The poem ‘What Depression Feels Like’ by Jennings records the first-hand experience of the psychological tumult the poet suffered for quite a long period of time. Jennings, the only female member of the group of twentieth-century English poets known as ‘Movement Poets’, makes the melancholy mind a pivot of many of her poems. But, in each verse, including this one, she turns the prosaic subject into beautiful Poetry with jaw-dropping lyricism. Despite having a matter-of-fact, almost medical-digest-like title, the poem is a brilliant piece of literature that ventures to probe into the depth of a depressed mind.
Explore What Depression Feels Like
‘What Depression Feels Like‘ speaks of a woman who is a patient with acute depression. She is negligent about her home ambiance, her daily chores, her looks, about the world outside. She even does not bother to ponder over her distress.
The lady is shown to have reached the nadir of melancholia. A sea-deep sense of nonchalance about everything has shrouded her. She has withdrawn herself from everything that belongs specifically to the feminine territory: the cleanliness of the room, the room décor, skin-care necessity, personal health – nothing can engage, attract or allure her.
She has lost the power to strike, to retaliate. She speaks half-heartedly. She does the routine household chores lackadaisically. Sometimes, at the clatter of the China pots, her face gives some expression of anguish, but that bit of concern is only an instinctive, instantaneous response. Most of the time, she just sits to stare at others with indifferent passivity.
You can read the full poem here.
The poem details the psychodynamic issues of the conscious and the unconscious mind and shows how a person may be engrossed with negativism and is carried away to the fathomless depth of depression.
The poem, however, does not venture any pathological or etiological study factors that accumulate to make the lady prey to melancholia. It just delineates the lady, showing the extremity of depression-syndromes. It is a long-term major depressive disorder that affects how one feels, thinks, and behaves.
Lack of energy and interest in all subjects is the most prominent symptom of the disorder. A suppressed anger of grievance is there, as connoted by the two words, ‘violent’ and ‘furious’, but it is internalized; the patient is not potent enough to release them into a stormy outburst.
Commensurate with the theme, the tone is rather aloof and detached. The reader may have the first impression that he is going through a diagnosis paper. It is like other poems composed by the poets belonging to the ‘Movement Poetry’ group, neither sentimental nor emotional. Instead, it is objective, somewhat detached, and restrictive in its tone.
The poem is traditionally structured. It has two stanzas, each consisting of five run-on lines( mostly) and rhymed as ‘ababa’. The predominant measure is iambic, though there are some variations. Some lines have acephalous, anapest, and iambic, all included in one line. For example;
Most |ly she mere |ly sta |red at us |and sat
Acephalous| Anapest | Iambic | Anapest | Iambic
The poem has some remarkable figures of speech. For example:
- Transferred Epithet. A transferred Epithet is when an adjective, usually used to describe one thing, is transferred to another. An epithet is a word or phrase which describes the quality of someone or something. For example, ‘ a happy person ’. Epithets are usually adjectives like ‘happy’ that describe a noun like ‘person’. In this poem, ‘The furious window’- is an instance of a Transferred Epithet. The ‘window’ is not ‘furious’; the adjective which should have been used to describe a mind has been shifted to modify the window. Here the ‘window’ is also personified.
- Synecdoche. A figure of speech by which a part is put for the whole, the whole for a part, the species for the genus, the genus for the species, or the name of the material for the thing made. In the poem, ‘the China clattered’ is an instance of synecdoche. ‘China’ refers to crockery made of China- clay.
- Pathetic Fallacy. The phrase pathetic fallacy is a literary term for the attribution of human emotion and conduct to things found in nature that are not human. It is a kind of personification that occurs in poetic descriptions, when, for example, clouds seem sullen, when leaves dance, or when rocks seem indifferent. In the poem, “… window shook with violent storms”, the storm which is internalized in the psyche of the patient gets reflected in the storm outside. Here there is an instance of pathetic fallacy.
She left the room undusted, did not care
To hang a picture, even lay a book
On the small table. All her pain was there-
In absences. The furious window shook
With violent storms she had no power to share.
The lady who suffers from chronic onslaughts of depression is left nameless. The poem begins with the pronoun ‘she’, keeping the lady anonymous. No identity, no specification about her individual and social selves, and no details about her looks, status, or profession are felt necessary.
The poem does not care to portray the lady as anything but an epitome of depression. From the beginning, the focus is on the surroundings. The dirt and filth, the disarray and disarrangement around the lady are indicative of the psychological disorder she is a patient of. She is sunken into an unfathomable depth of pensiveness; her agony has been frozen into an iceberg of quietude- it is not expressed or displayed in any way.
The strategic detached mode of description of the first few lines veers into something potentially challenging in the last sentence that constitutes one complete and one fragmented run-on line to end up the stanza. The two specific words, ‘furious’ and ‘violent’ arouse an expectation in the reader that this all-pervasive negativism will come to an end. But, once again there is the ominous negative word ‘no’ that completely seals the possibility of a breakthrough.
Her face was lined, her bones stood thinly out
Mostly she merely stared at us and sat…
The second stanza zooms on the lady’s face and here too, depression is writ large. The lined face and the protruded bones perspicuously hide some sob stories. Even when she talks, she does not bother to think about the subject. Even when some expression of concern is there on her visage, it is not the mark of any real interest; it is rather a kind of reflex action than pure and sincere concern.
Most of the time the woman stares blindly at her visitors and sits idly. The three dots with which the poem poses to come to its end suggest that the sedentary life, the woman has succumbed to, along with the intellectual and emotional inertia, is going to last long without the least hope of any change for the positive.
About Elizabeth Jennings
Elizabeth Jennings or Elizabeth Joan Jennings, was an Oxford poet born in Boston, Lincolnshire, England. She chose to trade on a different path, a path that talks about personal matters in an easy language. The unicité of her poems was the simplicity of the style and theme. She discarded the exaggeration of 18th-century romanticism and took a genre that was both palatable and palpable.
Jennings was a prolific writer and most of her works register the impression of her own psychological upheavals and eventual recovery. Regardless she belonged to the ‘Movement’ group, Elizabeth Jennings’s poetry lack in the irony or academic wit that marked the Movement Poetry.
Everything outside becomes insignificant for a patient with depression who is obsessed with the rue that he/she nurtures deep within her. The household chores were not a matter of importance for this woman who was plunged into the depth of her sorrow.
The huge bulk of grief and grievance had benumbed all her power and potent and the lady preferred to live in the cocoon of her solitary self and avoided taking part in any ruffle.
When the ‘China’ i.e., the crockery in the kitchen clattered, the lady’s face looked anguished.
Sitting idly and staring at the visitors was the lady’s prime occupation.
Elizabeth Jennings was attached to a group of poets of the 1950s who were known as ‘Movement’ poets.
The tone of the poem is melancholic and somewhat detached, in keeping with the theme of the poem.