Week 2 summary: Heartbreak

Talking Point: Heartbreak

Each week, we’ll be reading through your comments and reflections to collate them into a summary, giving an overview of some of the conversations that have been taking place on the course. You can read the summary for week two below. We know that lots of you have taken part in Jonathan’s other University of Warwick FutureLearn course Shakespeare and His World, and we’re delighted that you’ve decided to join us again! If you’ve taken part in Shakespeare and His World, you’ll be used to watching video round-ups at the end of each week. These round-ups provide an excellent opportunity for us to reflect on the week’s content and comments, but they are time-consuming to produce, and we felt that, for this course, it was more important to spend that time getting involved in the conversations on the discussion feeds. For this reason, we’ll be writing text summaries, based on our collective experiences over the week.

Broken Heart Syndrome

‘Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love’.

So claims Ganymede (or, rather, Rosalind in disguise) in Shakespeare’s comedy As You Like It. This week, we’ve been thinking together about the physiology of lovesickness, and considering whether – contrary to Rosalind’s jest – it is, in fact, possible to die of a broken heart.

We haven’t looked at As You Like It together this week, but we wanted to mention it here because it offers a different perspective on some of the ideas that we discussed in the first few steps. Shakespeare’s Rosalind is playfully sceptical about ‘love melancholy’. In her masculine disguise, she reprimands her beloved Orlando for failing to exhibit the ‘marks’ of being in love. A true lover, Rosalind declares, should have

A lean cheek, which you have not; a blue eye and sunken, which you have not; an unquestionable spirit, which you have not; a beard neglected, which you have not […]Then your hose should be ungartered, your bonnet unbanded, your sleeve unbuttoned, your shoe untied, and everything about you demonstrating a careless desolation.

(As You Like It, Act 3 Scene 2, l. 1457-1463)

Here, Rosalind is rather fondly lampooning the stereotypical lover; yet the ‘marks’ of lovesickness that she teasingly identifies accord not only with some of the symptoms described in Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, but also with the experiences of love and heartbreak that many of you have shared in the discussion areas this week.

Almost everybody was in agreement that the symptoms of heartbreak have not altered with the centuries. A number of learners, for instance, could identify with the restlessness and inability to sleep described in Robert Burton’s 1621 treatise. Some of you also agreed that unrequited love could cause ‘leanness’ and a ‘want of appetite’, although several learners pointed out that comfort eating is today regarded as an equally common response to disappointment in love; both of these behaviours attest to the close and complex relationship between the mind and the body.

This connection between the mind and the body was further emphasised in our conversation with Dr Andrew Schuman, in which we learned about ‘Broken Heart Syndrome’ or ‘Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy’. In response to extreme emotional stress, the left ventricle of the heart can become paralysed and swell up, mimicking the symptoms of a heart attack. Only medically recognised towards the end of the 20th century, this condition reminds us that the metaphors we use to describe disappointment in love – ‘lovesickness’, ‘heartbreak’ – are rooted in bodily experience. Although most people do recover, ‘Broken Heart Syndrome’ demonstrates that it is possible to die ‘for love’ (and Rosalind, secretly and desperately in love with Orlando, probably suspected this as well).

Although most learners weren’t aware of ‘Broken Heart Syndrome’ itself, many of you commented that you or people close to you had experienced the symptoms described by Andrew in the immediate aftermath of a personal loss. Very few learners were surprised, and a significant number were relieved to discover that there is a medical explanation for the painful, physical experience of being broken-hearted. The concept of ‘turning one’s face to the wall’ was also something that many of you recognised, and had witnessed in elderly friends and relatives. A number of learners wrote very movingly of couples who had died within months, weeks or even days of one another. Many felt that Sir Henry Wotton’s poem articulated with beautiful clarity the way in which a widow or widower, bereaved of their life-partner, finds that being in the world is simply no longer for them: ‘she for a little tried/ to live without him, liked it not, and died’.

Your responses to our conversations with Dr Andrew Schuman this week, and with Dr Simon Curtis in Week 1, as well as your reflections on Richard Berlin’s poem ‘Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy’, have emphasised the enormous importance of empathy in medical care. So many of you were moved even to tears by the doctor’s desire, in Berlin’s poem, to hug his bereaved patient with ‘eight strong arms instead of two’. We are very fortunate, as many of you have commented, to be able to speak to such forward-thinking and compassionate doctors during this course, and we know that there are many other medical practitioners and carers like them out there, to whom we owe an immense debt of gratitude for their incredible hard work and humanity.

When we first started to plan this course, we were aware of the considerable overlap between the different conditions that we intended to explore. This overlap is something that many of you have picked up on this week. Heartbreak, a number of learners have observed, is often the result of bereavement, and many of its symptoms – such as those exhibited by Austen’s Marianne Dashwood – resemble depression. ‘Broken Heart Syndrome’, meanwhile, is thought to be caused by a surge of hormones released in response to extreme emotional stress. These labelled and seemingly demarcated conditions are, in reality, impossible to distinguish entirely from one another, as they all result from and contribute to the thinking, feeling experience of being human. This is something that we’re keen for learners to recognise, and we’re pleased to see so many of you considering the potential crossover in your comments. We’ve received some incredibly moving and personal reflections from learners this week, many of whom have observed that heartbreak can result not only from the end of romantic love, but also from the loss of beloved friends, siblings, parents and children. We’d like to thank all those who have shared their thoughts and experiences, and those who have responded with words of comfort and support.

Sense or sensibility?

Talking Point: Heartbreak

In the latter part of the week, we focused together on a single, longer text, exploring the contrasting depictions of heartbreak in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Although recognising Elinor as the heroine of ‘sense’, and Marianne as the heroine of ‘sensibility’, learners were keen to explore Austen’s nuance, observing, for instance, that the roles of the sisters are, to some extent, reversed in marriage. Whereas Elinor is ultimately united with her beloved Edward, Marianne is forced to learn from her former mistakes, setting aside passion and romance for a marriage founded instead upon kindness, care and reliability.

There was no general consensus among learners as to which sister’s response to heartbreak was the most sympathetic, or the most familiar. A number of you recognised Marianne’s somewhat self-indulgent behaviour from your own teenage years, but remarked that you had since matured into Elinors. The majority of learners found Elinor the more sympathetic character because of her concern for those around her. As readers, we are aware that Elinor’s suffering is profound, and it is her determination to avoid inflicting this suffering on others that so many of you admire and respect. Indeed, a number of learners remarked that they feel that Austen is, albeit subtly, advocating Elinor’s behaviour over Marianne’s. However, several of you did comment that Elinor seems, at times, almost determined to martyr herself, and that Marianne’s uninhibited emotion makes her a warmer and more easily likeable character.

A number of learners made the very interesting observation that both sisters’ reactions to heartbreak are, to a large extent, socially conditioned – Marianne’s by the sentimental novels that she reads, and Elinor’s by the responsibility she feels to appear sanguine in the face of her family’s other misfortunes. Some illuminating parallels were drawn between the characters in Sense and Sensibility and in Persuasion, with the poetry-loving Captain Benwick being compared to Marianne, and Anne Elliot, the measured reader of prose, being likened to Elinor.

Coming soon

We began this week by observing that love and death are the two phenomena that universally define human experience. This week, we’ve focused together on love, and on how we cope with its loss and its lack. We’ve already touched on the pain of losing a life partner, and next week we’ll be thinking more about how bereavement has been explored in various works of literature. We’ll be considering Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s seminal – though now somewhat outdated – five stage model of grief, and reflecting with our contributors on the extent to which any kind of model or formula for grief can be helpfully applied to a personal loss.

Final thought: 140 syllables

It is, perhaps, unsurprising that sonnets have featured so prominently in a week about love and heartbreak. Although appropriated for a variety of subjects, the form has been associated with love ever since it was first introduced into English poetry by the 16th century poet and courtier Sir Thomas Wyatt. We looked at one sonnet in detail together this week, by the Elizabethan writer Sir Philip Sidney, whose Astrophil and Stella started a trend for English sonnet sequences. Many of you enjoyed listening to Jack Lankester’s discussion of Sidney’s Sonnet 31, and were particularly heartened by his advice to skip unfamiliar words and phrases, focusing instead on the overall feeling or sound of a poem.

Talking Point: Heartbreak

We’re thrilled that so many of you have enjoyed exploring the Poetry Foundation app and website; you’ve reminded us of some of our favourite poems, as well as introducing us and fellow learners to a number of new ones. Many steps of our course explore the enduring power, and the relevance to mental health and wellbeing issues that are very much of our time, of some of the great writers of past times — Shakespeare, Philip Sidney, Jane Austen, William Wordsworth — so we are very pleased that other steps, such as the exercise based on the Poetry Foundation website, give learners the opportunity to read poems by more recent writers from very diverse backgrounds in terms of age, gender and ethnicity. Edna St. Vincent Millay’s ‘Time does not bring relief’, Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art’, Derek Walcott’s ‘Love After Love’, Michael Miller’s ‘December’, Yehuda Amichai’s ‘A Pity, We Were Such a Good Invention’ and Kathleen Jamie’s ‘Moon’ were just a few of the poems that featured multiple times in the discussion. Your searches generated a remarkable variety of old poems and new poems, obscure writers and famous ones, humour and pain, but it was particularly striking that, amidst this rich variety, so many of the poems shared in the discussion were sonnets. Whether because there are so many sonnets written about love and heartbreak, or because these were the poems you felt drawn to, it appears that this short poetic form still dominates when it comes to matters of the heart. 140 syllables – give or take a few – is, it seems, an ideal space for conveying and containing an intense emotion.

In his self-referential sonnet ‘Scorn not the Sonnet’, Wordsworth wrote of this form as the ‘key’ with which ‘Shakespeare unlocked his heart’ and the ‘small lute’ which ‘gave ease to Petrarch’s wound’. We’d be really interested to hear more of your own ideas about the power of the sonnet, and about why it seems particularly suited to the exploration of lost or unrequited love.

We’ve noticed that some of you have asked whether the poems shared in the discussion could be compiled into a PDF for you to print off and keep. We can’t reproduce all of them due to copyright restrictions, but we have selected a few of our favourite sonnets from the comment thread, which you can access by following the link at the bottom of the page.

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Literature and Mental Health: Reading for Wellbeing

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