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When Poetry and Madness Coexist

Robert Lowell--Setting the River on Fire:

A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character

By Kay Redfield Jamison


532 pages, $29.95

By William L. Morris

If you lived in the 1950s you must remember the movie “The Bad Seed” starring an adorable, pig-tailed Patty McCormack as a serial killer where madness is equated with murder and innocence hides evil. At the same time Robert Lowell was in his 30s, behaving very badly as a visiting poet in Europe, being watched by MPs so he didn’t attack his audience.

At the time, no one knew what to do about madness that came and went except to hide the afflicted ones away when they started hurting themselves or others. In extreme cases like Lowell’s, they were given electric shock therapy. They weren’t even sure what to call his form of mental disease. It seemed to affect people of high intelligence which made people think it was just a clever way of avoiding the hard work those who aren't as intelligent have to do every day.

Lowell’s parents, who hadn’t wanted children, washed their hands of him. He returned the favor by punching his father in the face his sophomore year at Harvard.

Lowell quit Harvard and escaped to Vanderbilt to study with Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom. He sought the more lyrical yet structured side of his nature that would never develop if he stayed in a city haunted by his relatives. He followed Ransom to Kenyon College where under Ransom's gentle and supportive influence he blossomed. Encouraged by classmates like Robert Taylor and Randell Jarrell, he finished at the top of his class and was set on a brilliant career except for the mental illness lurking in the wings.

Then the cycles of manic attacks followed by depression and guilt began in earnest. It’s amazing that he managed to accomplish so much with so little medical help. His second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, deserves a lot of credit for standing by him and recognizing the early signs of mania and getting him to the hospital. Neither she nor any of his many friends held the horrible ways he treated them against him. Hardwick said that as bad as he was during his manic state he was good when he was well. He was “unplaceable, unaccountable.”

It wasn’t until Lowell was in his 50s that doctors started giving him lithium and the many hospitalizations dropped off. He already had written his best works. Until then, he had been self-medicating by drinking and smoking, habits he continued on lithium.

Instead of standing by the person who had stood by him during the bad years, he took his lithium prescription and his newfound mental stability to England and lived with a wealthy young beauty, Caroline Blackwood, and had a son. He stayed for seven years. But lithium works only if taken regularly and drinking while taking it can impair judgment.

Then he did something that crossed the line: Until then he had hurt people only during his manic stages. In full possession of his mental faculties he published a book of poems dedicated to his new wife, containing fragments of letters Hardwick wrote him while he was in England. The lines, taken out of context, reflected badly on Hardwick. Elizabeth Bishop read them in manuscript and insisted that he not publish them. He went ahead. Bishop was outraged. The poet Adrienne Rich refused to talk to him ever again. He had weaponized confessional poetry.

His new wife wasn’t as keen about taking care of his manic attacks as his former wife, so he returned to America. Hardwick took him back. But his once formidable body had worn out and he died of a heart attack in a taxi outside their apartment at the age of 60.

Kay Redfield Jamison is herself a clinical psychologist and bipolar. She brings a unique understanding and insight into Lowell’s condition. She insists that she is not writing a biography. Those already exist. She’s trying to make people understand how a disease like bipolar illness can influence creativity.

There are long chapters on the history of psychiatry with hardly any mention of either Lowell’s case or his poetry. This is necessary because mental diseases such as bipolarity are still misunderstood. But the reader who wants to know how Lowell managed to overcome regular trips to the hospital to become a major poet might prefer a more biolographical approach.

Lowell’s poetry, like his life, was often overwrought. His obsession with his family’s august history and other major historical figures and political events and his analysis of his own precarious mental states do not lend themselves easily to poetic statements. He knew this and constantly changed his focus and his methods.

Allen Ginsberg claimed that Lowell was the only academic poet who ever expressed an interest in the spontaneous, not overly revised poetry of the Beat Generation. Ginsberg thought it was a shame that Lowell died when he did. He believed Lowell was about to embark on a whole new kind of poetry.

Jamison’s final word on the relationship between mania and poetry is brief and modest: “The manic flight of ideas is such a natural part of manic excitement that patients wear it lightly.” Then she lets Stephen Spender do the heavy lifting: “I more than envy the wonderful freedom with which you [Lowell] call in diverse experiences and references, like birds from the air, so that even the wildest things eat out of your hand.” Then the author makes sure the reader doesn’t misunderstand: “Mania did not make Lowell a great poet; he was that before he was ever recognizably manic.”

Not only is this book not a biography, it is not overly concerned with analyzing Lowell’s poetry. It is a long medical report that makes the case that mental illness made certain elements of Lowell’s poetry possible. Jamison, a professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins and an honorary professor of English at St Andrew’s in Scotland, never forgets her medical ethics and her own experience with the disease. She never passes judgment, as biographers must inevitably make. Not even when the evidence she presents — often in the form of quotations — appears to. It must have been hard for her to resist, being a writer herself.

Her self-discipline is the main virtue of this book. She never makes up excuses for Lowell’s behavior. It was what it was. She wants to prove once and for all that genius and character can triumph over mental illness. Even now medical science and methodology is limited in what it can do to help. But the triumph of the human spirit is all around us and we must learn to recognize it.

William L. Morris is a co-founder of the News Poetry pages and a poet and critic now living and writing in Florida.

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