Robert Lowell (photo by Steve Schapiro, Life magazine, February 19, 1965)

Pulitzer Prize-winning and manic-depressive poet Robert Lowell was fond of fire-related imagery: “this night, this night, I elfin, I stonefoot, / walking the wildfire,” he writes in the poem “Long Summer.” “Fire will be the first absolute power, it will be the last to rule. I am burning in my own fire,” Prometheus utters in his translation of Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound. What is perhaps Lowell’s most memorable mention of the element is found in the personal poem “Reading Myself,” that goes “…I took just pride and more than just/ struck matches that brought my blood to a boil/ I memorized the tricks to set the river on fire.”

It was thus quite fitting for clinical psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison, professor at Johns Hopkins University, to title her psychological account of Lowell, Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character, recently published by Knopf. In it, she details his lifelong mental illness, and tries to establish how he coped with it and how his psychopathology shaped his poetic output. The link between mental illness and creative output, as a topic, is both delicate and controversial. At its worst, the comparison romanticizes a life-threatening disease on the basis of the ‘tortured artist’ stereotype.   

Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character by Kay Redfield Jamison (image courtesy Knopf)

Thanks to the cooperation of Lowell’s daughter Harriet Winslow Lowell — who provided Jamison with letters, notebooks, and clinical records that were never shared with a scholar before — Jamison deals with Lowell’s illness in a thorough, and academic, manner: she describes his violent outbursts and religious fervor in intimate detail; she traces a long history of mental illness in his family; she gives us a glimpse of the mostly toxic relationships and the affairs he pursued while manic; and she provides a play-by-play of his 16 hospitalizations, quoting him, his clinical reports, and the writings of the friends and loved ones who witnessed them.

The book is largely about how “mania and imagination come together to create art,” and, two-thirds into the book, Jamison attempts to argue how a heightened mental state is per se conducive to poetry. She profusely quotes from Lowell’s poems, many of them rife with a pounding metric rhythm and images of bubbles, blood, saints, death, and decay. These stylistic devices, according to Jamison, indicate manic or hypomanic mind work. “I write my best poetry when I’m manic,” Lowell is quoted saying in the book. His depression, by contrast, came in handy for thoughtful revisions of poems that had gotten out of hand — a variation on the theme of “write drunk, edit sober.” Mania, wrote Philip Larkin in a letter to Lowell’s third wife upon his 1976 hospitalization, is “the price one pays for being such a rich, inventive and variegated writer.”

According to Jamison, this his how mania works on creativity: when speed of thinking increases, word associations form more freely, as do flight of ideas, because the manic mind is less inclined to filtering details that, in a normal state, would be dismissed as irrelevant. She embellishes these explanations with her own descriptions of mania: “Mania is more than fevered mood and pelting thoughts. It is a disinhibiting force to act on ideas, fearlessly and however rashly; put ambition to action; scald the earth, splash color against the gray; to harm, to create.” She also goes so far as implying that psychotic breaks can encourage a bolder, unexpected form of art, as they “scorch and broaden the mental landscape in a way that not only changes the content of thinking, but also its form.”

Robert Lowell (image courtesy the Harry Ransom Center, the University of Texas at Austin)

Early on in the book, Jamison warns the reader against the “naive romanticization of mental illness,” and were it not for her relying on the scientific method, extensive documentation, and 10 eminent studies that link creativity and mental illness, it would be easy to see this biography as a glamorization of Lowell’s mania. Because, at times, her descriptions of his mania not only seem superfluous, but make the onset of a manic episode actually covetable.

Jamison has written about bipolar illness before. In her 1993 scientific study, Touched with Fire, she analyzes how art and madness are closely associated throughout history. In it she asserts that creative archetypes such as the “night journey,” where the hero has to undergo ordeals in order to find enlightenment, are a metaphor for the cyclical nature of mania and depression, while inspiration is a pre-rational act that requires the artist to dip into “irrational sources.” Even in Touched with Fire, she does not intend to glamorize a serious disorder, deeming that “irresponsible” — but that disclaimer only appears on page 257, after an onslaught of lofty quotes by Byron, Schumann, Berlioz, and many more. Take this quote she cites by Edvard Munch, who, in response to someone suggesting he could get rid of his troubles, said “[My troubles] are part of me and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and it would destroy my art. I want to keep those sufferings.”

I am not here to dispute Jamison’s findings, which are supported from a scientific and anthropological point of view. Several others have agreed with her. Classical scholar Eric Dodds, in his anthropological and philosophical study The Greeks and the Irrational (1951), explains that prophetic and poetic madness were documented in ancient Greece, to the point that the Greek word for seer and the Greek word for madness share the same Indo-European root. Psychiatrist and Brown University professor Arnold Ludwig in his study The Price of Greatness (1995) reached similar conclusions as Jamison in Touched with Fire, but avoided the usage of excessively embellished language while describing the association of art and mental illness. On a slightly different note, clinical psychologist and Rutgers professor Louis A. Sass in Madness and Modernism (1992) analyzes how schizophrenia and modern art share characteristics such as fragmentation, defiance of authority, and multiple viewpoints. However, he clarifies, “I certainly do not wish to glorify schizophrenic forms of madness — to argue, for example, that they are especially conducive to artistic creativity, or to deny that they are profoundly dysfunctional and in some sense constitute a disease.”

Robert Lowell and his stepdaughter, Evgenia Citkowitz, 1972 (image courtesy Evgenia Citkowitz)

As a sufferer of manic depression, Jamison wrote about her own wrenching struggles in her memoir An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness (1995), where she painstakingly chronicles the financial messes and nearly lethal overdoses that came with her condition. Here, she offsets whatever glint of fascination she had for her own illness with passages describing gut-wrenching suffering, fear, and regret for things that would never come back to her. Setting the River on Fire doesn’t ignore the pain Lowell went through — we learn about his multiple hospitalizations, violent outbursts toward his father, as well as one case of lithium poisoning. However, when it comes to the poet’s creativity, his mania is portrayed almost like a guiding force.

Jamison is to be commended for offering a near-complete and clear picture of Lowell’s mood disorders and how those impacted his output: his masterwork Life Studiesafter all, was the product of a two-month long bout of mania, and he candidly acknowledged the effects of mania on his poetry. But we really could have done without sentences such as, “Like the Australian banksia flower that needs fire to release its seeds, mania sets loose dormant thoughts and emotions.” In the end, these long-winded and often flowery descriptions of mania actually distract the reader from the psychological profile Jamison otherwise thoroughly put together.  

Kay Redfield Jamison’s Robert Lowell, Setting The River on Fire is out now from Knopf. 

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Angelica Frey

Angelica Frey is a writer, editor, and translator living in Brooklyn. Originally from Milan, she writes about the arts, culture, food, and fashion.