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Keeping the Spleen at Bay

Copperplate engraving which demonstrates how spleen can induce anxiety. (1796)
The compilation of Green’s poems published in 1796 is illustrated with several copperplate engravings including this one, which demonstrates how spleen can induce anxiety.
Title page of Richard Browne’s treatise on music.
Title page of Richard Browne’s treatise on music. (Classics of Medicine Collection)
Title page of George Cheyne’s work on nervous diseases.
Title page of George Cheyne’s work on nervous diseases. (James Moores Ball Collection)
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April is National Poetry Month and, as in past years, we’re celebrating by showing off an example of poetry that has a medical flavor. Matthew Green’s long poem “The Spleen” is perfect for the occasion.

Although Green (1696-1737) was not a literary scholar, he had a keen wit and a certain natural flair for poetry. When John Aikin, an English physician-turned-writer, composed the introduction for the 1796 edition of Green’s poems he commented that although Green was “often negligent, sometimes inaccurate, and not unfrequently prosaic,” he nevertheless possessed “a rapid variety of beauties and brilliancies all his own, and affords more food to the understanding or imagination in a line or a couplet than common writers in half a page.” His most famous poem is “The Spleen,” which was first published in 1737 shortly after his death.

The poem’s title refers to the Galenic system of humoral medicine. While Galen’s medical theories were challenged throughout the early modern period, humoralism remained influential throughout the 18th century. According to this system, the body was governed by four humors that needed to be kept in balance: blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. Black bile was the humor responsible for causing melancholy, a condition where someone became gloomy, sad and listless. Because it was believed to be produced by the spleen, saying that someone suffered from an excess of spleen – or that they were “splenetic” – meant that an excessive amount of black bile in their system was causing them to become what we could consider depressed.  

Green’s poem mentioned many practical ways of keeping the spleen at bay. For example, exercise could be very beneficial:

To cure the mind’s wrong bias, Spleen;

Some recommend the bowling-green;

Some, hilly walks; all, exercise;

Fling but a stone, the giant dies.

Recommending exercise as a form of combating various maladies was in line with standard medical practice. In his treatise on the so-called “English malady” (a classification that included all sorts of nervous diseases including spleen and lowness of spirits), the physician George Cheyne declared that “There is not any one Thing more approved and recommended by all Physicians, and the Experience of all those who have suffer’d under Nervous Distempers…than Exercise, of one Kind or another.” Cheyne felt that horseback riding was particularly beneficial, but any kind of vigorous exercise could have a positive effect.

In “The Spleen” Green also recommended music to keep the effects of black bile at bay:

Music has charms, we all my find,

Ingratiate deeply with the mind.

When art does sound’s high pow’r advance,

To music’s pipe the passions dance ;

Motions unwill’d its pow’rs have shewn,

Tarantulated by a tune.

Like exercise, the idea of music-as-cure can also be found in medical literature. The 17th-century English physician Richard Browne believed in the value of music and dancing for treating low spirits. In “Medicina Musica: Or, a Mechanical Essay on the Effects of Singing, Musick, and Dancing on Human Bodies,” Browne wrote, “of all Excercises whatever, Dancing to a well-play’d Consort seems to be the most beneficial…For as the Harmony of Sounds, by means of the Organ of Hearing, communicates a sovereign Pleasure to the Intellectual Principle, and fills the Mind with gay enlivening Ideas, so by Sympathy it transmits its delightful Influences to the Body.”

Toward the end of the poem, Green described an ideal life that would help him remain free of the spleen’s troublesome influence. He envisioned:

A farm some twenty miles from town,

Small, tight, salubrious, and my own;


And may my humble dwelling stand

Upon some chosen spot of land:

A pond before full to the brim,

Where cows may cool, and geese may swim;

Behind, a green like velvet neat,

Soft to the eye, and to the feet.

Living peacefully in such a pastoral location would set his mind at ease and let him “fall off like fruit grown fully ripe” when his time to die finally came.

Green’s poetry is undoubtedly archaic to modern eyes. That, and its unappealing title, could be why it was included in Ross and Kathryn Petras’ anthology “Very Bad Poetry.” It probably isn’t that terrible, but poetry is often judged subjectively! 

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