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Four Walls

A psychiatrist’s view of poetry and poets.
Introduction

When I left the world of academic English literature it was not because I was any less passionate about poetry, but because I did not want to spend my life operating on my friends.

When I left the world of academic English literature it was not because I was any less passionate about poetry, but because I did not want to spend my life operating on my friends. I thought I might kill them. Later I learned of Ted Hughes’s dream about the fox that came to him, singed and smelling of burnt hair, put its paw on the essay he was writing, leaving a bloody mark, and said, “You are destroying us.”

Poetry engraves itself in the brain: it doesn’t just slip smoothly over the cortex as language normally does. It has all the graininess of life, as it rips into being from deep within the limbic system, the ancient seat of awareness and affective meaning. Sometimes this is most obvious in a foreign language, because there the smooth, familiar words recede, and the sheer awesomeness of what is meant comes refreshed by the new encounter. As a child I was bewitched by the poems of Heine that my father would recite to me while shaving. Im Abendsonnenschein . . . I remember thinking then that the real word for sunshine was Sonnenschein. So, too, something seemed missing when things disappeared: they only truly disappeared when they were verschwunden. This is odd because my father was a Scot and my mother English. It seems like a sort of latent knowledge.

Although I have favorite periods for music and painting, I do not for poetry. Poetry can occur anywhere there are words, even in daily life. After twenty years I still remember the response of a psychotic patient of mine when asked to distinguish between a river and a canal. Without hesitation he responded: “A River is Peace, a Canal is Torment,” a line worthy of Blake. The forging of unusual links—metaphor—in which poetry resides depends on the right hemisphere of the brain, where the overall meaning of language, rather than mere syntax and semantics, is appreciated. It is here, too, in the right hemisphere, that experience is fresh, truly present, not pre-digested into re-presentation.

In adulthood I have found that many of my favorite male poets had a history of mental illness—Blake, Hölderlin, Smart, Cowper, Clare, Hopkins; and, interestingly, each of my favorite female poets—Dickinson, Plath, Charlotte Mew, Stevie Smith—had a history of either mental illness or ambivalent sexuality, or both. Quite apart from the fact that such experience may prove fertile ground for poetry, I wonder if this—and the astonishing prevalence of depression in general amongst poets—points to an anomalous lateralization of brain function, with a right hemisphere bias at the phenomenological level.

In practice as a psychiatrist, listening to the voice of suffering, I find myself often recurring to certain specific lines. Hardly a day goes by when I do not think of Wilfrid Gibson’s “the heart-break in the heart of things.” And how Larkin understood regret:

Truly, though our element is time,
We are not suited to the long perspectives
Open at each instant of our lives.
They link us to our losses.

But the sheer terror of depression is for me embodied in the last stanza of Cowper’s “The Castaway”—“No voice divine the storm allayed, / No light propitious shone”—or his half-crazed

Me miserable! how could I escape
Infinite wrath and infinite despair!
Whom Death, Earth, Heaven, and Hell consigned to ruin,
Whose friend was God, but God swore not to aid me!

I myself have suffered with depression, and I remember feeling that the only way I could convey how I felt was through some lines by Hölderlin, who spent the last years of his life in an insane asylum. After two stanzas in which he recounts the blissful eternal life of the gods in Elysium, the poem turns:

But to us who suffer,
       to mankind, it is given
             to have no place to rest,
                 blindly we falter and fall
                        from one hour to the next,
                           like water that’s tossed
                                  from cliff to cliff, down
                                        the years into the unknown.

Ivor Gurney’s searing poem “To God” was a later discovery, which should be compulsory reading for every psychiatrist. It seems to me to have everything there is to say about psychotic depression, and the utter powerlessness in the face of some brutal force that such patients experience. It is a salutary reminder never to play into that feeling by attempts to help, however well-meaning:

Why have you made life so intolerable
And set me between four walls.

His last words send a chill down my spine, passing, like my father’s German verses, Housman’s shaving test:

Gone out every bright thing from my mind.
All lost that ever God himself designed.
Not half can be written of cruelty of man, on man.
Not often such evil guessed as between Man and Man.

  • Iain McGilchrist is a Quondam Fell of All Souls College, Oxford, where he researched and taught English literature, and a former consultant psychiatrist and clinical director at the Bethlem Royal and Maudley Hospital, London. He works privately in London.

Prose from Poetry Magazine

Four Walls

A psychiatrist’s view of poetry and poets.
  • Iain McGilchrist is a Quondam Fell of All Souls College, Oxford, where he researched and taught English literature, and a former consultant psychiatrist and clinical director at the Bethlem Royal and Maudley Hospital, London. He works privately in London.

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