Julia Kristeva’s quotation from Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia provides an interesting piece of observation in regards to the rampant depression apparent throughout literature. Kristeva points out that melancholy and depression can send writers into an “abyss of sorrow,” (Kristeva). However, she believes that so long as a writer avoids collapsing into the “noncomunicable grief,” (Kristeva), extraordinarily powerful pieces of literature can rise from ashes of depression.
The melancholy experienced by a writer is often clear between the lines of their work, and the tone taken indicates a deep struggle occurring on the other side of the paper. Out of the readings we have discussed so far, “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold, “September 1, 1939” from W. H. Auden and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway present themselves as three pieces that carry the tone of depression. However, in all three pieces, there are moments of hope that shine through the dark passages.
Even though the authors are struggling with depression, upon closer reading into their work there is evidence that they themselves still hold some hope, though these authors keep it well hidden. One key difference between the two poems is the cautious optimism in “September 1, 1939. ” While the speaker of the poem makes observations throughout about the “unmentionable odor of death,” or children “Who have never been happy or good,” towards the end of the Auden’s piece he writes “All I have is a voice / To undo the folded lie,” (Auden).
Auden’s speaker is able to recognize the troubles and hardships in the world, yet the speaker still holds onto the hopeful belief that he or she has the capacity to improve it. The speaker knows that their voice is the only thing that he or she has to create change, but the speaker realizes that sometimes one voice is all it takes. One voice can gain support from others, “no one exists alone,” (Auden). These lines stand out from the rest of the poem as they bring forward a message of hope for the future. They are contrasted by the rest of the poem, which carries a theme of melancholy and depression.
One interpretation is to see the speaker’s knowledge that it is often pointless to hold onto hope, as they note “The habit-forming pain, / Mismanagement and grief: / We must suffer them all again,” (Auden). It is as if the speaker of the poem realizes the endless cycle of grief and pain, and yet they cannot help but to believe that one-day circumstances will be subject to a revolution that dramatically changes the lives all. The speaker is not willing to jump in head first to make this change happen, but they clutch the cautious hope close to their chest.
Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” breaks a poem of melancholy with a much more risky optimism and a “heart on the sleeve” moment. Arnold writes of human misery in reference to Antigone. The speaker looks at the world around his or herself and only notices sorrow so prevalent it draws comparisons to a great sea. Arnold’s speaker was once hopeful to see what the future would hold. Unfortunately, that hope is now gone. The speaker states “But now I only hear / Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,” (Arnold). The depression has overtaken the “Faith” and is drowning any other sounds.
At the end of the poem, however, we see the speaker profess their love to another. He or she desires to run away from the world and ignore all the issues the speaker constantly observes. Their only hope to break the cycle of melancholy is for their lover to accept the offer and find a “land of dreams, / so various, so beautiful, so new,” (Arnold). By escaping a world “Where ignorant armies clash in the night,” (Arnold), the speaker hopes to see the end of their depression. This speaker has a difficult time believing they could find happiness in a place of war.
The difference in types of optimism between the two pieces is a stark one. Both poems have sharp tones of melancholy and depression throughout, but at the end of each we see that each speaker still maintains a sense of hope for improvement in the future. The speaker in W. H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939” maintains a reserved optimism. It is one that is implied they have not shared with anyone. One could argue that the speaker is afraid of opening up with this optimism because their voice is all they feel they have.
If that voice is scorned and rejected, it is likely that the speaker of the poem would feel as though they had nothing left. Truly having nothing is a depression Auden’s speaker is terrified of. The speaker in Arnold’s piece is at the stage of opening up to someone. Their optimism is one which they are completely laying on the table. “Dover Beach” see’s its speaker throw caution to the wind and hope for their ideal ending. One could even assume that the speaker was at the place where Auden’s was at a time. Holding that optimism close for so long has caused it to explode out of them without care or planning.
This explosion is sadly going to be a difficult one to accept. Asking someone to accompany you in hatred and aversion of the world is a monumental proposition. It is a proposition that most would turn down. Where the speaker will go to if they are rejected is unknown, but it is a depression that is possibly inescapable. That inescapable depression is exactly why the speaker in “September 1, 1939” is so cautious to share their hope. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf holds a different view of melancholy as the novel format gives us a much longer window at depression.
As such, we see a much more uneven tone. There are portions of the novel that are optimistic, but also large portions that have a dark and somber tone. Some depressing themes that run throughout the story include Mrs. Dalloway’s sister’s young death, as well as the lost loves the novel contains. Clarissa and Richard’s marriage is one of mutual respect, but not love. Peter Walsh has had to live his life with out Clarissa, despite the fact that he clearly deeply cares for her, and Mrs. Dalloway is forever chasing a moment with Sally Seton that happened when she was young.
The story in its entirety holds depressing content for its characters, but also holds scenes and moments of optimism. This differs from both poems in that both Auden and Arnold only allowed hope a few lines and subtext, but the length of the novel demands that Woolf not let her story have a depressing feel for an excessive length of time, as it is difficult for anyone to read or write a piece of melancholy for long before requiring a moment of optimism. This being said, Woolf herself differs from Arnold and Auden as being the only one of the three to commit suicide. The moments of optimism in Mrs.
Dalloway are not shared by Woolf. While in the poems it is the hope that shines through moments of depression, in Woolf’s piece it is the melancholy that pierces through the moments of optimism. The reason for this discrepancy as I read it is that Arnold and Auden still held hope, while Woolf sadly had lost it. These authors were all able to fight through their melancholia to produce great literature. Even though much of it had to do with the melancholia they were racked with, according to Julia Kristeva that is still a great triumph. Literature is vital to understanding the emotions and feelings at the time.
At the time these pieces were written, Europe was in the chaos of World Wars. The authors had all experienced both wars and the depression of the world oozed from their pages as they wrote. Yet with all the war and death happening around them, they still were able to find some optimism in them to place into their work. An optimism which I doubt even they believed was available. Even though the authors are struggling with depression, upon closer reading into their work there is evidence that they themselves still hold some hope, though these authors keep it well hidden.