Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Melancholy Baby

Day 43 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project.

Today, and since last night, I am feeling a little melancholy. The spring itself is joyous--the sunshine, temps in the 60s, birds and animals out, dogs barking at the new smells, etc.--but perhaps the shift to the new season, or the energy it takes to shift, creates this other, poignant mood.

So I'll tell you that Beth is reading "Ode on Melancholy" by John Keats, and two other poems with a strain of melancholy in them, for a poetry discussion tonight. Her discussion group is also reading T. S. Eliot's "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," and that's melancholy with its yellow fog and whispering women, doubts and regrets, mermaids singing. So is Walt Whitman's "Facing West from California's Shores," even with its "very pleased and joyous moment," as it's about traveling the world and not finding, or quite remembering, what one set out to discover.

And melancholy is one of those mixed emotions, isn't it? The sadness is dominant, but the sweetness is underlying. I think of Abraham Lincoln's melancholy. 2009 was a big Lincoln year, especially here in Illinois, and I am still halfway through Team of Rivals, which I want to finish 1) before the movie comes out and 2) before I start The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage, by the poet Daniel Mark Epstein, whose book Lincoln and Whitman: Parallel Lives in Civil War Washington I very much enjoyed. I'm also a loyal reader of Epstein's poetry because he's a Kenyon College alum, like me!

Some years ago, I had my Lincoln College students read an excerpt from Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled his Greatness by Joshua Wolf Shenk. I heard Doris Kearns Goodwin speak, and she does like that more open term, melancholy, to describe Lincoln's famous sadness. She prefers it to the clinical-sounding "depression." The discussion of the medications of the time in the Shenk book and Atlantic excerpt fascinated my college students, as several of them were also medicated on our more modern drugs; in Lincoln's day getting treated for ailments might add lead poisoning to the list of troubles!

Biographies and memoirs are particularly good at exploring strains of sadness in our lives. Paulette is now reading Hermione Lee's thick biography of Edith Wharton. I have been reading it, too, slowly, and my bookmark in it is in roughly the same spot as my bookmark in A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates, by Blake Bailey--that is, about a quarter of the way through each. I can report that one summer, reading a number of things at the same time, I made it all the way through Cynthia Griffin Wolff's thick biography of Emily Dickinson. I think what happens is that I encounter a rough spot in someone else's life...and just can't get past it...but I must, as I am reading to learn how to be human.

And Michael and Kay, who sometimes read the same book at the same time, took up Half Broke Horses, a "true-life novel," by Jeanette Walls, after reading her memoir The Glass Castle.

Tonight I'll be attending a poetry reading by David Baker, who is poetry editor of The Kenyon Review. It's poetry, so I imagine I'll encounter a bit of melancholy there...but perhaps in the way that blues music relieves by giving voice to the blues...


Susan said...

I am feeling melancholy too. I had not considered the seasonal shift as a potential culprit...

I have never been a great fan of biographies (although my son just loves them). I would like to read a biography of Emily Dickinson, even if it *is* a hefty tome.

Every time I read your blog, I end up adding another half-dozen books to my mental "to read" list. I shall never live long enough to read them all!!

noblesavage said...

So the question is: Are we programmed for nostalgia?

In "Ode on Melancholy" Keats compresses much of our artistic ideal of art into the line "She dwells in Beauty - Beauty that must die," placing at the core of our aesthetic our own vanishing, and the vanishing of our object of contemplation and longing. Likewise, Whitman's longing comes at the end of the continent. Eliot's in the wake of the collapse of the Christian imperial system, the remade (and to him, cheapened) world they called "modernity."

There is, of course, something banal here: Life and language only have meaning because we are finite creatures -- otherwise our experience is an undifferentiated whole, bereft of necessity (since everything will eventually happen.) But there is also the whole of our experience, which requires loss.

Interesting that you should feel this with the loss of winter, the season of death, and the onset of spring, the season of renewal. Perhaps that signifies its goodness and power too -- the sense of loss, if you will a weight of incompleteness, inarguable finitude even while there is an intimation of the eternal, gives us depth. It is a great source of rhetorical power for Lincoln, and guides his decisions.

The promise of "no depression" and constant springtime in our highly medicated age -- thanks to the Internet, a culture of the eternal now, in which everything seems connected and nothing seems lost -- may in this sense make us an adolescent culture. I miss nostalgia.

Kathleen said...

Thanks, you two. I don't mind melancholy, really--I just note it. It comes and goes. I sort of live in nostalgia and ecstasy and melancholy, blended or alternating, and sometimes in routine.

I have a poem called "Nostalgia" and was re-reading it this morning, as it is part of a chapbook manuscript I am getting ready to send out. I have no idea whether it will hold its line breaks and indentations here as a comment:


--Winslow Homer, For to Be a Farmer’s Boy (1887)

People remember the past as sweeter

than it was, the way the sky

had pink madder, chrome yellow,

and traces of vermilion

over the pumpkin patch and its blue

blooming weed, and is now

empty and white.

But it is now
empty and white
and it used to be pinker,

whether twilight or dawn.

This was based on the painting as shown in the Homer/Hopper show at the Art Institute in Chicago not too long ago, and the information that the colors had indeed faded.

Are we programmed for nostalgia? Interesting question. And a fine one to come from a Noble Savage!

Kathleen said...

Hmm, well the line breaks held, but not the spacing. Still something of the feel of it comes through.

This was published in Ekphrasis, Vol. 4, No. 6, Fall/Winter 2008, which should be credited!

Paulette said...

I know that The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is melancholy but the language is so delicious that that poem actually always makes me happy . . . there's also something I very much like about roaming around in the fog knowing that perhaps a warm fire waits at the end . . . p.s. I just got through the Decoration of Houses chapter of Ms. Wharton's bio. In her wake, she's leaving a long list of books I need to add to the already long list . . .including Ruskin and some of the travel memoirs Ms. Wharton loved . . .

Kathleen said...

Paulette, I remember that section of the book and being amazed by the whole interior decoration, architecture, and travel hunk of her writings...and likewise Henry James...but then it made sense, in the fiction written by both, that setting is always so detailed and carefully set out! Another thing that amazed me was how these two writers did ghost stories!