Melancholy is a peculiarly English malady; almost you might say a national characteristic, born out of our long, dark nights and grizzly, indecisive weather. That dampness of the soul and ambient miserableness is almost like a national uniform; just think of late-Seventies rock or the Jacobean poets, the Brontë novels or Francis Bacon. The Swinging Sixties, those bouncy lyrics and bright, clear, linear fashions, were not a true expression of English character. Quite the reverse; they were an aberration, the exact opposite of what we’re really and truly comfortable with being. The heartless sophistication of that super-hyped new TV series Mad Men, could only have come out of America; our own networks could never have produced such sharp-suited, slick-talkin’ anomie. Our melancholy breeds a different kind of cynicism: rough hewn from an Atlantic gale or blast of sharp rain. It’s earthy, weather-bound and intensely corporeal.
In The Poet Unwound (Radio Four, Thursday), we discovered that it’s all because of the spleen, or rather because of our ancestral fascination with that mysterious organ, to be found lurking somewhere between the ninth and 11th ribs on the left-hand side of the chest. It was the Greek medics, Hippocrates and Galen, who first diagnosed the spleen as the source of black bile, that pungent, sluggish humour. A little of it, they reckoned, is good for us, balancing out those other humours: blood, yellow bile and phlegm. But too much leads to splenetic behaviour and will impair your athletic prowess. Pliny describes how the ancient Greeks tried to remove its baleful influence by cauterising the skin in that area of the body, burning and wasting it with a hot iron.
But it was up to an Englishman, Robert Burton, to provide us in the 1620s with an anatomical dissection of what it is to be truly splenetic in his Anatomy of Melancholy.