A place for melancholy

Perhaps I should title this post “In defense of melancholy.”

Attracted by the mist and the sun rising behind the trees this morning, I opened a living room door, leaned out and took this photo of the garden. I posted it on Instagram. Several people commented, a rather rare occurrence on Instagram, so I interpreted this to mean they found this image particularly appealing or moving in some way. One of the comments was, “heartbreaking,” another, “haunting.” I compared it to a painting of the Hudson River School. Someone else said, Caspar David Friedrich, the German Romantic painter (and a favorite of mine).

What do these comments have in common? I think they point to melancholy … to my sensibility one of the most powerful emotions experienced in the garden, and in the landscape. And it’s a much richer and fuller emotion than most people–today–believe.

I’m reading Melancholy and the Landscape:  Locating Sadness, Memory and Reflection in the Landscape, by Jacky Bowring, published by Routledge in 2017. Here are two brief quotations:

“Melancholy is at once complex and contradictory. For some it is an emotion, for others a mental illness, or even a mood, a disposition, an affect, an effect. Melancholy’s extensive history ranges across everything from cures for something considered a disease, to paeans to its poignant beauty. While in the Dark Ages the ‘melancholy of monks’ –also called acedia –necessitated a redoubling of prayer and an extra dose of courage, by the Romantic era melancholy was a source of inspiration for the poetry of Milton, Coleridge and Keats. Melancholy imbues artworks from Dürer’s Melancolia I (1514) to Anselm Kiefer’s Melancholia (1989), literature from Shakespeare to Sebald, and music from the medieval mystic Hildegard of Bingen to Nick Cave.  But it is to the landscape that this book turns.”


“The overcoming of a single-minded pursuit of happiness needs to be yoked to an inclusive re-engagement with the breadth of emotions. Melancholy’s marginalisation results not only from a fear of sadness, but from the pervasive hesitancy about showing emotion that characterises the modern Western world. Even the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley revealed how his fear of displaying emotion limited his full appreciation of an evocative landscape, something which he later regretted. In a letter to ‘T.P. Esq.’ (Thomas Peacock), describing journeying through Switzerland, Shelley explained how, The hay was making under the trees; the trees themselves were aged, but vigorous, and interspersed with younger ones, which are destined to be their successors, and in future years, when we are dead, to afford a shade to future worshippers of nature, who love the memory of that tenderness and peace of which this was the imaginary abode. We walked forward among the vineyards, whose narrow terraces overlook this affecting scene. Why did the cold maxims of the world compel me at this moment to repress the tears of melancholy transport which it would have been so sweet to indulge, immeasurably, even until the darkness of night had swallowed up the objects which excited them? (Shelley, 1845, p.96)”

I don’t know if anyone will read this, so I leave it as a reminder to myself to return to this subject at greater length in the future.

For anyone interested, I highly recommend Jacky Bowring’s intriguing and fascinating exploration of melancholy in the landscape.



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40 thoughts on “A place for melancholy

  1. I love the photo above and I feel affinity with your reflections about melancholy in interaction with the landscape.
    And the interaction with the weather also!
    The light of the rising sun drives away somberness and gloom.
    But melancholy (= the more gentle feeling than somberness) will remain.
    Thank you for this blog!
    Greetings from Zem. ( Its cold and grey in the Netherlands)

      1. James, thank you for this winter-meditation and view of Federal Twist. This is the ideal time of year for dialogue and we ARE reading what you’re thinking. In fact, here’s a build on your points about melancholy:

        Our contemporary rejection of reflective emotional and/or intellectual states like melancholy, and our fixation instead on happiness and winning and busy-ness, are as present in the garden and landscape discussions as they are in the workplace or politics, or anywhere else in the Twitter and Facebook world.

        Gardening and digital life require a lot of fast work, so this all makes good sense, but it can also result in a kind of emotional neutrality or shallowness. Our dominant way of talking about nature and landscape is all high-density fact and scrambling to avoid doing something not quite progressive, or even harmful and irresponsible. Red alert in the garden leaves little time for contemplation.

        So design — like yours — that occasionally slows us down and sparks reflection touches a long-unexercised set of emotional muscles. And discussions like the one you have begun in this post are not just incidentally charming. They are essential for anyone interested in a full experience of the garden. They remind us that other contexts exist in addition to the dominant ones, and that Romantic moments are also deeply, deeply important. They’re part of why we need gardens.

        Looking forward to reading Bowring, maybe in the snowy garden,

        1. Harry, Thank you for the thoughtful “build.” Now I think I’ll ask you if you’ll do a guest blog post on this subject. You may not see this response. If so, I’ll surprise you when we meet at the Cassian Schmidt talk later this month. (You can certainly decline; I know you’re busy.)

          1. I guess it’s not surprising that your post on melancholy would be so popular among us winter-locked gardeners, James! Even mail-order and online catalog-shopping these days are exercises in nostalgia and displaced satisfaction — pleasantly thoughtful and inactive.

            I’m always happy to contribute to that kind of idle speculation so let’s chat about other torpid post topics at the lecture. Meanwhile, stay pensive!

  2. Reading. Interested. This embracing of the bredth of emotions, both the dark and the light is something I have thought a about a fair bit and believe in.

    Also, I agree that this picture is evocative and haunting. I noticed right away as well when you shared it.

  3. Gardens are lessons in transience and who can contemplate their own transience and the transience of the moment without some grief? There is a suggestion here that melancholy is pleasant, and it can be, but pain lurks there too. Much more should be said and thought on this topic, given the preoccupation with gardens being lovely and stunning (sigh). Gardens encompass so much more than happy happy and a piece of cake….

    1. Yes. Lessons in transience, but, I often go to such a place to look for signs of regeneration, especially during these months of being too much indoors with one’s thoughts and the OpEd page. I love the smell of such decay and enforced rest. It is a time for poking about in the dirt for the start of bulbs. Hellebore and snowdrops abound. Tempting to rush the season on warm days, but better to have patience. Progress often comes in fits and starts. Thank you for this beautiful picture, James. Hoping you will find a way to collate and publish some of your own fine work someday.

  4. Thank you for this post. I am currently dealing with a site whose genius loci at first blush is best described as “sinister”, but maybe “melancholy” sounds better — lots of hanging bittersweet, scores of cedars knocked over during the derecho a few years back leaving behind back bone skeletons, exotic invasives poised to overrun the place. Very evocative of dark feelings, and I’m coming to grips that this is what the site wants to be. Will definitely check out Bowring’s book.

    1. Hurricane Sandy blew down several towering white pines just outside my garden, so I understand that landscape feature. An initial flush of ruderal vegetation is still at work in the cleared land and brighter light. With time there will be other changes. I agree with you that it’s best to go with the genius loci. You can still have control.

  5. That photograph is so evocative. There is so much more to melancholy – and agree with Anne that beauty that has depth comes with a sense of pain and loss. It’s a soul thing – almost beyond words.

  6. I grew up in a forested valley where it rained much of the year and inversions kept the valley fogged in for days at a time. In my writing once, I found myself saying “Melancholy is a country I feel at home in.” I agree with you, James, that melancholy is a rich, full emotion not to be feared. Thanks for this post and the Bowring recommendation.

    1. It is, Leslie. As Anne remarked, though it opens our experience to a depth of feeling, it necessarily carries some grief and pain. I think we may see a glimpse of infinity or the eternal, ut with a knowledge that life for us is transient. We have glimpses of things we can have only outside time.

  7. Here I go again…snark inc…but the only bona fide narcissistic I have ever known once said – ” I’d be lost without my melancholy” and then a quote from someone or another that has always stayed with me is – ” Melancholy is happiness for the rich.” I have suspect leanings towards melancholia as a result. Exuberance, happiness and the pursuit of dreams is, I would think, a more reliable place to hang your hat. Doesn’t negate the beauty to be found in decay and solitude and unlikely places, but melancholy as presented here can smack of power and indulgence. Nick Cave is a case in point – “Portentous… moi?”

    1. Ross, someone left this comment on this post on Facebook today: “Stirring. And fitting this morning. In my experience, melancholy’s close relative is the broken heart, as when cracked open by music, even just a subtle chord change. Thank you, Jim.” Please don’t judge the book by my two quotations. Read the whole thing, then make your judgment.

      1. Perhaps it’s my age and a changed temperament, but I cannot read anything now that doesn’t resemble a technical manual. Art in every form other than gardening and some select music has become “like a squeezed orange.” Think a 19th C French poet said that before he trotted off to The Front.

  8. THEY shut the road through the woods
    Seventy years ago.
    Weather and rain have undone it again,
    And now you would never know
    There was once a road through the woods
    Before they planted the trees.
    It is underneath the coppice and heath,
    And the thin anemones.
    Only the keeper sees
    That, where the ring-dove broods,
    And the badgers roll at ease,
    There was once a road through the woods.
    Yet, if you enter the woods
    Of a summer evening late,
    When the night-air cools on the trout-ringed pools
    Where the otter whistles his mate,
    (They fear not men in the woods,
    Because they see so few.)
    You will hear the beat of a horse’s feet,
    And the swish of a skirt in the dew,
    Steadily cantering through
    The misty solitudes,
    As though they perfectly knew
    The old lost road through the woods.
    But there is no road through the woods. >R.K. Go Google.
    And, from the immortal J.Joyce:
    “A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
    ― James Joyce, Dubliners

    1. John P! I am astounded! As I have been musing on the topic the past couple days, this same, final paragraph from Joyce’s “The Dead” independently came to my mind as well. I first read it in my 20s and it is so beautifully narrated in the final scenes of John Houston’s successful film adaptation that it always brings tears to my eyes. And, of course the story is set at the darkest time of year around Christmas, just before the New Year, a time naturally imbued with melancholy. Just remembering it gives me chills.

      I feel very fortunate to have led a happy life for more than 5 decades. But, since childhood I have always loved melancholy music and dreamy, atmospheric weather. I could never feel content in a place where the sun shines predictably on most days in a cloudless sky, though unrelenting gray days for more than a week will dampen my spirits eventually. There is much sad music from any era, but the slow movement of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G has the same effect on me as the Joyce quote and I love to wallow for a spell in it. When I tap into a feeling of melancholy, I never feel weighed down by it, but rather embraced by it. And if the Ravel is unfamiliar to any readers, I highly recommend you give a listen for an aural way to experience this exquisite human emotion.

      1. I should add that I mean to make a distinction between sad and melancholy music and there is even tragic music as well, which can have the power to convey deep pain. The Ravel piece, in my experience, has a sweet melancholic effect, a touch sad, but also wistful, a bit like a slow waltz. It’s not even in a minor key, though it makes poignant forays into related minor keys at times. And one can always count on Rachmaninov for some reliable Russian melancholy.

      2. John S., I don’t think this coincidence is entirely by chance. That passage from Joyce is rather famous–a miniature tour de force. I find hope in two people from different continents finding the same words express their feelings. I’d like to think some mystery is at work. Thank you … I immediately downloaded the Ravel.

  9. A garden Is all emotions and anyone who thinks that emotion is always ‘happy’ doesn’t live in the real world. For me, melancholy is most felt in mid-summer in the middle of our drought. Winter here is a relief, a respite and a period of hope. Landscape depends on our reactions to it and that will vary depending on our place in the world.

      1. I miss your thoughtful posts, James.
        Mid-winter here and we are heading for a beach walk, paddling in the waves, as we enjoy a sunny day, ahead of hopeful rain on Sunday??

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