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Old February 8th, 2011, 01:01 PM   #1
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Poets and madness

"Men have called me mad but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence." Edgar Allen Poe

A fascinating article about the troubled genius of poets (and the nature of genius itself):

Byron was "mad, bad and dangerous to know" according to one lover, Keats was driven to distraction by obsessive love and Sylia Plath ended her own life.

Depression, madness and insanity are themes which have run throughout the history of poetry.

The incidence of mood disorders, suicide and institutionalisation was 20 times higher among major British and Irish poets between 1600 and 1800 according to a study by psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison.

In other words, poets are 20 times more likely to end up in an asylum than the general population...

So what is it about poetry that seems to attract those more likely to suffer a mental disorder?
BBC News - Poetry, the creative process and mental illness

The article links to an older study that found "similar brain patterns in artists at work to those of schizophrenics". BBC News - Creative minds 'mimic schizophrenia' (Which reminded me of an older thread that discussed art and unhappiness.)
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Old November 25th, 2012, 09:07 AM   #2
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I won't call Robindronath Tagore mad in my wildest imagination, would you ---> http://www.historum.com/asian-histor...ro-songit.html
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Old November 25th, 2012, 09:22 AM   #3

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It's not just poets. Artists, musicians, inventors and generally geniuses of any kind tend to border on insanity. That being the case, the E. A. Poe quote you posted is actually an extremely good question.
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Old November 25th, 2012, 09:45 AM   #4

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Byron was a versifier rather than a poet, and his actions were calculated for effect or motivated by self-indulgence, I wouldn't describe him as mad. There have been quite a few good English poets who were depressive, e.g. Tennyson and Edward Thomas, but many, indeed the majority I would have thought, have had balanced minds. John Clare went mad, and wrote some memorable poems while mad, but I don't think that this was a factor in his original development as a poet. Similarly William Collins went mad, but he was not mad when he wrote the poems that he is remembered for. William Cowper was mad or a stone's throw away from madness for much of his life (he feared eternal damnation and eventually thought that he was damned), and that is a factor in his creativity, but his verse was not of the 'inspired' type, it served rather to calm him down. It disputable whether William Blake was a visionary or round the twist (doubtless a combination of the two) and that certainly does affect his poems. Christopher Smart might be mentioned as another mad poet. Except for Clare and Blake at their best, none of these were poets of the first rank. But there is not a trace of madness or even depression in many of the finest English poets, e.g. Donne, Herbert, Marvell, Wordsworth, Browning. I'm very suspicious of any general idea that genius is akin to madness, most of the very greatest writers and artists have not had unbalanced personalities.
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Old November 25th, 2012, 10:06 AM   #5

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A poem written by William Cowper during a period of insanity:

Hatred and vengeance, my eternal portion,
Scarce can endure delay of execution,
Wait with impatient readiness to seize my
Soul in a moment.

Damned below Judas; more abhorred than he was,
Who for a few pence sold his holy Master.
Twice-betrayed Jesus me, the last delinquent,
Deems the profanest.

Man disavows, and Deity disowns me;
Hell might afford my miseries a shelter;
Therefore Hell keeps her ever-hungry mouths all
Bolted against me.

Hard lot! encompassed with a thousand dangers,
Weary, faint, trembling with a thousand terrors,
I'm called, if vanquished, to receive a sentence
Worse than Abiram's.

Him the vindictive rod of angry Justice
Sent quick and howling to the centre headlong;
I, fed with judgement, in a fleshy tomb, am
Buried above ground.

A poem written by Clare in the lunatic asylum (incredibly moving and very fine poetry):

I am: yet what I am none cares or knows,
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death's oblivion lost;
And yet I am! and live with shadows tost

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life's esteems;
And e'en the dearest--that I loved the best--
Are strange--nay, rather stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes where man has never trod;
A place where woman never smil'd or wept;
There to abide with my creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie;
The grass below--above the vaulted sky.
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Old November 25th, 2012, 11:15 AM   #6

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For comparison to Clare, a poem written by Friedrich Hölderlin during his madness:

Die Linien des Lebens sind verschieden,
Wie Wege sind, und wie der Berge Grenzen.
Was hier wir sind, kann dort ein Gott ergänzen
Mit Harmonien und ewigem Lohn und Frieden.

(The lines of life are various / as roads are, and the boundaries of mountains. / What we are here, a god can complete over there / with harmonies and eternal compensation and peace.)

Der Spaziergang (the Walk):

Ihr Wälder schön an der Seite,
Am grünen Abhang gemalt,
Wo ich umher mich leite,
Durch süße Ruhe bezahlt
Für jeden Stachel im Herzen,
Wenn dunkel mir ist der Sinn,
Den Kunst und Sinnen hat Schmerzen
Gekostet von Anbeginn.
Ihr lieblichen Bilder im Tale,
Zum Beispiel Garten und Baum,
Und dann der Steg, der schmale,
Der Bach zu sehen kaum,
Wie schön aus heiterer Ferne
Glänzt einem das herrliche Bild
Der Landschaft, die ich gerne
Besuch' in Witterung mild.
Die Gottheit freundlich geleitet
Uns erstlich mit Blau,
Hernach mit Wolken bereitet,
Gebildet wölbig und grau,
Mit sengenden Blitzen und Rollen
Des Donners, mit Reiz des Gefilds,
Mit Schönheit, die gequollen
Vom Quell ursprünglichen Bilds.

(I like the end: the deity escorts us in a friendly fashion / at first with blue / and afterwards with clouds prepared [for us], / shaped in vaulted form and grey / with lightning-flashes that singe and rumbling / of thunder, with the charm of meadows, / with beauty that has welled up / from the source of original [i.e. primordial, or perhaps better, primal] image.

Please forgive the improvized 'translation' that has reduced poetry to little better than drivel! )
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Old November 25th, 2012, 11:35 AM   #7

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Christopher Smart on his cat, one of the most memorable 'mad poems' that I know; it's more than a little crazy, but also very precisely observed:

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For tenthly he goes in quest of food.
For having consider'd God and himself he will consider his neighbour.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day's work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord's watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.
For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger.
For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in goodness he suppresses.
For he will not do destruction, if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation.
For he purrs in thankfulness, when God tells him he's a good Cat.
For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.
For every house is incomplete without him and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.
For the Lord commanded Moses concerning the cats at the departure of the Children of Israel from Egypt.
For every family had one cat at least in the bag.
For the English Cats are the best in Europe.
For he is the cleanest in the use of his forepaws of any quadruped.
For the dexterity of his defence is an instance of the love of God to him exceedingly.
For he is the quickest to his mark of any creature.
For he is tenacious of his point.
For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery.
For he knows that God is his Saviour.
For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.
For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion.
For he is of the Lord's poor and so indeed is he called by benevolence perpetually--Poor Jeoffry! poor Jeoffry! the rat has bit thy throat.
For I bless the name of the Lord Jesus that Jeoffry is better.
For the divine spirit comes about his body to sustain it in complete cat.
For his tongue is exceeding pure so that it has in purity what it wants in music.
For he is docile and can learn certain things.
For he can set up with gravity which is patience upon approbation.
For he can fetch and carry, which is patience in employment.
For he can jump over a stick which is patience upon proof positive.
For he can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command.
For he can jump from an eminence into his master's bosom.
For he can catch the cork and toss it again.
For he is hated by the hypocrite and miser.
For the former is afraid of detection.
For the latter refuses the charge.
For he camels his back to bear the first notion of business.
For he is good to think on, if a man would express himself neatly.
For he made a great figure in Egypt for his signal services.
For he killed the Ichneumon-rat very pernicious by land.
For his ears are so acute that they sting again.
For from this proceeds the passing quickness of his attention.
For by stroking of him I have found out electricity.
For I perceived God's light about him both wax and fire.
For the Electrical fire is the spiritual substance, which God sends from heaven to sustain the bodies both of man and beast.
For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.
For, tho he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.
For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadruped.
For he can tread to all the measures upon the music.
For he can swim for life.
For he can creep.
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Old November 25th, 2012, 11:50 AM   #8

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The French poet Gerard de Nerval was crazy to varying degrees. He had a pet lobster called Thibault. This is how Gautier described an encounter with him:

Un jour, dans le jardin du Palais-Royal, on vit Gérard traînant un homard vivant au bout d’un ruban bleu. L’histoire circula dans Paris et comme ses amis s’étonnaient : En quoi, répondit l’auteur de Sylvie, un homard est-il plus ridicule qu’un chien, qu’un chat, qu’une gazelle, qu’un lion ou toute autre bête dont on se fait suivre ? J’ai le goût des homards, qui sont tranquilles, sérieux, savent les secrets de la mer, n’aboient pas…

(One day, in the garden of the Palais Royal [in Paris], Gerard was seen leading a lobster on the end of a blue ribbon. The story circulated in Paris, and in response to his friends' amazement, the author of 'Sylvie' replied, in what way is a lobster any more ridiculous than a dog, than a cat, than a gazelle, than a lion, or any other creature that one make to follow after one? Lobsters appeal to me, they're quiet and serious and know the secrets of the deep, and they don't bark...)
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Old November 25th, 2012, 11:59 AM   #9

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I deeply resent any inference that poets and writers, artists and so on are mad.

I am perfectly sane, thank you. Now excuse me, because my toaster's warning light tells me that it's full of crumbs. The car needs more oil, and the bedside lamp told me to go out and kill prostitutes............

The thing is with such folk is that they see things ordinary people just don't, and still fail to see them despite the best efforts of the artist. Most people just miss the point.

That's enough to unhinge anyone.
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Old December 8th, 2012, 06:21 PM   #10

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I am a poet and well there are times of madness when I write my darker poems. When I refer to "madness" in my case, its more on an emotional level. I write my best poems when Im in love or in heartache. I do have other types of poetry as well.
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