I am preparing a seminar for second-year undergraduates, on Thomas Hoccleve’s Complaint and Dialogue With a Friend. I am particularly looking forward to reading this fifteenth-century text with my students, since I think it ‘speaks’ to us so clearly as modern-day readers. The text is framed with depression or, more accurately, what we understand to be depression, as we read it today. Of course, Hoccleve never wrote that he was ‘depressed’ or had ‘seasonal affective disorder’ – but we can conjecture that he was and did, from what he wrote in his poems.
The ‘students’ section of HuffPost published an article recently that showed that one university has seen a 107% rise in students seeking help for depression in the last five years. Is this this an increase in the number of students who are affected by depression, or are students feeling more able to seek help with their problems? Either way, depression is obviously an issue that is a part of student life. I’d surmise that most students, if they have not suffered themselves, know at least one other undergraduate who has. It’s important that we, as academic staff, recognise this, and are there to support our students in an environment that is, at times, undoubtedly highly pressurised and stressful. So, I am preparing to teach this class in anticipation that, together, my students and I will dig back into our medieval past to explore issues that are pertinent to me, and them: us, as a group.
Thomas Hoccleve wrote his Complaint [to a friend] in around 1420. That’s nearly five hundred and ninety four years ago. Yet, we read with empathy as he struggles with feelings of listlessness as the summer turns into winter. The Complaint‘s Prologue opens as follows:
After that hervest Inned had his sheves,
and that the broune season of myhelmess
was come and gan the trees robbe of ther leves
That grene had bene and in lusty fresshness,
and them in-to colowre of yelowness
hadd dyne and doune throwne vndar foote
that chaunge sank into myne herte roote (l.1-7)
Hoccleve describes the ominous visual signs of the transition between autumn and winter as Michealmas arrives and robs the trees of their adornment. The yellow leaves that fall and are ‘throwne’ under careless feet contrast with the green, ‘lusty’, fresh, feeling of summer. The most sinking feeling comes as the change of the season sinks directly into Hoccleve’s ‘herte roote’ – the innermost depths of his heart. We know that feeling, right? That sense that the cold, dark, days are physically seeping into the depths of our souls?
…and in the end of novembar, vpon a nyght,
syghenge sore as I in my bed lay
for this and othar thowghts which many a day
before I toke sleape cam none in myne eye
so vexyd me the thowghtfull maladye. (l. 17-21)
It’s the end of November, as it is today, 593 years later. Hoccleve is lying in his bed, sighing from the bottom of his heart, thinking over the thoughts that are bringing him down. These vexful contemplations drag him so low that no sleep will come. He lies awake, in turning sleeplessly in ‘thowghtfull maladye’. The very process of thinking is a disease to Hoccleve – his invasive thoughts afflict him like a physical malady.
He goes on:
I see well, sythen I with sycknes last
was scourged clowdy hath bene the favoure
that shone [on] me full bright in tymes past;
the sonne abatid and the derke showre
hildyd down right on me and in langour
he made [me] swyme so that my wite
to lyve no lust hadd, ne no delyte. (l. 22-8)
In the final excerpt that I will give here, we see how Hoccleve’s invasive thoughts develop. He remembers how he has suffered before, and had seemingly rid himself of his ‘sickness’. The sun had seemed to shine, and life had seemed promising – as the summer was bright. However, like a dark cloud may pass across a blue sky, to throw rain down on an otherwise glorious day, his sickness returns. Such despair he feels! Hoccleve feels like he is standing directly beneath this cloud – that it exists merely to drench him with cold water. He is made to swoon (‘swyme’), to feel faint and weak. He no longer feels lust for life – he feels like he no longer wishes to live.
The Complaint goes on, with more and more insights into Hoccleve’s mind, but I will stop with his prologue, as I think it gives us a bite-sized glimpse – inviting us to delve further if we choose. The rest of the text deals with an array of issues relating to mental health, including the perception of his behaviour by his ‘friends’, his own introspection as he looks at his face in the mirror, and his dilemmas about whether he should show himself in his ‘state’, or hide away. It’s really powerful writing.
This is serious and grave stuff for my second year students to read – especially given their vulnerability to such issues themselves. Yet, it is crucial to their understanding of medieval literature. Hoccleve drew power from his depressive thoughts to write, and in doing so he created this astonishing record of how mental heath issues have affected people historically.