7 Depression Poems: What The World’s Greatest Poets Can Teach Us
By: Tanisha Herrin
Updated May 26, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Lauren Guilbeault
Most people recognize the names of some of the world's greatest poets whether they've read their poems before or not. Many of our most famous poets suffered from depression. Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allen Poe, Tennessee Williams, and Ernest Hemingway, to name a few, are all almost as famous for their struggles with depression as they are for their gift of poetry. Poetry has the power to show a significant depth of emotion while bringing inner darkness to light.
The Special Connection Between Depression and Poetry
Depression affects at least 300 million people worldwide. This includes people of all ages and from every region of the world. The good news is, effective treatment options have emerged due to this widespread issue. Several studies have shown at least six different treatment methods have helped people cope with their symptoms.
Poetry has a unique way of expressing thoughts and feelings related to depression. It can be eye-catching, thought-provoking, and gut-wrenching when the work enables you to relate to pain, hurt, or despair. Many have found reading or writing poetry as a way to help them cope. Additionally, options such as working with a mental health licensed professional, antidepressant medication, and making positive lifestyle changes are effective methods to live a healthy life free from depression.
Depression Poems: A Natural Complementary Treatment for Depression
Besides therapy, counseling, and medication, there are natural remedies helpful in combating symptoms of depression. Hitting milestones to achieve your goals and obtain favorable results may include combining your options. Your doctor or licensed mental health specialist may recommend specific methods as part of your treatment. For instance, natural complementary treatments include:
- Relaxation Training
- Listening to Music
- Stretching Exercises
- Breathing Exercises
A study conducted in the U.K. tested these natural complementary treatments for depression and found that "reading worked best, reducing stress levels by 68%." It only took six minutes of silent reading before heart rates went down and muscle tension began to ease. Since stress is one of the primary triggers for depression, finding ways to eliminate it while in treatment is the most effective.
Since reading for only six minutes had the most significant effect on the mood and stress levels of the study participants, we looked further into what types of things people with depression should be reading to reduce stress. And we thought, what about depression poems or poems about depression from some of the world's greatest poets of all times?
7 Famous Poets Who Wrote Poems about Depression
Poems have an intangible way of expressing a profound sentiment that can be hard for others to show or even understand. Writing poetry itself can be a healer for people coping with depression.
There are different kinds of depression and different levels. Some depression is attributed to a chemical imbalance in the brain. It can also be hormonal, hereditary, or the result of trauma. The following content details poets and their notable works of poetry inspired by forms of depression.
Bipolarity is a mood disorder where depression is one of the significant symptoms. People who are bipolar experience extreme highs and lows in their mood behaviors. The extreme lows are depression. Two of the greatest women poets of all time both suffered from bipolar depression and can be seen in their poetry:
- Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf was a Brit who lived through the two World Wars. She is known for writing exceptional depression poems including one titled "Angels," written in 1919 that illustrates the up and down nature of bipolar depression. Virginia was also a novelist with her novel titled Mrs. Dalloway being one of her most admired literary works.
Here's an excerpt from her novel, Mrs. Dalloway (1925):
"Beauty, the world seemed to say. And as if to prove it (scientifically) wherever he looked at the houses, at the railings, at the antelopes stretching over the palings, beauty sprang instantly. To watch a leaf quivering in the rush of air was an exquisite joy. Up in the sky swallows swooping, swerving, flinging themselves in and out, round and round, yet always with perfect control as if elastics held them; and the flies rising and falling; and the sun spotting now this leaf, now that, in mockery, dazzling it with soft gold in pure good temper; and now again some chime (it might be a motor horn) tinkling divinely on the grass stalks - all of this, calm and reasonable as it was, made out of ordinary things as it was, was the truth now; beauty, that was the truth now. Beauty was everywhere."
Virginia Woolf's works remind us that illness does not define a person. Although some people remember Woolf for her depression, in her diaries you'll find joy, life, jokes, and the pleasures of being alive. Novelist Elizabeth Bowen describes Wolf at one moment during her life, crouching on the floor, mending a curtain - "and she sat back on her heels and put her head back in a patch of sun, early spring sun, and laughed in this consuming, choking, delightful, hooting way." It's important to remember that depression doesn't define us.
- Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath shares her experience of depression through her poem "Tulips." It is recognized as a brilliant descriptive and metaphoric piece of poetry where she explains what depression and emptiness feel like. Below is an excerpt from her poem, Tulips:
"Before they came the air was calm enough,
Coming and going, breath by breath, without any fuss.
Then the tulips filled it up like a loud noise.
Now the air snags and eddies round them the way a river
Snags and eddies round a sunken rust-red engine.
They concentrate my attention, that was happy
Playing and resting without committing itself.
The walls, also, seem to be warming themselves.
The tulips should be behind bars like dangerous animals;
They are opening like the mouth of some great African cat,
And I am aware of my heart: it opens and closes
Its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love of me.
The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea,
And comes from a country far away as health."
This poem illustrates Sylvia Plath's lifelong experience with two opposing forces: death and life. Throughout the poem, she references the feeling of being inanimate. When the tulips re-enter her life, she becomes animated again, into the world of pain and life. Her words, although deeply indicative of depression, show readers that at times feeling alive (with pain coming and going) is better than feeling nothing at all.
Undiagnosed Bipolar Depression
Historians have come to believe based on Poe's letters and works that he suffered from bipolar depression that was undiagnosed.
- Edgar Allan Poe
Born during the early 19th century, Poe's characteristic mood swings are symptomatic of bipolar depression which may lead to alcoholism and other self-destructive behaviors. Edgar Allen Poe exhibited many of these symptoms. Trauma can cause mood disorders; Poe was orphaned at a young age. He was also considered an alcoholic, likely the cause of his untimely death at the age of 40. When his beloved foster mother died in 1829, he wrote perhaps one of his most famous poems about depression, "Alone."
Alone by Edgar Allan Poe
From childhood's hour I have not been
As others were-I have not seen
As others saw-I could not bring
My passions from a common spring-
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow-I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone-
And all I lov'd-I lov'd alone-
Then-in my childhood-in the dawn
Of a most stormy life-was drawn
From ev'ry depth of good and ill
The mystery which binds me still-
From the torrent, or the fountain-
From the red cliff of the mountain-
From the sun that 'round me roll'd
In its autumn tint of gold-
From the lightning in the sky
As it pass'd me flying by-
From the thunder, and the storm-
And the cloud that took the form
(When the rest of Heaven was blue)
Of a demon in my view-
The poem illustrates loneliness associated with depression that leaves many feeling disconnected from others.
Often confused with general malaise and sadness, especially before our modern knowledge and understanding about depression, poets from the 1800s like Emily Dickinson wrote a lot about how they felt. In their poetry, we can see the many symptoms that characterize mental depression:
You can feel the overwhelming loneliness and misery expressed throughout the poems. For depression sufferers, reading these poems is like talking to someone who feels and understands your pain firsthand while relaxing your mind and easing stress, even if it's just a few minutes a day.
- Emily Dickinson
Although most of Emily Dickinson's poems dealt with death and darkness, her writing style can be described as lyrical. It has a kind of beauty that is shrouded in darkness. She was an American poet who lived through the most tumultuous years in American history from the end of the slave trade to post-Reconstruction (born in 1830 and died in 1886). Through her words, she puts her finger on what it feels like to be in the grips of a depressive state in her most famous depression poem, "It Was Not Death, For I Stood Up."
It Was Not Death, For I Stood Up by Emily Dickinson
It was not Death, for I stood up,
And all the Dead, lie down-
It was not Night, for all the Bells
Put out their Tongues, for Noon
It was not Frost, for on my Flesh
I felt Siroccos-crawl-
Nor Fire-for just my Marble feet
Could keep a Chancel, cool-
And yet, it tasted, like them all,
The Figures I have seen
Set orderly, for Burial,
Reminded me, of mine-
As if my life were shaven,
And fitted to a frame,
And could not breathe without a key,
And 'twas like Midnight, some -
When everything that ticked-has stopped-
And Space stares-all around-
Or Grisly frosts-first Autumn morns,
Repeal the Beating Ground-
But, most, like Chaos-Stopless-cool-
Without a Chance, or Spar-
Or even a Report of Land-
The poem illustrates how people often assess their thoughts when depressed to try and understand why they are experiencing them. Analyzing your thoughts alone may bring more despair and holding on to them makes it difficult to see possibilities of hope.
- Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway is a novelist, most famously known for the Nobel Prize-winning For Whom the Bell Tolls among other tragic stories. He was also a poet who suffered from undiagnosed depression, but unlike Edgar Allen Poe, he likely suffered from a dual diagnosis. That is when one illness creates a secondary illness - depression creates alcoholism or drug abuse.
Hemingway's source of depression is likely related to his years serving in WWI. His works often revolve around traumatic and tragic incidents experienced during the war. His ups and downs suggest he might have had bipolar disorder.
Ernest Hemingway's work is a profound contribution to literature that highlights feelings of joy and sorrow that people experience in their lives, and the fact that how they live with it is what distinguishes the differences that define their existence and purpose.
Depression and Mania
Famous American poet Anne Sexton not only suffered from clinical depression, but she also suffered from manic depression or psychotic depression. These depressives often suffer from some psychotic schism that causes delusions or hallucinations.
- Anne Sexton
Anne Sexton's poetry is personal and deals almost exclusively with her troubled relationships as a result of her depression and mania. Her poem, "The Fury of Rainstorms," has come to iconize her unique ability to lay bare the inner turmoil of depression.
The Fury of Rainstorms by Anne Sexton
The rain drums down like red ants,
each bouncing off my window.
The ants are in great pain
and they cry out as they hit
as if their little legs were only
stitched on and their heads pasted.
And oh they bring to mind the grave,
so humble, so willing to be beat upon
with its awful lettering and
the body lying underneath
without an umbrella.
Depression is boring, I think
and I would do better to make
some soup and light up the cave.
The poem illustrates feelings of depression using vivid imagery, and finishes with the author's self-reflection, with a touch of humor. It's important that no matter how dark things get, we remember to "light up the cave."
Our last poet was not a manic depressive and from all accounts lived a carefree and gregarious life "full of excitement and ambition." Most of his poems are romantic odes and sonnets about wooing or losing a woman. However, he wrote one poem about depression that many contain the best of his lyrics.
- John Keats
His poem "Ode on Melancholy" deals with depression differently than all of the other poets on this list. Melancholy was what depression was called in the 1800s, and instead of being a dark poem about how it feels to be depressed, Keats' ode tells the reader how to combat depression by ingesting the beauty that is all around us. It is an inspiring poem about overcoming depression.
Ode on Melancholy by John Keats
No, no, go not to Lethe, neither twist
Wolf's-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;
Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kiss'd
By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine;
Make not your rosary of yew-berries,
Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be
Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl
A partner in your sorrow's mysteries;
For shade to shade will come too drowsily,
And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.
But when the melancholy fit shall fall
Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,
That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,
And hides the green hill in an April shroud;
Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,
Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,
Or on the wealth of globed peonies;
Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,
Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,
And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.
She dwells with Beauty - Beauty that must die;
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:
Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil'd Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy's grape against his palate fine;
His soul shalt taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.
Help is Available that can Save Your Life
Although depression can be all-consuming, the fact that you're reading this article right now shows that you've taken the critical first step in reaching out to others who understand what you're going through. Even if you're only surviving right now, that deserves recognition. It's important you realize that these feelings will pass.
As mentioned above, treatment for depression can reduce symptoms by almost 50% based on treatment plan options. A study of 100 participants with depression symptoms showed 40 to 60 people noticed improvements with their mood within two weeks when combining treatment options. Even though symptoms vary from person to person, the availability of different treatment options shows that help is always available to anyone who needs help.
BetterHelp Understands Feelings behind Depression
BetterHelp counselors and therapists provide knowledgeable expertise on how to cope with depression. They know people experience different feelings, thoughts, and symptoms that make their depression unique. They see how people's relationships are affected and how people want to accomplish more but feel held back by their emotions. Online counseling has helped many begin the healing process and see how things are possible. Read the following reviews to learn how others got the help they needed.
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"I put off finding a therapist for a long time. I dreaded my first conversation with Neil and all the awkward, clunky explanations I'd have to give about my depression and anxiety. All of the things that felt like dirty little secrets that caused me so much pain. But I was so pleasantly surprised by the way Neil accurately picked up on what I was saying and gave me more insight into how my brain was working. It made my issue feel so much less of a personal problem and more of a universal problem we could examine together. He always gives me a thoughtful response within a day or two any time I send a message. I actually think we've made more progress in between sessions just by being able to communicate things that are coming up in real time. Neil is intelligent and kind. I really appreciate his communication style and highly recommend him."
Depression through poetry reminds us that personal thoughts and emotions felt should be shared with others. You don't have to be a poet to understand the profound effects of depression. When you can relate to any feelings expressed such as those mentioned above, know that there are professionals who understand these feelings and who are ready to help you cope with them and move forward to enjoying life once more. Others who have gone through depression have emerged to the other side. Take the first step.