Skip to 0 minutes and 8 seconds This week we’ve been looking at heartbreak and one of the key texts is Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility but also looking at some poems. What’s your own experience with heartbreak? Well, I mean, I went to study literature at university, but I’d already always just went to study because I’d been good at it, actually, in school. And I didn’t realise the point in it. But I was terribly, terribly heartbroken as a young man at university. And my girlfriend left me and for about six months, I couldn’t work, I couldn’t sleep. And I was a dreadful state. I was almost thinking of actually dropping out of university. And none of my friends understood, you know.
Skip to 0 minutes and 51 seconds I believed in my naivety that no one had ever been as heartbroken as I was. No one understood. And I mean I even went to doctors and counsellors but the vibe was very much, just get over it. It’s quite normal. But I think to a lad of that age, really, you can’t– someone can’t simply say just get over it because you feel so alone and isolated and there’s a wall between you and the rest of the world, very much.
Skip to 1 minute and 22 seconds But at the time, I had a very good teacher who saw I was in a bit of a state and she forced me, really, to write lots of essays and study a sequence of poems by Philip Sidney, who was a Renaissance poet, which very much engages this young lad chasing after a girl who no longer wants him and being very upset and very traumatised. And when I started reading him, it was almost just like, you know, the penny dropped and I completely understood what he was saying. I could never say it as well as he could. But he was expressing the emotions I was actually feeling far more beautifully than I ever could.
Skip to 2 minutes and 4 seconds And in that instant, I suppose I felt wildly less alone. And the fact that he had been writing these poems 500 years ago, really did make me realise that being heartbroken or sad or lost is in many ways inevitable. And it’s a part of the human condition. And that this voice speaking to me from the past maybe, and I felt he was speaking directly to me because It was such an intimate revelation. I remember it exactly. It’s 2 o’clock in the morning. I was sitting out at the top of my block of flats just staring out at this stormy sky with the moon there and I’d been crying again.
Skip to 2 minutes and 46 seconds And in that instance, just reading this one poem of 140 syllables, it was just like this huge weight had been lifted off me. And I was still sad, obviously. And I was still very upset but it was suddenly not feeling alone, so much and feeling someone else– Somebody understands. And that’s a theme that we’ve been coming back to is that, A, you are not alone. And I’m fascinated by this. Because how can a poem written so long ago resonate with you and make you feel that you’re in communication with somebody from all of this time? And it’s the same feeling, it’s the same emotions, but expressed better than you and I could ever say. Was it that?
Skip to 3 minutes and 27 seconds Is that what it was? I mean it was a direct– although it did very much feel like he was speaking to me and I feel like I almost could have written this as well. I think even, it doesn’t matter how long, how much time has actually passed between the creation of a work of art and one’s response to it. There doesn’t have to be anything topically. Still, we all look up at the moon when we’re sad. The same metaphors– or if it’s a cloud on my soul or a stormy ocean and I think that speaks to us, whatever age we are, whatever generation we’re from.
Skip to 4 minutes and 5 seconds And it’s almost magical, a magical moment when you actually realise that you’re not so alone. And I thought it was a direct dialogue with me. What is it about poetry? Do you think there’s something very peculiar particular about a poem, as opposed to other forms of literature? Well, I think one of the things that I found so amazing about this experience and then, I read the entire sequence, was– it was 140 syllables, you know.
Skip to 4 minutes and 32 seconds Poetry is so short but I maintain it is just so intimate, because I suppose with film or music or even comfort food, where we try and take solace when we’re sad or heartbroken or upset, all of these mediums in some way stimulate one or all of our senses. With– If you see a beautiful woman in a film, it’s directly there. You can actually visualise it. If it’s a sad song, you can sit down and lose yourself in it and just have it wash over you in a quite passive way.
Skip to 5 minutes and 7 seconds But I find poetry and literature, generally, because it doesn’t actually stimulate any senses at all– the idea of black squiggles on a white page that can speak so profoundly to you because no senses are actually being stimulated, it’s quite– you have to engage with it quite intimately and quite personally and if it’s beautiful and you still have to visualise it actually in your mind. And it’s not a passive process. And I think that makes the whole process of reading more intimate. You’ve chosen a Renaissance poem to talk about today in relation to your own experiences with heartache. I think it’s a really beautiful poem. Is there anything that particularly draws you to the Renaissance poets?
Skip to 5 minutes and 54 seconds I think, partly, it’s the universality and the connection across that long period of time I take comfort in. But at the same time, and I don’t want to sound too academic or pompous, but it’s really, really good. There’s a reason we still read Shakespeare. I mean they were brilliant writers. I consider it the golden age of literature. And being a little bit more familiar with the language, you know, there’s not quite that disconnection that some people find. But it’s still readable English. And they are really, really good. It’s a sonnet, isn’t it? So sonnet– 14 lines– do you think there’s anything of comfort, of value, if your heartbroken, in a certain rhythm.
Skip to 6 minutes and 38 seconds It’s quite interesting that people often turn to sonnets. Shakespeare’s sonnets are really popular for heartbreak. I’m just trying to tease out the sonnet, or is that almost just coincidence. It is that just this one just appealed to you? No, I think there is something quite contained about a sonnet form or any form of poetry. If, for instance, one’s having a very intense emotion, I suppose the temptation is just to write floridly and in free verse, and keep going and going and going, because you’ve got so much to say. Whereas, if you take a form, be it a sonnet or a villanelle, it’s almost not necessarily a cage but a way to trap and control an emotion.
Skip to 7 minutes and 21 seconds And I think we respond quite naturally to that. I think a sonnet, 140 syllables, it’s just about enough space to present an idea, explore it with a couple of interesting images, and then turn so it never gets boring and you can reach some kind of conclusion. And there can be some kind of dialogue actually with yourself in there. Would you mind reading the sonnet?
Skip to 7 minutes and 50 seconds I’d love to. It’s not happy poem. That’s fine. I suppose one can find it quite strange that such a sad, lonely slightly self-indulgent poem can actually give comfort or happiness, but it’s still a sense of belonging or searching for allies across time and space and having them sort of speak to you. So it’s ‘Sonnet 31’.
Skip to 8 minutes and 17 seconds ‘With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb’st the skies! How silently, and with how wan a face! What, may it be that even in heav’nly place That busy archer his sharp arrows tries! Sure, if that long-with- love- acquainted eyes Can judge of love, thou feel’st a lover’s case, I read in thy looks; thy languish’d grace. To me, that feel the like, thy state descries. Then, ev’n of fellowship, O Moon, tell me, Is constant love deem’d there but want of wit? Are beauties there as proud as here they be? Do they above love to be lov’d, and yet Those lovers scorn whom that love doth possess? Do they call virtue there ungratefulness?’ Tell me what why did that speak to you?
Skip to 9 minutes and 14 seconds I want to get to the bottom of what was it that you’re feeling– that that’s how you felt? I did. I think the poet is looking at the moon and saying, you are alone, you are just wandering. And I think there’s universality to it because this Renaissance poet is so desperate for some kind of connection. He can’t find it in anyone around him. So he’s turning to the moon in this quite poetic, exaggerated, slightly naive way, but I think he’s trying to definitely find some fellowship with the moon and he’s imposing his own emotions on it, because obviously the moon isn’t in love. The moon isn’t heartbroken.
Skip to 9 minutes and 54 seconds But that imposition of his own emotions and that search for some kind of soothe to his loneliness. And almost the naivety of it– like, looking now, it’s almost quite funny. So then were you able to be more objective about your own heartbreak because you were reading somebody who’s writing about it, making sense of it, poking fun maybe satirising mocking it, but also not mocking it because saying actually know it really does hurt, and I really was in love, and I am still in unrequited love, so was any of that going through your mind? I think all of that was.
Skip to 10 minutes and 30 seconds I mean I think the reason it resonated so much was the actual moon in front of me and it had just captured that snapshot. But it’s 108 sonnets. This is what I particularly love about the sonnet sequence. They come at the same emotion again, and again, and again– just hammering it out. But at the same time, there is a sense of celebration behind the actual sadness. Did you get over your heartbreak as a result of poetry?
Skip to 10 minutes and 59 seconds I think I was able to understand it, not so much– I’m not sure one ever gets over their first broken heart, but I was less ashamed of it, I suppose, because I felt I was being sappy and soft and I was overreacting. And it allowed me to come to terms with it. I didn’t read the poem and go, ‘fantastic, life’s brilliant.’ But I was less alone. I was less afraid of it, less ashamed, less ashamed of actually expressing myself. It definitely helped just to see– and I suppose that can be– one could say that’s a negative conclusion that heartbreak’s quite natural and it’s going to happen.
Skip to 11 minutes and 40 seconds But one thing it did, I suddenly started furiously writing poetry, and that really– I suppose it was more the creative element that did help me move beyond it. But it made me aware of it and almost not enjoy it, but understand it, and revel in that intensity of emotion. Can it be harmful? Can reading poetry if you are in a fragile state cause harm, do you think? I think anything can cause harm, but I would never, never have found it so because one thinks, why would someone write a poem? If you were just sad and miserable and angry and furious, why would you choose to write a poem?
Skip to 12 minutes and 23 seconds Why would you try and put it into a form unless there is something to celebrate there or at least some beauty. Philip Sidney said the aim of poetry is to teach and to delight. And I’ve always found that quite interesting that there are lessons there, that even if we are watching a tragedy, we are taking some kind of pleasure in this. Not that we’re watching and we’re pleased that someone else is suffering and we’re not, but it allows us to grapple with these emotions on the stage, or even emotions we haven’t actually felt with that intensity.
Skip to 12 minutes and 59 seconds Tony Harrison says poetry allows us to kind of stare into the darkest aspects of the world and our own life ‘without being turned to stone.’ I think if anyone is reading responsibly, then I don’t see the harm in it. Do you ever find yourself saying to a particular student, you’ve got to read this. You’ll love– this will really help you, almost prescribing poetry. Well I normally would make them read it aloud, because you will often have a slight resistance to just one– give them, say, look, just read this aloud. And then when they can actually, as you mentioned earlier, with a sonnet, the iambic pentameter, the rhythm. There is a structure to it.
Skip to 13 minutes and 40 seconds There is something we can take comfort in, almost like music. But I would make them read it aloud and you can have some startling responses of kids who have– I had one student who was 17 years old, and had never read a book outside of school. He absolutely never read a book. And then he was absolutely traumatised and sad. And I actually gave him Philip Sidney. And when he first saw it, I’m not going to read this, you know. This is Shakespearean language. But then you just make him actually visualise it and respond to it personally and in his own mind. Yeah, he absolutely loved it and he’s doing a literature degree now, actually.
Skip to 14 minutes and 21 seconds And, you know, I don’t think you can put a price on it, really. To sit and read a poem may take five minutes, but the rewards can be immeasurable and then through your life, you can come back to the poem. And, for instance, if I read it now as I did then, there is that slight tongue in cheek nature to it or that’s so naive, that’s so innocent.
Skip to 14 minutes and 43 seconds But you can always come back to it and like good friends that have just provided you comfort at different stages in your life, and if you read a poem and learn it by heart or adore, and it brings you some kind of comfort or consolation, if you come back to that poem in two years, you will have a different response to it but there will still be the intimacy that you actually managed to develop beforehand. And it is, you know, concentrated emotion, concentrated study, but it doesn’t take that long. So how do you teach Renaissance poetry to young people, many of whom might be –or learners– and might feel intimidated by the language, by the sonnet sequence?
Skip to 15 minutes and 29 seconds How do we break that down? I think the first point would be to make it very, very clear that they don’t have to understand every line. I don’t. I don’t think it’s the case of this, as I said, this jigsaw to unpack or this riddle to solve. I don’t think poetry is necessarily this rational process that we go through. And I think that’s the problem with schooling. It’s– the question might be, how does the poet present these emotions? It should be more, what emotions do you feel? Ask them to visualise the scene and if there’s words they don’t understand, skip them. You know, it’s not necessarily about understanding every part or this cerebral process. It’s much more emotional.
Skip to 16 minutes and 10 seconds And try to imagine the scene. Like, where is the poet when he’s writing it? What mood’s he in? Have you felt like this? And they have then to engage and not be scared of it. And let it be more of an instinctive, you know, emotional process. And visualisation really helps. And reading aloud. Reading aloud and visualising it as you’re doing it. Confidence, and the more you read aloud, the more confident you get? And the more poetry you read, the better you’ll get at it. And I suppose I– before I really started reading poetry, it never quite occurred to me that– you love your Jane Austen, Paula, but novels that have been around for a few hundred years.
Skip to 16 minutes and 59 seconds We’ve been writing poetry for thousands and thousands of years. Almost caveman. We’ve been reciting poetry for thousands and thousands of years. And there must be a reason for that. Even before the printing press, we had our long epics. And the oral tradition. Yeah, oral tradition and the bardic tradition. It’s so ingrained in our civilisation. Again, it was Philip Sidney who said, ‘poetry is the right words in the right order.’ And we all use words. And to actually, when one starts, I find, when one starts reading poetry a lot, or understanding your own emotions more via poetry, I think you learn to understand other people better as well, because we all use words to communicate. That’s what separates us from animals.
Skip to 17 minutes and 50 seconds And by reading poetry, I firmly believe it connects us not only to ourselves but to everyone else we ever engage with.
Poetry of Heartbreak: Discussion with Jack Lankester
Poetry can help us not to feel alone.
This was the experience of Jack Lankester, an English teacher, who was heartbroken during his first year of university following the end of a relationship, and found solace and fellowship in the sonnets of Philip Sidney.
Jack spoke to us about how one particular sonnet from Sidney’s sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella seemed to articulate the same emotional pain that he was suffering. Although it was written over 400 years ago, Jack felt as though Sidney’s sonnet was communicating with him directly, across the centuries. Now a teacher, Jack encourages his pupils not to be daunted by the sometimes unfamiliar language of 16th century sonnets, and to connect emotionally with poems from the past.
During our conversation, Jack reads Philip Sidney’s ‘Sonnet 31’:
Sonnet 31, Astrophil and Stella
With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb’st the skies!
How silently, and with how wan a face!
What, may it be that even in heav’nly place
That busy archer his sharp arrows tries!
Sure, if that long-with love-acquainted eyes
Can judge of love, thou feel’st a lover’s case,
I read it in thy looks; thy languish’d grace
To me, that feel the like, thy state descries.
Then, ev’n of fellowship, O Moon, tell me,
Is constant love deem’d there but want of wit?
Are beauties there as proud as here they be?
Do they above love to be lov’d, and yet
Those lovers scorn whom that love doth possess?
Do they call virtue there ungratefulness?
Philip Sidney (1554–1586)
© University of Warwick