Potent Poetry, by Juliet Barclay
Posted by
13th May 2014

It can be hard to read when you’re depressed. In fact, it can be hard to do anything at all. The effects of the illness range from rank terror accompanied by strong physical symptoms, to a deadening misery that feels as though you’re wading through chilled molasses. When in extremis, all you can do is rest, but when the fog begins to lift a little it can be enormously healing to focus on words, and particularly on poetry. 

Reading poems, or having them read aloud to you, can do much to arrest the pernicious spiral of negative thought that characterises depression. Both the pleasure of well-chosen words, and the images and messages they conjure up, have the power to derail depressing reflections.

Those of us who grapple with the tedium, frustration and despair of this horrible illness know how useful it can be to reconnect with the present moment and achieve some sort of perspective in the midst of the mental maelstrom. Powerfully descriptive poetry can sweep you out of reach of the Scylla and Charybdis of negativity and rumination. It can pilot you into the calm waters of delicious fantasy or heightened reality – or even amusement, for depressives usually manage to retain their senses of humour, even though their usual responsiveness may temporarily be dimmed by anxiety or unhappiness.

Poetry is a marvellous addition to one’s mental toolkit; it’s useful to learn verses that capture your imagination and give you pleasure, for there’s nothing quite like the way they bubble up at the right moments to provide solace, enjoyment or the intensification of feeling that comes when remembered words underline and heighten one’s present experience. In dark and difficult times you can travel numerous word-paths to relief and delight.

You can become lost in fantasy:

O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you.
She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate-stone
On the fore-finger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomies
Athwart men’s noses as they lie asleep.
Her chariot is an empty hazel-nut
Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,
Time out o’ mind the fairies’ coachmakers.
Her wagon-spokes made of long spinners’ legs,
The cover of the wings of grasshoppers,
The traces of the smallest spider’s web,
The collars of the moonshine’s watery beams… 

You can be transported to distant climes:

Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine. 

You could be encouraged to continue to plough what can feel like a lonely furrow, until you are joined in it by the poet:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference. 

You may be brought vividly into contact with the ecstasy of reality:

Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes…
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting… 

Sometimes you have an electrifying realisation of your self:

I celebrate myself and sing myself…
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems…
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books, You shall not look through my eyes either...

You might be amused and revolted by a rollicking historical rhyme:

Corinna wakes. A dreadful Sight!
Behold the Ruins of the Night!
The Crystal Eye, alas, was miss’t;
And Puss had on her Plumpers p---t. 

Or gloriously challenged by the beauties of nature:

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day…
Tell me, what is it you plan to do,
with your one wild and precious life?

Or be wryly amused:

You cannot hope
to bribe or twist,
thank God! the
British journalist.
But, seeing what
the man will do
unbribed, there’s
no occasion to. 

And whether or not you have read, you can also write. There are few creative consolations so powerful as that of savouring your own well-chosen words assembled like a pleasing jigsaw on the page. If you can muster the energy, the very attempt connects you with a mindful concentration that dispels the darkness of depression and reminds you of your own intrinsic characteristics, and power, and identity:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.


Quotations from:

Romeo & Juliet, Act I Scene IV, by William Shakespeare

Cargoes by John Masefield

The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost

Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

Song of Myself by Walt Whitman

A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed by Jonathan Swift

The Summer Day by Mary Oliver

The British Journalist by Humbert Wolfe

Invictus by William Ernest Henley

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