Literature and Mental Health: Heartbreak

Somehow, working fulltime seems to be less conducive to finding inspiration or time for writing on Matters du Monde than an intellectually exhaustive Masters degree. The transition to professional living has brought with it a slow and not altogether comfortable realisation that no longer are the majority of my days filled with the people, activities and academic focuses that I have actively chosen.

Inevitable transitions and adjustments aside, I’ve also found that the routine and demands of my press role sap all creative energy in a way not too dissimilar from that discussed as a part of the Literature and Mental Health virtual learning course which I mentioned I was pursuing in my past blog.

Over the past weeks, the course has explored a series of conditions bracketed by mental health, or mental ill health, through a mix of videos, readings and discussions with actors, clinicians, lecturers and writers. Professor Jonathan Bate is one of the co-conveners, and a particular draw given that he authored many of the texts on Shakespeare I studied as part of my undergraduate degree and of the primary biography of John Clare, whose work I explored in my final year dissertation titled ‘The lost in John Clare’s writings of space and memory’.

The themes explored so far are: ‘Stress’, ‘Bereavement’, ‘Trauma’, ‘Depression and Biopolar’ and ‘Heartbreak’. Across the latter, the course conveners question whether heartbreak is a medical condition. As with all of the themes, the most interesting parts of the course are those where medical professions are invited to contribute their professional and personal insights, in a way that seems to most legitimately bridge discussions of creativity within a biomedical discourse, for instance the psychosomatic experience of heartbreak within and beyond poetry.

The course introduces its themes, which are also broad clinical diagnoses, with a light touch, either unwilling to restrict understanding or to immediately associate with specific literary and biomedical frames of reference. This extends to the set texts, many of which are familiar for being wheeled out at school assemblies or commemorative days, but through the ensuing discussions and participant forums, the texts are afforded reflective considerations that frequently, and brilliantly, manage to extend and challenge the most infamous critiques and interpretations of them.

It doesn’t do the course justice to pull out aphorisms, but there are many to choose from, particularly in the week focusing on heartbreak. Through discussions on poetry writing Ben Okri, we are offered the view that ‘what really good poetry does is coalesce that which you did not know you were feeling into a body of feeling and words’. Perhaps unconsciously, the lexicon of ‘body’ invites interpretations that are both textual and physical, an imperative that echoes across the course and one which is of most interest during discussions around ‘heartbreak’.

GP Andrew Schuman highlighted that recent research suggests that heartbreak can be a physical phenomenon variously called ‘broken heart’ or Takotsubo syndrome, momentarily disrupting normal cardiac rhythms via a surge of adrenaline to the left ventricle of the heart. This chamber pumps oxygenated blood around the body, but while temporarily paralysed it balloons up mimicking a heart attack even though normal cardiac beating normally resumes immediately. Self-titled psychiatrist and poet, Richard Berlin’s Takosubo Cardiomyopathy offers an anatomy in words of this state or transition:

Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy

I’m reviewing a left ventriculography
from a man with chest pain, MI ruled out,
his wife dead for a post-crash hour.
The scan shows his cardiac apex
bulging with each beat, shaped
like a takotsubo, an octopus trap
a Japanese cardiologist recalled
from his childhood fishing village,
the scan just another broken heart’s
beaten down story of futility and resilience.
And I will say, “I am sorry for your loss,”
explain the image, reassure him
his heart muscle will recover in a week,
all the time wishing I could hug him
with eight strong arms instead of two.

Richard Berlin

Such insights are, of course, fascinating and typical of the course, but it is problematic that the nature of being ‘in’ love is not explored, instead dissecting heartbreak or ‘love melancholy’. As one might expect, discussions start with Robert Burton’s seventeenth-century work The Anatomy of Melancholy. The title suggests linking of emotional experience with physiology and, in one sense, the work is wholly true to its title and it remains, to appropriate Kevin Jackson’s assessment, ‘the most exhaustively detailed work in the English language on the subject of that terrible affliction’. However, moving beyond the preface, through the pages, one realises that Burton cannot constrain himself to matter pertaining solely to psychological concerns.

In the same way that the course introduces more than it can cover, the digressive and hyperbolic interests of Burton divert the text from its encyclopaedic titular claims. What Burton does achieve is a re-writing of the characteristic aim of proponents of utopias – an ideal for all – instead, creating an anatomy of feeling and experience that is subjective, personal and to ‘satisfy and please myself, make an Utopia of mine own, a New Atlantis, a poetical commonwealth of mine own, in which I will freely domineer, build cities, make laws, statutes, as I list myself. And why many I not?’ (Holbrook Jackson, p.3).

Burton’s articulation resonates with the uncertainty surrounding the psychological and physiological symptoms of heartbreak, and echoes the course discussion which highlights that heartbreak is different for each individual because the contexts, subjects and spaces that shape wholeness of heart and circumstances that lead to it being metaphorically, or otherwise, ‘broken’, are never equivalent to another’s. The first section, or partition, of the book grapples with possible medical terms or explanations for heartbreak, for instance ‘where the melancholy blood possesseth the whole body with the brain, it is best to begin with blood-letting’ (Holbrook, p.144; from the Second Partition).

However, by the close, Burton’s understanding sits more closely to that of the course discussion – along a spectrum between ventricle and verbal, emotion and electrical impulses, with the envoi: ‘I can say no more, or give better advice to such as are anyway distressed in this kind, than what I have given and said. Only take this for a corollary and conclusion, as thou tenderest thine own welfare in this and all other melancholy, thy good health of body and mind, observe this short precept, give not way to solitariness and idleness. Be not solitary, be not idle’ (Holbrook, p.172).

Perhaps the most engaging question I am pursuing from course discussions is can such a feeling of breakdown (mental, physical, and so forth), determined neither by clear reason nor by accident, constitute a tragic sense of life – one that aligns melancholia more directly to depression than to heartbreak. Surely any question founded on ‘why?’ is key for looking at the idea of melancholy, heartbreak, and creativity and it is from these interrogations that, to my mind, the most intriguing discussions have arisen.


Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, ed. Holbrook Jackson (New York: Random, 1977)

Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy. A Selection, ed. Kevin Jackson (Manchester, 2004)

Image Credit: debaird, Flickr



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