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Poet and lunatic.

In Shakespeare's most emblematic comedy, A Midsummer Night's Dream (Act V, Scene 1), Theseus declares that:
   The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
   Are of imagination all compact

goes on to illustrate his thesis as far as the lunatic and the lover are concerned:
   Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
   Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
   More than cool reason ever comprehends.
   One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
   That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
   Sees Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt.

and finally finds that the poet fits in nicely, given the "tricks" that "strong imagination" has:
   The poet's eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
   Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
   And as imagination bodies forth
   The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
   Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
   A local habitation and a name.

Now, I could simply say that my title has left the poet aside by sheer accident--which is not the case for at least two reasons: the articles in the volume insist that the poet comes complete with the lunatic (in a ratio that goes as far up as 89%) and is almost never affectionate, like the lover by definition is--on the contrary, he is aggressive and sometimes even self-aggressive (one in five), and hardly on the grounds that "no love, no life."

Poetry, we are reminded more than once in Keats's "Endymion," is "a thing of Beauty," the ultimate achievement of human mind and soul. And it really hurts to see that the Poet, its messenger, is less than perfect. Take, for instance, this most heinous crime: self-aggression. Of all the humans, he comes first (Ludwig 1995; Andreasen 2005; Jamison 1993; Post 1994; Jamison 1999). Eminent scholars (Cosman & Pirvu 2012a; Cosman & Pirvu 2012b) might well think otherwise, but I will take their understandable defence cum grano salis and I will lend my ears to the opposite view if for anything, because "against self-slaughter there is a prohibition so divine that cravens my weak hand." (Shakespeare's Cymbeline III, 4)

To die in order to avoid anything that is evil and disagreeable, is not the part of a brave man, but of a coward; for it is cowardice to shun the trials and crosses of life, not undergoing death because it is honourable, but to avoid evil. (Aristotle's Ethica Nicomachea III, 1115b)

Suicide is a crime the most revolting to the feelings; nor does any reason suggest itself to our understanding by which it can be justified. It certainly originates in that species of fear which we denominate poltroonery. For what claim can that man have to courage who trembles at the frowns of fortunes? True heroism consists in being superior to the ills of life in whatever shape they may challenge him to combat. (Napoleon Bonaparte; apud Tryon 1948: 623)

"De profundis have I cried unto Thee, O Lord" (Psalms CXXX, 1). Indeed, the spirit or rather "the wounded spirit" (Proverbs XVIII, 14) might just as well be strong, "but the flesh is weak" (Matthew XXVI, 4). We will have to be content, for once, to assessing the Poet, the only too human, "fallen from grace" (Galatians V, 4), Poet by his fruits, only by his fruits. "Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?" (Matthew VII, 16)

Poetry, true poetry is "written with a pen of iron, and with the point of a diamond" (Jeremiah XVII, 1); it is food for soul but, beware!, "there is death in the pot" (II Kings IV, 40) not always pertaining to Poetry proper but in all probability to the Poet who, like all humans, "in honour abideth not: he is like the beasts that perish." (Psalms XLIX, 12, 20)

The Poet, after all, "is born unto trouble, as the sparks that fly upward" (Job V, 7). There is a price he has to pay for his genius and that price, no matter how loathsome, is madness. Furor poeticus, divine madness we could call it, if we find it the more comforting, but all to no avail, since it ends with such high probability in suicide. Our sample, made up of 3x3x3 poets (Irina Andone, Dimitrie Anghel, Thomas Lovell Beddoes, John Berryman, Paul Celan, Thomas Chatterton, Hart Crane, John Davidson, Sergey Esenin, Benjamin Fondane, Randall Jarrell, Heinrich von Kleist, Vachel Lindsay, Gherasim Luca, Lucan, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Gerard de Nerval, Cesare Pavese, Sylvia Plath, Sappho, Daniil Scavinski, Anne Sexton, Ion Stratan, Sara Teasdale, Georg Trakl, Marina Tsvetayeva, George Vasilievici) is sad testimony to such a deadlock but, as an excuse for the Poet, we will take the liberty to paraphrase La Rochefoucauld and say that Poets are not those which have "more virtue" and more of sanity than common souls, but "only those which have greater designs."

To put it differently, Poetry is one thing and the Poet is another thing, who might just as well be flawed, suicide-prone as it were, but the greatness of his "fruits" will not be withered away and wiped out by this human mishap. We, then, should not fear to look through Poetry down into the Poet, and see whatever we see. Shakespeare's Sonnet 147 found, after a fashion, that donna angelicata was--horribile dictu!--a "dark lady."
   For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,
      Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.

Am I any the better to be spared of looking for an angel and finding a devil instead? Que sera, sera!


Andreasen NC (2005) The creative brain: the science of genius. New York: Plume.

Cosman D, Pirvu BCS (2012a) Sa nu arunci cu pietre. Pagini medicale barladene XV(174-175): 39-40.

Cosman D, Pirvu BCS (2012b) Netrebnica, noaptea neputintei noastre. Nova provincia corvina 16(64): 72-74.

Jamison KR (1993) Touched with fire: manic-depressive illness and the artistic temperament. New York: Free Press.

Jamison KR (1999) Night falls fast: understanding suicide. New York: Vintage.

Ludwig AM (1995) The price of greatness: resolving the creativity and madness controversy. New York: Guilford.

Post F (1994) Creativity and psychopathology: a study of 291 world-famous men. British Journal of Psychiatry 165: 22-34.

Tryon E, Catrevas CN, Edwards J, eds. (1948) The new dictionary of thoughts: a cyclopedia of quotations. New York: Standard.

Felicia Burdescu

University of Craiova

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Title Annotation:Preface to Suicide-bound poets
Author:Burdescu, Felicia
Publication:Romanian Journal of Artistic Creativity
Date:Mar 22, 2013
Previous Article:Philosophy, ideology, strategy, and style.
Next Article:A spectacle unto the world, and to angels.

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