[lit-ideas] Re: Poetry and Madness

  • From: "Lawrence Helm" <lawrencehelm@xxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Thu, 21 Sep 2006 08:55:57 -0700

The high incidence of mental problems among poets and other artists has been
the subject of a number of studies.


In Juda's study, "the highest rates of psychiatric abnormality were found in
the poets (50 percent) and musicians (38 percent); lower rates were found in
painters (20 percent), sculptors (18 percent), and architects (17 percent).


In Martindale's study "More than one-half (55 percent) of the English poets
and 40 percent of the French had a history of significant psychopathology
(for example, 'nervous breakdowns,' suicide or alcoholism), and fully one in
seven poets had been institutionalized in an asylum or had suffered from
severe 'recurring and unmistakable symptoms' of hallucinations or


In Ludwig's study ". . . the highest rates of mania, psychosis, and
psychiatric hospitalizations were in poets, most significantly, a staggering
18 percent of the poets had committed suicide."  


Jamison herself has studied the problem.  "A comparison with rates of
manic-depressive illness in the general population (1 percent), cyclothymia
(1 to 2 percent), and major depressive disorder (5 percent) shows that
[certain] British poets were thirty times more likely to suffer from
manic-depressive illness, ten to twenty times more likely to be cyclothymic
or to have other milder forms of manic-depressive illness, more than five
times as likely to commit suicide, and at least twenty times more likely to
have been committed to an asylum or madhouse.  These rates, while markedly
elevated, are consistent with findings from the other biographical studies
that we have reviewed . . ." 


A recent study by Dr. Nancy Andreasen produced slightly different results,
not in regard to writers but in regard to the control group.  In her study
of Writers, 80% had "affective disorders."  The categories of these
disorders were Any bipolar disorder 43%, Major depression 37%, alcoholism
30%, drug abuse 7% and suicide 7%.  


Her control group was not the general population but people who matched the
Writers in terms of sex, age, and education.  The figures for this group
were significantly higher than the general population:  Any affective
disorder 30% which broke down as Any bipolar disorder 10%, Major depression
17%, alcoholism, 7%, drug abuse 7%, suicide 0%.  Just why the control group
had such high numbers compared to the general population is unclear.  It
might reflect the tendency for people who are better educated and from upper
social classes to suffer disproportionately from manic-depressive illness.


Comment:  One can't help but wonder about the rest of the poets,
particularly if one is one.  Is there a bipolar disorder in our future?  Or
perhaps we have approached madness in the past without realizing it and
skated free by some fluke or something that, no thanks to us, gives us a
get-out-of-the-madhouse-free card: perhaps a hobby, perhaps a distracting
spouse, perhaps a job, perhaps a pet.  Perhaps your madness backed off in
relation to your outward focus.  After all you don't really know what
madness is; so how can you be sure as you worked night after night on your
poetry that you haven't touched the hem of its garments?


Irene mentioned Pope and voiced the opinion that surely he suffered from no
affective disorders.  I personally think Pope is a bad example because I've
never been convinced that what he wrote was poetry.  We had that discussion
back on Phil-Lit once upon a time.  Everyone else seemed to like him.  But,
whatever, a better example was provided by Charles Lamb, quoted in my
previous note.  Lamb wrote that "it is impossible for the mind to conceive
of a mad Shakespeare," but I have to disagree.  I can conceive of a
Shakespeare who was controlled by his muse, or controlled his madness, for
his poetry and plays.  It is much harder to conceive of an utterly sane and
sober Shakespeare who never pushed himself over the edge after an
irresistible scene or monologue.  Then too there is so little known about
Shakespeare.  For all we know he spent all his off-seasons in an affective



Other related posts: