Our love resembles Lazarus.
Despite what fate has done to us,
Our love comes back from the dead!
You can say yes if when you said, ‘no,’
You only said ‘no’ in your head.

Our love resembles Lazarus.
Love was dead
Without breath or bread.
Now it lives again in us.

Our love resembles Lazarus.
We say, “I hate you! We’re through!”
But I love when we do,
Because that’s when we kiss even more.
Lazarus picks himself off the floor
And love becomes famous, and goes on tour,
And sells more kisses than ever before.




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.


I currently have two songs stuck in my head at once: We Didn’t Start The Fire by Billy Joel and Have You Seen Her? by the Chi-Lites.

“We didn’t start the fire, it was always burning since the world’s been turning” goes immediately into “why oh why, did she have to leave and go away?”  Over and over again.  Someone please help me.

These two songs are joined at the hip in my brain.  I can’t dislodge them.  Even listening to Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier last night did nothing to help.

The Joel song, which I dislike, entered my brain first.  I was driving my son to school and from the car radio I heard the first strains of the song (which I hate) and announced, “Oh my God, this is We Didn’t Start the Fire…I hate this song…”  and with impish glee the boy, who has been diagnosed with ADHD but strangely misses nothing around him, quickly said, “No, no, don’t turn it…”  By the time I found myself explaining to him some of the history references in the song, it was too late: Song You Hate Stuck In Your Head had happened.

I don’t know where the Chi-Lites song came from.  I can’t remember the last time I heard it.  A day after the Billy Joel song became a fixture in my auditory cortex the falsetto phrase from Have You Seen Her?, “why oh why, did she have to leave and go away?” inserted itself right after “we didn’t start the fire, it was always burning since the world’s been turning” and so has it remained in my frontal lobe loop: “We didn’t start the fire, it was always burning since the world’s been turning…why oh why, did she have to leave and go away?”

Imagine my pain and torture.  Not only are two songs in my head, one of which I hate, the other—which I only like a little, but is nothing like the first, and which grows bizarrely from the one I dislike—but I am beset with figuring out why the second song attached itself to the first.   Was it some failed attempt to escape the Joel song by another?  Are the two songs related in some intricately musical manner that escapes me?  Are the lyrics of the second song trying to say something to the first?  Did I once, on some day long since forgotten, hear both songs in sequence?

There is something post-modern about this kind of suffering, but it perhaps also represents a challenge to all composers and poets: the writer’s block which afflicts us is not a blank page—the blank page would be a welcome state of things—the affliction comes in the form of a page already full of experiences, a brain full of words, words, words and tunes, tunes, tunes, a fecundity overwhelming all originality.

Or, is the clutter a gift, the very stuff of creativity?  Looking through others’ trash is a boon to the imagination, is it not?

But how in the world can trash stuck in your head allow anything worthy to emerge?

How often do we meet very skilled and talented people who can play and recall and recite all sorts of information, but find it utterly impossible to create something new themselves?

Is there a faculty, a capacity, a knack, to resist data, to not remember things, and is this faculty or knack a crucial component of creativity?

Is there a faculty or a knack some of us possess to escape the pit of catchy music, the pendulum of knowing and clever pedantry?

Is knowledge the escape from knowledge?

Is imagination the escape from the imagined?

Is seeing the escape from the seen?

%d bloggers like this: