A contemporary poet would naturally reply to the title of our essay:
“The melancholic is not necessarily poetic. A poem can be any mood it wants, and could just as well avoid all moods.”
True, and the Victorian parlor is frozen since the door was opened to Modernism’s blast.
“Poetry is an escape from emotion,” said T.S. Eliot with ice-cold breath, and yet, adding with human emotion, “but of course only those who have emotions…know what it means to want to escape from these things.”
T.S. Eliot was no Language Poet. T.S. Eliot was no black hole of sarcasm. T.S. Eliot may even have had a pulse once; historically speaking, the lofty ceiling of Romanticism trembled not far behind him.
Can’t we hear the melancholy in this? “to want to escape from these things.”
“To identify all serious occupation of the mind with sadness.” So wrote the 20th century scholar of culture, Johan Huizinga, of the Middle Ages, and one either instinctively grasps this idea, or, like the grinning imbecile, does not.
If poetry is an escape from a “serious occupation of the mind,” is the poet a mere court jester, and should T.S. Eliot be best remembered for his light verse?
Surely the poet is the one who ponders the rose before he laughs at it, and if pondering leads to poetry, a certain melancholy turn of mind cannot help but be present, if only indirectly, if only in composition’s atmosphere, if not in the merry poem itself.
If mortality’s highest efforts in the realm of mind always partake of mortality’s nature, which includes an awareness of death, how can melancholy not participate, and if it does, is it a sting, or a cushion?
“Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought,” said the Romantic, Percy Shelley, and this counter-intuitive truth is not far from Eliot’s irony: poetry is an escape from emotion—yet only those who feel will know what it is like to want to escape from emotion.
There is definitely a difference between crushed by sorrow and coming to grips with something that is sad and doing so with an excess of emotion—that is yet kept under control.
The latter is what we are trying to articulate: a true poet’s melancholy temperament.
Romanticism’s melancholy was transformed into Victorianism’s tears; Modernism’s stare was transformed into Post-Modernism’s burst of laughter.
Rembrandt’s chiaroscuro of melancholy genius passes through rococo and impressionism and eventually lands on Rothko’s imbecility of bright colors—and yet, Rembrandt used bright colors as contrast to his shadow, and any fan of Rothko will protest that in those bright colors is infused a sly, primitive darkness.
Before the reader dismisses our Melancholy Argument as weak or random, let them think on their favorite poems and fictional passages and wonder at how melancholy inevitably tinges them.
The poetic is melancholy, but it begs the question: how do poets express the melancholy? We refer to a way of living, a way of thinking and being, not simply a description of sad events.
To sensitive souls who seek peace, sometimes the melancholy imagination provides a canopy.
To be more practical: we can be melancholy by using trochaic verse:
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary
Here is the puzzle of Poe solved: accused of being both too icily mathematical and too emotionally morbid, we see how Poe’s genius fuses two opposite traits—in the joyful/sad verse of rhythmic mathematics.
I don’t think many contemporary poets even realize how one-dimensional and emotionally blank their elaborate prose is—despite the complexity of its content.
The French medieval poet Eustache Deschamps has a ballade that begins “The stag was very proud of his swiftness” and the stanza ends, “The snail will get to Easter just as soon.”
Is “The snail will get to Easter just as soon” a melancholy trope? Perhaps not, but it’s certainly not a chest-beating one, and the devotional, wise tone is much closer to melancholy than any other mood we can think of.
Melancholy attends the devotional, the thoughtful, the august, the contemplative—even as contemporary poets want to escape from these things.