‘Moods of my own Mind’: Keats, melancholy, and mental health

by Suzie Grogan
‘The psychotherapist’s capacity to be with uncertainty is a defining but unsung feature of the profession….’

Diana Voller

Sound familiar? As someone who finds the letters written by John Keats as fascinating and enlightening as his poetry, I recognised that Voller (a London-based counselling psychologist) is drawing on Keats’s views on ‘negative capability’. Indeed, she subsequently refers to his letter of 1817, addressed to his brothers George and Tom, in which he develops this concept, considering a poet to be most successful when free of any pre-occupation with evidence and objective reasoning, and in which he compares himself, indirectly, with Coleridge:

“… – I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason – Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.”

Voller’s belief in the therapeutic importance of Keats’s words reinforces my own perception of Keats as counsellor, physician of the mind, and source of solace in a world that is, in his words, at times a ‘Vale of Tears’.

She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die;
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:

Here in the Ode on Melancholy  Keats is accepting what many refuse to acknowledge these days – that we must age, that we all die. Many therapists work with clients for whom the denial and fear of aging and death causes serious emotional distress. For Keats, it is only our acceptance of the suffering that is an inevitable part of life, and death, that can really open our eyes to the beauty that surrounds us, thereby enabling us to grow.

There have been periods in my life when health and family issues have left me struggling, unable to accept the seeming randomness of events that beset me. And I found then, and still find, much to comfort me in my favourite, much thumbed, old edition of the letters and poems of John Keats.

There has been some discussion about whether Keats himself experienced depression, or other undiagnosed mental health issue. Nicholas Roe, in the most recent biography of Keats, suggested that his ‘up and down moods’ were caused by an addiction to opium, which he took to ease the sore throat that was the precursor to the tuberculosis that eventually killed him. That is disputed, but he certainly experienced depressive episodes:

“I am troubling you with Moods of my own Mind or rather body – for Mind there is none. I am in that temper that if I were under Water I would, scarcely kick to come to the top…”

He was prone to fits of anger, especially in his youth and he had periods of intense creativity followed by a deep lethargy. Whether he would today have a clinical diagnosis of, say, bipolar disorder is impossible to say. In his short life he experienced the loss of his father to an accident, his mother and youngest brother Tom to tuberculosis, and his second brother, George, to America. He was separated from his sister by her guardian, was always short of money, and though conscious of his talent, not always confident of success. Towards the end of life, with mortality pressing upon him, he was beset by insecurities, jealousy, and depression, probably exacerbated by the tuberculosis ravaging his body. Grief and fear bring their own lows that are a natural response to tragedy, or frustration, rather than a clinical depression. Keats certainly recognised his moods, and would take action to address his anxieties, and in taking the following steps was way ahead of advice given in the 21st century to those suffering overwhelming anxiety or panic attacks:

“I feel I can bear real ills better than imaginary ones. Whenever I find myself growing vapourish, I rouse myself, wash and put on a clean shirt brush my hair and clothes, tie my shoestrings neatly and in fact adonize as I were going out – then all clean and comfortable I sit down to write.”

To George and Georgiana Keats, September 1819

We will never have a definitive diagnosis, but we do know that Keats understood ‘madness’. He was brought up close to the Bethlehem Hospital – better known as ‘Bedlam’, the notorious asylum presided over by Cibber’s huge statues ‘Raving Madness’ and ‘Melancholy Madness’, and would have seen terrible psychological suffering during his years of medical training. These experiences inform the writing of both poetry and letters, and it means we can trust in his empathy and appreciation of the links between mood and creativity, anxiety and ambition, death, loss and fear. It is why, I think, he remains so relevant today, and why he still appeals to many young people who can find aphorisms and philosophical principles in his work that resonate with their own struggles to make sense of the world.

Looking at some of his most famous words, for example, we can see interesting comparisons with current therapeutic practices, and they express, far more eloquently in my opinion, some of the many motivational quotes that fill our social media timelines….

On mindfulness: “The only means of strengthening one’s intellect is to make up one’s mind about nothing — to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts.”

To George & Georgiana Keats, September 1819

 “I scarcely remember counting upon any happiness – I look for it if it be not in the present hour, – nothing startles me beyond the moment. The setting sun will always set me to rights, or if a sparrow come before my window, I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel.”

To Benjamin Bailey, November 1817

What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger: “Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul? A Place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways!”

To George & Georgiana Keats, May 1819.

 On being true to yourself: “Think of my Pleasure in Solitude, in comparison of my commerce with the world – there I am a child – there they do not know me not even my most intimate acquaintance – I give into their feelings as though I were refraining from irritating a little child – Some think me middling, others silly, other foolish – every one thinks he sees my weak side against my will – I am content to be thought all this because I have in my own breast so great a resource”

To George Keats, October 1818

Don’t judge a man until you walk a mile in his shoes: “We read fine things but never feel them to the full until we have gone the same steps as the Author…”

To John Hamilton Reynolds, May 1818

On being loved for your real self: “I love you the more in that I believe you have liked me for my own sake and for nothing else. I have met with women whom I really think would like to be married to a Poem and to be given away by a Novel.”

To Fanny Brawne, July 1819

John Keats wrote letters of incomparable intelligence and unselfconscious beauty to comfort, to cheer, to express love, and to work through his own philosophy of life. We can read his words and better understand human nature, appreciate his generosity of spirit and to know that even across the centuries we are not alone. In his letter to Reynolds in 1818 he also says ‘axioms in philosophy are not axioms until they are proved upon our pulses….’; those axioms are worked out in all of us every day. Keats knew the essence of what it means to be human and Diana Voller is right to highlight the strength that comes with being able to live with uncertainty – it builds a resilience we all need in this fast changing and troubled world.

Suzie Grogan is a professional writer and researcher, working in the fields of social and family history and mental health. Her first book Dandelions and Bad Hair Days: Untangling Lives Affected by Depression and Anxiety was published in 2012 and her second, Shell -Shocked Britain: The First World War’s Legacy for Britain’s MentaSuzie Groganl
Health was published by Pen & Sword History in October 2014. She has two further commissions, including one on the life of an apprentice surgeon-apothecary in the early 19th century, to give her an excuse to write about John Keats.

Suzie has a popular blog at No wriggling out of writing and also presents a local radio show ‘Talking Books’ . She is married with two children and lives in Somerset, but has her heart in the Lake District and London.