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Competing Melancholies: (En-)Gendering Discourses of Selfhood in Early Modern English Literature

Rainer EMIG

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1When the shepherdess Urania in Lady Mary Wroth’s The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania (1621) enters a cave where she hopes to be alone with her sorrows, she is in for a nasty surprise: there is already another occupant. A man who calls himself Perissus, the lost one, has stretched himself out on a bed of leaves and is waiting for death. What then ensues is a near-comical quarrel for the right to the cave with each candidate trying to come up with the most convincing claim to suffer the most:

“O God,” cried Perissus, “what devilish spirit art thou, that thou thus dost come to torture me? But now I see you are a woman; and therefore not much to be marked, and less resisted: but if you know charity, I pray now practice it, and leave me who am afflicted sufficiently without your company; or if you will stay, discourse not to me.”

“Neither of these will I do,” said she.

“If you be then,” said he, “some fury of purpose sent to vex me, use your force to the uttermost in martyring me; for never was there a fitter subject, then the heart of poor Perissus is.”

“I am no fury,” replied the divine Urania, “nor hither come to trouble you, but by accident lighted on this place; my cruel hap being such, as only the like can give me content, while the solitariness of this like cave might give me quiet, though not ease. Seeking for such a one, I happened hither; and this is the true cause of my being here, though now I would use it to a better end if I might: Wherefore favour me with the knowledge of your grief; which heard, it may be I shall give you some counsel, and comfort in your sorrow.”

“Cursed may I be,” cried he, “if ever I take comfort, having such cause of mourning: but because you are, or seem to be afflicted, I will not refuse to satisfy your demand, but tell you the saddest story that ever was rehearsed by dying man to living woman, and such a one, as I fear will fasten too much sadness in you; yet should I deny it, I were to blame, being so well known to these senseless places; as were they sensible to sorrow, they would condole, or else amazed at such cruelty stand dumb as they do, to find that man should be so inhuman.” (1426-7)

2What is debated and challenged by the protagonists of Wroth’s tale is access to, and thus the claim to possession of, one of the crucial cultural concepts of the seventeenth century: melancholy. I will try to show in this essay how melancholy forms one of the means with which eccentricity is established as a cultural force. Moreover, I will try to demonstrate how melancholy is instrumental in creating that which is considered a benchmark of Modernity, a notion of the individual subject.

3Melancholy is no completely new phenomenon in the Renaissance. It derives from classical and Medieval models of the balance of bodily fluids. The earliest ones are attributed to a follower of Aristotle, probably Theophrast, and to the famous physician to the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, Galen of Pergamon. With Cassian melancholy was appropriated by Christian thinkers in the second half of the fourth century. It also became of interest to Arab thinkers, including the famous Ibn Sina, around the turn of the tenth into the eleventh century — whose ideas the Christian part of Europe reappropriated under the name Avicenna. Among the most elaborate Medieval treatises on melancholy are those by Hildegard of Bingen. With Marsilio Ficino the concept entered the Italian Renaissance in the fifteenth century (Radden The Nature of Melancholy).

4Already Aristotle (or his follower, very likely Theophrast) accepts for his ideas on melancholy the theory of bodily fluids outlined by the fifth-century BC physician Hippocrates, according to whom the most important of these fluids — which were also called “humours” — were blood, phlegm, yellow and black bile. Their harmony created healthy and balanced individuals. Yet much more interesting (and frequent) were thought to be the cases in which their imbalance produced certain character types, but also illnesses. These character types are still familiar to us today: the sanguine person supposedly full of energy, enjoying life, but also prone to passion and lust; the phlegmatic type, thought to be passive and slow, often subject to laziness and bouts of inactivity; the choleric type, jealous and envious, easily enraged and aggressive. Lastly, the melancholic type, suffering from an excess of black bile thought to be produced by the gall bladder. This type was believed to be susceptible to what we would nowadays call depression, withdrawn, seeking isolation, and finding his or her (it was usually his) preferred realm of (in-)activity in meditation, reading, and study.

5Yet already Aristotle (or Theophrast) was unsure about the borderline when melancholy ceased to create exceptional persons and instead produced madness and even suicide. He boldly asks “Why is it that all men who have become outstanding in philosophy, statesmanship, poetry or the arts are melancholic, and some to such an extent that they are infected by the diseases arising from black bile [...]?” (Radden 57). He continues, a little below, after confusingly claiming that melancholy exists in forms of excessive heat or cold of the brain: “But those with whom the excessive heat has sunk to a moderate amount are melancholic, though more intelligent and less eccentric, but they are superior to the rest of the world in many ways, some in education, some in the arts and others again in statesmanship” (58). Already in the classical age, the discourse of melancholy meets that of eccentricity, and both work by shading over normality or norm into the exceptional, with positive of negative consequences. Even more fascinating is the repeated connection that this Aristotelian treatise makes between melancholic eccentrics and power, its examples being drawn not merely from what we would nowadays call the cultural sphere, but from that of politics and the military. Thus it lists, besides Empedocles, Plato, and Socrates, also Lysander the Spartan, Ajax, and Bellerophontes (57).

6The discourse of such “humours” from Antiquity to the Renaissance offers a primitive means of negotiating individuality. It is primitive because of its strong schematism, yet eventually permits a massive step away from Medieval binary notions of good and bad — according to conformity with God’s plan for mankind and the supposed roles this plan contained. At the same time, the particular humour of the melancholic brings with it important privileges: it contains the greatest amount of self-determination (even the lusty sanguine type is ultimately dominated by his passions); it brings with it an attraction to activities appreciated by an age that placed increasing value on individual reflection, study, and learning. At the same time it freed such reflection and study from the conventions of its traditional authority: the church. The melancholic meditates, but he does not always pray; he studies and reads, often indiscriminately, and not always the Bible and other religious tracts. Despite the associations of suffering and illness, melancholy therefore proved an attractive state, and it is no coincidence that women also lay claim to it once it has been established — if they do not indeed participate in its construction.

7Shakespeare’s character Hamlet is frequently taken to embody the emergence of this concept. His dress and behaviour, but most importantly his reflections, which are shared with the audience in several monologues, clearly point towards this identification. His character also shows the status of melancholy vis-à-vis established cultural norms: in order to become a minimal subject through melancholy, one has to distance oneself from the norm, make oneself eccentric that is (Gardiner 380-1). Hamlet, no lesser person than the son of the deceased king with a strong claim to the throne, is an outsider at his own court of Denmark. He is even more of an outsider since he is a student currently at leave from the university at Wittenberg (the explicit hints towards the Reformation are important here, too).

8What is frequently called his characteristic indecision and hesitation, though, often too quickly identified as his variant of a traditional tragic flaw, the prerequisite of a classical tragic hero, is in fact his reluctance to leave his eccentric status behind and exchange it for a centric one. If his aim was a simple reversal of power, he would stage a revolt and replace the supposed usurper on the throne, his uncle and now step-father Claudius, with himself. Yet this is evidently not Hamlet’s goal. None of his actions, not even the ones related to his plan to avenge the death of his father, explicitly have this end in mind. It is as if Hamlet cherishes his eccentric status, a fact supported by his vacillation concerning another “normalising” aspect of his life at court, his tortuous courtship of Ophelia. Despite their status differences, there is no real reason why Hamlet should not marry her. Not even his plan of revenge is a real obstacle. Yet he not only thwarts any hope of eventual marriage he or Ophelia might have; he also divulges his reasons for abstaining in terms that can once again be called melancholic. This opens up the interesting possibility of reading the ghost of Hamlet’s father as the equivalent of Wroth’s temptress Urania: here, the ghost tempts Hamlet to integrate himself into the pattern of the avenger, while the court tempts him to integrate himself as the heir apparent to the throne. Both voices are equally devilish — as those of the ruling ideology.

9At this point it is helpful to bring in an anachronistic, but very influential view on melancholy, since it offers some explanation towards its functioning even at a time when one cannot seriously talk about a developed concept of the human psyche. Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theories distinguish carefully between mourning and melancholy. In an eponymous essay, Freud describes mourning as the process of letting go a lost object. Melancholy, on the other hand, is a trickier affair: it actually refuses to give up its lost object and keeps it in a vacillating state where the subject on the one hand refuses to acknowledge that it is gone, and on the other keeps on killing it symbolically — paradoxically to thereby ensure its continuing presence (Freud 245-68). In the case of Hamlet, as has been pointed out by several critics, this object is his dead father, whose death is once more made manifest to him in the narrative of the ghost, while this very ghost represents Hamlet’s attempt to keep his father even after his loss (Garber 124-37).

10More than just a family or individual matter, Hamlet’s melancholy contains important elements for a discussion of eccentricity. The melancholic does not know what he or she is sad about and strongly refuses to identify any object of his misery. This often leads to the impression that misery itself is the object of the melancholic, something that one finds confirmed with some important modifications in Robert Burton’s seminal The Anatomy of Melancholy, which was published in the same year that Wroth’s Urania appeared, 1621. Sustaining his or her state of being without a motivation and justification normally required by the world, however, is the secret behind, the raison d’être of the melancholic as an individual. The self-imposed and unjustifiable distance from the norm enables him or her to be — as an eccentric.

11Wroth’s Urania is in exactly such as position of self-legitimation through keeping the secret of her sorrow hidden — even from herself. She mourns that she does not know her parents. Tough luck for a shepherdess, one feels compelled to comment. For someone suffering no other pain or deprivation, entrusted with a simple task that enables her to take as much time off for private musings, she is hardly entitled to sadness. Perissus thus seems to have the upper hand. His loss is real, that of his beloved wife. Yet rather than being a mourner who eventually lets go, he, too, becomes engaged in a melancholy cycle whereby he keeps his supposedly lost object alive by staging an elaborate theatre of suffering — for himself. Urania, not very pleased with such a lesser form of melancholy (lesser, because it knows its object), consequently offers him a conventional piece of advice, one that employs the strategies of contemporaneous revenge tragedies. She tells him that it is his duty to avenge his wife’s death. This would integrate him in a regular pattern of loss again, i.e. conventionalise him. Male fool that he is, he falls for this ruse and leaves the privileged realm of melancholy to Urania.

12Revenge tragedy and melancholy indeed have a lot in common. In both, issues of loss and the proper or improper attitude to it are debated. In both of them one sees the self carving out a niche for him- or herself at the expense of the emerging individual’s role in — or rather versus — society. In keeping with the characteristics of eccentricity, both revenge tragedy and melancholy contain a strong element of observation and visibility linked with established power hierarchies. In revenge tragedies, the avengers observe their future victims, while these often watch their presumed enemies or have them watched (Hamlet again is a great, though by no means the only example). The melancholic appears to watch him- or herself mainly. Yet his or her privileged segregated state depends on a careful and often implicit observation of his or her surroundings in order to make sure that the separation is successful. It contains a continual awareness that the melancholic also feels watched, and needs to control this observation by others closely. A space is thus created for an early form of individuality through mechanisms that can be called eccentric. They are mechanisms, however, that do not establish a modern individual once and for all and place it an uncontested realm. Whatever is thus positioned in an eccentric realm of its own remains in a relation with the power against which it is erected — a power that jealously watches its orbital dissenters and tries to pull them back under its mastery.

13This becomes comically evident in Wroth’s Urania — who can only be sad on her own and not in company. It is more implicit, but no less pronounced, in traditional descriptions of melancholy which place melancholics in isolated places, such as remote rooms, even the “ivory towers” of learning. This negotiation of eccentric spaces and regimes of observation can be shown to dominate even the superficially opposed embodiments of eccentricity as the descriptions of melancholy and the often hilarious goings-on in Restoration Comedies.

14A confirmation of my claims can also be found in the most famous English text on spleen, another label for melancholia, Anne Finch’s eponymous poem, first published in her Miscellany of Poems Written by a Lady in 1701. Finch was the daughter of a Baronet who rose even further in rank by marrying the “gentleman of the bedchamber” to the Duke of York during the reign of James II, who was later promoted to fourth earl of Winchilsea. After the Glorious Revolution, Finch and her husband fled to their country estate, where they remained for the rest of their days. Contemporaries claim that Finch wrote “The Spleen” out of her frequent personal experience of depression, which could apparently only be lifted by being in nature or engaged in artistic activity (an interesting alternative) or in the company of her husband. It is arguable, though, that the depressions she depicts also arose from frustrated ambition and enforced isolation.

15Yet, child of a time that would gain for itself the label Enlightenment, she also tried many alternative remedies, such as the new luxuries tea and coffee, and the waters of then fashionable Tunbridge Wells (Radden 168). For, ultimately, and this makes Finch an “enlightened” thinker rather than an eclectic one like Burton, she at least partly believed in a natural cause of this eccentric state of mind — in the same way that “spleen” was considered to be related to a real bodily organ.

16Finch’s spleen poem, however, is not a purely rational treatise on the subject (Rogers 17-27). The genre itself, and the choice of the Pindaric ode, a loose form traditionally employed for passionate and enthusiastic verses, already partly subverts any systematic inquiry that it contains. Similar to Burton, spleen for Finch can be everything, or rather, it can imitate everything:

What art thou, Spleen, which ev’ry thing dost ape?
Thou Proteus to abused mankind,
Who never yet thy real cause could find,
Or fix thee to remain in one continued shape. (Finch 308)

17Possessing no substance, only surface, and irritating people in the same way as apes (also a common term for fools and fops), spleen perfectly matches the contours of eccentricity. The fact that the poem chooses spleen as the addressee of its ode and its equation with Proteus, the classical god of shape-shifting, however, adds a dimension to it that is touched on, though not yet properly elaborated, in Burton: creativity. The creative potential of spleen might only reside in imitation. Yet its effect on “abused mankind” is both investigative and creative: it provokes them to inquire into its causes (in the best Enlightenment tradition of experiment) and it triggers attempts at its representation — such as Finch’s poem. At the same time it also dulls this imagination again, thus acting as a stimulant as well as a corrective to flights of fancy.

18Important for my argument is once again the obvious link between spleen and individuality. Spleen does not only possess a Protean quality, it also lends it to those possessed by it: “In ev’ry one thou dost possess, / New are thy motions, and thy dress’ (Finch 309). This is not very far from the play-acting of Restoration Comedy with its many men and women of mode. Also in keeping with ostentation and surface, characteristics of eccentricity since its emergence as a cultural concept in the seventeenth-century, is the difficulty or impossibility of determining its genuineness. Finch’s poem makes the complicated claim that fools often pretend to suffer from the spleen, because they know that some great men are really affected by it (Hellegers 199-217). Yet these great men, in turn, are also “inclined” towards the spleen as a reaction to their frequent frustrations — and thus appear to use it rather than genuinely suffer from it:

The fool, to imitate the wits,
Complains of thy pretended fits,
And dullness, born with him, would lay
Upon thy accidental sway;
Because, sometimes, thou dost presume
Into the ablest heads to come:
That, often, men of thoughts refined,
Impatient of unequal sense,
Such slow returns, where they so much dispense,
Retiring from the crowd, are to thy shades inclined. (Finch 309-10)

19The last three lines of the excerpt once again reiterate the theme of culture as a complex mechanism without simple equations. They also consciously use an economic metaphor of investment and returns and thus show that culture (and melancholy and eccentricity within it) are thoroughly tainted by notions of cultural and real capital. Thirdly, withdrawal from the crowd is a common mechanism, and yet it remains a paradoxical one, since the crowd retains an awareness of these marginal figures who have opted for temporary isolation — and fulfil an important symbolic cultural function as a consequence.

20At the same time, the spleen, despite its prohibitive and destructive impact, also makes the appreciation of art possible, a new form of cultural self-negotiation connected to the new social mobility — which also found its expression in collecting and displaying objects, paintings, and sculptures, together with practicing amateur art forms in middle-class homes, such as drawing, playing musical instruments, and singing. Finch’s poem seems to indicate that one can only appreciate art fully through the awareness that its enjoyment can be spoiled by the spleen. Finch thus opens up the same paradox as Burton by making spleen ubiquitous as illness and its cure. Like an echo of Burton’s Anatomy, Finch’s poem then lists a number of possible cures, including alcohol, Indian leaf, or Eastern berry (311). Yet none of these is really shown to remove spleen’s power — which affects the “Coquette” (310) as much as the religious person, thus dangerously equating low and high forms of performance and veneration again. What it does equally to them is something familiar to us: “To deserts banished, or in cells reclused” (311), it turns them into eccentrics.

21It is no coincidence that Alexander Pope, an acute critic of the superficialities of his age, took up the strategic and theatrical potential of spleen, in which the melancholic and carnivalesque manifestations of eccentricity enter a strategic alliance. In his famous mock-heroic poem The Rape of the Lock of 1712 there is a symbolic excursion to the Cave of Spleen in canto IV modelled on Edmund Spenser’s more serious allegorical excursion to the caves of Mammon, Despair and Night in The Faerie Queene (Pope 86-109). It is triggered by the loss of the lock of hair that gives the poem its title, thus by a thoroughly trivial cause. Yet the detailed description of the cave not only ironically belies the triviality behind it; it shows how familiar Pope was with spleen and melancholy as dominant cultural discourses of his day. In fact, his description reads like an ironic rejoinder to Finch’s often ambivalent, yet more serious depiction. The cave as the symbolic space in which the emerging modern individual manifests itself is here only seemingly returned to its earlier allegorical occupants.

  • 1 . “As late as 1815, if a report presented in the House of Commons is to be believed, the hospital o (...)

22Spleen, now identified as specifically feminine, sighs there on a bed — just like any woman of Pope’s time with sufficient leisure to do so (Quinsey 3-22). Plagued by “Megrim” (101) (migraine) and the East wind, a commonly accepted cause of spleen and melancholy, she is attended by two allegorical servants: Ill Nature and Affectation. Here Pope’s criticism is most evident. Yet it is also instantly shown to be contradictory: if the affectation of melancholy and spleen is exactly that, then it cannot simultaneously be someone’s nature. Or is the affectation of spleen here the symptom of an even deeper individual degeneracy, perhaps one that characterises the depravity of an entire culture? Pope’s biting irony somewhat loses its grip here, when he calls the theatrical display of spleen “for sickness, and for show” (101). At the same time, one should not forget that sickness as display was common in the eighteenth century, as is attested by the frequent trips to hospitals and mental asylums as part of genteel entertainment.1

23Luxury, and thus excess, is located at the heart of this (self-)deception, when “each new night-dress gives a new disease” (101). Pope is moreover thoroughly aware of the proximity of spleen and creativity when he writes of the afflicted that “some take physic, others scribble plays” (102). The evident misogyny of the canto (which, however, also indicates awareness that spleen, when affected, was also a specific feminine form of self-assertion) is thus undercut to some extent, even when one assumes that the plays deriving from the affliction are not meant to be regarded highly. That Pope is concerned with the ability and licence to manifest oneself in language and signs, becomes clear when he uses an image from Homer’s Odyssey, the god Aeolus’s gift of a bag filled with winds for Odysseus’ return journey, and translates it into a bag filled with feminine utterances. The catalogue he gives is derogatory: “Sighs, sobs, and passions, and the war of tongues” (102). Yet we have to see it in line with the generally little respected manifestations of eccentric individuality, which are also commonly reduced to triviality and superficiality. We should also notice that it is those superficial “feminine” conceits, to which tears are soon added, that enable Belinda, the protagonist of Pope’s poem, to protest against her treatment, albeit to little effect.

24Once again, hegemonic power (here represented by Belinda’s male attacker who believes it his prerogative to “pluck” beauty) and dissidence do not see each other eye to eye. Yet the oblique dissident gaze back towards hegemonic centrality can subtly uncover the latter’s intentions — here even in the act of self-ridiculing, in which Belinda uncovers the charade as what it is: sexual aggression.

25Pope himself is an interesting case in point here. At pains to inscribe himself into the culture and literature of his time as a central figure, he was nonetheless perceived as eccentric. Undersized and a hunchback, he even had to reside in the periphery of the cultural centre of his day, inner London, due to his Catholicism. It is all the more telling that he proved so insistent in pointing out the mechanisms of the society and culture of his day — and that he chose the weapon of irony and sarcasm for doing so. The bosom of Ill Nature who attends Spleen is filled with lampoons, with the ill-tempered satires or caricatures for which none other than Pope was most famous. Like Burton, he thus describes himself at least as a servant of melancholy or spleen. It is ironic, though perhaps only logical as far as the centrality of eccentricity and melancholy in post-Renaissance Western culture are concerned, that, despite the eccentricity of his writings and person, he has ultimately helped to concoct the very centric myth of the eighteenth century as the Age of Enlightenment. In this competition for canonical status, the masculine version of melancholy has won. In another, that of the subversive power of ongoing cultural debates, things are not quite so clear, and figures like Wroth and Finch might have more claim to what the twentieth-century poet W. H. Auden once called “the cave of making” (Auden 691-4).

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Auden, Wystan Hugh. Collected Poems. Ed. Edward Mendelson. London and Boston: Faber & Faber, 1976.

Finch, Anne. “The Spleen”. The Norton Anthology of Poetry, shorter fourth edition. Ed. Margaret Ferguson et al. New York and London: Norton, 1997, 308-311.

Foucault, Michel. Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. Trans. Richard Howard. London: Vintage, 1988.

Freud, Sigmund. “Mourning and Melancholia”. On Metapsychology: The Theory of Psychoanalysis.Trans. James Strachey. Ed. Angela Richards. ThePelican Freud Library 11. London: Penguin, 1984.

Garber, Marjorie. “Hamlet: Giving up the Ghost”. Shakespeare’s Ghost Writers: Literature as Uncanny Causality. New York and London: Methuen, 1987.

Gardiner, Judith Kegan. “Elizabethan Psychology and Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy”. Journal of the History of Ideas 38 (1977), 373-388.

Hellegers, Desiree. “’The Threatening Angel and the Speaking Ass’: The Masculine Mismeasure of Madness in Anne Finch’s ‘The Spleen’”. Genre: Forms of Discourse and Culture 26:2-3 (Summer-Autumn 1993), 199-217.

Pope, Alexander. Complete Poetical Works. Ed. Herbert Davis. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Quinsey, Katherine M. “From Moving Toyshop to Cave of Spleen: The Depth of Satire in The Rape of the Lock”. Ariel: A Review of International English Literature 11:2 (1980), 3-22.

Radden, Jennifer (Ed.). The Nature of Melancholy: From Aristotle to Kristeva.Oxford, New York et al.: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Rogers, Katharine M. “Finch’s ‘Candid Account’ vs. Eighteenth-Century Theories of the Spleen”. Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 22:1 (Winter 1989), 17-27.

Wroth, Mary. The Countess of Mountgomery’s Urania.The Norton Anthology of English Literature, sixth edition. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al. New York: Norton, 1993, 2 vols, vol. 1, 1423-1427.

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1 . “As late as 1815, if a report presented in the House of Commons is to be believed, the hospital of Bethlehem exhibited lunatics for a penny, every Sunday. Now the annual revenue from these exhibitions amounted to almost four hundred pounds; which suggests the astonishingly high number of 96,000 visits a year” (Foucault 68).

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Rainer EMIG, « Competing Melancholies: (En-)Gendering Discourses of Selfhood in Early Modern English Literature », E-rea [En ligne], 4.1 | 2006, document 9, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2006, consulté le 24 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.412

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Rainer EMIG

Regensburg University
Rainer Emig is Professor of British Literature at Regensburg University. His main areas of interest are 19th- and 20th-century British literature and culture. Among his publications are the monographs Modernism in Poetry (1995), W.H. Auden: Towards a Postmodern Poetics (1999), Krieg als Metapher im zwanzigsten Jahrhundert (2001), and the edited collections Stereotypes in Contemporary Anglo-German Relations (2000), Ulysses (New Casebooks 2003), and the forthcoming Hybrid Humour: Comedy in Transcultural Perspectives (with Graeme Dunphy). A recently completed project takes him into the 17th century, however, where he identifies the emergence of eccentricity as a phenomenon that has been shaping British culture to the present day. Its outcome should appear as Eccentricity: British Culture from the Margins in 2007. Further book-length projectsdeal with Literary Masculinities (from the Old English poem “The Wanderer” all the way to postmodernity) and Literary Treasure Hunts (from Beowulf to Harry Potter).

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