"Pathological Enthusiasms": Robert Lowell and the Language of Madness

Erin Kodicek on March 20, 2017

LowellWe often rely on poets to express what the rest of us lay folk have difficulty putting into words. For beloved poet Robert Lowell, that included the (still) taboo subject of mental illness. Lowell suffered from what we now call bipolar disorder, which was a blessing and a curse for a man whose genius was often fueled by it. Clinical psychologist and writer Kay Redfield Jamison examines the correlation between depression and creativity in, Robert Lowell:  Setting the River on Fire. Here, she provides an introduction.

Robert Lowell:  Setting the River on Fire is a book about a great poet’s work, mind, and life.  It focuses on the psychological forces that shaped Robert Lowell and the role of his character, discipline, and courage in the face of mental illness. Setting the River on Fire is also about an critical disease, manic–depressive illness (now known as bipolar disorder).  The book discusses mania and depression as they are described in the writings of the ancient physicians and the influential role that both depression and mania have played in understanding the human condition.  Robert Lowell’s extensive medical and psychiatric records, available for the first time, record in detail his psychotic illness, his response to the devastation it caused him and to those he loved, and his response to the treatments he received, including electroshock, psychotherapy, and lithium.

Mania is a complicated illness which can be both destructive and intoxicating. In a few individuals mania is associated with increased creativity.  Lowell believed that mania was deeply damaging to his life and relationships and he was terrified that it would return.  But he also believed that his poetry was, at times, set loose by his “pathological enthusiasms.” Setting the River on Fire discusses Lowell’s views on the relationship between his mania and his poetry, as well as the observations made by his doctors and fellow writers.  It explores the pattern of his mood disorder and the innovations in his poetry.  The psychological and scientific literature examining the relationship between bipolar illness and creativity, especially the extensive research conducted over the past ten years, is discussed in the context of Lowell’s life, psychological pain, and disciplined work. 

Robert Lowell was a great poet who contended throughout his life with mental forces beyond his control.  Through an iron will and genius he transformed his suffering into poetry that, in the words of a critic, “will be read as long as men remember English.”


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