Saturday, March 13, 2010

"But when the Melancholy fit shall fall..."

Do not chide yourself if the oscar-nominated period drama (for best costumes) Bright Star did not make it onto your movie-going radar. The bio-pic by the acclaimed director, Jane Campion, is about the last years of the life of the romantic poet John Keats and his relationship with the fashion designer (the label "seamstress" is diminutive in every sense) Fanny Brawne.

Don't add it to your netflix cue if romantic period dramas laced with lyric verse are not your thing. I have to be in the mood for them myself (perhaps because life is a period drama, and I never want for poetry). I found Bright Star engaging from the start and affecting for all of its one hundred and twenty minutes. The seemingly requisite slow pace was balanced by shaded performances from the lead characters, Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish, with the poetry perfectly placed within the literate but unpretentious screenplay (also by Campion). And among other virtues, the costumes were award-worthy.

Keats tragically early death (1795-1821) all but enshrined the idea of lyric poet as romantic hero (or antihero). And no one has made melancholy sound more seductive.

In his 25 years, he left not an insignificant number of poems that epitomize the romantic idiom. "On first looking into Chapman's Homer," the sonnet "When I have fears that I may cease to be" (effectively used in the film), and the series of Odes are all benchmarks. "The Ode to a Nightingale" is one of the greatest lyric poems in the English language, and Keats musical diction literally sings itself off the page. The subject heading of this post is from the "Ode to Melancholy," which closes thus:

She dwells with Beauty--Beauty that must die;
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; aching Pleasure nigh,
Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:
Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil'd Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy's grape against his palate fine;
His soul shall taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.

I love the vividness of that image--the "strenuous tongue" that "can burst Joy's grape." Behind its immediate sensuousness is hidden the essence of melancholy, and its active, life-affirming polar opposite. Though I loathe the generic quality of the diagnosis "bipolar," the "manic-depressive" poles of such a temperament are vividly depicted in Keats poem.

As one such temperamental artist, I have been interested in, fascinated with, & perplexed/confounded by melancholy ever since I was aware of its existence in my own being.

Bright Star was but one recent encounter with melancholy. John Donne's religious sonnets deal with, among other things, its "holy discontent," and its extreme manifestation as despair. I recently sang Britten's setting of Sonnet III, "O might those sighs and teares returne againe" as a Lenten offertory at church. Britten's music is as charged as Donne's language:

"Th'Hydroptique drunkard and night-scouting thiefe,
The itchy Lecher and self-tickling proud
Have the remembrance of past joys
For reliefe of coming ills.
To poore me is allowed no ease."

The Chorale offered Williametta Spencer's arresting setting of Donne's "At the Round Earth's Imagined Corners" last weekend [see previous posts on that concert, and older posts on Britten & our ongoing Britten Project]. Earlier this week I read a thoughtfully provocative (if more confessional than even I prefer) article in Poets & Writers by William Giraldi.

"The Art of Reading John Donne" centers around the poet's melancholy, his "holy discontent" (also from Sonnet III), and how melancholy can be used as its own medicine ("since I am myself my own fever and pain" as the Purcell song puts it).

"How does reading about Donne's near despair better prepare me to deal with my own? Because, as Milton puts it, 'things of melancholic hue and quality are used against melancholy, sour against sour.'

Besides Keats, he cites other poets "acquainted with grief" whose melancholy temperaments are inextricably linked with the poetry they produced. Joining Milton & Donne, Keats & Byron, are (among others in every artistic genre) Hopkins, Dickinson, and Rilke.

In an altogether different article on melancholy in the March 1 New Yorker, Louis Menand writes about psychotherapy and medicine, and how we view and treat depression. One of the recent books he reviews, Gary Greenberg's Manufacturing Depresson, takes aim at what the author sees as the blatant overinflation of the number of victims of major depression (estimated at over 14 million Americans).

"Greenberg thinks that numbers like these are ridiculous-not because people aren't depressed but because, in most cases, their depression is not a mental illness. It's a sane response to a crazy world."

Among the many musical responses, none more directly addresses personality types than Carl Nielsen's second symphony. The Four Temperaments is a symphony whose "four movements are built on the concept of the four human character types: the impetuous, the indolent, the melancholy, and the cheerful or naive." I'm sure I need not spell out which movement is my favorite. The andante malinconico would be so even were the work purely abstract, free of programatic associations.

It is one of Nielsen's finest movements--a noble, slowly arching adagio--indebted to Brahms, yet in no way derivative. The "melancholy" theme first sounds quietly in the strings, its restraint one of its notable features (along with Sibelius, Elgar is another musical cousin in Nielsen's world). And just as temperaments evolve and transform, so too does this theme. It's reemergence in the second half of the 12 minute movement is a full-throated brass statement, led by the horns. Whether courageous, defiant, or willfully triumphant, the recap sounds affirmative. I hear it as an example of the Phoenix-like nature of the artist and the transformative power of the creative spirit.

If art can't cure what ails us, it can certainly change us, as its effects are experienced in the head, heart, and soul. One of the books which is always a welcome re-read is the British composer Jonathan Harvey's Music and Inspiration. This readable survey is a collection of quotes and writings from composers across historical periods, eloquently woven together by the author. Among the composers who found in melancholy a source of inspiration, Schubert is one of the most striking examples. "Pain sharpens the understanding and focuses the mind; whereas joy seldom troubles about the former and softens the latter."

Like Nielsen's andante, the music of melancholy takes on many hues. Schubert uses the warmest of tonalities, C major, to create music that is at once beautiful and sad. Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, Mahler, Debussy, and among many others, Shostakovich etch their temperaments into their musical canvasses. Whether or not melancholy's ghosts are exorcised this way, such cathartic music is its own indispensable form of exercise.

Near the end of his New Yorker survey, Menand observes,

"Human beings have always tried to cure psychological disorders through the body. In the Hippocratic tradition, melancholics were advised to drink white wine, in order to counteract the black bile. (This remains an option.)"

In the venerable tradition of the wedding at Cana (the first miracle), that sounds like just the thing right now. L'chaim!

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