Is there a link between madness and creativity? In her intriguing new book, Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire, Kay Redfield Jamison searches for answers by examining the chaotic life of one of America’s most important poets.
Lowell’s struggles with mental illness have been well documented, but this volume offers something unique: a detailed review of his medical records. It’s the first time such information has been made publicly available.
The book (Knopf, 404 pp., *** out of four stars) opens in the fall of 1957, with Lowell caught up in a torrent of literary output, writing poetry “like a house afire.” The Harvard dropout is working on Life Studies, which will become one of the most influential books of poetry of the 20th century. Several weeks later, in December of that year, Lowell developed severe psychosis and was involuntarily committed to the Massachusetts Mental Health Center — his fifth psychiatric hospitalization in eight years.
This was a recurring pattern: periods of intense productivity, followed by monstrous fits of mania wending into depression. “My trouble,” Lowell writes to a friend, “is to bring together in me the Puritanical iron hand of constraint and the gushes of pure wildness.” This line sets the stage for a remarkable look into the life and mind of a genius.
In her new book, we discover that Lowell was an unwanted child. His mother said she wanted to die when she discovered she was pregnant with Robert, and maternal rejection would become a recurring theme in both his extensive interactions with psychiatrists and in his writing.
Charlotte Lowell was a source of great pain and consternation for the young poet; she was prone to bouts of hysteria, mania and amnesia. For an entire year, she inexplicably took on the lifestyle and habits of Napoleon. (The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree: Robert Lowell was similarly obsessed with the French emperor.)
Translating experience into verse, Lowell mined rejection to expand the language of suffering. His prose is both illuminating and exhausting; it’s hard to read more than a few stanzas about his relationship with his mother without needing a break.
The sole weakness in Jamison’s nuanced, sympathetic portrait is her presentation of mental health research. Complicated data is shoehorned into the story, disrupting the narrative, while sophisticated concepts such as genome-wide association studies are glossed over, presented without explanation, preventing the reader from truly understanding the extraordinary advances that have been made in the study of bipolar disorder. We’re brought into the most intimate moments in Robert Lowell’s life, but kept at arm’s length from the science behind his erratic behavior.
Shortly before he died, Lowell seemed to be at peace with his disease and made amends with many of the people he’d hurt, including the woman who had caused him such pain. In a final act of reconciliation, he chose to be buried next to her.
Nonetheless, “Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire” achieves a magnificence and intensity — dare one say a manic brilliance? — that sets it apart from more temperate and orderly biographies. Above all, the book demands that readers seriously engage with its arguments, while also prodding them to reexamine their own beliefs about art, madness and moral responsibility. Reading this analysis of “genius, mania, and character” is an exhilarating experience.
From the late 1940s to the mid-1970s, Lowell was the most admired and talked-about American poet of his generation. Scion of a privileged New England family, he counted among many distinguished ancestors two notable poets — James Russell Lowell and Amy Lowell — as well as Percival Lowell, the astronomer who sighted what he thought were canals on Mars.
Prodigiously gifted, Lowell won his first Pulitzer Prize in 1947 for “Lord Weary’s Castle” — which includes the famous long poem “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” — and still another in 1974 for “The Dolphin.” At least as important, though, is “Life Studies” (1959), which established a confessional style that would long dominate American poetry. In 1977, at the young age of 60, Lowell died suddenly of a heart attack while taking a taxi from the airport to the New York apartment of his former wife, the novelist and critic Elizabeth Hardwick.
According to Hardwick and others who knew him, Lowell was — most of the time — kindly, witty and loving. Unfortunately, along with all the advantages of being born into American aristocracy, the poet also inherited a manic-depressive illness that would wreak havoc in his life and cause an immense amount of pain to his family and friends. Periodically — 16 times or more during his adult life — his entire being would accelerate, shift into hyperdrive. He would inaugurate affairs with young women, spit out torrents of hurtful abuse, grow physically violent and delusional, and sometimes identify himself with Napoleon or even Hitler.
It might take a half-dozen burly policemen to subdue the over-revved Lowell, so that he might be taken away for care at McLean Hospital or Payne Whitney Clinic. There he would be given drugs or psychotherapy, both usually ineffective, or more usefully electroconvulsive shock treatments. Only in 1967 did physicians begin to prescribe lithium to control his manic depression. Because of it, Lowell would successfully manage his demons for the last decade of his life, except when he neglected to take the lithium or took too much of it.
Throughout her book, Jamison views Lowell’s strength of character as nothing less than herculean, as he reestablishes his life, again and again, after each shame-filled, soul-killing episode of insanity. She also explores the probable clinical link between mania, which can free up the inner self’s mind-forged manacles, and artistic creativity. As Shakespeare wrote long ago, “the lunatic, the poet, and the lover/ Are of imagination all compact.” In the case of Lowell, who was all three of these, Jamison contends that “instability and the relentless recurrence of his illness hardened his discipline while mania impelled and stamped his work.”
To establish her diagnosis, this distinguished professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and author of the best-selling memoir “An Unquiet Mind” brings to bear everything she can think of. Jamison piles on a multitude of quotes attesting to Lowell’s great genius, perhaps because the poet’s reputation has diminished since his death. Like a modern Robert Burton, she digresses into an anatomy of manic depression — she feels that the contemporary term “bipolar disorder” sanitizes the horrors of this illness — and describes the kinds of treatment available in the past to the mentally disturbed.
Alongside photographs of Lowell and some of the people he loved, she reproduces his medical charts and records, having been granted special access by the poet’s daughter and executor. She also regularly underscores her points by citing Lowell’s poems, concluding her book with an extended tribute to “For the Union Dead,” that majestic meditation on history, race and valor.
“Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire” would be an unqualified triumph were it not for Jamison’s penchant for overkill: Everything is treated a bit too expansively, many points and anecdotes are repeated twice or three times, and rather than quoting one authority, she quotes a half-dozen. While Jamison’s prose, like her thought, always remains admirably clear and often striking, she’s inordinately fond of declamatory effects — “New England would be a light, a beacon, a spirit and an exemplar” — and she noticeably favors the heavy melodrama of serial modifiers and nouns: “Ancestry is preordaining, corrupting, benevolent, benign, damning.”
Robert Lowell, the most admired American poet of his era, was a man of extraordinary talent and drive who suffered from crippling manic depression. He’s the ideal subject for “Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire” (Knopf, 532 pp., $29.95), Kay Redfield Jamison’s superb examination of manic depression and its connection with creativity.
Lowell (1917-1977) led a life of incredible highs and terrifying lows. He won the Pulitzer Prize twice for his poetry collections, in 1947 for “Lord Weary’s Castle” and in 1974 for “The Dolphin.” The highs were interrupted by long, debilitating bouts of mental illness, often ending in hospitalization. In 1949, two years after winning his first Pulitzer, he told friends at the Yaddo writing colony that God was speaking through him. In Chicago, he held his friend Allen Tate out of a second-story window “while reciting Tate’s poem ‘Ode to the Confederate Dead’ … Later, Lowell opened the window in his hotel room and shouted obscenities to the world beyond. It took four policemen to overpower and handcuff him,” Jamison writes.
Jamison herself was diagnosed with manic depression as a teenager (she prefers the term manic depression to the more current label, bipolar disorder), and has made its study her life’s work. She vividly describes the arc of Lowell’s multiple manic episodes — early bursts of inspired language, chaos as he spiraled out of control, depressions that drowned the creative spark, heroic efforts to keep working despite it all. Only when Lowell started taking lithium, still the preferred treatment for the disorder, did his ordeal begin to end
Q: How did you decide on Lowell as a subject? Were you drawn to the story of his illness, or to his poetry, or both?
A: I was attracted to both his poetry and to him as a person of remarkable courage. When I was 17, I had had my first breakdown, and one of my English teachers gave me a couple of his books. I found them fantastic.
Q: He was an unusual man — highly creative, suffering from manic depression but with incredible ambition, a Puritan work ethic and an ability to endure suffering. Is that combination unique?
A: I think it’s very unusual for anybody. He started with an extraordinary mind. He had enormous discipline that allowed him to channel his energy, both pathological and normal. I think he took suffering and turned it into something that was powerful to other people as well as himself. He had a way of coming back to life after enduring a great deal of pain.
Q: You’ve studied manic depression and creativity and have found that both are heritable traits — you write that in both intelligence and creativity, “the genetic contributions are estimated to be at least 50 percent.”
A: In the Lowell family, there was a lot of creativity. The Lowells had poets and writers … and a lot of capability in business, mathematics, astronomy.
The research was both pleasure and privilege … you take one person and you see all these links to the history of psychiatry, the history of mania, seeing how people struggled with what to do in a humane away but were not able to curtail it.
Q: His family authorized you to review his medical records. What was their motivation? What did you decide to use, or not?
A: I spoke with his daughter at great length. I had not been planning to speak with her or ask for the medical records — I was not writing a biography, and I thought the Lowells had already been invaded quite a bit.
A person who knew her well and had done research into Lowell’s poetry suggested we get together. I think she trusted me to do everything I could to be straight about it. … I wasn’t in it for sensational findings, but for what he had to say about his illness, and what his doctors had to say about his treatment and his illness … how mania affected what he thought and how he expressed it.
I think most of his doctors liked him very much. Most people who knew him really loved him and admired him. They were frightened of him when he was manic, but (they knew him) as someone who had no control over it and was immensely remorseful.
Q: The women in Lowell’s life, especially his three wives (Jean Stafford, Elizabeth Hardwick and Caroline Blackwood), endured a lot. He had innumerable affairs, launching them on the “up” side of the manic-depressive cycle, ending them on the downward plunge into depression. How did that affect your view of him?
A: I suppose I put it in the context of his basic character, as a strong, admirable character who does things that are not admirable.
We’ve known since time began that having a lot of affairs can be part and parcel of mania. Violence likewise. These are things that are very difficult to reconcile with being civilized.
Elizabeth Hardwick was an enormously strong, intelligent woman. … People say she was a martyr, but she made it clear that she saw his illness and she loved him till his dying day. … To me what makes it such a human story is you have this great intellect and mind and imagination, with this huge flaw. It’s pure tragedy.
Q: I’m guessing that the story of Lowell’s illness and its impact on his family and friends will resonate with anyone with a loved one suffering from manic depression. What is the most problematic thing about treating it?
A: Getting people into treatment and getting them to stay on treatment. In psychiatric illnesses, particularly bipolar illness, it’s hard to get them to take the medication. Particularly younger people — if you tell someone that age (the age of onset for manic depression is often ages 17-18) that you have an illness that you can only control through medication, it’s pretty hard for people that age to believe that they’re not invulnerable. … adolescents are much more effective at getting other adolescents to stay in treatment than adults are.