In Poetry and Story therapy, Geri Giebel Chavis, writes that poetry has always played a special role in the history of healing. Medicine men and shamans in ancient civilization chanted poems as part of their healing rituals. In ancient Greece, Apollo represents poetry and music but also medicine and healing. In the bible David soothed the cares of Saul with his psalms. Early dramas, performed in poetic form, provided inspiration and catharsis for the whole community. The romantic poets like Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley sought to bring back this inspirational role played by the poets and poetry. Poetry, they believed could guide, illuminate and heal.
Rose Solari says that good poetry can provide the means for exploring our psychological challenges as well as our spiritual longings. Poetry is often turned to for enlightenment and guidance. John Timpane and Maureen Watts talk about poetry as being made up of the best that has been felt and thought and put into a few condensed words. These words are made beautiful and moving, and get people to notice more of their lives, sharpen awareness, and pay attention to things they never really considered before. Poetic assemblages of words can make people and their lives better, fuller, richer.
William Wordsworth described the poet’s mission to convey the truth of human experience empathically and to describe objects and express sentiments so that “the understanding of the reader must necessarily be in some degree enlightened, and his affections strengthened and purified”. In one of Keats’ poems the poet-persona makes the claim to the mother of the muses and the divinity of memory that “a poet is a sage/ a humanist, a Physician to all men”. The poet is the one who ‘pours out a balm upon the world’. Keats wrote in a letter that “the excellence of every art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate, from their being in close relationship with beauty and truth”.
At the end of Keats’ The fall of Hyperion, over-looking a vast arena of grief and the fallen titans, the poet’s empathy is captured and his reaction expressed in the following lines:
Degraded, cold, upon the sodden ground
His old right hand lay nerveless, listless, dead,
Unsceptred; and his realmless eyes were clos’d,
While his bow’d head seem’d listening to the earth,
His ancient mother, for some comfort yet.
This poem continues to speak to anyone who is in the midst of loss of the familiar; those ruptures that occur upon the path of life.
Shelley wrote about the regenerative force of poetry for individuals and societies. “Poetry is accompanied with pleasure: all spirits on which it falls, open themselves to receive the wisdom which is mingled with its delight”. Poetry ‘awakens and enlarges the mind’ and ‘lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world’. At the end of ‘Ode to the West wind’ the poet suggests his role as healer when he prays for the power to disseminate seeds to regenerate new possibilities in humans.