CathBlog - Depression, mental illness and God

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Gerard Manley Hopkins (pictured) and Francis Webb are two poets I go back to again and again. 

Hopkins I have loved ever since an enthusiastic Irish Jesuit, Cornelius (Con) Finn SJ introduced him to me, thirty odd years ago.  I particularly remember him reading one of the so-called Terrible Sonnets, “Carrion Comfort”.  

“Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee . . . “  The line lends itself to drama and emphasis and Con was in his element. 

I heard that he had had his brush with Despair, or, at least mental anguish.  He spoke the poem with a passionate familiarity.  In my own moments of depression these words have proved both a mantra and a talisman.  

There was something of “Get behind me, Satan” in the rejection of pseudo-comfort and a protection in the words themselves, strong, declamatory and . . . poetic.  “Carrion comfort” is so evocative.  I remember Con turning his nose up at spoiled meat.  Where was the nourishment there?   

These opening lines are like Keats’ “negative capability”, which I paraphrase as “I may not know what to do, but I certainly know what not to do”.  As the poem develops, what to do becomes clear.  

For Hopkins the nourishing choice was the poem itself.  Take all the terrible awfulness and turn it into gold.   Or, at least, hold on to that discerning palate and allow it to taste the various offerings.  Explore the possibilities and test their mettle.  Something, somewhere in this painful blackness will shine truly.

And, it does.  The retreat into hopelessness and isolation is not on.  The dramatic opening lends itself to an even more dramatic development.  Borrowing on the image of Jacob wrestling with the angel, Hopkins sees his own personal struggle as one with God. 

In the depths of his being, his psyche, wrestling with Truth and Love.  The rotten meat gives no life, but this conflict is fought with reality. Reality.  Ida Görres has an similar expression, “I would rather die of the truth created by God than live by an illusion created by myself.”

It is the truth the poet confronts. His sentiments, pain, bewilderment and grief have a ring of truth.  Morrie Schwartz, of Tuesdays With Morrie fame, afflicted with Motor Neurone Disease puts it this way: “It is important to recognise the difference between self-pity and grieving. 

I’m self-pitying if I say, ‘Why me?  Why has God let this happen?’  If I say ‘This is a terrible thing that has happened to me.  I feel awful about it, I am acknowledging my sadness.”  (From Morrie: In His Own Words)

There is a spark that flares in the darkness, flares because of the darkness.  In the poet it takes the rawness of the raw material and crafts faithful images of the mind.  These images, in turn, invite the reader into his pain, into our pain.

Morrie Schwartz and everyone like him reveal the same spark, a scintilla, as the mystics used to say.  Confronted by Reality they neither cower nor despair.  The spirit triumphs even as the body fails.  And, there I wonder at this, awe, in the poet’s words, at this combat that has the proving and the intimacy that only Reality can give.

. . . in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! Lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh,
      Cheer,
Cheer whom though?  The hero whose heaven handling flung me,
                   Foot trod
Me?  Or me that fought him . . . .?

None of the heroics in Francis Webb’s poem “Old Timer”.  Here we move from the, alleged, scrupulous neuroticism of Hopkins to an illness that plagued Webb most of his adult life. 

The poem is written about, and from, a psychiatric hospital in Orange, NSW.  None of the flash and daring of “Carrion Comfort”.  The pervading mood is grey.  Survival lies in a low profile, a self denied.

Checkmate the sun, the cloud, the burning, the raining,
Let deferential stars peep in one by one:
Sit, feed, sleep, have done.

What of self is left is protected by conformity, routine.  We may be able to identify with this: lower expectations and settle for second, or third . . . best.  Hope and life are too painful.

To guard your spark borrow the jungle art
Of this hospital yard, stamp calico vestures
For HM Government, for your funeral.

But, even in the relative safety of a withdrawn mind and a surrendered life, our neighbour can intrude.  In this case, in Webb’s case, it is the Old Timer.  He is a familiar figure of pity and derision.

Muttering about the world he knew, “children who loved him, Bathurst, Orange . . . green neighbourlinesses”, he cannot be totally ignored.  Even worse, through tobacco-blackened teeth he mutters his words of greeting and entreaty.  He has Webb’s measure.  He knows his place.

The greyness, the despair are no insulation against invitation..

But some little while ago it was all appalling.
He knew my footsteps, even the pipe
Between blackened teeth hissed in its comeliness. . .

There it is, the irritating other, exciting, even in the dullness, that awareness that threatens to turn distress into action.

Perhaps the outburst and the violence were not an option.  The poet was caught in his own way between a rock and a hard place.  Perhaps the poet in him helped him to stay in the place long enough.

I often go back to the final lines of the poem.  They ring true, even though they are the more wonderful the transformation they describe.  That spark, scintilla, has not been  quenched.  Maybe it can’t be quenched.  In depression and mental illness that is the hope.  The hope, too, is God.

. . . an ancient iron of unrest
Melted before his hopeful words of address.
Christ, how I melted!  For healing and faith were ripe
As Bathurst opening to the Golden West
Or Orange golden as the breast.


Richard WhiteRichard White is bereavement counsellor at W.N. Bull Funeral Directors in Sydney.

Disclaimer: CathBlog is an extension of CathNews story feedback. It is intended to promote discussion and debate among the subscribers to CathNews and the readers of the website. The opinions expressed in CathBlog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the members of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference or of Church Resources.

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