Prayer and melancholia


That human life must be some kind of mistake is sufficiently proved by the simple observation that man is a compound of needs which are hard to satisfy; that their satisfaction achieves nothing but a painless condition in which he is only given over to boredom; and that boredom is a direct proof that existence is itself valueless, for boredom is nothing other than the sensation of the emptiness of existence (Schopenhauer 1788-1860).

This is Schopenhauer’s bleak assessment of life. Yet, this pessimistic summation of life can be how melancholia colors and interprets it: something pointless and meaningless and hence not worth living.

Stevie Smith was born in Hull in 1902. When she was 3 her father left, abandoning the family. When she was 5 years old she contracted TB and spent time at a TB sanatorium. She said that her preoccupation with death started at age 7 and that she thought that if she kept crying and refusing to eat she would die and her misery would end. In 1953 she cut her wrists and spent time in hospital. Her poems are often characterised by this ambiguity about life. In ‘The hostage’, the protagonists tells us “I’ve always wanted to [die]”

The Hostage

…I should like you to hear my confession, Father, I’m not of your persuasion

I’m a member of the Church of England, but on this occasion

I should like to talk to you, if you’ll allow, nothing more,

Just a talk, not really a confession, but my heart is sore.

No, it’s not that I have to die, that’s the trouble, I’ve always wanted to

But it seems despondent you know, ungracious too,

She sighed…

Even as a child, said the lady, I recall in my pram

Wishing it was over and done with…

And in ‘The Deserter’, the speaker has sought refuge from life, in hospital.

The Deserter

The world is come upon me, I used to keep it a long way off,

But now I have been run over and I am in the hands of the hospital staff.

They say as a matter of fact I have not been run over it’s imagination,

But they all admit I shall be kept in bed under observation.

I must say it’s very comfortable here, nursie has such nice hands,

And every morning the doctor comes and lances my tuberculous glands.

He says he does nothing of the sort, but I have my own feelings about that,

And what they are if you don’t mind I shall keep under my hat…

Finally in Stevie Smith’s best known poem ‘Not waving but drowning’, we meet a man who was remote from life, all his life. But his malady was not recognised.

Not Waving But Drowning

Nobody heard him, the dead man,

But still he lay moaning:

I was much further out than you thought

And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking

And now he’s dead

It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,

They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always

(Still the dead one lay moaning)

I was much too far out all my life

And not waving but drowning.

19th century Russian literature is full of boredom, of a sense of pointless existence, even of despair. Chekhov’s ‘Story of a Nobody’ is set in this emotional context. The “Nobody” of the story asks

But here is the question, I continued. ‘Why are we exhausted? Why do we, at first passionate, bold, noble, full of belief, why do we become, by the age of thirty or thirty-five, completely bankrupt? Why does one fade away with consumption, a second put a bullet through his forehead, a third seek oblivion in vodka and cards, a fourth, to deaden his fear and anguish, cynically trample underfoot the portrait of his pure, fine youth? Why do we, once fallen, no longer attempt to rise, and when we lose one thing, why do we not seek another? Why?

Chekhov’s characters derive their pessimism not from an inner melancholia but usually from their social positions and roles. The inertia is driven by an absence of the need to strive for anything. This is how undue wealth corrupts, sapping motivation and drive, making morally bankrupt those who have excessive material wealth!


My title is Prayer & Melancholia. Ivor Gurney (1890-1937), whose poems speak to this matter directly, was born in Gloucester in 1890. He began composing music at age 14 years and won a scholarship to Royal College of Music in 1911. He was a contemporary of Vaughn Williams. He served in WW1 & was wounded and gassed. He suffered bipolar mood disorder from early adulthood and  was declared insane in 1922. He spent the rest of his life at the City of London Mental Hospital Dartford where he died from TB in 1937. In ‘An Appeal for Death’ he says the unthinkable, he prays for death.

An Appeal for Death

There is one who all day wishes to die,

And appeals for it – without a reason why –

Since Death is easy if men are merciful.

Water and land with chances are packed full.

Who all day wishes to die. How many ages

Have denied Death so – who reads old-written pages

And finds “This man suffered and prayed for Death,

And went beyond this, Desire of Life beneath”.

Bitterly, bitterly, and though he feels his wrongs,

And once took pride in verse-making and in songs,

Yet now, yet now would wish to rest, and be

Out of Pain, out of Life, quietly, as quietly

As pained men ever were meant to rest…

[ ]

If you are wondering what the point is of reading about melancholia, then Karl Kraus (1874-1936) explains all

I do not envy the security of the man who feels safe from all surprises in his room at night. Even if you know that pictures do not leave their frames, you can still believe it can happen…


Photos by Jan Oyebode

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