Literature in performance, psychology in action

Philip Davis with a case history from his multidisciplinary Centre for Research into Reading, Literature, and Society.

A group of six ordinary people, led by a project worker from the outreach charity The Reader, is reading aloud together a mid-17th century love lyric by Robert Herrick. What can this – poetry, and old-fashioned poetry at that – have to do with mental health or psychological wellbeing?

Bid me to live, and I will live
Thy Protestant to be;
Or bid me love, and I will give
A loving heart to thee.

A heart as soft, a heart as kind,
A heart as sound and free,
As in the whole world thou canst find,
That heart I’ll give to thee.

Bid that heart stay, and it will stay,
To honour thy decree;
Or bid it languish quite away,
And ‘t shall do so for thee.

Bid me to weep, and I will weep,
    While I have eyes to see;
And having none, yet I will keep
    A heart to weep for thee.

Bid me despair, and I’ll despair,
Under that cypress tree;
Or bid me die, and I will dare
E’en death, to die for thee.

Thou art my life, my love, my heart,
The very eyes of me;
And hast command of every part,
To live and die for thee.

It is not an altogether easy poem for modern readers (for example, the word Protestant in the second line punningly refers to one who makes an avowal or declaration of love: that’s his religion). The person who reads it aloud is Dan (a pseudonym, as with all participants mentioned here): he is a working-class, middle-aged Liverpool man, unemployed, with few educational qualifications, and suffering from depression. He has never read aloud before. But after five sessions with this ‘shared reading’ group, he decides to have a go. He reads it very slowly, using the lines like Braille to help guide him through the sentences. It feels like what it is – an achievement for him to manage this, but one that makes the rest of the group realise too all that goes into the making of the poetry when it is delivered not with a facile articulacy that knows the route in advance, but hesitantly across the lines: ‘A heart as soft, a heart as kind…/That heart I’ll give’; …‘and I will dare/E’en death…’ One of the group, knowing the struggle, says to Dan afterwards, ‘I’ll always think of it [your reading aloud of it], when I read it.’

Dan does not usually like groups, and in this one he has feared, rightly enough, that he is the least educated member. The session is videoed and the recording transcribed for the work of my research group, the Centre for Research into Reading, Literature and Society (CRILS) at the University of Liverpool.

CRILS has developed out of a university department of English literature, such that two literary specialists – myself and Dr Josie Billington – have gone to work with psychologists and health specialists in search of the uses of reading powerful literature in the wider world of human needs. This includes quantitative research, brain-imaging experimentation and physiological measures – about which I will say a little more later. But it is a mixture of cross-disciplinary methods that we must bring to bear in order to try to do justice to the multiple dimensions of reality existent in the wide range of people that The Reader reaches from all ages and backgrounds – in libraries and schools, in dementia care centres, in facilities for looked-after children, in prisons, hospitals, in drug and alcohol rehabilitation centres, in GP drop-in centres.

The mission is to offer the shared reading of serious literature as a kind of powerful social glue that binds small communities of people together through the uncovering of strong personal feeling, normally suppressed or silenced in the cool or cold public world. Sometimes people come to the groups at the suggestion of a carer, or are referred by a professional, sometimes in response to advertisement or word of mouth: it is voluntary. Often they are not even people who would describe themselves as serious readers: they come with some scepticism and trepidation, perhaps thinking What can reading have to do with mental health and wellbeing? or How can something as seeming esoteric as an old poem have anything to do with my life now?

Dan is one such example. As part of this project we show him excerpts from this poetry session several weeks later, on his own, and interview him as to his reflections on seeing and hearing himself. He reports:
I’ve always been so used to my opinion not counting. I feel as if I’m not being noticed. And that’s why when I started the group I thought, because a lot of the people read normally, I don’t feel as educated as them, being honest… I always feel as if I haven’t got anything decent to say basically. But because of the group, and they accepted what I said, and there’s certain people, tutors, yourselves, the way I was treated made me actually speak, because in other environments I wouldn’t usually say anything.

Another of the poems earlier in the course had made him talk about the lack of confidence of its speaker, something he said he shared. He commented, also looking at that clip at interview:
See I would never ever say that to someone before, in a group situation I’d never tell anyone that. Because I even go on groups now, to do with helping me find work. As soon as I go in if they say anything and go you’ve got to stand there and say something, I go no, don’t even bother asking me. I’m not doing it.

The linguistician in our group noted that in those two brief but boldly honest comments, there were symptomatically 10 dominantly negative formulations (‘not counting’, ‘not noticed’,  ‘don’t feel’, ‘haven’t got anything’,  ‘wouldn’t usually’, ‘would never ever’, ‘never tell anyone’, ‘I go no’, ‘don’t even bother’, ‘I’m not’). But when he turned to look at the most apparently negative lines in the poem – on still loving blindly, even hopelessly – then Dan responded at interview in a way that was not itself negative:
See ‘despair’? [pointing to poem on page] There’s a lot of despair that I’ve got. See when I was reading it, I wasn’t really conscious of what I was saying. I wasn’t really conscious of the words of what I was saying. I was shaking inside. Since I’ve gone home and I’ve read more of them, as I say there’s certain words, I mean you know I can see like I wouldn’t have picked up ‘despair’ but I’m – not attracted but – it’s like the soft things. I just like things that are really soft, see. I do things in a youth group with children,

The Herrick poem is one of those soft things. It is perhaps no surprise that during the group session, it was the most educated member of the group – Richard, possessed of a degree in English from many years ago – who is more sceptical and offers a more sophisticated ‘interpretation’. Richard notes how weak, how almost masochistic the man seems – ‘Bid me to live, and I will; Bid that heart stay, and it will; Bid me to weep, and I will; Bid me despair, and I’ll…’. Richard suspects that this may well be a covert technique of his for seductive manipulation. This is to Dan an unexpectedly hard thing to think. He felt he was reading less like the macho men of his own local community and more with something feminine in him because of love:

It’s because, well personally, I’m attracted to feminine qualities of nurturing and things like that. I don’t like aggressive situations. See it’s that commitment thing. [pause; commenting on ‘Bid me to weep’] It must be emotional. I just find loyalty, commitment, really good things, which I’ve not had. That’s one thing now, I’ve not thought that in the past… If you said words to me like ‘heart as soft’, ‘heart as kind’, kindness, I like those traits. There’s certain words that touch nerves with me, and that’s what I find. See whatever’s, ‘who may command him anything’, he’s going to do for her, he’s going to look after her. And even though I’m not that type of person, I’m usually a cold person.

Interviewer: You’re usually a cold person?

No not so much, that’s what I try and be, that’s what I act, I act as that, that I don’t care, when I do care. In the qualitative analysis, the CRILS research team looks very carefully at the language, not only of the poem but also of the group-participants themselves, as affected by the poem and nuanced through the reading of it. Two phrases of Dan at interview stand out in this respect, and again both of them relate to the negative, only now in a transformed way:   I just find loyalty, commitment, really good things, which I’ve not had.
No, not so much [a cold person] … I act as that, that I don’t care, when I do care.

There is no missing the default emotional defensiveness described in the second quotation. But it is the first that has interested us most: ‘really good things which I’ve not had’. This is not about reading as a form of therapeutic identification: Dan is a single rather lonely person. His connection is not based on memory as such. What is surprising is that what is missing is not experienced here as a simple negative, a sadness and lack in his life, a cause of mental ill health. It is felt still as an ideal, as a human possibility for love regardless of his own personal lack of success in that area.

Our research has shown that this is not as unusual as we had supposed. Angela, a young apprentice at The Reader most admired a poem by Philip Booth, an American poet who died in 2007, entitled ‘First Lesson’.  It is about a parent supporting the little daughter in the water:  

…You will dive and swim soon enough where this tidewater
ebbs to the sea. Daughter, believe
me, when you tire on the long thrash
to your island, lie up, and survive.
As you float now, where I held you
and let go, remember when fear
cramps your heart what I told you:
lie gently and wide to the light-year
stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you.

But Angela loves it although she has never had anything like supportive parents – although and because. This is wish-fulfilment: she knows every well that this is something she has not had as a child, still suffers from in her struggle to stay afloat in life, and cannot now ever have in future from a parent. But the deprivation and the damage are here used in creative response and not simply lamented. They are used not as memory but as imagination, holding on to the importance of such things precisely by knowing how much it means not to have them. Those who have less (in life) can often give more (to the poetry’s meaning).

This achievement of extraordinarily resilient human health, still somewhere retained at a level below trauma and prior to damage, is founded upon responsiveness to the reviving force of the strong language of a powerful literature that often defies or contests contemporary scepticism or suspicion about emotion. In a project carried out amongst a variety of communities in South London, funded by the Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity, Keith is a participant in a shared reading group held in an addiction centre. He has been reading Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29 on self-disgust, ‘When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes’ and at interview compares the experience with what he has felt in the addiction therapy-group:

You can mess about with it. But what they want to hear is – well, personally what I thought they wanted to hear was – ‘Yeah I had a really bad day the other day, I really fancied a drink but I sat down and I thought no, it won’t be just one, it’s never just one, so I got through it’ and they’ll go, ‘Oh well done’ and I’d walk out of there and go ‘Psht’... If I was getting only comfortable thoughts in all the groups that I was going, I would not change my behaviour. Because, because, I’ve been through groups before and I’ve sailed through.

Keith found the Shakespeare sonnet painful:

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope...

But the shared reading group was valuable precisely by not being comfortable or predictable – as a result of Keith’s experiencing abrupt and unexpected emotional involvement:

Once you become aware of something, you cannot turn back, you can’t unknow. So now when I see these things in print and they strike home…

This is the best use of the negative for many people who cannot simply think ‘positively’: the double negative of ‘you can’t unknow’. For Keith it is important that an old and formal language gets itself translated suddenly into the hidden inner feeling of his experience. The result for him is a reluctant but inescapable emotional honesty:

What with books and poems, it makes you look at things honestly. And it’s harder to lie around them… This is, it’s about feelings, there’s feelings so you’re talking about feelings. That (therapy groups) you’re talking about actions.

At this point emotions begin to reclaim their original evolutionary value. Useful initially as responses to external reality, here they are reclaimed as urgent and as messages of feeling that tell of a psychological reality that should not be ignored at a higher evolved level of survival.

Literature is about the human ability to use and not simply deny so-called negative material: ask any poet or novelist. That complication of simple positive/negative oppositions translated into this result when we used quantitative affect measures such as PANAS (Positive and Negative Affect Schedule): our colleague Rhiannon Corcoran has found statistically significant specific change for the better in the facet of psychological wellbeing labelled ‘purpose in life’.

What we are interested in is the added human meaning and value that literature both prompts and preserves. We are currently using physiological measures to test changes in blood pressure, temperature and galvanic skin response to look for deep-physical alignment between members of the group at moments of high-level mental and emotional involvement with the literary text at its most powerful. We have already carried out a number of brain-imaging experiments to show how this kind of excited and immersed reading creates an animating sense of surprise and change, a shift from overgeneralisation, rumination and the entrapping default mechanisms that imprison people in limited habits of predictable response.

Rhiannon Corcoran has called the shared reading model ‘psychology in action’; another of our collaborators from psychology, Richard Bentall, has called it ‘implicit psychotherapy’. We hope its dynamism will be of interest to psychologists everywhere.

- Philip Davis is a Professor of Literature in the Institute of Psychology Health and Society, University of Liverpool

Key sources

See for projects, reports and publications.

Davis, P. (2008). Syntax and pathways. Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 33(4), 265–277.
O’Sullivan, N., Davis, P., Billington, J., et al. (2015). ‘Shall I compare thee’: The neural basis of literary awareness, and its benefits to cognition. Cortex, 73, 144–157.
Thierry, G., Keidel, J., Gonzalez-Diaz, V. et al. (2013). How Shakespeare tempests the brain. Cortex, 49, 913–919.
Thierry, G., Martin, C.D., Gonzalez-Diaz, V. et al. (2008). Event-related potential characterisation of the Shakespearean functional shift in narrative sentence structure. NeuroImage, 40, 923–931.

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