Book GenresPoetrySunday Salon

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?



What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

28 thoughts on “Literature as a form of therapy

  • I see Rebecca mentions The Novel Cure. I’m a poetry reader in general so I have a whole raft of poems and poets that I turn to. Some of my go-to poets are Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Adrienne Rich, Marge Piercy, Rumi and Hafiz. I hope you enjoy the course. Please do share any interesting things you learn!

    • Whitman is someone I’ve never managed to get into. Emily Dickinson though is a totally different story

  • The course sounds fantastic. I’ve always been interested in “bibliotherapy,” especially what the School of Life does (as in its bibliotherapists’ book, The Novel Cure, which Claire mentioned above). I think I’ve decided I don’t have the time to devote to an online course right now, but I’ll look forward to hearing your feedback about it.

  • I know for me reading in general helps reduce anxiety. If I’m feeling really anxious reading provides roughly the same relaxation and mind-clearing points as meditation. It’s fascinating how it works. Now if only it could provide the physical exercise too!

    • you just need to get bigger books then you’d have biceps like Atlas

      • Haahaa too true. Too bad I read the biggest on kindle because I’m lazy.

  • I enrolled for this when it was first advertised a couple of months ago and had completely forgotten about it until I saw the article yesterday. I always return to Shakespeare and most often to the sonnets. There is something very comforting in the discipline of the form, I think, and yet it allows you to say so much.

    • I have in mind a little project where one day I get deeper into the sonnets. The book is ready on the shelf – now all I need is time.

  • No I won’t join in. I spent too many years on the other side of the desk.

  • This looks fascinating and I’ve joined. I absolutely love The Cloths of Heaven. Days by Philip Larkin is one I find that helps when things are closing in.

    • For a short poem there is a lot of depth in Days isn’t there….

  • I am thinking of joining the course. It is a subject that has interested me in the past. In our family, the poem that we pass on the most is Yeats’ To a Friend Whose Work has Come to Nothing. It is a very powerful poem

    • I didn’t know that poem but just looked at it and its inspiring. Will keep that one on my desk in work

  • Rumi is recommended for teenagers, The Novel Cure is an excellent reference book, An A-Z of Literary Remedies by Ella Berthoud & Susan Elderkin 🙂

    • There’s a book for everything isn’t there? I’ll be interested in delving into this one

  • Fascinating course, I’m sure.
    I’m not a big poetry fan but I’m sure very tempted to burry myself in a novel when I don’t feel well.
    And there are songs too. Lyrics can be poems too, no?

    • You could argue a song is simply a poem with added music

  • I can’t think of anything immediately except perhaps Robert Frost’ s stopping by woods on a snowy evening. I just like its rhythm and my Dad would quote its famous lines and I can hear them still in his voice.

  • I also have joined at the course, although it isn’t in my native language I know that it will be a good experience.

    Thank for the information!

    • will look forward to ‘meeting’ you in the course forum when it all starts


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