Keats on Depression and the Mightiest Consolation for a Heavy Heart
By Maria Popova
“One feels as if one were lying bound hand and foot at the bottom of a deep dark well, utterly helpless,” Van Gogh described depression in a stirring letter to his brother. “The gray drizzle of horror induced by depression takes on the quality of physical pain,” William Styron wrote a century later in his classic masterwork giving voice to the soul-malady so many of us have suffered silently.
Before Styron, even before Van Gogh, the great Romantic poet John Keats (October 31, 1795–February 23, 1821) painted an uncommonly lifelike portrait of the malady throughout his Selected Letters (public library) — the indispensable volume that gave us Keats on what gives meaning to human existence, how solitude opens up our channels to truth and beauty, and his exquisite love letter to Fanny Brawne.
Keats’s brief life was savaged by periodic onslaughts of depression, for which he found a salve in creative work. “Life must be undergone,” he wrote to his closest friend, “and I certainly derive a consolation from the thought of writing one or two more Poems before it ceases.”
In May 1817, Keats confides in the artist Benjamin Haydon, who had just cast the young poet’s life mask and who would later succumb to depression himself, taking his own life at the age of sixty, having outlived Keats by a quarter century:
At this moment I am in no enviable Situation — I feel that I am not in a Mood to write any to day; and it appears that the loss of it is the beginning of all sorts of irregularities… You tell me never to despair — I wish it was as easy for me to observe the saying — truth is I have a horrid Morbidity of Temperament which has shown itself at intervals — it is I have no doubt the greatest Enemy and stumbling block I have to fear — I may even say that it is likely to be the cause of my disappointment. How ever every ill has its share of good — this very bane would at any time enable me to look with an obstinate eye on the Devil Himself… I feel confident I should have been a rebel Angel had the opportunity been mine.
The following spring, an even darker cloud of despair enveloped the poet. His now-iconic poem Endymion — which opens with the famous, buoyant line “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever” — was published to scathing reviews. One of his brothers suffered a violent hemorrhage. Another announced his abrupt plan to marry and emigrate to America. This swarm of instability and the attacks upon his primary psychological survival mechanism plunged Keats into a deep depression. Long before the clinical profession and the modern memoirist made the illness their material, Keats describes it exquisitely in a letter to his closest confidante, Benjamin Bailey:
I have this morning such a Lethargy that I cannot write — the reason of my delaying is oftentimes from this feeling — I wait for a proper temper — Now you ask for an immediate answer I do not like to wait even till tomorrow — However I am now so depressed I have not an Idea to put to paper — my hand feels like lead — and yet it is an unpleasant numbness it does not take away the pain of existence —
Nearly two centuries before scientists began illuminating how body and mind intertwine in mental health, Keats adds:
My intellect must be in a degenerating state — it must be for when I should be writing about god knows what I am troubling you with Moods of my own Mind or rather body — for Mind there is none.
With the cool, helpless lucidity of the depressed, he recognizes that the darkness is temporary — that when it finally lifts, one is left asking oneself, in the words of another great poet, “What hurt me so terribly all my life until this moment?” — and yet the recognition, in depression’s cruelest twist, fails to serve relief:
I am in that temper that if I were under Water I would scarcely kick to come to the top — I know very well ’t is all nonsense. In a short time I hope I shall be in a temper to feel sensibly your mention of my Book — in vain have I waited till Monday to have any interest in that or in any thing else. I feel no spur at my Brothers going to America and am almost stony-hearted about his wedding. All this will blow over — all I am sorry for is having to write to you in such a time — but I cannot force my letters in a hot bed…
One beam of lucid light punctures the inky fog of inner desolation — one point of recognition does bring relief:
There is a comfort in throwing oneself on the charity of ones friends — ’t is like the albatross sleeping on its wings —
“I could not live without the love of my friends,” Keats writes in another letter. And indeed, it is in a letter to his dearest friend that he articulates the mightiest — perhaps the only — antidote to depression. More than a century before Styron himself, at Keats’s age, located happiness and the respite from despair in the capacity for presence, the despairing poet writes:
You perhaps at one time thought there was such a thing as Worldly Happiness to be arrived at, at certain periods of time marked out — you have of necessity from your disposition been thus led away — I scarcely remember counting upon any Happiness — I look not for it if it be not in the present hour — nothing startles me beyond the Moment. The setting sun will always set me to rights — or if a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existence and pick about the Gravel.
Complement this fragment of Keats’s thoroughly rewarding Selected Letters with Tchaikovsky on depression and finding beauty amid the wreckage of the soul, Tim Ferriss on how he survived suicidal depression, Nietzsche on depression and the rehabilitation of hope, and Jane Kenyon’s transcendent poem about life with and after depression, then revisit pioneering sleep researcher Rosalind Cartwright on how REM sleep mitigates our negative moods.
Published June 13, 2019