Category Archives: Poetry

Literature as a form of therapy

Can a poem help you get through a stressful time ? Would reading Jane Austen give you an insight into ways of dealing with grief? Those are some of the questions posed in a fascinating course I just read about today.

It’s apparently the world’s first free online course in “Literature and Mental Health” and explores how enjoying literature can help us to endure life. It’s offered by Future Learn in conjunction with ReLit, a charitable enterprise in the UK to research and practice something called bibliotherapy. I’d never heard of this but apparently it is an ancient art of book-healing.

This week sees the publication by ReLit of Stressed, Unstressed, an anthology of 150 poems to “ease the mind”, edited by Paula Byrne, a biographer whose works include a study of Jane Austen. The collection, which then spawned the course, originated when Paula’s young daughter was critically ill and not expected to live. Byrne turned to poetry to help her through the traumatic experience.

The book is being used with prison inmates serving sentences for serious assault. In future copies will be donated to hospitals, schools and medical centres.

The Literature and Mental Health course asks how poems, plays and novels can help us understand and cope with times of deep emotional strain. It’s delivered in conjunction with Warwick University.

Enrolment is open now for the start date of February 1. Anyone care to join me???

Your choice of reading for health

Some leading actors and literary figures nominated poems that have played a significant part in their lives – Ian McKellen and Melvyn Bragg both chose Wordsworth while Stephen Fry opted for that other big Romantic, John Keats.

Bragg’s choice was Michael, a poem about a shepherd and his son

McKellen selected Composed upon Westminster Bridge

Fry went for Ode to a Nightingale 

I’ve been thinking what my own suggestions would be. Of course it depends on the circumstances but one I’ve gone back to many times when I felt vulnerable is W. B Yeats, The Cloths of Heaven. 

Had I the heaven’s embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light;
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.


Any suggestions from you?


A favourite classic poem

classicsclub3The Classics Cub question last month asked us to name a favourite classic poem. I got my list down to three poems fairly quickly but then procrastination set in so I actually missed the deadline. I don’t think anyone is going to chastise me too much however.

My shortlisted three were all poems penned by one of the big six Romantic poets.

The Chimney Sweep by William Blake. As with much of Blake’s work in Songs of Innocence and Experience, there is a serious message underneath the apparent simplicity of the form. It starts as if the young chimney sweep is giving evidence in a court of law and ends with a message which seems to be directed at us the jurors, alerting us to the way we can be complicit in the kinds of social injustice about which the boy talks.

Ode to the West Wind by Percy Bysshe Shelley. No-one could label this poem,with its intricate terza rima rhyme scheme of being ‘simple’. It’s a meditation on the natural world but Shelley does more than just dwell on its beauty, he invokes as a power to help rekindle his creative abilities. Reading this you also get a sense of how these Romantics saw themselves as the means to effect change in their society. Shelley doesn’t want his ideas to die with him, but to inspire and influence others.

Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawaken’d earth
The trumpet of a prophecy!

It’s a powerful poem but my ultimate choice of a favourite is Lines Composed Above Tintern Abbey by William Wordsworth.

Having been to the ruins of the Abbey many times and also walked up to the spot on the cliff face where Wordsworth sat when looking down onto to the abbey,  as I read the poem I can picture the scene he saw more than 200 years ago.   I like to think of him there in quiet solitude contemplating the view in front of him and reflecting on how much influence his love of nature has had on him throughout his life.

While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.

It’s a love that changed over time, from the heady pleasures of his youth to a deeper appreciation of nature’s power to nurture him through dark moments in his life.  His more mature self feels a sense of the sublimity of nature, of “something far more deeply interfused whose dwelling is the light of setting suns.”

This isn’t a poem whose meaning is instantly apparent; you have to read it several times but it does reward re-reading and re-reading.


%d bloggers like this: