I have never understood the American obsession with happiness. It is not happiness that etches us with character but sadness. John Keats (1795-1821), the English poet, understood this. In 1819, suffering from depression, he wrote a poem in praise of it, which he called an Ode on Melancholy.
No, no, go not to Lethe, neither twist
Wolf’s-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;
Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kiss’d
By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine;
Make not your rosary of yew-berries,
Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be
Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl
A partner in your sorrow’s mysteries;
For shade to shade will come too drowsily,
And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.
In the first stanza he recommends us not to attempt suicide, not to reject and try and forget our depression, and not to wallow in our own misery, because depression comes as a shadowy presence that can take away our state of anguished alertness, our awareness of the depth of our suffering: “For shade to shade will come too drowsily, and drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.” Better to be alert and aware of our suffering than be dead and feel nothing at all.
In the second stanza Keats tells us that following the onset of depression, “when the melancholy fit shall fall sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud”, we should try to overwhelm our sorrow with natural beauty.
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;
Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,
Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,
Or on the wealth of globed peonies;
Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,
Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,
And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.
He explains his recommendation in the third stanza where he shows that joy and sadness are inextricably linked because of the ephemeral nature of joy. Sadness is present in every joy: “Ay, in the very temple of Delight Veil’d Melancholy has her Sovran shrine”.
She dwells with Beauty–Beauty that must die;
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:
Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine;
His soul shalt taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.
Unlike most therapists and counselors today, Keats is not recommending distraction as a cure for depression, rather he is recommending enjoying depression’s intensity and so by contrast, causing beauty to seem that much more beautiful. While we may not want to experience sadness, to be a trophy on melancholy’s wall, it is essential if we also want to experience real joy. Like many artists Keats used the negative energy from his own depression and channeled it into creativity, writing most of his work while depressed. This is exactly the approach that Tom Wootton recommends in his book The Depression Advantage:
“It was the misery of depression that brought me to the realization that I am mentally ill. The unbearable pain is what helped me to recognize the torture I have done to others. Without the heartache, I would never have learned who I really am, and come to understand the power of acceptance. Without the despair, I would not have had the desire to become a better person…Every great change in my life was precipitated by insights gained during depression. Depression has served the function of changing my life for the better.”
Wootton draws on the experiences of the saints, Teresa of Avila, Anthony, John of the Cross and Francis of Assisi, to show how they also channeled extreme physical and mental pain into blissful states and productive lives.
The current American preoccupation with happiness devoid of sorrow breeds blandness and an ignorance of life’s enduring polarities. I certainly don’t mean to romanticize depression but without sorrow and suffering gnawing at our life and ambushing our hopes and dreams, we cannot hope to become fully formed human beings. As Keats wrote to his brother George, “Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul?”