Sorrow and hope – Eric Wilson on melancholy

My friend beyond the mountains Terry Glavin wrote yesterday about an essay by Eric G Wilson in praise of melancholy. He also links to a YouTube video of Irish traditional singer Iarla Ó’Lionáird performing the beautiful air Coaineadh na dTri Múire (Lament of the three Marys).

Terry quotes from Wilson’s essay, which is titled “In praise of melancholy”:

“Melancholia, far from a mere disease or weakness of will, is an almost miraculous invitation to transcend the banal status quo and imagine the untapped possibilities for existence. Without melancholia, the earth would likely freeze over into a fixed state, as predictable as metal. Only with the help of constant sorrow can this dying world be changed, enlivened, pushed to the new.”

Before adding my own comment, I give you another performance by Ó’Lionáird, who this time sings Taimse im’ chodladh (I sleep):

Given that it is some 35 years since I last spoke Irish in earnest (and that was in a Dún Laoghaire primary school, with a teacher threatening to thrash me with a heavy wooden ruler if I made even a tiny mistake!), I shall not attempt a full translation here. All I will say is that the song is most beautiful – melancholic and deeply romantic.

Here is the refrain:

I sleep and will not be woken.
The day is dawning.
Come back again,
do not wake me now.

Some might object to the term “constant sorrow” in the passage from Wilson’s essay. But with the sentences quoted above, I cannot think of English words that better describe a melancholy grounded in hope rather than despair.

I’m normally reluctant to say anything positive about religion, but I must pay tribute to the very human spirituality of the tribes of Israel and Judah. You find the hopeful melancholic soul throughout the scriptures, and especially in books such as the Psalms of David, and Isaiah. “Sorrow” captures the feeling perfectly, and standard dictionary definitions do not do it justice.