Showing posts with label Saturnine temperament. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Saturnine temperament. Show all posts

Monday, January 18, 2010


There’s an old saw that avers suffering transforms the common man into a philosopher, and this may express a certain truth. In one of her poems, Emily Dickinson uses “lead” as a metaphor to approximate mental and emotional suffering: “After great pain a formal feeling comes,” during which “The nerves sit ceremonious like tombs.” She goes on to write:

This is the hour of lead
Remembered if outlived,
As freezing persons recollect the snow—
First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.

Traditionally, lead has been associated with the planet Saturn; hence, the emotional feeling Dickinson is trying to describe by “the hour of lead” is called saturnine. Freud suggested the mental energy required for this “letting go” was the difference between mourning and melancholy. In his Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1985), Italo Calvino suggests that “melancholy is sadness that has taken on lightness,” just as “humor is comedy that has lost its bodily weight” (19). Calvino also observes that the ancients thought the saturnine temperament the one “proper to artists, poets, and thinkers, and that seems true enough. Certainly literature would never have existed if some human beings had not been strongly inclined to introversion, discontented with the world as it is, inclined to forget themselves for hours and days on end to fix their gaze on the immobility of silent worlds” (52). Calvino contrasts the saturnine temperament with the mercurial one, the former “melancholy, contemplative, and solitary,” the latter, mercurial one, “inclined toward exchanges and commerce and dexterity” (52). I can think of no better poetic example of the contemplative, solitary artistic temperament than that of Dylan Thomas’ “In My Craft or Sullen Art,” in which Thomas writes:

In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms
I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.

Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.

My astrological sign is Cancer, the crab, one who carries his home on his back. Hence my temperament is to prefer the solitary. Perhaps for this reason, I’ve always been attracted to Thomas’ poem, and especially the description of his writing as “spindrift pages.” Spindrift typically refers to the telltale spray blown from cresting waves during gale force winds, but the word is also used to describe the fine sand that is blown off the tips of sand dunes, or the fine snow that the wind blows off the top edges of snow drifts. Thomas’ “spindrift pages” are those pages that are whisked like fine snow from his writing desk, destined for an unknown reader, or perhaps no reader at all. Therefore, for me the image that best captures the saturnine temperament, or melancholy, is one of the ocean, or desert, or hilltop that displays the telltale wisps of spindrift. My personal image of melancholy is not necessarily one that is common or widely endorsed, of course, because it partakes of the wholly personal and private, eluding public endorsement. The musical equivalent of melancholy is perhaps private as well, just as the personal image of melancholy is, and so my list of some melancholic songs may not match those of others.

A Personal List Of A Few Musical Equivalents To Spindrift:
The Beatles – In My Life
Glen Campbell – Wichita Lineman
Neil Diamond – Solitary Man
Elton John – Rocket Man
The Grateful Dead – Box of Rain
The Left Banke – Walk Away Renee
Harry Nilsson – Everybody’s Talkin’
Phil Ochs – Boy in Ohio
Roy Orbison – In Dreams
Gilbert O’Sullivan – Alone Again, Naturally
Quicksilver Messenger Service – Spindrifter
Marty Robbins – Saddle Tramp
Bob Seger – Turn the Page
XTC – My Bird Performs
Neil Young – After the Gold Rush