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Imagining depression

By Clark Lawlor

There was in him a mixture of that disease, the nature of which eludes the most minute enquiry, though the effects are well known to be a weariness of life, an unconcern about those things which agitate the greater part of mankind, and a general sensation of gloomy wretchedness.


James Boswell was talking here about his friend Samuel Johnson’s melancholia, a condition we now consider to be similar to, if not the same as, modern-day depression. Boswell’s Life of Johnson in 1791 set the modern trend for biographies to reveal the realities of their subjects’ lives, warts and all: Johnson’s mental and physical maladies provided plenty of grist to the biographer’s mill, not least because Boswell himself was a sufferer of Johnson’s illness. The general nature of depression, and the question of whether its causes are physical or psychological, still “eludes minute enquiry” today despite the medical and psychological advances made since the eighteenth century. Yet that “general sensation of gloomy wretchedness” is unmistakable as a marker of something, whether it be termed depression, melancholy, spleen, vapours, acedia, neurasthenia or one of the plethora of other names given to depressive conditions through the ages.

But how can authors, literary or medical, imagine something as unimaginable, or represent something as unrepresentable, as depression? Is there a common thread that links the way we think about depression over time, or are the images we conjure for depression conditioned by our own particular historical moment?

The answer, perhaps annoyingly, is yes and no. Throughout all periods, images of darkness, fog, and gloom seem to feature consistently. Johnson referred, as Winston Churchill did later, to his “black dog” of melancholy. In ancient times, melancholia was a “black sun”, while the melancholy poet and priest John Donne complained: “But what have I done, either to breed, or to breathe these vapors? They tell me it is my Melancholy”. (John Donne: The Major Works). Even in the fashionable melancholy of the Renaissance, both on stage and in real life, the Hamlet-esque young men would wander around dressed in black, gazing downwards like the Goths and Emos of present-day pop culture. Romantic poet John Keats described “Veil’d Melancholy” in his Ode on Melancholy (Major Works). And even in the East, the early modern Japanese character for depression (‘utsusho’) resembles a dense, dark and seemingly impenetrable thicket of strokes that symbolise the barrier between depressives and their grasp of hope and happiness: .

Beyond the commonalities in representations of depression over the centuries, there are also key cultural shifts which intervene to frame a very different basic understanding of depression. Take Elizabeth’s Wurtzel’s period-defining memoir of depression, Prozac Nation (1994). Wurtzel is intelligent enough to see beyond the ‘magic bullet’ solution to mental illness and its complexities, and instead uses the computer age as a metaphor for depression: “Slowly, over the years, the data will accumulate in your heart and mind, a computer program for total negativity will build into your system, making life feel more and more unbearable.” Only secondary to this, later in the same paragraph, does Wurtzel invoke the older imagery of darkness: “one day you realize that your entire life is just awful, not worth living, a horror and a black blot on the white terrain of human existence.”

Wurtzel’s modern metaphor juxtaposes strongly with the rationale and imagery of times past: Galen’s classical explanation (AD 30-90) of the malfunctioning humour of the black bile, burning in the spleen and sending black vapours up to the brain, persisted in the popular imagination for a very long time indeed. As late as the increasingly mechanistic eighteenth century, Dr Johnson recommended distraction to dispel “the black fumes which rise in your mind”. In his poem Know Yourself, written just after he had completed the monumental Dictionary, he described how “Care grows on care, and o’er my aching brain / Black melancholy pours her morbid train” (Samuel Johnson: The Major Works). Yet again we have the imagery of darkness, but an entirely different understanding of how depression is caused. In fact, Johnson was using imagery based on outdated humoural theories as, by the age of the Enlightenment, depression had come to be thought of as a disease of the mechanical body which could be seen as a system of pipes through which blood circulated. By this time, it was thought that if the necessary blood flows were blocked for some reason, then stagnant blood could affect the brain and bring on depression, or the “English Malady”, as society doctor George Cheyne called it. Popular images of the body (or old wives’ tales as we might call them) have a tendency to persist for a long time after the demise of the theories which underpin them.

As we can glean from the myriad of fluid depictions of depression in literature throughout the ages, depression is not the stable entity we might conjure up from the contemporary image projected by the drug companies peddling Prozac as an instant cure – not that I am saying drugs are useless, of course. But history shows us how different societies generate diseases in their own image: especially psychological maladies, and especially depression.

Clark Lawlor is Reader in English Literature at Northumbria University, and is especially interested in the cultural history of disease. He has been publishing work on the history and representation of depression recently, partly as a result of his co-Directorship of Before Depression, a Leverhulme Trust-funded project on the nature of depression in the eighteenth century. His latest work, From Melancholia to Prozac: a history of depression, which publishes next month. He previously published Consumption and Literature: The Making of the Romantic Disease (2006).

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  1. [...] I had a black dog, his name was depression. In collaboration with World Health Organisation to mark World Mental Health Day, writer and illustrator Matthew Johnstone tells the story of overcoming the “black dog of depression”. Clark Lawlor is Reader in English Literature at Northumbria University, and is especially interested in the cultural history of disease. He has been publishing work on the history and representation of depression recently, partly as a result of his co-Directorship of Before Depression, a Leverhulme Trust-funded project on the nature of depression in the eighteenth century. His most recent work, From Melancholia to Prozac: a history of depression, published in early 2012. He previously published Consumption and Literature: The Making of the Romantic Disease (2006). Read his OUPblog post on imagining depression in literature. [...]

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