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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?


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