Almost every single day when we pick up the local newspaper, there are stories about a disorder that seems to be widespread in not only the United States but also in many other parts of the world–clinical depression, a medical condition that can be defined as a psychological disturbance in the mind which causes the person suffering from it to feel sad, worthless, and of course, melancholy. Although the word melancholy is not used today by many people during an ordinary conversation, it nonetheless symbolizes the current epidemic of clinical depression which at one time was referred to as being melancholic (Chapman, 89).
Exactly what does this word mean? As noted in Roget’s International Thesaurus, the word melancholy is listed under the category of sadness with dozens of other words that correspond to it, either as synonyms, antonyms, nouns, verbs, or adverbs. For example, as a noun, melancholy is closely related to melancholia, pensiveness, nostalgic, and homesickness. It is also similar in context to words like gloomy, somber, and sorrowful; in addition, the word melancholy (or a word much like it) often appears in a number of expressions, such as “Down in the dumps,” “Weighed down with grief and sorrow,” and “Having the blues” (Chapman, 90).
From a medical standpoint, the word melancholy is defined as a state of extreme sadness and is listed as a major affective depressive disorder or one that affects the mind on a psychological basis. The root or origin of this word goes back to ancient Greece with melas referring to black and chole as bile, such as in black bile, a symptom of the Black Death or bubonic plague of the Middle Ages in Europe (Glantz, 738). Other related medical conditions includes melancholia agitata or a “state of depression to which psychomotor excitement is a prominent symptom,” such as found in people who suffer from bipolar disorder which at one time was called manic depression (Glantz, 738).
In The Nature of Melancholy: From Aristotle to Kristeva, Jennifer Radden explores in great detail the history of the word melancholy and how it has been defined by historians, scholars, and especially philosophers for the last several thousand years, going back as far as Aristotle, the famous Greek philosopher. In her preface, Radden explains that the word melancholy is related to a whole range of human feelings and emotions and can be traced back to the Dark Ages in Europe. The feeling of melancholy or being melancholic has been attributed to many different things, such as “astronomical movements, especially those of the planet Saturn,” supernatural causes, and “the work of the Devil” (xi).
Radden also relates that today, melancholy is generally seen as being “the result of social and psychological occurrences, and that melancholy as a condition is “both a normal disposition” or ordinary way of feeling on certain occasions, and a “sign of mental disturbance” like suffering from clinical depression or being bipolar. Interestingly, the ancient Greeks believed that melancholy was the result of an imbalance in the human body, meaning that human health was seen as made up of four basic elements–earth, air, fire, and water. This was considered as a “balanced relationship between the four humors,” one being black bile from which the word melancholy is derived (xi).
In addition, Radden examines how the word melancholy has been represented in Western art over the centuries. For example, there is the nineteenth century painting by Delacroix, the “portrait of the melancholic Romantic poet Tasso in the asylum,” due to being diagnosed with melancholia by his doctors (xi). Of course, the state of being melancholy has long been associated with British Romantic poets like John Keats, Lord Byron, and Percy Shelley. The condition of melancholia also figures in with the works of Sigmund Freud who equated melancholia with mourning, such as when a child first realizes separation and loss from its mother after being born, thus creating a sense of melancholy or “infantile neurosis” (Radden, 298).
In literature, on the best examples of a poem dedicated to melancholy is “Ode on Melancholy” by John Keats. Written in 1819, this poem expresses Keat’s personal observations on being melancholic through the use of metaphors and symbols. For instance, in the first stanza, Keats gives melancholy different names like “poisonous wine,” “downy owl,” and the “wakeful anguish of the soul.” Keats also refers to melancholy as a “weeping cloud,” “droop-headed flowers,” an “April shroud,” and warns the reader about the “sadness of her might” with “her” referring to melancholy (Radden, 220-221). In addition, in the poem “The Raven,” Edgar Allan Poe uses the feeling of melancholy as his theme via the raven as the bringer of melancholy.
Certainly, the word melancholy has been part of the English language for many centuries and can be found as a source of inspiration for poets, artists, and even psychiatrist like Freud. Also, as a word, melancholy means different things to different people, such as a feeling of sadness over the death of a loved one or as a feeling of nostalgia, such as when a person yearns for the past but realizes that it is gone forever, thus creating a sense of longing.
Chapman, Robert L., ed. Roget’s International Thesaurus. 5th ed. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1992.
Glantz, Walter D., ed., et al. Mosby’s Medical, Nursing, and Allied Health Dictionary. St. Louis, MO: C.V. Mosby Company.
Radden, Jennifer, ed. The Nature of Melancholy: From Aristotle to Kristeva. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.