Posted by: Harold Knight | 12/14/2009

Depression of the Ancient Mariner and the Rest of Us: Is the mind free or polarized?

God hath created the mind free

Note: With Jefferson, I am “Well aware that Almighty God hath created the mind free.” (3) I am well aware of our almost limitless ability to control our own thinking. I am also well aware that, when I write in the manner that follows, I’m in danger of negating my two most recent posts. But I’m hopeful that my willingness to write about these things will help someone understand, and that understanding might be helpful to someone. I’m not engaged in grandiose thinking, but, uncharacteristically, in hope.

It appears out of nowhere.

Suddenly one thinks about death, not in a theological or philosophical or scientific sense, but as an imminent possibility, as reality, an object (perhaps) of desire.

Surely those thoughts do not make one “mentally ill,” “clinically depressed,” or “a danger to oneself or others.” ee cummings, who was perfectly sane wrote of death this way:

dying is fine)but Death


wouldn’t like

Death if Death

when(instead of stopping to think)you

begin to feel of it,dying
‘s miraculous

cause dying is

perfectly natural;perfectly
it mildly lively(but

Here’s how I read the poem (thereby destroying it):

Dying is fine. Dying is perfectly natural. Why, it’s even lively (great pun, ee)! But Death? That’s another story. And with that, we’re back to the beginning.

Yesterday: I’m under my usual end-of-semester, I-brought-it-on-myself stress. Papers to grade, not enough time. End-of-semester is immediately before Christmas, a stressful time for church musicians. I’m bucking up pretty well because I’ve been happy for (what?) three weeks? A potential disaster at church, one of my most salvatory connections, one where I feel secure (a disaster because we’ll have to work hard to find solutions to an unexpected horrendous problem). I found out one of my closest friends has been (I’ve always known this, but it’s none of my business) offending people left and right to the point of ugliness that can’t be ignored. It’s none of my business. I want to confront my friend but I can’t. It is my friend’s problem.

Going home from church, I listened to Lynn Rosetto Kasper’s cooking show, and one of her guests said something so touching I began to cry. Crying at Lynn Rosetto Kasper? Give me a break!

After grading papers for a couple of hours (yes, on Sunday evening), frustrated that two students failed to submit their final project and I don’t have any way to get in touch with them, I cried. Frustration? Normal? Exhaustion? Normal? Yes.

I took a break to watch mindless TV. Two favorite movies, “Fargo” and “O Brother Where Art Thou?” were on at the same time. I watched a few minutes of each, but stumbled into each of them at a “black comedy” point that I could not cope with. Tears.

The TV Guide channel (never watched it before) was showing “The Susan Boyle Story.” When I’m gullible, I’m a complete sucker. When, as was absurdly predictable, the show ended with her singing “I Dreamed a Dream,” this time with the London cast of Les Misérables as back-up, I broke down sobbing.

You’re saying, “So you had a rough day. Emotional stuff. You needed relief. Get over it!”

I’ll get over it. Right after you explain why, as I stop sobbing, my thinking goes straight, do not pass go, do not collect $200, to being dead. And my activity for the day, including watching dumb TV, is finished. I can do nothing except sit on the sofa and hope the cats don’t bother me.

One might well assert, if I can make jokes about it (is Monopoly a joke?) and quote pop culture and remember so much daily detail, then it can’t be any mental or spiritual or (…?) disorder. People cry over stuff meant to elicit emotional response (Susan Boyle is—surprise—a hero of mine, but I also resent Simon Cowell and Piers Morgan using her as a commodity; who are those jerks, anyway?).

I’ve never written about Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I can’t (won’t) write a scholarly article about his work, so I keep my decades-long absorption in his poetry to myself.

. . . .hope grew round me, like the twining vine,
And fruits, and foliage, not my own, seemed mine.
But now afflictions bow me down to earth:
Nor care I that they rob me of my mirth;
    But oh! each visitation
Suspends what nature gave me at my birth,
  My shaping spirit of Imagination.
  (from “Dejection, An Ode” Section VI, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, April 4, 1802)

This is complex. Coleridge was depressive. His depression, according to some, grew from his sense of moral degradation (why he felt himself so wicked I don’t know). Coleridge was “. . . .a pious individual with strong moral feelings, a good and decent person who attempt[ed] to make ethical sense of his miserable life and to offer pious and loving sentiments to anyone who [would] listen, but who still [could] not remedy his afflictions with the traditional moral-religious worldview to which he [was] devoted.” (1) I know him.

Rime of our ancient depression?

Ah. “The traditional moral-religious worldview” –not to which one is devoted, but with which one is afflicted. Can Bipolar disorder (or even Temporal Lobe Epilepsy) be caused by being unable to escape the “traditional moral-religious worldview” with which one was congenitally afflicted?

Totally out of context (that is, not making allowance for his ultimate meaning—he was, after all, a most thorough-going optimists), a quatrain from Wordsworth’s “Lines Written in Early Spring” comes to mind:

To her fair works did Nature link
The human soul that through me ran;
And much it grieved my heart to think
What man has made of man.

Thinking about “what man has made of man” grieves me. I’m not sure, of course, which comes first, the grief or the thought. Wordsworth writes further that, although he grieves at “what man has made of man,” it is not the last word. Wordsworth’s ultimate view is that one feels others’ unhappiness but, “mysteriously, remains happy in the splendor and grandeur of existence.” (2)

Like the ee cummings poem in which the last word opens a parentheses “(but” which seems incomplete, but which is the opening of the beginning parentheses “dying is fine)”, I’ve come back to the beginning. I do not remain “happy in the splendor and grandeur of existence.” I am preoccupied, mentally, psychologically, spiritually (?) with death—not with dying. And sadness is my friend.

Do I simply need to change my attitudes? Stop feeling sorry for myself? Think about other things? “God hath made the mind free.” Search more diligently for spiritual truth? I ask these questions every day.

Those of us who are depressed, perhaps Bipolar, perhaps with any number of other physical/neurological conditions are often “individual[s] with strong moral feelings, [good] and decent person[s] who attempt to make ethical sense of [our] miserable [lives].” But when suddenly, out of nowhere, one is thinking about death, one (at least this “one”) finds difficulty in thinking anything other than
This was my sole resource, my only plan:
Till that which suits a part infects the whole,
And now is almost grown the habit of my soul.
(from “Dejection, An Ode” Section VI, by Coleridge)
(1)  White, Harry. “Coleridge’s uncertain agony.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 49.4 (2009): 807+. “Disclaimer: [in the on-line citation]This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.”
(2)  Moritz, A.F. “What Man Has Made of Man.” Poetry Nov. 2009: 149+. Academic OneFile. Web. 14 Dec. 2009.
(3) Jefferson, Thomas. “The Virginia Act For Establishing Religious Freedom,” 1786.


  1. Thank you. Merry Cristmas


  2. I had of whole piece written to send you, but am not very good at this stuff. All as i can say is ‘Look up’ not down. See what God has done and will do for you. For by the grace of God we are at his hand. I too am managing bipolar and as you know, it is no fun!!! I dont even know it this will get to you, as i sayl, i have never replied to one of these before. but i wish you all the best in you journey. Feel free to contact on this e.mail. Regards Babs.



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