Before Depression
1660 - 1800

‘"Anxious Cares": From Pope’s Spleen to Coleridge’s Dejection'.

Professor Michael O'Neill ( Durham University )

Pope takes us into the Cave of Spleen in canto 4 of The Rape of the Lock, in the five-canto 1714 version, ruffling the enchanting surface of the poem by bringing us into contact, in however comic a fashion, with the mental disturbances associated with the condition of ‘spleen’. His mock-descent into the underworld alludes to epic tragedy (Belinda’s ‘anxious cares’ recall those of Virgil’s Dido) and unveils the darker side of polite eighteenth-century society, a society which turns out to be riddled with what we would now call repression, angst and depression. Almost a century later, Coleridge would write his ‘Dejection: An Ode’, one of the most influential of all lyric poems in English. Coleridge’s ode is an edited version of a longer, far more confessional verse letter; even in its edited form, however, it breaks new ground by openly speaking of specific emotional anguish (‘this dull pain’) rather than employing the more general idiom favoured by many eighteenth-century poets. My lecture will explore the texts and contexts of the two poems, one focusing on social questions, the other concentrating on an individual sensibility, in relation to the general themes of the ‘Before Depression’ series. In particular, the lecture will look at ways in which Pope and Coleridge derive imaginative energy from depicting states of ‘spleen’ and ‘dejection’.

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