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Discussing depression and Bipolar Disorder with Stephen Fry

Stephen Fry Discusses Depression
Stephen, in your book on poetry, The Ode Less Travelled, you write, “For me, the private act of writing poetry is songwriting, confessional, diary-keeping, speculation, problem-solving, storytelling, therapy, anger management, craftsmanship, relaxation, concentration, and spiritual adventure, all in one inexpensive package.” It occurs to me, if that’s really true, and we could package poetry, this would be of enormous benefit for the entire nation, certainly for the National Health Service, because it’s blooming cheap, as you say. Don’t forget the first two words of that quotation. “For me.” “For me,” yeah, that’s the thing. And I’m sure it wouldn’t necessarily apply to others. Music may to others, all kinds of other things may. Exercise.
You know, I’m someone who’s been diagnosed as bipolar and so I’ve been more– ever since that diagnosis– been very much more attentive to what seems to help or not help my mind. And when I was not diagnosed, I was very inattentive, and just did things to feed my mood, which was stupid. Drugs and alcohol. But when you stop doing that, things get a bit better, but you still have left these mood issues that anyone with bipolar disorder will have. And so you value anything that seems to take the mania down a spot, but also seems to help you when you’re feeling very black.
And it may just be that I’m someone who has a high doctrine of language, and verbal expression, probably as a result of being physically inept, and not be able to sing, or play musical instruments, or paint. So it’s all I’ve got left. Therefore at least, it seems language and poetry, which is, one takes, to be the highest expression of language, is a natural way for me both to grapple with demons but also to escape from them. Actually using the word “demons” is interesting. W. H.
Auden a great poet hero of mine, when asked whether he would get rid of his demons, through poetry, he said, no, no, I don’t want to get rid of my demons, or my angels would fly away too. And I don’t know whether that’s true, but certainly because you can express ideas in an unusual way when you’re a poet. You can express your feelings, the turbulence within you. You can go beyond the usual descriptive words, like “storm” or whatever they might be, and find out other ways of describing how you feel, or confronting how you feel. And poetry, I think, allows that better than most things.
And the process for you, I’m just guessing, it might involve a notebook and a pencil? Very much so, yeah, the standard moleskin and pencil approach. Again to quote W. H. Auden at his best, in– I think it’s in The Dyer’s Hand which is a collection of his essays and critisism and he writes about how to be a poet. And he says, all poets generally like their own handwriting, it’s like smelling your own farts. He said, so I don’t know whether that’s helpful. But anyway, yes, I like my handwriting. And I’m very fond of typing and computers, but not for poetry. Seems the direct transmission through the brain to the hand, to the eye as you write, is important.
I’ll be honest, trouble is– when one’s depressed, the first thing to go from them is energy. Well, that was the next thing I was going to ask. That– Often people when they’re depressed would say, well, I couldn’t even pick up a book. I couldn’t even sort of read the newspaper. Let alone, read something as demanding as a poem, let alone do something as demanding as sit down and write. Yeah. No, I agree. I don’t think I’ve ever written a poem when I’m depressed. But what I have done, what I’ve learned to do, I don’t know if it’s helpful for anybody else, is to write down words, just individual words. Doesn’t matter what they are.
And they could be very, very odd. I mean, “basket” or something. “Tiles” or something. They don’t seem necessarily to be connected with how one’s feeling. They’re just words that are in one’s head. You write them down, as many as you can. And then maybe when– with any luck it isn’t too far away– some sort of change or stabilisation comes over you, and you have a little bit more energy, you can look at those pages and you can, think, oh, that’s interesting. And you can actually find a way of putting them together. What about sort of, reciting words, or even lines of poems in your head.
One of the people that we’ve spoken to over this course is Rachel Kelly, who’s written a wonderful book about how poetry helped her through depression. And for her, there’s something about the repetition of lines of poetry that was sort of ingrained in her memory, that just gave her something to hold onto. Is that an experience you’ve ever had? Completely. I have certain lines. There’s one that never leaves me. Keats line. “Madeline asleep in lap of legends old.” I say that. I don’t know what it is. It’s sort of touchstone for me. It’s a rather amazing line. The progression of L’s and D’s that go– symmetrically through. And I kind of hug myself if I’m really low.
And I go, “Madeline asleep in laps of legends old.” Partly, I have a picture. It creates a total picture. And a lot of Keats does, of course, because he’s very inspirational for Pre-Raphaelite artists and things. And you can see “Madeline asleep in lap of legends old.” And it’s a comfort. It’s a comforting idea. I don’t know. I’m sure a psychiatrist could explain why that particular line is the one that I always say. But yeah, part of the pleasure of poetry is the crunch and feel of words in your mouth as they hit the tip of the tongue, and they resound. It’s important, I think, to, yeah, to enjoy all of those.
Sometimes, you have a kind of equivalent of photosensitivity or audiosensitivity in which everything’s too, loud or everything’s too– And poetry’s the last one to be an annoyance, I find, in quite the way that other things are, like music or even pictures can be annoying to you. I’ve got a passage from the poet Robert Frost. Frost was a depressive. He had a pretty tough life. His father died of TB when he was 11. His mother died of cancer when he was 26. His mother had depression. He had depression. His wife had depression. His only son committed suicide. One of his daughter’s died of cholera when she was 8. Another daughter died in childbirth.
Another daughter he had to commit to a mental hospital. I mean, it’s a pretty grim life. Apart from that, life was fine. Apart from that, life was fine. But, his friend Edward Thomas– Well, his friend Edward Thomas was equally depressed and then, as you say, was killed in the war. But, Frost was a great believer in the importance of poetic form. He famously said– he says, “I’d sooner write free verse as play tennis with the net down.” He sort of– you need the net for a good game of tennis. Frost believed you needed form in order to craft a poem. He wrote a wonderful little short, 3 line poem. It’s called ‘Pertinax’.
It goes, “Let chaos storm, let cloud shapes swarm. I wait for form.” [LAUGHS] And the rhyme gives him the form. But he reflected once about the importance of form. He says, “we see forms in nature all around us.” And then he says, “when we are in doubt, there is always form for us to go on with. Anyone who’s achieved form is lost to the larger excruciations. I think it must stroke faith the right way. The artist, the poet might be expected to be the most aware of such assurance, but it is really everybody’s sanity to feel it and live by it.”
And I thought that was a wonderful phrase, that somehow creating form– he goes on and gives examples of weaving a basket, writing a letter, making a garden, putting the furniture in your room in a good order, or above all, writing a poem. Those are all things that give form to the chaos of life. And somehow it is everybody’s sanity to live and feel by it. And that somehow if you can achieve form, then the “larger excruciations” which is presumably sort of doubt about the meaning of life, in a sense can disappear. Does that resonate with you? It does. It reminds me also of Seamus Heaney’s idea of drilling potatoes.
You know, the getting that order that sense of– Yeah, I think a lot of people will relate to that. And the idea of tidying your desk, tidying your room. It goes a way back to when you were a child. It has something to do with the anxiety, and the terror, and the guilt, of being a child with a messy bedroom. That you just stick with it, it gets worse and worse, and then eventually you have this frenzied attempt to tidy it. And there’s a belief though, that you invest so much in the idea of order around you, in order to be able then to progress to creativity. But it doesn’t always work like that. Doesn’t always work.
I’m reminded also of Freud’s great comment. “Wherever I go, I find a poet has been there before me.” It’s wonderful, isn’t it? And it’s a sort of modern version of poets being the unacknowledged legislators of the world. They are actually– There’s something about poetry, does take you to places, whether it’s order– I suppose the act of making a poem is an act of order, it’s an act of defiance to the turbulence that– So even if it isn’t exactly in form, it’s a little like Ted Hughes’ famous Thought Fox there’s the white page, or the white lawn. And you print. You make a difference, you make something. It’s suddenly there. It wasn’t there before.
This idea has– all the maelstrom has focused, the tornado has focused into a point, which is actually quite still, and it’s writing on the page. There’s that huge, huge churning tornado. And it’s actually a pen and it’s just focused down into sort of stillness, quietness. The other quote that I love, a little bit like the Freud one, is Keats again. We seem to have talked a lot about Keats. But he says that a poem should strike us– strike us, the reader, “as a wording of our own highest thoughts,” and almost a remembrance. And I think that’s brilliant. It’s that, yes, that’s what it means. That’s how it is. That’s how I feel.
I sort of remember that, but I’ve never been able to word those highest thoughts. Yes, the end of all our– Exactly, it is. Yeah, there is that strange feeling, yes, to have arrived at the place we started and to know it for the first time. And poets can refresh an experience completely. And yet, it’s something we’ve always known. And it is a tremendous thing. That all art can do, but I think poets do it somehow better than anyone, is to take you to a place that you’ve always known. And you’ve never dared go, or you’ve never realised was available for you to go. “Oh, it’s OK.” There’s a kind of acceptance. It is.
And then when you’re reading the poem, when you’re in the poem, you’re in that place, in that moment. And a lot of other things just fall away. They do. They absolutely do. I wish I could say that I have a list of poems or poets who are good for depression, or good for mania, or good for any kind of mental dis-ease. I don’t think it quite works like that. I think one can be tremendously solaced or comforted by a poem, that’s just charming and sweet about nothing too terrible. Or one can be incredibly depressed by such a poem, because it’s too pretty. So I don’t think there’s a rule. As far as I can tell there isn’t a rule.
It would obviously be something that– In our culture, a publisher would say, “come on, I want to book. I want an anthology of books for people with mental–” you know, and again, come on, it doesn’t work like that. Doesn’t work like that. It really doesn’t. It would be an act of betrayal and dishonesty to suggest that there were poems that work. Because it’s so personal. Both mental health problems, I mean, bipolar disorder is personal, and poems are personal. Stephen, I asked you to come along and talk about a couple of poems that have helped you in dark times, and slightly to my surprise you chose two poems that are pretty melancholy.
John Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” and Phillip Larkin’s, “Aubard”.
The Keats poem, written at the time his brother Tom has died of tuberculosis, and Keats is anxious about his own health. His mood is very dark. But he’s just sitting, and he hears a nightingale. And then the Larkin one, it’s one of those waking at 4 o’clock in the morning moments, feeling pretty glum about life. It’s one of the last poems that Larkin wrote. He really struggled with writer’s block towards the end of his life. So these dark, melancholic poems, do they cheer you up? Oddly enough, they do. I suppose it’s because they’re so– there’s an authenticity about it. They have really been to places that I’ve been, but they’ve made something of it, something permanent and remarkable.
Two incredible poems. Yes, Larkin was a rather downcast miserablist. But this poem, it’s so beautiful. He took a long time to write it and you know that every single line is beautifully shaped, perfectly made. Yet not for the sake of artifice and delight, but just because he knows no other way. This is the way he writes poems. This is the way poems for him work, is to be perfect. And so the images of the light, seeping through the curtains and the outline of the wardrobe, it’s incredible. And then, the angry old man comes through with his rage about religion. Which is fantastically expressed. This idea that death is death is death.
There is nothing else, and I have to face that. And I’m getting nearer it all the time. And then this brilliant, sort of Auden-esque, ending with the telephones and the postman going– The postman coming from house to house “like doctors.” It’s fantastic. It’s just a brilliant poem. The other thing about it– you were talking about its perfect crafting– is it’s one of those poems that when you read it, you don’t notice that it rhymes. That’s right. But in fact, it has got a fantastically complex rhyme scheme. They’re 10 line stanzas, and you’ve got the first quatrain with the ABBA. Then you’ve got a rhyming couplet, and then you’ve got BAAB, or maybe it’s the other way. Yeah, that’s correct.
It’s amazingly crafted. And yet, you could read it and it feels conversational. It does not feel like rhyme, and the rhythm again is perfect. But it’s not tum-tee-tum rhythm. I mean, quite extraordinary. It does. It argues immense craftsmanship. And yes, as you said, towards the end of his life– and that’s what the poem’s about, which is part of the irony of its title. Aubard is a French form of poetry which is celebrating the dawn. The dawn. Beginning of a new day. And of course he’s writing about– The most famous Aubard in English literature is the great– Donne? Sequence, in Romeo, well Romeo and Juliet, when they’re awaking, “it was the nightingale,” it was not the lark, you know.
It’s the idea of the dawn of the day. I was thinking of Donne’s “busy old fool, unruly sun” Same trope. Yeah. But it’s, yes, it’s an amazing piece of work. And I think it is as great a testament to him as a man and a poet, as there ever was. And I do find it, therefore, uplifting. Although it’s about death, it’s honest about death. Well, the Keats is also about death, but whereas Larkin says, death is death and that’s all there is, what Keats says is, well actually, there’s something that can outlive death. Which is beauty. The song of the nightingale, he says, is the same as the song of the nightingale heard by Ruth in the Old Testament.
Heard in distant lands, distant ages. And of course, the nightingale is very much a traditional figure of the poet, the poetic art, of music. I mean, there have been poems about nightingales ever since the ancient Greeks. So Keats is in a way saying, we can actually cheat death. We can cheat melancholy through art, through poetry. Yes. And although Larkin doesn’t say that, of course, in a way he does. Because here we are, with Larkin dead and his poem alive. Exactly right. And that’s the joy, the transcendent joy of poetry.
I mentioned it before, when we were talking about Shakespeare’s famous 18th Sonnet, and so long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, so long lives this, and this gives life to thee. And it is something that Larkin played with, both in terms of his own poetry, and in the famous “Arundel Tomb” poem about the old couple, mediaeval couple holding hands, which is unbearably charming and beautiful poem. It’s just so lovely what– What will survive of us is love, but actually, what survives is the art. Yeah, exactly. And similarly with Keats, “beauty is truth, truth beauty,” that is all you need– all you know in this world. All you need to know.
But we don’t all have his ability to transmit beauty. We don’t, but we can all share it. Just thinking of the Shakespeare sonnet again, “so long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” The great thing about Shakespeare’s sonnet is that he doesn’t actually give us the name of his lover. In fact, he may had many lovers. I’m sure he did. But we as readers can possess that poem. We can read it to our lover. And say, “this gives life to thee.” There’s that sense that when we possess a poem, it no longer belongs to the poet. It belongs to us. And it becomes something very precious for us. I think that’s right.
And I think that is almost the definition of a great artist of any kind, is that they befriend their reader, or their beholder, if they’re a painter, or they’re listener, if they’re a musician. That they welcome you in to their world. Very often when we’re young, we grow up scared of the names of the big artists. They’re– what a teacher, English teacher in my school, called the big guns. That’s how I thought of them. Especially if they were foreign names, like Dostoevsky or something. You’d think, oh, these are not for me. And I think when one discovers a poem, and a poet, you realise that they’re grabbing you by the– they’re encircling you, and they’re taking you in.
And forever, from then on, you will be part of their world. Part of their creation, part of their achievement, part of their way of looking at things. And it will never leave you. And that’s an astonishing thing. In W.H. Auden’s great elegy on the death of his fellow poet, W. B. Yates, he says when Yates dies, he has this wonderful line, “he became his admirers.” So right. His work lives on, in foreign cities, through his readers. Stephen Fry, thank you so much for talking to us. Such a pleasure, Jonathan.
In Week 1 of the course, we spoke to Stephen Fry about some of the more technical features of poetry like rhyme and metre. Here, Stephen offers us an insight into his own experience of depression, and talks about how both reading and writing poetry can be of comfort to him during depressive periods.
Stephen describes how being diagnosed with bipolar disorder has encouraged him to be more attentive to his own moods and the way they are affected by different activities. He has found poetry to be helpful both during episodes of mania and during episodes of depression; even when he feels unable to read or write entire poems, he has learned that reciting single lines of verse and writing down individual words can be of help when his condition is at its most intense and debilitating.
In our conversation, Stephen emphasises that both poetry and mental health are highly personal. It is not possible to prescribe a poem – or even poetry in general – and expect it to have a positive effect on everyone suffering from a particular mental health condition. However, we did ask Stephen to talk about a few of the poems that are most helpful and meaningful for him. The poems he chose were John Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ and Philip Larkin’s ‘Aubade’.
You can read Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale by following this link, although in the next step you will also be able to listen to Stephen reading the poem aloud for us.
Unfortunately, we have not been able to show you Stephen’s reading of Philip Larkin’s ‘Aubade’ as part of the course, due to copyright restrictions. However, we would strongly encourage you to find the poem for yourself, which was published in Larkin’s Collected Poems (1988; 2003).
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Literature and Mental Health: Reading for Wellbeing

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