Poet, priest, and professor Malcolm Guite discusses the intersection of faith, mental health, and literature. He shares his journey, some of his newest sonnets, and his insights into how to live a life of art and feeling amidst depression, one of the most common mental health issues.
Running time: 29:35
About Rev. Dr. Malcolm Guite:
Malcolm Guite is a poet-priest and Chaplain of Girton College, Cambridge. He teaches for the Divinity Faculty in Cambridge and lectures widely in England and North America on Theology and Literature.
His publications include What do Christians Believe? (Granta 2006); Faith, Hope and Poetry (Ashgate 2010, paperback 2012); Sounding the Seasons: Seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year (Canterbury 2012); The Singing Bowl: Collected Poems (Canterbury 2013); The Word in the Wilderness: a poem a day for Lent, Holy week and Easter (Canterbury 2014), Waiting on the Word (Canterbury 2015); Parable and Paradox (Canterbury 2016); Mariner: A Voyage with Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Hodder 2017); and After Prayer (Canterbury 2019).
- “Gold,” Malcolm Guite
- “Ode to a Nightingale,” John Keats
- “Ode on Melancholy,” John Keats
- “Upon First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” John Keats
- “Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art,” John Keats
- “Terrible Sonnets,” Gerard Manley Hopkins
- “In Memoriam,” Alfred, Lord Tennyson
- “The Christian Plummet,” found in After Prayer, Malcolm Guite
- “Christ’s Side-piercing Spear,” found in After Prayer, Malcolm Guite
- “Because We Hunkered Down,” found in Sounding the Seasons, Malcolm Guite
- Sunbathing in the Rain: A Cheerful Book About Depression, Gwyneth Lewis
- Sounding the Seasons: Seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year, Malcolm Guite
- After Prayer (Canterbury 2019), Malcolm Guite
Mental health and substance use information you can trust. This site provides help for individuals, families and professionals, along with self-screening, information sheets, general resources, quick links and news updates. Articles on Seasonal Affective Disorder and Depression:
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Malcolm Guite: Poetry was my religion, it was the saving thing, it was the thing that gave me a reason to keep breathing.
Sarah Kift: My heart aches and a drowsy numbness pains my sense. Depression and art, sorrow and song, the pain of not being able to feel and the ways in which our souls can wake or cling to poetry and beauty, even in the darkest seasons of our lives.
Poet, priest, and professor Malcolm Guite discusses the intersection of faith, mental health, and literature. He shares his journey, some of his newest sonnets and his insights into how to live a life of art and feeling amidst depression, one of the most common mental health issues.
Welcome to the Sanctuary Podcast. A space where mental health and faith collide and conversation, connection, and change are possible.
So Malcolm, why don’t we start at the beginning and talk about Keats and “Gold”?
Malcolm Guite: Oh, right. The poem “Gold”? Yeah.
Sarah Kift: Yeah.
Malcolm Guite: The starting point of the whole frame of that poem is me as a middle-aged man recalling my youth, and a summer that I had in Rome when my father, who was actually a professor in Canada, had a sabbatical year in Rome. So suddenly I found that all my school holidays for a year were in Rome. I was having a very hard time at school, I was at a school which as day school was very good, but it had a small, very dysfunctional boarding house. I found that a very dark place, and I suffered in it. Then you carry that out with you, and sometimes it’s when you come away on holiday that you really start processing the things at school.
I had sort of discovered Keats just before my dad moved to Rome. I’d been to Keats’ house in Hampstead. I was actually feeling quite depressed when I went to Keats’ house in Hampstead, and I didn’t want to be there. It was on the half-term holiday, and I couldn’t go home for the holidays because my parents were in Canada. I used to be taken places by aunts and uncles who didn’t necessarily want to spend their time looking after their nephew. But this particular aunt seemed to think that having had intense school time, I would like nothing more in my holidays than to visit museums and libraries. So I was quite a resentful teenager. I remember getting to Keats’ house in Hampstead Heath, and I didn’t even know who Keats was, I just thought he was some boring old fart, and I stood there, and the “Ode to a Nightingale” was on the wall, and I read it–really out of sheer boredom.
In fact it was on a wall just where you could look through the French windows into the garden where the tree was that the nightingale sang in. If you think it’s almost exact, this is April now in 2019, it was April, 1819 that that whole thing happened. Don’t make anything of that. I was just very moody. I read these words, “My heart aches and a drowsy numbness pains my sense.” It’s actually one of the most unpromising openings of a poem. So, “My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains my sense. As though of hemlock I had drunk or emptied some dull opiate to the drains one minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk.” So I was going ache, drains, dull, sunk–I’m with you there. Somebody knows how I feel. Of course that poem starts like that, then it suddenly lifts so unexpectedly.
“Tis not through envy of thy happy lot, but being too happy in thine happiness,–that thou light-winged Dryad of the trees in some melodious plot of beechen green and shadows numberless, singest of summer in full-throated ease.” And I just, “What was that?” I had no idea language could sound like that, and I found myself lifted out of my own feelings precisely because the poem had started where I was. And then of course you get that extraordinary. I was feeling in a very homesick, I think both actually homesick from my home, but also, if you like, metaphysically and spiritually homesick. I had abandoned my faith because of my difficulties in the boarding house were so bad that I didn’t actually think there could be a God, in face of this stuff.
I’d abandoned my faith, so I was kind of metaphysically homesick as well. And then suddenly, it’s not a logical sequence, but out of nowhere Keats summons up Ruth. “When sick for home, she stood in tears amid the alien corn.” Then he suddenly, out of nowhere, produces the windows, doesn’t he? He says, such as her “charm’d magic casements opening on perilous seas in faery lands forlorn.” And then he comes back, “Forlorn! the very word is like a bell to toll me back from thee to my sole self!” The poem doesn’t heal him in any way, but it opens a window. It provides another perspective and a kind of lift and a strange companionship with Ruth. And it is transformative. And there’s something particularly for me about the windows that open on the perilous seas.
I came to realize that great poetry always does that. It’s a bit like Lucy and the wardrobe and Narnia, and you go into this little box that you think is only this little box. And then suddenly something opens out at the back of it. I’ve always felt that great poetry does that kind of thing. So Keats became my man, as it were. I was literally having a kind of fix of Keats, which was self-indulgent in some ways, but very restorative in others. And then lo and behold, instead of going back to Canada, that very next holiday I went to Rome and somebody said, “you’ve got to go to the Keats-Shelley Memorial House.” So I went to that place, and then I realized the other end of Keats’ story. I had read, of course, the beautiful “Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art,” which was written in the flyleaf of his Shakespeare.
Basically, my parents both had desks at the American Academy in Rome, and were both doing research, and I just made the Keats-Shelley House my home. And as I wrote in the poem about Keats’ house, all the stuff I was trying to deal with, which I wasn’t talking to anybody about, I just brought every day to Keats’ house, and I kept reading his poetry. Keats has this phrase about “leaden-eyed despair.” Keats’ “Ode to Melancholy” obviously is a very important poem to me. And you know, “Ay, in the very temple of Delight, Veil’d Melancholy, has her sovereign 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.”
So you get in Keats this extraordinary sensitivity, which allows him to sound the depths, as I say in the poem, but also to elevate you. And it’s interesting, it kind of mixes with a rich sensuality. Now, one of the difficulties for me in the way I’ve experienced depression is that I experience it purely as the first verse of Keats’ poem, as numbness. “A drowsy numbness pains my sense.” I experience it as the loss of sensitivity and the loss of connectivity, but I found that Keats sort of spoke into that and then opened it out.
So I use a kind of alchemical image, in “the old poem’s crucible,” “the leaden-eyed despair” is turned into something, into gold. Of course, I’m riffing in that poem also on Keats’ poem “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” which I love anyway. I mean, “much have I traveled in the realms of gold.” I like it because that’s Keats testifying to the fact that one day reading a poem transformed him. And of course I had exactly that experience with Keats.
Sarah Kift: You did. You said sometimes a poem can save your life.
Malcolm Guite: Yeah. I didn’t come back to my faith for some years after that, and not until I was in my final year at Cambridge. This Keatsian thing was happening to me around the cusp of 16 and 17. For those years between discovering Keats and my recovery of faith, poetry was my religion. It was the saving thing. It was the thing that gave me a reason to keep breathing, so actually that was very important.
Sarah Kift: Much of Malcolm’s poetry operates within seasonal themes and has changes of mood and mental wellness embedded into its very essence. One of his collections is called Sounding the Seasons and contains seventy sonnets for use throughout the year, from the darkest days of January to the bright, warm sun of August. I asked Malcolm to talk about his own journey through mental health challenges and how his writing and his faith has helped him along the way.
Malcolm Guite: I am one of these people who’s quite affected by seasons. I don’t pretend to have the scientific knowledge about this. People talk about this, they use this acronym “SAD,” don’t they? About Seasonal Affective Disorder, they say it’s the lack of vitamin D. I don’t know what the science behind this is, but I do know that I find January and February the two most difficult months of the year. There’s a great song of Van Morrison’s where he sings, “it’s easy to describe the leaves in the autumn, and it’s oh so easy in the spring. But down through January and February, it’s a very different thing.” Because of course, what you’re describing is an absence.
Sarah Kift: Those “bare ruined choirs,” right?
Malcolm Guite: “Where late the sweet bird sang,” yeah. So I think it’s the darkness, I really need light. I mean for me the experience of depression is an experience of darkness, even amidst apparent light. So one of the most telling phrases in any poetry ever, anywhere, about that experience is in Dante’s “Inferno” where when he comes down, I think it’s in Canto Six, where there’s smoke going ’round where the tragic lovers are. He says, “luce muta.” The light is mute. The light is there, but it’s not telling you anything. It’s a physical phenomenon, but it means nothing, and it’s lost its promise. So A, There’s not that much light, and B, if you’re depressed when the light comes, it doesn’t say anything; it’s mute.
I find, if I’m experiencing that sense of the muted light anyway, and then plus it’s January and February, it’s very, very difficult, and you have to recollect. So for me the other side is I have a poem called “O Oriens,” which is part of the hinge pair within my seven advent readings. So there’s “O Clavis,” “O Key of David” and “O Oriens,” “O Dayspring.” In both of those the original collects end: those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, lead them into the way of peace. So in the Latin of those poems, because I was responding to the Latin prayers in my English poems, so in Latin it’s about lead out, “e duce,” draw out those, “sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis,” in the shadow of death. So “sedentem” is where we get the word sedentary.
I don’t know if you’ve experienced that form of depression in which you actually cannot get out of bed, you simply cannot bring yourself to rise up and do anything in the face of it. You know perfectly well you should be, you just cannot do it. The curtains are closed and the room is dark. The call there for Christ is to gently lead those people out. It is no good if somebody rushes into your room and switches on all the lights. You precisely have to be led out. I began to feel that the language of the seasons and Shelley’s great and famous line in “Ode to the Westwind,” “if winter comes, can spring be far behind?” And the sort of whole promise to Noah about the seasons are precisely seasons, that they promise change that they lead on from one another.
And one of the effects, for me, of depression is that you can’t imagine any other state. You simply cannot imagine not being in this place, which is what leads to despair. So there’s something about diligently following the progression of the seasons, no matter what. That patterns into you the transition that will come.
Sarah Kift: As you wrote in “Gold,” despair becomes poetry.
Malcolm Guite: Yeah. “Despair itself was lifted into poetry.” Yeah. There’s a line somewhere in Lear, “this is not the worst while we can still say this is the worst.” I’m not quoting it directly, but one of the things I really admire is people’s capacity to express this. Just to take two examples, I love the moment in Tennyson’s “In Memoriam,” which is another of those poems that deals with this stuff incredibly well, where he says, “So runs my dream, but what am I? An infant crying in the night, an infant crying for the light and with no language but a cry.”
Incredible thing to say because “infans” (Latin) of course means without speech, and yet he’s using the full deployment of the best possible language, finally to express out loud what so many people feel, which is “this is so bad there are no words for it,” and actually that’s hugely encouraging. Now the modern writer who does that I think incredibly well is Gwyneth Lewis, the Welsh poet. But she wrote a great prose book, which I personally think is the best book about depression that I’ve ever read. And it’s called Sunbathing in the Rain: A Cheerful Book about Depression. And she describes her own experience of depression in that book so well that anybody who’s been there and felt that, you turn these pages and at once and you think, “oh God, how can I read this? I don’t want to be taken back there.”
But you keep reading, and you suddenly realize at last somebody had said this. I can give this book to someone, somebody has articulated for me—post-hoc. I mean she couldn’t, the book is written out of recovery, it can’t be written at the time. But her capacity to put words to it. So “despair itself was lifted into poetry”—that seems to me to be infinitely preferable to the sheer muteness which is the experience at the time. So it’s a paradox that even quite apparently depressing poetry can actually be quite curative, quite healing. Because as soon as the thing is really expressed, then you’re back in the realm of human interaction, which is where you need to be.
Sarah Kift: Exactly. It’s that once you reach for language to reflect or try to describe your experience, then there’s an opportunity for connection.
Malcolm Guite: Yeah, exactly.
Sarah Kift: It’s an opportunity to be present again.
Malcolm Guite: Poetic language is particularly helpful because poetic language tends to be open, rather than closed. It doesn’t require you to have a perfect handle or a diagnosis. It allows you to say things which are simply ambiguous. The language is doing more than one thing at the same time, and often that’s the way one is experiencing things.
Sarah Kift: To wrap up this part here so we can get to some poetry, sometimes poetry can jam your machine, right?
Malcolm Guite: Yeah. But I meant the poetry jamming your machine in quite a good way, in the sense that I felt the machinery of life and the machinery of a mechanistic view of the world was crushing the life out of us. I think a lot of mental health issues actually, this is a really important thing we haven’t touched on, we tend to individualize and medicalize and almost victimize the experience of mental health issues and suffering and depression as though this is the problem for the person experiencing it.
But actually I think often the people who experienced this—as with Keats and others—are the most sensitive people we have. They’re actually our antennae, our sensors, or to use another metaphor, they’re the canary in the cage that tells us whether we’re breathing good or bad air. I think a lot of the crises are to do with the fact that we have a fundamentally false account of what it is to be human. We have a mechanistic, process-driven, commercially transactional…
Sarah Kift: We are what we produce.
Malcolm Guite: All that stuff. None of that is true, that’s specious crap. But we’ve been sold it because people want us to think that way in order that we should buy and sell products. It’s a false view of what it is to be human and the assumption that you only really exist when you make a purchase. That is literally driving people crazy. In a sense it’s to feel split, to feel alienated, to feel torn between a frenetic desire to be out there with everybody and a desperate sense of loneliness, in response to that kind of false account of what it is to be human. That’s a sane response. I actually think in some respects the crisis in mental health is a sign of a massive change that society needs to make. Whilst each individual who’s actually personally suffering needs help to get through that, society shouldn’t simply medicalize that and ignore what those people are telling us about the way we live.
I have a line, going back to George Herbert. My next collection of poetry, which is coming out in October (2019) is going to be called After Prayer, and it’s named after a sequence of sonnets I’ve written in response to George Herbert’s poem “Prayer.” Each prayer is only 14 lines, but it has by my count 27 images of what prayer is, and I write a sonnet for each one of these. One of those images is the Christian plummet—sounding heaven and earth. And I make a new poem out of it. I imagine not just the lead that is being lowered into the sea to find out the depth, but I imagine a person who suffers from depression in a church community as being that lead line. And I’ve got a line, “you sound for them, the depths they sail above.”
Actually, that person who experiences that is bringing back news about things to all of us that we all need to hear. So Hopkins is the example of that, the fact that Hopkins could write, “no worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief, more pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder ring.” You know, the “mind has mountains, cliffs of fall, frightful sheer no-man-fathomed, hold them cheap may who n’er hung there.” Those so called terrible sonnets are an incredible testament to the fact that however deep you go into that bleak country and those cliffs of fall, and however low you fall, Christ is there, and you can still talk to him. There is water under the cliff. That’s an incredibly important piece of news to bring back to Christendom, and we need the Hopkins (plural/representative) to do that. He, in a way, is one of the Christian plummets.
Sarah Kift: Malcolm was kind enough to share some poems from his latest collection After Prayer, which is now available along with all of his books at malcolmguite.wordpress.com. I was incredibly moved by the imagery in these sonnets of being in the depths of despair, but still surrounded by love. Take a moment to breathe and let these poems soak into your soul. As Malcolm reads, “The Christian Plummet” and “Christ’s Side-piercing Spear.”
Malcolm Guite: Down into the icy depths you plunge, The cold, dark undertow of your depression, Even your memories of light made strange, As you fall further from all comprehension. You feel as though they’ve thrown you overboard, Your fellow Christians on the sunlit deck, a stone-cold Jonah on whom scorn is poured, A sacrifice to save them from the wreck. But someone has their hands on your long line. You sound for them, the depths they sail above, One who takes Jonah as his only sign sinks lower still to hold you in his love, And though you cannot see, or speak, or breathe, the everlasting arms are underneath.
For all the while I hurl my hurts at heaven, believing I besieged the battlement of God’s invulnerable heart and haven, I strike at emptiness, at my own bafflement, I shake my fist in fury at a shadow. For he is not like us, nor are his ways like ours. He left that heaven’s haven long ago and broke our siege. A voice behind me says:
Why do you weep and rage at heaven above? I have come down to die here in the dirt. Your wounds have wounded me, for I am love, and in my heart I hold your deepest hurt. Oh turn around, return, and face me here. Your slightest prayer will pierce me like a spear.
Sarah Kift: I just want to say thank you for sharing with us today.
Malcolm Guite: Thank you for your questions, which I think have been very perceptive and very helpful and brought out things in me I didn’t quite know I knew how to say, so that’s very good.
Sarah Kift: The last poem Malcolm read for me during our chat is called “Because we Hunkered Down,” from his 2016 collection Parable and Paradox and is featured in The Sanctuary Course. For me, this poem is a beautiful, frank discussion of the bleakness that can come with the change of seasons or a struggle with depression. It ends in a startling, soft, tiny moment of hope.
Malcolm Guite: These bleak and freezing seasons may mean grace when they are memory. In time to come when we speak truth, then they will have their place, telling the story of our journey home, Through dark December and stark January with all its disappointments, through the murk and dreariness of frozen February, when even breathing seemed unwelcome work.
Because through all of these we held together because we shunned the impulse to let go, because we hunkered down through our dark weather and trusted to the soil beneath the snow, Slowly, slowly, turning a cold key, Spring will unlock our hearts and set us free.
Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries exists to equip the Church to be a sanctuary for all people at all stages of their mental wellness journeys. May this podcast encourage you to create safe space for your own story and the stories of others, as well as create change in communities that stigmatize those suffering with mental health challenges. The Sanctuary Course is a small group resource designed to help initiate and guide conversations about mental health and faith. It is a starting point creating a base of shared knowledge from which churches can explore the next steps. Perhaps most importantly, through the simple act of talking openly about mental health, the course helps churches begin to create safe spaces for people to share their mental health stories and receive support in community.
Each theme in the course is explored from a psychological, social, and theological perspective, and each session is accompanied by a compelling film focused on an individual’s story, a person of faith who has journeyed through mental health challenges.
I’m your host Sarah Kift, and I’m thankful for the people who helped make this episode happen. Post production and editing by Jonathan Kift, music by the artists “Crashed by Car,” via archive.org. All funding and support by the team at Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries. This podcast is released under a creative commons attribution, noncommercial, no derivatives, 4.0 license. Don’t change it or sell it, but please share it all you like.