Poem: When I consider the mind

Since beginning to write for this blog, I’ve been thinking back to a paper I once wrote on Keats’ “Ode to Psyche.” The poem is fascinating to me because of the way it describes the poet’s mind as a sort of bower in which Psyche may live. I’ve written a poem in response to this image, although I’m not so much interested in the poem itself (it’s not exactly Keats!) as in how it has allowed me to think more about the mind as a growing thing.

When I consider the mind
At moments when it functions least –

As though some clumsy-handed brute
Walking in an orchard not his own
Strikes at a tree’s fanned branches,
Spilling fruit, snapping twigs,
Sending leaves drifting;

As though the owner, returning home,
Sees only broken wood
Sharp on the ground and sticky with sap,
And no intruder;

And as though each morning
One enters to find an apple stolen,
Another bruised on the grass,
And underneath, the older fruit rotting
With twigs broken small and smaller,

And no one is there;

Then I am not afraid for the ghosts of the dead,
But for the ghosts of the living
And for those splintered thoughts;
Where they have drifted,
What ground they lie in.

In “Ode to Psyche,” when the speaker builds a temple to Psyche in his mind, he describes the process as though his mind is growing in order to encompass her. Since I first read the poem I’ve found the image of “branchèd thoughts” (l. 52) striking, but in rereading it I’ve become more interested in the way depicting the mind as a garden or bower promotes a very brain-based view of what the mind is (and indeed, Keats uses the word “brain” in line 60). By describing the mind as a physical place, Keats necessarily suggests that different parts or “regions” of the mind are distinct from each other, presumably both visually and in their function (l. 51).

I was interested in using this way of visualizing the mind/brain in order to think about what happens when someone loses their mind, or parts of it (I was thinking in particular of a stroke or of dementia). As I suggest at the end of the poem, one of the most disconcerting things to me about conceptualizing the mind this way is how vulnerable it is to intrusion and destruction. What happens when branchèd thoughts are torn down? Where do they go when they are no longer growing?