The black dog, 1783
Great writers fighting depression
(Hello, this is Histories, a weekly email exploring first-hand accounts from the corners of history… Do subscribe to receive it in your inbox for free, and please help to spread the word…)
After dinner, what remains but to count the clock, and hope for that sleep which I can scarce expect? Night comes at last, and some hours of restlessness and confusion bring me again to a day of solitude.
How I choose what to write about here inevitably varies – sometimes driven by world events, or things I’ve happened upon, or notable anniversaries, and I have a growing collection of links and sources, including diaries, anthologies and, well, all sorts of stuff, given the bottomless pit of human self-expression that history provides.
This week I spotted a diary entry for 18th March 1828, in which the Scottish novelist and poet Walter Scott (whose friend Benjamin Haydon we met before) wrote:
I was sorely worried by the black dog this morning, that vile palpitation of the heart — that tremor cordis — that hysterical passion which forces unbidden sighs and tears, and falls upon a contented life like a drop of ink on white paper, which is not the less a stain because it conveys no meaning. I wrought three leaves, however, and the story goes on.1
The term ‘black dog’ for melancholy or depression is of course particularly associated with Winston Churchill, who possibly picked up the related phrase ‘to have the black dog on one’s back’ (or shoulder) from his childhood nanny Elizabeth Everest, or otherwise from reading Dr Samuel Johnson (1709–1784). And this has sent me hunting for the origins of the expression, so this week I give you a potted history, through first-hand narratives as always.
The earliest reference to this use of the phrase ‘black dog’ in the Oxford English Dictionary is attributed to the diarist, lexicographer and arts patron Hester Thrale (c.1741–1821) also known as Hester Piozzi, or by birth Hester Salusbury), a close friend of Dr Johnson. It is in a letter,2 sent by Mrs Thrale to Johnson from Bath on 16th May 1776:
Mr. Thrale, thank God, is very comfortably set up again. The last hard gale blew him almost down though; and I hardly hoped Bath would have been able to do so much; but he scorns the black dog now: he will swing him round and round soon as Smollet’s heroes do, who in every alliterated novel, Roderick Random or Peregrine Pickle, are always employed by their author to kill a dog, when he means that they should strike the reader’s fancy, and win his heart with their prowess. That man hated dogs I imagine…
A few years later, on 28th June 1783, Johnson himself wrote back3 to Mrs Thrale:
The black dog I always hope to resist, and in time to drive, though I am deprived of almost all those that used to help me. The neighbourhood is impoverished. I had once Richardson and Lawrence in my reach. Mrs. Allen is dead. My house has lost Levett; a man who took interest in everything, and therefore ready at conversation. Mrs. Williams is so weak that she can be a companion no longer. When I rise my breakfast is solitary; the black dog waits to share it. From breakfast to dinner he continues barking, except that Dr. Brocklesby for a little keeps him at a distance. Dinner with a sick woman you may venture to suppose not much better than solitary. After dinner, what remains but to count the clock, and hope for that sleep which I can scarce expect? Night comes at last, and some hours of restlessness and confusion bring me again to a day of solitude. What shall exclude the black dog from an habitation like this? If I were a little richer, I would perhaps take some cheerful female into the house.
A year later, Johnson also wrote of his “tristitia gravissima”, or heavy sadness. But in fact the ‘black dog’ phrase pops up earlier still in Johnson, which the OED seems to have missed. On 31st October 1777, he wrote4 to Mrs Thrale:
Long live Sir John Shelly, that lures my master to hunt. I hope he will soon shake off the black dog, and come home light as a feather.
And the 1831 edition of the Life of Samuel Johnson – edited by our old friend John Wilson Croker – even has a not-very-sympathetic editorial footnote about ‘black dog’:
This was a phrase in the familiar society at Streatham to express hypochondriacal anxieties of mind. It is frequently used in the correspondence between Johnson and Mrs Thrale, and is equivalent to the “dragons” of Madame de Sévigné.
Hester Thrale lived with her husband at Streatham Park in south-west London, where they entertained many notable names of the day, including Johnson, Boswell, David Garrick and Edmund Burke, who collectively were sometimes known as the Streatham Worthies. And back we go to Hester Thrale again: the OED picks up on this diary entry from 19th October 1790:5
The Black Dog is upon his Back; was a common saying some Years ago when a Man was seen troubled with Melancholy: we used to make of it a sort of Byword or Hack Joke here at Streatham, and in the Letters I published between Johnson & myself, it is almost perpetually recurring.
Few People however seem to recognize its true Original; which may be found in Dr Henry More’s Philosophical Works, where he tells us that Appollonius Tyaneus told the Greeks how that Spirit which was the Scourge of the City where he dwelt, (Athens I think,) appeared to him in Form of a large Black Dog: & leaping on his Back sometimes; — filled him with Melancholy for many Days after.
And on 18th February 1794, Mrs Thrale cites another source…
I have mentioned the Black Dog as of Greek Original in this Analect Book somewhere; but one may find it nearer home it seems: Cardinal Crescenza at Verona died mad, he had for many Years fancied himself pursued by a Black Dog & complained during his last Hours that nobody would keep that Beast off his Bed. The Story is quoted in Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, where I dare say Doctor Johnson read it.
That Book has been exceedingly pillaged.
And of course the Anatomy of Melancholy – first published in 1621 and still in print today – is the titan in the history of English writing about depression. Johnson himself once said, Boswell tells us, that it was “the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise”, so it seems entirely likely this is where he acquired the black dog idea.
Walter Scott, with whom we began this journey, certainly seems to have shared Johnson’s plight. In his 1816 novel The Antiquary he refers to his character Sir Arthur having “the black dog on his back again”, and he wrote in his diary, on 12th May 1826 in Edinburgh:
I passed a pleasant day with kind J. B. [his publisher James Ballantyne], which was a great relief from the black dog, which would have worried me at home.
And on 24th September 1827, Scott wrote in his diary:
Some things of the black dog still hanging about me; but I will shake him off. I generally affect good spirits in company of my family whether I am enjoying them or not. It is too severe to sadden the harmless mirth of others by suffering your own causeless melancholy to be seen; and this species of exertion is, like virtue, its own reward; for the good spirits, which are at first simulated, become at length real.
Johnson and Scott seem to have turned to company to alleviate their gloom, and Scott even seems to be advocating an early form of cognitive behavioural therapy for himself. If you are a sufferer yourself, I hope the black dog passes, and you can take some comfort in knowing you are in the highest literary company.
On a lighter note, if you like word games such as Wordle, I’ve made a version using only British place names. Be warned, it’s rather difficult!