no ontology, or metaphysic, but rather the plangent chords of a dying fall. From the discovery of Anglo-Saxon urns at Old Walsingham in Norfolk Browne divagates widely into burial rites and obsequies in a style at once gay and learned, comic and erudite. He digresses, and follows an argument fitfully through imperfect logic; he adduces many examples and enlists many anecdotes so that the effect, like that of Burton and of Donne, is of a garishly lit stage with too many scenes and too many characters. Yet there is nobility even within the stage-fire. “Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible Sun within us. . . . Time which antiquates Antiquities . . . that duration, which maketh Pyramids pillars of snow, and all that’s past in a moment.” It is a great triumph of English literature, more substantial and enduring than “the heaviest stone that melancholy can throw at a man.”

Samuel Johnson admired Browne’s prose, despite its tendency to prolixity; the haunted, shambling, melancholic figure of Johnson swallowed great draughts of such recondite learning in the attempt to sublimate his own disturbed genius. It might be otiose to place him within “the strains of sentiment, gloomy sublimity and melancholia that became a feature of British cultural life from the mid-century”9 but in his company we can also see Laurence Sterne and Oliver Goldsmith. Johnson believed that he was growing melancholy mad and William Adams found him “in a desperate state, sighing, groaning, talking to himself and restlessly walking” up and down his chamber. In his diary for 18 September 1768 he wrote: “This day it came into my mind to write the history of my melancholy. On this purpose to deliberate. I know not whether it may not too much disturb me.” Like Cowper he believed himself to be in danger of being damned perpetually. He administered large doses of opium to himself in order to alleviate his mental and physical miseries. He wished to be confined and to be whipped, a predilection known upon the European continent as “the English disease.”


Stone portrait of John Donne in his shroud, St. Paul’s Cathedral, London

We may mark here the “melancholy poetry” of Richard Wilson’s eighteenth-century landscapes,10 which are not unconnected with that current of nostalgia which plays so large a part in English painting; it is as if the English were born looking backwards. Melancholy lies within Tennyson and Swinburne, A. E. Housman and Christina Rossetti:

God strengthen me to bear myself; That heaviest weight of all to bear, Inalienable weight of care

We hear it, too, within the music of Emily Brontë:

O for the time when I shall sleep Without identity, And never care how rain may steep Or snow may cover me!

In twentieth-century poetry it can be glimpsed within the mournful embarrassment of Philip Larkin and the bleakness of Ted Hughes. And yet from what does it spring? Many historians and scholars have favoured the English landscape as the fons et origo of melancholy.

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