heart, broken

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heart, broken In Lewes on 18 January 1796, a servant girl dropped down whilst reading a letter, and instantly expired. It appeared to have been written by a young man, who had formerly been her fellow-servant and professed admirer, and it stated that he had lately been married to another woman. This story, reported in The Gentleman's Magazine, appears to be a classic, not to say extreme, account of a broken heart. The autonomic nervous system was probably responsible: the parasympathetic fibres of the vagus nerve, which normally respond to intense distress by slowing the heartbeat, presumably brought this girl's heart to a standstill and killed her outright. Traditional assumptions of a link between emotion and the heart find sad confirmation here.

The heart, considered as a physical organ, is seldom so obviously implicated in a reaction to grief. So why should the words ‘broken heart’ enshrine its status as an emotional centre? In fact, other ages and cultures have witnessed various distributions of thought and feeling within the body. According to Alexander Cruden's Complete Concordance to the Old and New Testament (1737), ‘The Hebrews look upon the heart as the source of wit, understanding, love, courage, grief, and pleasure.’ It ‘dilates with joy, contracts with sadness, breaks with sorrow, grows fat, and hardens in prosperity.’ But many tender emotions also resided in their bowels. Elaborately metaphorical use of language relating emotions to the body appears in Deuteronomy 10: 16: ‘Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked.’ Ancient Greek and Roman hearts were seats of feelings and thought, but livers were also sources of passion, especially love — a belief which survived into the Renaissance. Orsino, a romantic Shakespearean lover (in Twelfth Night) aspires to win his beloved's ‘liver, brain, and heart’.

Heartbreak is not monopolized by the bereaved and conventionally lovelorn. When Shakespeare's Falstaff, a scheming old rogue, lies on his deathbed, emotionally shattered by the King's unexpected coldness, Pistol declares, ‘His heart is fracted and corroborate’ (Henry V). Nor is it invariably considered fatal: Ellie Dunn, heroine of Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House (1919), finds it intellectually liberating. After humiliating military defeat at Prestonpans (1745), Sir John Cope announced, ‘My heart is broke’, then survived for years.

How should the heartbroken behave? Ostentatious lamentations may appear hypocritical, but restraint is dangerous. In Macbeth, Ross warns the bereaved Macduff that‘the grief that doth not speak
Whispers the oer-fraught heart and bids it break.’

In John Ford's tragedy, The Broken Heart (1633), the Spartan princess Calantha hears terrible news in the course of a ceremonial dance: her friend, fiancé, and father have died. She stoically continues the dance, then puts her affairs in order and dies, a pattern of dignified sincerity. Had she any chance of survival? The diagnosis, nature, and treatment of the interactions between mind and body associated with severe grief have been subjects of constant scrutiny, from Roberrt Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy (1621–51) to present-day medical research on bereavement and depression.

Carolyn D. Williams