I went to a therapist once who told me I was depressed. I had to take an exam with questions like, “Have you lost or gained fifteen pounds in the last six weeks?” and “Have you thought much about the past or the future?” Elaborating, she said that I had been clinically depressed—her adverb—for a couple of years, and that I had been suffering from mild depression for over two decades. But now a clinical depression. My very own. I’d always thought I’d get this kind of news in January, rain changing to sleet, streets treacherous, only the clinically depressed behind the wheel, everybody else happy in warm coffee shops, looking wistfully across the table at someone they loved. Instead, I got red and gold leaves and a blue October sky.
I don’t know what it is about this word “clinical,” except that it’s become a shibboleth for those who want to seem in the know about the treacheries of the human soul, and the term shows up at cocktail parties with hushed solemnity: “He’s clinically depressed,” someone will whisper, “and has been for years.” But why aren’t the clinically depressed in those clinics? And what are they doing at cocktail parties?
Here’s the problem, or part of it anyway: I once lost confidence in a marriage counselor who told me my marriage was suffering because, while a lot of people had looked over the edge of the cliff, I’d looked over the edge and literally jumped off. No need to explain why he thought I’d “literally jumped off the cliff”; it was the misuse of “literally” that bothered me. All I recall doing literally at the time was sitting in a green naugahyde captain’s chair and paying literally a lot of money to hear a man mangle the language. Linguistic elitism of the worst sort, of course, which makes everything in life a little more difficult than it needs to be. So maybe my concern about the clinical nature of my depression fell into the same category. Maybe my therapist, the one who diagnosed me as “clinical,” only meant that my sadness had become a habit, acute, and that it had begun to manage my life, like an animal trainer doling out commands: Don’t look forward to the future, my sadness barked, or Lower your self-esteem. Not so much clinical depression as habitual sadness. A language problem. Anyway, that’s how I dealt with it.
I also did some reading on the subject. I’ve been around books long enough to know that depression, or habitual sadness, or melancholy, or whatever you choose to call it, is an ancient malady that has traveled under a variety of names, and so, as any book lover might, I had a go at Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1628). I figured the historical dimension might lessen the gravity of what I was feeling, and besides, the editors of the edition I got from the library said the book was “always the delight of the wise and the curious,” and with my self-esteem bottoming out, I took pleasure in thinking of myself as wise and curious. And delighted too—delight was something I hadn’t experienced in a long time
The book is lengthy—the edition I consulted ran over 1,000 pages—and it is, as advertised, very anatomical in its dissection of melancholy. Bit by bit, piece by piece, melancholy is rendered, dissected, plucked, and analyzed, and much of the antidote of the book lies in the massive accomplishment of its prose style. But there’s a kind of organizational mania that pushes the syntax at times, even beyond what you might expect from the seventeenth century. It’s a compulsive book, too. One of its unspoken assumptions is that it might be possible to defeat melancholy by classifying it to death. So I found Anatomy unhelpful, partly because I don’t have the same faith in schemata that Burton did. I’m not living on the verge of the European Enlightenment and I’m not frantically excited by scientific inquiry in the way that Burton’s era was, and even though I don’t hold that against him or his era, it’s still one of those quiet little tragedies that closes the work off to me, no matter how much legwork in the secondary literature I might undertake. I gravitated toward the poetry that Burton quotes from liberally—I like that about the century; its writers still believed that poetry proved something—but then I realized he wasn’t reading the poems the way that I’d want him to read them, or the way, for example, that John Milton, roughly contemporary with Burton, would’ve read them, and so I lost faith in him as a reader and started being uncharitable toward the book in general. At which point, as therapy, it began to fail—a book that no one would have recommended as therapy anyway.
Except this. When he talks about sorrow, which he rightly calls one of the inseparable companions to melancholy, Burton offers up a paragraph that stopped me dead in my tracks. There I was, laid out in some detail nearly 400 years ago, one of the melancholics:
now in bed, they will rise, now up, then go to bed; now pleased, then again displeased; now they like, by and by dislike all, weary of all; now they desire to live, and now to die, saith Aurelianus, but most part they hate life; discontent, disquieted, perplexed, upon every light or no occasion, object: often tempted, I say, to make away themselves: they cannot die, they will not live. . . .
Me too. I had also logged a lot of time in bed, or rather, a lot of time getting in and out of bed, finding either station—huddled under the covers or wandering around the house—equally miserable. And although I’d recently dreamed that I shot myself behind our toolshed with my dog in attendance, I was convinced that I really couldn’t die of my own hand, that I didn’t have that implosive power within me. I worried about it because my father had killed himself, and my namesake, a distant relative on my mother’s side, was said to have done the same thing, so I wondered if I’d inherited a suicide gene. It was kind of like the four-minute mile: no one figured it was possible to run faster until Roger Bannister did it, and then everybody started doing it. My namesake had made suicide a possibility, and then my father, and then . . . But even if I didn’t really think I was capable of killing myself, I wasn’t living productively. A kind of limbo, in the popular jargon. That was where I was living.
I’d always been described as moody, a trait that seems to have descended from my mother’s side, although my father was a very heavy drinker, which leads me to wonder now if there wasn’t a bit of self-medication going on there as well. I began to have seizures in my late twenties, big ones, the kind they call grand mal. The seizures were always connected with drinking too much, and left me bloodied, exhausted, beaten up, and depressed. Most oddly, they left me hungry for reading and possessed of a peculiarly intense power of concentration. I had my last big one several years ago, and a couple of months passed before I’d fully recovered. During that time I read things on seizures, on epilepsy, on depression, on alcoholism, and on health concerns in general: physical, spiritual, psychic, dietary, the whole nine yards. I also reread William Styron’s treatise on his own near-fatal depression, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness. And then I read it again. And several times more. It was published in 1990, and I had seen it then as a happy reminder that I’d at least avoided his degree of debilitation, although the early symptoms of Styron’s illness I certainly shared. My symptoms, however, had gradually disappeared—which is fairly typical, as I learned from my reading.
So when my therapist told me I was clinically depressed I found myself reading Styron again, going through the mental checklist. Worse in the morning than in the evening (though Styron’s case was oddly reversed): check. Disruption of normal sleep patterns: check. Positive and active anguish: check. General absence of rational thought: check. And on and on, right down the list, stopping just short of rearranging my will in anticipation of taking my own life. So even though my therapist was on to something, I still hadn’t reached the depths that Styron had reached—he’d checked himself into a clinic, immobilized—and, against the advice of some of my friends, I read the book yet again, entranced by it, an old friend, as I had been the first time that I encountered it.
Styron claims that the disease is essentially indescribable, which complicates its diagnosis and treatment, but he came close to getting it right, and its rightness was therapeutic, particularly for someone like me who more often than not would confuse happiness with powerful phrasing: “pouncing seizures of anxiety,” “smothering confinement,” “merciless daily drumming,” “poisonous fogbank”—the catalogue could go on and on, but clearly the disease, its simple description at least, was well served by a writer of Styron’s caliber. The modern version of Burton’s massive treatise as well as an authentic anatomy of the illness, Styron’s little book forced me to acknowledge that I was indeed being visited by my own version of this simmering madness. And acknowledgment, of course, is the first step toward fashioning a remedy.
Everyone who has suffered from depression can point to a run of days when the illness seems to gather its forces for a final assault, like a hurricane gaining strength. The peculiar thing about depression, though, is that because it’s not typically recognized as the kind of illness that justifies telephoning the office and claiming your sick leave, sufferers are continually incapacitated by the situations they have to confront. They are comparable to what Styron calls the “walking casualty of a war, thrust into the most intolerable social and family situations.” I remember lying in bed one morning after a brutal and sleepless night. It was around this time that I’d dreamed of my suicide, and I’d been spending the coherent hours of the day preparing a lecture on human sexuality and the legal community that was to culminate in an examination of Oscar Wilde’s trial in 1895. I would’ve been a bit nervous about giving the lecture in the best of health, but as the hour of my performance approached—it was an early lecture—and as depression began its morning ritual of suffocating me, I felt for the first time that I might not be able to fulfill even the most fundamental requirement of my job, a requirement that, having prepared as thoroughly as I’d prepared, I would normally have undertaken with pleasure.
I don’t remember walking to the lecture hall, nor do I remember delivering the lecture. A colleague with whom I teach the course sat in the front row, and I recall looking at her once or twice. She appeared to be very far away, as if I were peering at her through the wrong end of a telescope—the visual component of depression’s power to isolate. My next memory is of sitting in my office—a five-minute walk from the lecture hall—utterly exhausted and numbed, listening to a student, again as if from a great distance, tell me how much she’d enjoyed what I had to say. To manufacture coherence from behind the podium, in front of sixty-five of the brightest students in the college, with that howling vortex in my head, had been a feat of debilitating accomplishment. I’d spoken for an hour and twenty minutes without knowing I was speaking. I’d kept the uncivil energies of my depression quarantined from my civilized performance, and the psychic energies that I’d unconsciously devoted to that task had left me weakened, broken, cooked. When the student left, I closed the door to my office, cut off the lights, and sat there for the remainder of the afternoon, some three hours, in the dark.
As my eyes adjusted to the cave light, I noticed a copy of Shakespeare’s sonnets on the table. I don’t know why, but I picked it up, and the book opened to 129 (“Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame / Is lust in action”), a famous one, all about passion and lust and the deep attraction of passion and lust, the huge price they exact from those of us who fall in their throes. It’s a sonnet full of advisory, storm-warning kind of stuff until the final clinching couplet: “All this the world well knows, but none knows well / To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.” With those two lines, mostly the brassy, mocking inevitability of them, I was suddenly back in Styron’s world, a victim of the “pouncing seizures of anxiety,” and noticing for the first time the deep analogy between “lust in action,” as Shakespeare’s phrase went, and the “pouncing . . . anxiety” of depression, s Styron had written. The simple helplessness that Shakespeare had felt as he faced the forces of lust, and as he realized that he would lose this battle, was precisely the same helplessness I faced as I tried to stare down my depression. Lust and depression, two emotional states seemingly far removed from one another—yet the victims of each, if they compared notes, would see both states for what they are: predators of human sanity. I read the sonnet continually throughout the afternoon, sitting stock-still in the dim light of my office.
Then I decided to memorize it, which upped the ante of my relationship to the poem, because now possession was the thing—every syllable, every word, every line I intended to commandeer and file away in my Interior Chamber of Memorized Stuff, hoping that the essential order of that Chamber would be modified or energized, if ever so slightly, by the new addition. I don’t know why I decided to do this, except that as I sat there mumbling through the poem the burden of the mumbled lines on the lip and tongue felt good, a pleasing weight, a physical pleasure that was drawing me out of myself. A sign of life, a literal embodying of the poem that issued directly from possessing the words and forming their sounds with the mouth, the lips, the tongue, the teeth.
As the days passed, I became familiar with the disease’s fundamental pattern of attack and formulated my defensive strategies accordingly. Depression is implosive, it’s all about destructive inaction, about systems gradually shutting down, and in its initial stages this period of implosion—recall the slow-motion films of a large building being destroyed by synchronized blasts—yields a pleasing predictability, a time during which the emotions seem channeled downward into darkness. Resigned to the coming depression, I was deeply stilled, as anyone might be when facing an unavoidable cataclysm, and I became more focused, even laser-like, for hours at a time, until the depression arrived in force and paralyzed me. With all the other cerebral engines stalled out, the one left blinking with life, the one I used for reading, was for the time being greatly strengthened—the kind of compensation that occurs in those who lose their sight, for example, and find their hearing greatly improved. I read more perceptively, more intensely, during these periods.
I knew that this intensity would soon be lost and that I’d be left stranded in the bleak weather of depression until it moved on, which it would invariably do—another lesson I’d learned through experience. But these intense bouts of concentration were the only boon that I associated with the illness, and because depression typically follows a circadian rhythm, these intervals of hyper-attention were typically available every day. I wasn’t ready, however, for what happened next: as the afternoon wore on in my office and my concentration intensified, and as I read the sonnet through this lucid interval, I gradually began to feel as if the poem possessed a certain knowledge of my depression and the way it had structured my life.
Of course I wondered if this wasn’t simply a depressive reading of the poem, pinched for time as I was, reading deeply, frantically, my perceptions intensifying while I awaited the fog that would render them impossible. The weight of the sonnet’s tradition, the old finery of Renaissance English as Santayana once called it, seemed gradually to smother the spontaneity of my responses as the afternoon proceeded. But still rumbling around somewhere deep within me, a suspicion began to take shape that the poem’s essential structure mirrored that of my illness. Depression might well produce a legitimate way of reading this poem, I thought, a methodology founded on the simple rhythm of the lucid interval—an ebb and flow of attention tied to the deeper revolutions of my body’s chemistry. And maybe my depressively aligned neuro-chemical radar was picking up a blip from the poem, the faint signal of a sympathetic structure within the sonnet. Clearly I was throwing my body at this poem by memorizing it. I think this accounts for the physical sensations I experienced when first reading the poem in my office. And these sensations became more pronounced as I committed the poem to memory.
But what was drawing me to this sonnet? I memorized it without knowing what the poem was really about, because I was treating it more as a musical score than a poem. This, I believe, was another symptom of my illness, and it created yet another way of reading that derived from depression. Maybe music—fluid, flexible, whether coming from a poem or a popular song or a symphony—could make inroads through depression’s gauzy filter more quickly than the spiky bulk of verbal reference, which required analysis and interpretation, the very same attention to meaning that required such an effort as the window of lucidity began to close. Perhaps the music of the poem bypassed all that and was being recorded unconsciously by the reptilian part of the brain that lies below depression, below rational thought, in the soup of human evolution; and maybe by keeping that reptile alive, by feeding it with Shakespeare’s music, I was resuscitating an essential energy that would eventually heal me. I don’t know. But I had Sonnet 129 memorized before I understood what it meant. And when I finally cruised the poem for paraphrasable content, I got a jolt.
What concerned me first was the sheer speed of the poem. Here’s the sonnet in its entirety; lines three through twelve are the ones that flew by at breakneck speed:
Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action, and till action, lust
Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoyed no sooner but despisèd straight,
Past reason hunted, and so sooner had,
Past reason hated as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad:
Mad in pursuit and in possession so,
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved a very woe,
Before, a joy proposed, behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows yet none knows well
To shun the heavens the leads men to this hell.
I remember feeling that afternoon in my office that the central part of the poem assaulted the dignity of the opening lines and necessitated the arch solemnity of the closing couplet. But it was the rapidity of the lines’ assault that impressed me, the acceleration of a vision sandwiched between two stolid statements at the beginning and the end of the sonnet. Hyper-sensations of speed and clarity sandwiched between slowness and torpidity—this was the structure I associated with my daily interval of lucidity and depression, and I was finding them represented in a 400-year-old poem. My initial suspicion was correct: the poem’s structure mirrored the structure of my illness.
I know, of course, that Sonnet 129 is not about depression. Yet
when I began to press the sonnet beyond its music and into a tangible
meaning, I found that I had begun to consider my own spasms of high-pressure
clarity in the same way that the sonnet considered lust and love-making:
as intensified bouts of human communication—one with a book,
the other with a lover—that arrived mysteriously, and just
as mysteriously departed, leaving its prey depleted, habituated
to its rhythms of coming and going, and looking anxiously
toward its next arrival. Lust, according to Shakespeare, followed its own tortured rhythm of advance and retreat, as did my sanity and my reading.
I remember how I was caught up short that afternoon by the fitness of the phrase “past reason hunted,” how it got just right the victim’s sense of being pursued by an unrelenting lust beyond the realm of reason and clarity. But the phrase also described my depression, pushed as I was beyond rationality, beyond stability. The more I read the poem, the more I became aware of its palimpsest, its shadow theme of despondency: exhausted lovers, stalled readers, waiting anxiously for the arrival of their consummation, and waiting dejectedly. Again, the speed of it all. What happens at the beginning of the second quatrain, and runs from there through the twelfth line, seems to me to defy rational analysis. Those eight lines are the particle accelerator of English verse, propelling their themes along the poem’s corridor at breakneck speed. Here is the entire blueprint of lust, from its destructive pursuit, through its annihilating capture and satisfaction, to its lacerating self-disgust, all of which—the hunting, the feeding, the hating—occurs “past reason,” a place I was coming to know well that afternoon, hidden away in my office, pursued by my own demons, and reading as if my very life depended on it.
Flatness, torpor, ennui pitched to the level of a general malaise: these were the symptoms I wrestled with—except during those daily intervals when I’d turn to my books with an unprecedented and scouring attention. Again, I sensed that depression or melancholy lurked in the sonnet as a kind of shadow theme or mirror image, and that as soon as lust’s storm had passed, the melancholy associated with its passing would arise again. Nightly, as the depression dropped its veil over my eyes, I found myself by degrees unable to concentrate, incapable of understanding what I was reading, until in the early hours of the morning a sedative would release me to sleep. But as the melancholy lover of the sonnet lived for those intervals when his lust would be given free rein, so I, in my depression, greedily anticipated each short spell of lucidity and the books I would devour. I gradually constructed a relationship between the lust that drove the sonnet and the single-minded focus that drove my reading. To my depressed mind, reading was a way of entering a vigorous and healthy mind, a way of finding wholeness through union with another. Reading had become erotic to me, the act, really, of bringing my body, torn with weakness, to the reading table. “In place of a hermeneutics,” Susan Sontag cried out in 1964, “we need an erotics of art.” I knew what she meant—I hadn’t realized the extent of my depression until I found its essential structure, its bodily form, mirrored in the sonnet.
As I fell under the sonnet’s spell that afternoon, its rhetorical figures slammed like a wrecking ball against my disease. The poem’s flow seemed to mimic the blitzkrieg advance and retreat of depression’s darkness and clarity, which deprive the victim of any measure of free will. Like lust, the lucidity that daily visited me when I was depressed was unrealistically intense; it moved me with equal efficiency and speed well past reasonable limits. I devoured and felt I deeply understood whatever I read: Nietzsche, Woolf, Shakespeare I loved without reservation, and so I found myself striking a lover’s bargain, content to wade through daily moroseness if given a regular taste, at least, of this super-attention to my books. In fact, these lucid intervals, continual and soon enough expected, became a sine qua non, and this was one of the illness’s victories, that it forced me to live under its expectations, planning on a future with depression as my sidekick in return for a few hours of preternatural clarity every day. It was a bargain I very nearly accepted.
Because the sonnet mirrored for me the structure of my depression, it also allowed me to externalize this elusive sickness and see it whole. Although it appeared seamless and all-encompassing, closer scrutiny revealed its joints and couplings, its own figures and patterns of debilitation, its own structure, its own limits. Its own limits—that was crucial. Observing the structural tensions of the sonnet from the inside, losing myself within its world, I felt strangely able to look back at my own illness as if it were another place, another environment, as those who land on the moon are able to look back at the earth. Swamped by the poem, I paradoxically saw the illness, and its simulacrum within Sonnet 129, as an artifice, a made thing—a product partly of some deep inner conflict, perhaps, but a product all the same, and therefore produced, artificial, and, like all made things, impermanent. There are of course biochemical imbalances that reading poetry cannot right, and I ultimately had to attend to those, but a conceptualization of the illness was crucial to my decision to seek help. Encountering my depression through this sonnet showed me the great mass of the illness, its off-the-scale specific gravity, its deep cunning. So that I knew I would need allies to defeat it.
I memorized the first two lines and the closing couplet almost immediately—they contain the decelerated, catechized pith of the poem. I think of them now as the two lighthouses on either shore of the treacherous passage that lies between them. I have navigated this passage, and nearly lost sight of the beacons. Anyone who has suffered through this illness knows of these moments. That I had the most difficulty memorizing the intervening ten lines comes as no surprise now—these were the lines of my life, mimicking in aesthetic form the deepest and most troubled motions of my interior world. The thing about aesthetic form, though, is that once it is achieved, no matter the horror of its manifestation, the demon impetus has momentarily been stilled, and once it is stilled, renovation can begin. Even to conceive of an aesthetic form of depression will seem abominable to those who have suffered from it, but the illness is very like a living pathogen that will fight for its own destructive life when confronted with a curative force. In my case the curative force was partly creative, and penetrating those ten lines by memorizing them was tantamount to understanding them, telling them, in effect, that they and the illness they represented would someday be comprehended and their difficulties resolved because I had come to recognize their innermost workings. I believe that the sickness within me resisted my efforts at committing these lines to memory, to stability, to comprehension, because this, symbolically at least, signaled a limit to their mysterious endurance.
As I write, our town is under siege from the north: low, gray clouds, muscular winds gusting to 40 mph, temperatures diving into the single digits and below, snow and ice already fallen, with a dire promise of more on the way. Dire, because that’s not what we’re used to here in Arkansas ten days out from Christmas. It seems years since I first learned of my very own depression on that ravishingly gorgeous October day, and now that I’m beginning to feel the first signs of its lifting, the weather seems small-minded and vindictive to settle in with such abnormal ferocity. Perhaps attending to such things signals my returning health. It’s too soon to tell. But even with the wind pounding the eaves of our house, making a horrible ruckus, I just heard the wind chimes that we hung on one of those eaves when we moved here back in July.
It occurs to me that I hadn’t noticed their delicate music in a very long time.
Sidney Burris has published two books of poems along with a book of criticism on Seamus Heaney’s poetry. His poems and essays have appeared in The Atlantic, Poetry, The Georgia Review, The Southern Review, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Five Points, and elsewhere. He has also had work reprinted in Best American Poetry. The current essay is part of a book-length manuscript that chronicles the many ways reading has shaped his life. (10/2005).