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Adult education

Literature and mental health

Jonathan Bate and Paula Byrne
Jonathan Bate and Paula Byrne

On Monday, a new free online course is starting, exploring the mental health benefits of literature (you can sign up here). It’s made by the author Paula Byrne and her husband, literary academic Jonathan Bate, and features interviews with Ian McKellen, Stephen Fry, Melveyn Bragg and others, about how poetry has helped them through difficult times. Paula and Jonathan have also launched a new book, Stressed, Unstressed: Classic Poems To Ease the Mind, and a bibliotherapy charity, Re:Lit. I headed to my alma mater, Worcester College at Oxford, where Jonathan is provost, to ask Paula about the project.

JE: What inspired you to do this?

PB: Our daughter sadly and unexpectedly lost her kidneys when she was five. She was rushed to hospital, and we had this awful conversation – ‘your daughter’s probably not going to survive the night’. What do you read when your world is completely and unexpectedly tilted. I was conscious that there was nothing to read when you’re on your own in such a terrible night. In fact, I had a poem in my bag, coincidentally. I read it and felt it very much got me and her through the night. I’d been fermenting the idea of what one reads in hospitals – having spent a lot of time in them, I don’t want to read Hello magazine, particularly not a back-dated one from two years ago. What is there to read when you’re worried, anxious, waiting for an operation, and feeling the dearth of nutritious literature.

What was the poem?

It was actually a prayer by Julian of Norwich – ‘all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well’. I just kept saying it as a sort of mantra. I felt there was something very important about holding on to words when there are no words, and someone else gives you the words you can’t find.

Is your daughter OK now?

Yes she pulled through, bless her. She then went on to have a transplant and she’s six foot now. Touch wood she’s doing very well. But we’ve obviously spent a lot of time in waiting rooms where there hasn’t been any literature, and it’s just been frazzled parents and frazzled children. Your stress levels go through the roof. The other thing that made me think of this project was that I had very bad stress, because of my daughter’s illness but also overwork, and it manifested itself as pain in my hands. Having ignored it for so long, I finally went along to my GP and said I have this terrible pain in my hands, I think it’s something horrible. He just said, it’s stress. I said, but it hurts. He said yeah, stress really can hurt. I said, so what do I do? He said, I’m going to give you a prescription. I’m going to prescribe you a book. And he prescribed me some haikus. The pain completely went away. And I thought, there’s something in this, and if more GPs and medical professionals had a creative approach to stress, maybe poetry could be something in the tool-kit that helps some people. I did research into bibliotherapy, and realized poetry has been used in eastern and western cultures for thousands of years – Aeschylus said ‘words are the physicians of a mind diseased’. So I decided to start a bibliotherapy charity.

How is poetry therapeutic?

How it works for me is a form of curious alchemy. I think it’s repetition, it’s very soothing, there’s something reassuring about repetition and rhyme. Coleridge said poetry is the best spoken words in the best order. Sometimes when you feel stressed you can’t find the words yourself, and you feel very alone. In all the research I’ve been doing for this online course, the refrain over and over again is ‘I thought it was just me, and then I read this poem, and felt oh, that’s exactly it’.’

Let me give you a specific example. As you know, we’re launching a poetry and mental health course on February 1st, we have 11,000 people signed up already. And each week we’re taking a different theme – heartbreak, trauma, and so on. I wanted to move trauma away from military-related PTSD, and include things like female trauma from miscarriages. I had a miscarriage with my first baby, and the only thing that made me feel better was a poem by Katherine Philips from the 1500s. This was a woman who lost 14 children, as you did in Tudor times. She finally gave birth to a beautiful boy, who died after two weeks. And she wrote a beautiful poem to her son Hector. And it’s so modern, resonant and contemporary, you feel she could have written in yesterday.

Twice forty months in wedlock I did stay,
Then had my vows crowned with a lovely boy.
And yet in forty days he dropped away;
O swift vicissitude of human joy!

I did but see him, and he disappeared,
I did but touch the rosebud, and it fell;
A sorrow unforeseen and scarcely feared,
So ill can mortals their afflictions spell.

And now (sweet babe) what can my trembling heart
Suggest to right my doleful fate or thee?
Tears are my muse, and sorrow all my art,
So piercing groans must be thy elegy.

Thus whilst no eye is witness of my moan,
I grieve thy loss (ah, boy too dear to live!)
And let the unconcerned world alone,
Who neither will, nor can refreshment give.

An offering too for thy sad tomb I have,
Too just a tribute to thy early hearse;
Receive these gasping numbers to thy grave,
The last of thy unhappy mother’s verse.

I really like that. Woman to woman it spoke to me about what it feels like to lose a baby. And the power of words, the catharsis, making sense of it. It also shows there’s nothing really new under the sun. With all the advance of medicine, I still know how she feels. It’s not just me, but I couldn’t say it that well.

And I guess we’re a post-religious society, not everyone wants to turn to the Bible, but poems are sort of substitute for prayer-books, the Bible, rosaries etc?

I think that’s right. So often at funerals people recite poems. It seems there’s something about that art form.

Do you think poetry can do that more than prose?

I love prose too, but I do think there’s something about that particular art form, the concentrated language. It demands concentration in the way prose doesn’t always. You may not understand it, it doesn’t matter, you can just feel the rhythm and sense the symbols.

And it’s close to song, isn’t it, so it has an incantatory quality.

That’s right, and the rhythm can be like a heartbeat.

Do you usually read to yourself or out loud?

Usually to myself but I love hearing it being read out loud. We have Ian McKellen reading a Wordsworth sonnet in the course, and he has such a beautiful voice, hearing him read it took me to a completely different place, a different space.

Do you think academic literary studies tends to be a bit blind to the possible therapeutic benefits of literature?

I do. One journalist was quite critical of the project – he said poetry is high art, it’s not therapy. I thought, what a snobbish attitude. Bibliotherapy is a very ancient idea. In Chinese and Japanese culture, there was a tradition of getting away from the court, going to the country, and using poetry to get into a different headspace.

That’s interesting, the idea of poetry as an inner retreat – it can help one find a restorative depth, even in a hospital.

I really believe that. You could be in a high-rise flat, but feel like you’re in a garden, if you’re reading Wordsworth or Marvell. It enriches your inner life. Poems on the Underground was a really brilliant idea – on a busy tube, you read a poem and it transports you. You’re in a different space.

Harold Bloom talks about the importance of memorizing poetry, making it a part of your inner speech as it were.

Yes, my generation was taught to learn poems by heart. There’s all sorts of interesting studies, particularly with dementia, that people who learn poetry by rote can still remember them when they have dementia. I interviewed Melvyn Bragg for the course – his mother got dementia, and when nothing reached her, she’d still respond to Wordsworth’s Daffodils. One of the problems with dementia is that people are very frightened. Anything that stops people feeling so frightened is beneficial.I do. It’s an interesting expression – by heart. It goes in your heart. Then you can remember it in times when you don’t have a book to hand, and be comforted.

So you have launched a poetry for therapy book, a bibliotherapy charity, and this forthcoming FurtureLearn course on poetry and mental health. What is the long-term goal?

Definitely we want to raise awareness. We’re working with prisons and schools, using poetry for relaxation and well-being. My long-term plan is to get the anthology into hospitals and surgeries when they’re in stressful situations. It could be helpful for people to have access to nutritious literature. It’s food for the soul as opposed to fast food. Words have a particular power. They can give hope too.

I’m interested in the FutureLearn course and how one sets one up.

11,500 thousand have signed up for our course already. It’s the first time a mental health course has been launched, I think they’re quite staggered by the sign up rate. Around 2000 are already chatting to each other on the forum, sharing what poems they love. There’s some really interesting anecdotal evidence of people saying ‘this poem really helped’.

How is it structured?

It’s a six week course, with six themes and six videos. Most of the videos are 10 minutes long but some of them were so good – Stephen Fry was so good talking about Keats for an hour, we couldn’t cut it. We have a medical expert talking about each theme, like heartbreak, for example. We get the medical angle. And then we might look at Sense & Sensibility, and how the two sisters deal with heartbreak in different ways. Each week, we look at two or three ppems, and passages from novels. We also give lots of recommendations for extra reading. Then people can also discuss the poems or any other questions on the forum. Jonathan and I are giving feedback each week. We’re very much supporting the learners.

Is this the first online course you’ve done?

Jonathan has done a Shakespeare course which did very well, so he has thousands of MOOC [Massive Open Online Course] followers. It’s very global – people right across the world have done the course.

How easy is it to make a MOOC?

I’m a creative fellow at Warwick. They’re very forward thinking, they realize MOOCs are the way forward. The main platform is FutureLearn, which is part of the Open University. Each university signs up via the FutureLearn platform. Warwick is very professional, very good at filming and editing. I think they’re really at the forefront, and it’s very good for their impact and outreach.

Sketch for the future: the Centre for Practical Wisdom

I gave up booze for Lent. This is long overdue – I have had a drink, usually more than one, pretty much every day for the last 20 years. Stoicism and booze helped me through PTSD and social anxiety. My stiff upper lip was soaked in beer. Twas ever thus – why do you think Edwardians called cocktails ‘stiffeners’?

I used Stoicism to build up a citadel of autonomy, and then used booze to let down the drawbridge occasionally, to try and connect with other people and feel alive.

This is what adverts for booze promise, isn’t it: connect more, live more, be more loved. You don’t feel alive? Get pissed! Rational capitalism puts us in iron cages, and then sells us weekend release passes.

I also used it to switch off my brain and relax in the evenings. And it would work, more or less. The first drink was like getting in a bubble bath. I felt the tension release in my mind and body. But ultimately I think I was using booze as a holding pattern, to hold me together as it were, and this holding pattern is actually inhibiting the evolution of my consciousness.

Heraclitus thought that consciousness was a divine fire, and we make this fire soggy with booze. ‘A man when he is drunken is led by a beardless youth, stumbling, ignorant where he is going, having a wet soul. The dry soul is the wisest and best’. Thus spake the weeping philosopher.

It feels good, not drinking. At first the clarity is a bit harsh – noises are too loud, the sky is too bright, other people are too close. I used booze to turn down the volume of consciousness. But then you get used to it, and you can focus in on and enjoy situations and people more intensely. I don’t need booze! I may even get on better with people without booze! I live more when sober! What a revelation this is.

Hooray for Lent, burning away the Enemy’s lies in the desert of the real.

So now I am slightly more awake, I begin to look around, blinking. I think, where am I, and where am I going? I wrote a couple of weeks ago about my book on transcendence, and many of you sent in brilliant emails of support and advice – thank you so much! This week, I’ll talk a bit about the other side of what I do – the teaching, and sketch out an idea for the future.

And I promise it will be under 1500 words. That is my pledge to you, oh busy reader.

From reactive to proactive

In the last year or so, I have started doing talks and workshops on practical philosophy to companies and organizations, using some of the ideas and materials from Philosophy for Life. This is in the terrain of business coaching, except I call what I do ‘practical philosophy’, and focus on particular areas – resilience, integrity, authenticity, flourishing – where ancient philosophies have good stuff to say.

This happened haphazardly. One of the newsletter readers, a business coach called Winni Schindler, was kind enough to invite me to talk to the Association of Spanish Business Coaches in Madrid. And they were really into the whole ‘ancient philosophy for modern life’ thing. I was also doing the philosophy club at Saracens, which was going surprisingly well. So I realized I could make money running workshops in practical philosophy with businesses and organizations.

Then another lucky break – I met Rob Symington, the co-founder of Escape the City, which is a recruitment firm for people looking to leave the Rat Race and find more meaningful and fulfilling work (as Rob himself did in his early 20s). Escape raised £600K in a week via CrowdCube to fund themselves. Last year, Rob and his partners set up Escape the City School, which now runs two ‘tribes’ – a 3-month ‘Escape Tribe’, to help 50 people get out of ruts and find more fulfilling jobs, and a 3-month ‘Start-Up Tribe’, to help 50 people do start-ups. The next Escape tribe starts in April by the way.

Rob Symington (left) and Rob Archer, who also teaches on the Escape faculty

I’ve been teaching some workshops at the Escape School, which is fascinating for me. The energy of the place is so different from academia – it’s way more optimistic and can-do. I usually feel the most entrepreneurial and optimistic person in the room in academia – at Escape, I feel the opposite! But that’s good for me, in terms of expanding my sense of the possible. Teaching at the School, and meeting so many people trying to follow their dreams, makes me think: what would I like to build?

My teaching is a bit reactive at the moment. I get invited to do things by companies and organizations – the occasional talk or workshop here and there. But it feels quite ad-hoc and bespoke. It’s fun, it’s challenging, and it gets some money in, which means I can take more risks in my writing. But it’s not a massively thought-through long-term vision of how to do practical philosophy in the workplace.

I realized this when I went to stay with my uncle in Boston. He’s a venture capitalist, and he is incredibly can-do. For example, his son goes to Virginia University, so he helped to set up a mentor scheme for students there. His other son went to a local public school, so he helped to improve their finances. He’s on the board of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and helped to find them a new artistic director. He just…does stuff!

Anyway, I went for dinner with him, and told him a bit about the philosophy work I do with Saracens, Arsenal etc. This usually goes down pretty well. But my uncle didn’t seem that impressed. ‘So how will you take it forward? What’s your evidence base? How can you take it to the next level?’ I love that about him – he thinks big, aims high.

So I ummed and ah’d and said I’d send him a business plan. That was in December.

One issue is that there are many different areas in which one could apply practical philosophy: companies, mental health, prisons, schools, higher education, professional sports, the army, the public sector, and in courses for the general public. Where does one focus one’s energy?

The answer, so far, has been, I don’t really focus, or rather, I focus on the book (writing about transcendence is a piece of piss compared to this!), and just take the ad-hoc work as it comes. It’s passive reacting. I need to be more proactive, think what do I want to do longer-term, and then gradually build it.

So here’s the plan I scrawled last November, in a cafe while talking to Patrick Ussher – a colleague who works with me on Stoicism Today. It’s for something called the Centre for Practical Wisdom, or something like that.


The CPW would be a social enterprise with links to academia (hopefully Queen Mary, University of London). It would be sort of a public-private partnership. It would seek funding (government, corporate and philanthropic) to do research on practical philosophy, while also applying it in different contexts – providing courses and workshops on different wisdom traditions and how we can apply them in modern life. The research would feed into the practice, and then the practice would be evaluated and would feed back into the research.

Some of the courses would be subsidized, for schools, charities and disadvantaged groups, some would be ‘full-whack’, for corporates. The profitable would subsidize the pro-bono.

The CPW would specialize in ancient Greek wisdom (because that’s my background and there’s a big gap in the ideas market there) but bring in Eastern wisdom too (there’s already a lot of that out there), Christian wisdom (bit more niche but hey, I’m into it!) and Islamic and Jewish wisdom – I think it’s important that the Centre is inter-faith. It would build bridges between ancient wisdom, modern psychology, and adult education.

What needs to be done to make this happen? Looking at the example of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction programme – which has inspired so many mindfulness centres across America – I’d suggest what is needed is the creation of a basic course in practical wisdom, which is then road-tested and evaluated. I took a first step towards this last year, with the pilot of my Philosophies for Life course. Perhaps the second step would be to create an online version of this course. Eventually, one would hope to gather a group of people, each of which would be focused on applying the approach in a different area.

That’s the dream. I can see lots of tricky things to negotiate –  what sort of evidence can one get, should the Centre focus on one philosophical approach rather than being eclectic, how do you make sure the Centre has integrity and social value, and isn’t just cashing in; do I have the leadership or business skills to be more than a freelancer and who are the best partners to do this with? I’m sure, as I move forward, the plan will evolve and morph. For all I know, I may end up living in Guatemala making hammocks. But at the moment, that is roughly where I am trying to get to.


In other news:

Here’s a blog from the World Health Organization, about a project I’m working on to explore the cultural determinants of health and well-being.

Here’s a talk about Lent from Radio 4.

The Economist reviews a new biography of Jean-Paul Sartre.

Here’s an interview with Adam Curtis from the Creative Review.

Teachers need to be freed from paper-work to teach moral values, says the Jubilee Centre for Virtues.

Germany is opposing Islamic extremism by encouraging Islamic education among its Muslim citizens.

Meanwhile ‘Jihadi John’ was unmasked as a computer engineering graduate from Westminster University, the campus of which appears to be a hotbed for radicalisation. And three schoolgirls from a school in Bethnal Green traveled to Syria to marry homicidal slave-traders. Ah youth!

So where is the ideological debate with radical Islamists? Beyond just saying ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ or ‘you’re all wankers’? Where is the positive moral vision the West has to offer young Muslims?

Finally, here’s a cartoon about Stoicism Man.

See you next week!