I can barely conceive of a type of beauty in which there is no melancholy.-Baudelaire
I stumbled on an article yesterday, entitled “The Benefits of a Blue Period.” In short, the article posited that periods of melancholy in our lives allow us to more greatly appreciate periods of happiness. I read the article with great curiosity and enthusiasm, as I wholeheartedly agreed with the hypothesis. One of my favorite professors at Wake Forest, Eric Wilson, wrote a book to this end entitled Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy. It is a brilliant little book, and I have read my copy multiple times.
Professor Wilson taught me to love Blake, and Wordsworth, and Shelley, and especially Keats, who wrote a beautiful poem entitled Ode on Melancholy, where he observed that pleasure and melancholy are two sides of the same coin (Keats’ metaphors are, of course, far more elegant); one cannot fully appreciate the prior without having first experienced the latter. A rose is beautiful because it must die, because it is, at its core, ephemeral, as life itself is.
I took this photograph of my son, Kemper, earlier this year at Big Talbot Island State Park, just north of Jacksonville, Florida. It is not the most elegant composition, but it evoked the memory of sitting in Professor Wilson’s class, engrossed as he discussed the wild Blake, and the addled Shelley, and the elder statesman, Wordsworth. In 2007, I visited Dove Cottage, Wordsworth’s home, and I personally bore witness to the Lake District’s daffodils he was so fond of as I wandered lonely as a cloud. I would soon thereafter realize, however, that I had not yet experienced true loneliness and solitude.
I have found myself in the depths of melancholy, with a singleness of isolation and anguish. I was no better (or worse) than Coleridge, whose consumption of laudanum sustained his melancholic madness (that brought us Kubla Khan) until his death at 61. I often thought I would end up like Coleridge, though with the ignominious distinction of anonymity to all but those who loved me. Yet I persisted with my own course of self-medication until I was thirty.
I cannot say that I, with a fit of passion and self-realization, quickly emerged from the chasm of melancholy where I had made my home for nearly a decade. My ascent was gradual, albeit progressive. At some point along the way, I cannot say when, I gained the perspective of the Romantics – I did not regret the melancholy of my twenties, nor did I wish to shut the door on it. I had been humanized and humbled by the darkness; because of it, the light shone that much brighter. I am indebted to Professor Wilson for planting the seed, which, though it lay fallow for years, eventually grew of solid stock.
A rose plucked from a garden is beautiful because it must die, as all beautiful things must, one day, come to an end. A silk rose in a glass vase is a pale imitation because it possesses no vitality, it is a mere imitation. I recognize that I am an imitation – not a mimic, but a feigned likeness of a whole human held out to the world – a world, which chooses, most often, to accept me for what I seem rather than peering behind the curtain to who I truly am.
Before I get to afar afield, let me bring us back to melancholy and to a close. As I am grateful to Professor Wilson, I am grateful for my melancholic past, and, yes, even for the fits of melancholy that I will continue to experience throughout my life. Emerging from the darkness, the light is all the more vivid.
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