The (pre-/post-)romantic bedlam.
When the criteria for psychopathology ratings are symptomatic (mention of deviations or symptoms of less that psychotic intensity, e.g., alcoholism, mental "crises" or "breakdowns," suicide, phobias, homosexuality) and psychotic (definite labeling of the poet as psychotic or insane; mention of commitment to an asylum; reference to recurring and unmistakable psychotic symptoms, e.g., hallucinations), of the 21 English poets born between 1670 and 1809 (Dyer, Gay, Byron, Watts, Pope, Thomson, Mickle, Burns, Wordsworth, Gray; Coleridge, Beattie, Chatterton, Byron, Keats, Shelley; Collins, Clare, Blake, Smart, Cowper) 55% are either symptomatic (Coleridge, Beattie, Chatterton, Byron, Keats, Shelley) or psychotic (Collins, Clare, Blake, Smart, Cowper). Colin Martindale (1972) finds it surprising, under these circumstances, that the notion of a relationship between psychopathology and high-level creativity has fallen into such disrepute.
Autobiographical, biographical and medical records for all major British and Irish poets (36 in number), born within a hundred-year period (between 1705 and 1805) were examined for symptoms of depression, mania, hypomania, and mixed states: "seasonal or other patterns in moods, behavior, and productivity; the nature of the course of illness (for example, age of onset, duration and patterns of recurrence over time); and evidence of other psychiatric or medical illnesses (for example, syphilis) that might confound the diagnostic picture" (Jamison 1994: 62). The research came up with a "strikingly high rate" of mood disorders. Six (William Collins, Christopher Smart, William Cowper, Robert Fergusson, John Codrington Bampfylde, and John Clare) were committed to lunatic asylums or madhouses, "a rate easily twenty times that of the general population living during the same period." Two others (Thomas Chatterton and Thomas Lovell Beddoes) committed suicide. More than one half of the poets showed "strong evidence of mood disorders." Thirteen, or more than one out of three of the poets, seem likely to have suffered from "manic-depressive illness" (Christopher Smart, William Cowper, George Darley, Robert Fergusson, Thomas Chatterton, William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, George Gordon, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Clare, Hartley Coleridge, Thomas Lovell Beddoes and James Clarence Mangan). Of these thirteen poets, the majority exhibited "psychotic symptoms at one time or another," two committed suicide, and four were committed to asylums. William Collins and John Codrington Bampfylde, who also were committed to asylums, were "probably manic-depressive" as well. Six poets--Oliver Goldsmith, Robert Burns, Walter Savage Landor, Thomas Campbell, John Keats and Robert Stephen Hawker--"probably had milder forms of manic-depressive illness" (cyclothymia or bipolar II disorder). Samuel Johnson, Thomas Gray, George Crabbe, and Leigh Hunt suffered from "recurrent depression." A comparison with rates of manic-depressive illness in the general population (1 percent), cyclothymia (1 to 2 percent), and major depressive disorder (5 percent) shows that these British poets were thirty times more likely to be "cyclothymic" or to have "other milder forms of manic-depressive illness," more than five times as likely to commit suicide, and at least twenty times more likely to have been committed to an asylum or madhouse ... The genetic nature of mood disorders is underscored by the family histories in many of the poets of depression, mania, suicide, violence, or insanity--for example, in the families of Byron, Gray, Cowper, Chatterton, Bampfylde, the Coleridges, and Campbell; and suggestively, in the families of Johnson, Crabbe, Blake, Clare, Beddoes, and Mangan (Jamison 1944: 62-72). In seven poets, however, there was no indication of a significant mood disorder. But 29 of the 36 were psychopathological, which gives a figure of 80.55%.
Dr. Johnson's dictionary of devastating diseases
Samuel Johnson (1709-1784). Extreme Myopia, deafness, scrofula, dyspepsia, emphysema, chronic bronchitis, gout, dropsy, stroke, athetoid cerebral palsy (Keynes 1995), Sydenham's chorea.
"Vile melancholy"--admittedly inherited from his father--with the first severe breakdown at twenty, lasting more than two years, and "still in a rather shattered condition for at least another three years." Sinking into suicidal lethargy," overwhelmed with an horrible hypochondria, with perpetual irritation, fretfulness, and impatience; and with a dejection, gloom, and despair, which made existence misery." Never afterwards being perfectly relieved from his "terrors and perplexities," "from this dismal malady" (Boswell 1787); intermittently, suicidally depressed because endowed with a "morbid disposition both of body and mind," a "terrifying melancholy" perhaps "bordering on insanity." Insanity, therefore, "was the object of his most dismal apprehension; and he fancied himself seized by it, or approaching to it, at the very time when he was giving proofs of a more than ordinary soundness and vigour of judgement." (Boswell 1787)
Grimacing, mouth opening, eye blinks, lip twitching, shoulder, arm and leg jerks, "extraordinary gestures or anticks with his hands and feet, particularly when passing over the threshold of a door, or rather before he would venture to pass through any door-way." But "the strange positions in which he would place his feet (generally before he began his straddles, as if necessarily preparatory) [were] scarcely credible. Sometimes he would make the back part of his heels to touch, sometimes the extremity of his toes, as if endeavouring to form a triangle, or some geometrical figure, and as for his gestures with his hands, they were equally strange: sometimes he would hold them up with some of his fingers bent, as if he had been seized with the cramp, and sometimes at his breast in motion like those of a jockey on full speed; and often would he lift them up as high as he could stretch over his head for some minutes. But the manoeuvre that used the most particularly to engage the attention of the company was his stretching out his arm with a full cup of tea in his hand, in every direction, often to the great annoyance of the person who sat next to him, indeed to the imminent danger of their clothes, perhaps of a Lady's Court dress; sometimes he would twist himself round with his face close to the back of his chair, and finish his cup of tea, breathing very hard, as if making a laborious effort to accomplish it. What could have induced him to practice such extraordinary gestures who can divine: his head, his hands and his feet often in motion at the same time. Many people have supposed that they were natural effects of a nervous disorder, but had that been the case he could not have sat still when he chose, which he did, and so still when sitting for his picture ... It was not only at the entrance of a door that he exhibited his gigantic straddles, but often in the middle of a room, as if trying to make the floor to shake." (Reynolds 1897)
An obsessional compulsive behavior (Murray 1979) to be seen in his inner need to repeat the performance if any detail has been omitted (Reynolds 1897), or in his odd habit of always measuring his way out of a room with his feet, starting off step by step until reaching the doorway and, if arriving there on the wrong foot, going back and doing it again until he came to the door with the correct foot (Boswell 1787). Then, never walking on the crack between paving stones and touching every post along the street or road as he walked: if missing a post he kept his companions waiting while he went back to touch it. And then, "not only did he pare his nails to the quick, but scraped the joints of his fingers with a pen-knife till they seemed quite red and raw" (Boswell 1787). Obsessionality (Jadresic 1993), compulsivity (Murray 1979), with the tendency to self-destructive acts.
Echolalia, occasional tics. Involuntary, possibly scatological vocalisations. Mouthings like blurting out of grunts, hummings and whistles, meaningless and unintelligible moans, clucking sounds, sighs and heavy breathing. "In the intervals of articulating he made various sounds with his mouth, sometimes as if ruminating, or what is called chewing the cud, sometimes giving a half whistle, sometimes making his tongue play backwards from the roof of his mouth, as if clucking like a hen, and sometimes protruding it against his upper gums in front, as if pronouncing quickly under his breath, too, too, too: all this accompanied sometimes with a thoughtful look, but more frequently with a smile. Generally when he had concluded a period, in the course of a dispute, by which time he was a good deal exhausted by violence and vociferation, he used to blow out his breath like a whale. This I suppose was a relief to his lungs; and seemed in him to be a contemptuous mode of expression, as if he had made the argument of his opponent fly like chaff before the wind" (Boswell 1787). Most likely then, a Gilles de la Tourette syndrome.
Lord Byron's tainted blood
George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824) mentioned "some curse" hanging "over me and mine"--with his great-grandmother Frances, daughter of Lord Berkeley bringing the "taint of blood" (Nichol 1880: 5; Marchand 1957: 6; Walker 1988: 118) into the family in 1720 when she married the fourth Lord Byron, William; their eldest daughter, Isabella took a long-life interest in literature and art, like her father himself who had studied under Flemish painter Peter Tillemans; their eldest son William, the fifth Lord Byron, the so-called "Wicked Lord" was notorious for his extravagance and violence, in 1795 killing his cousin, found guilty of manslaughter in the House of Lords, but eventually acquitted and released. Back again on the Byron estate, Newstead Abbey, he then did everything in his deranged power to punish his son who had eloped with his own cousin: by paying "his gambling debts with the oaks of the park, felling five thousand pounds' worth," by killing "two thousand seven hundred head of deer in the park." (Maurois 1984: 23)
His "pleasures," to boot, were of the "mischievous" kind. As there was no love lost between him and his neighbours he emptied their ponds and more than once "opened sluice-gates on the streams in order to damage their cotton mills." On the edge of his own lake this time, he got two stone-forts constructed and also a fleet of toy ships--in order to stage (himself crouching in one of the forts, his manservant lying in one of the boats) naval battles in which vessels and forts "fired on each other with miniature cannon." As there was no end to his raving fantasy, he sometimes staged cockroach races "up and down his own body," flipping "the insects with straws when they were sluggish." (Maurois 1984: 24)
The fifth lord's brother, "Foulweather Jack," a vice-admiral in the British Navy and the author of classical books about shipwrecks seems to have been "struck with disorder and disease that deprived him of his reason" (Walker 1988: 158). Before declining an appointment as second in command in North America at the time of the Independence War, he had married a first cousin, the daughter of Frances, the wife of the fourth Lord Byron who is presumably to blame for having brought what was to be the "family madness." (Rowse 1978: 138)
The poet's father, "Mad Jack" was thus the first son of these two first cousins. A gambler always in debt, his life a financial mayhem and an endless row of dissipation, he had a scandalous affair with the wife of the future Duke of Leeds, eventually married her and moved to France. Augusta, their only child to survive infancy was to marry her first cousin, George Leigh, a gambler like his father-in-law and two of his three sons, a heavy debtor like two of their daughters; at least one of their children was "mentally unbalanced" (Moore 1974: 16) and had to be taken care of elsewhere; one of the children may have been fathered by the poet who spent the summer and fall of 1813 and then the early winter of 1814 with his half-sister in Newstead Abbey. Brother and sister were kindred spirits, to be sure:
She was like me in lineaments--her eyes, Her hair, her features, all, to the very tone Even of her voice, they said were like to mine; But soften'd all, and temper'd into beauty; She had the same lane thoughts and wonderings. (Manfred II: 2)
Of all the affairs Byron was blessed with, this was by far the most scandalous:
I say 'tis blood--my blood! the pure warm stream Which ran in the veins of my fathers, and in ours When we were in our youth, and had one heart, And loved each other as we should not love. (Manfred II: 1)
"Charming, good looking and ebullient" as he was, "Mad Jack," the son of two cousins (Sophia Trevanion and Admiral Byron) and the father of the two incestuous lovers (Augusta and George Gordon) did not take long to find another heiress when his first wife died--only to spend this second fortune as well and finally die a "young, dissolute alcoholic" (Jamison 1994: 159), a victim of "his restless moods, his sensual appetites, his wild gaieties and glooms" (Moore 1974: 29), and a "probable suicide." (Moore 1961: 82)
The poet's mother, Catherine Gordon of Gight, came of a family that was "far more fierce, colourful, and dangerously unstable" than the "now and again rather eccentric Byrons" (Jamison 1994: 159). "I can tak' no rest," the evil-doing sixth laird used to say. "I know I will die upon a scaffold. There is an evil turn in my hand" (Maurois 1984: 27). The family line had started in grand style, with Annabella Stuart, sister of King James the Second and wife of the Earl of Huntly. Sir William Gordon, their first son became the first laird of Gight, but then he was drowned. Further down, Alexander Gordon was murdered, John Gordon was hanged for the killing of Lord Moray in 1592, another John Gordon was hanged in 1634 for the killing of Wallenstein--"it seemed as if a Gordon of Gight had been strung up on every branch of their family tree" (Maurois 1984: 26-27). Still further down the family line, the eleventh laird, Alexander Gordon died in a midwinter drowning that was most certainly a suicide--who could believe that a 1760 Scotsman was so particular about personal hygene as "to bathe in an ice-covered river in the depths of winter?" (Marchand 1957: 18) The twelfth laird, George Gordon, also drowned, his death being "a suicide as well" (Maurois 1984: 27). His grandson was to find the reasons for his constitutional melancholy in such family events:
You know--or you do not know--that my maternal Grandfather (a very clever man & amiable I am told) was strongly suspected of Suicide--(he was found drowned in the Avon at Bath) and that another very near relative of the same branch--took poison--& was merely saved by antidotes.--For the first of these events--there was no apparent cause--as he was rich, respected,--& of considerable intellectual resources--hardly forty years of age--& not at all addicted to any unhinging vice. It was however but a strong suspicion--owing to the manner of his death--& to his melancholy temper. (BLJ 1821, VIII: 217)
The poet's mother, of course, could not but be "full of the most passionate extremes" (Moore 1974: 15), behaving in an "eccentric manner" (BLJ 1804, I: 54), flying into "fits of frenzy" (BLJ 1804, I: 55-56)--in short, she was "a compound of derangement and folly" (BLJ 1805, I: 68), with a "diabolical disposition" (BLJ 1805, I:75), and "hysterical affections." Of the poet's children, Allegra, his illegitimate daughter with Claire Clairmont (stepsister of Mary Shelley), died when only five years old but already showed signs of a "violent and imperious" temper (Marchand 1957: 920), "a devil of a spirit but that is Papa's" (BLJ 1816, VI: 62); Ada, Countess of Lovelace, his daughter by Annabella Milbanke died, just like her father and his father before him, when she was thirty six--dubbed the "Princess of Parallelograms" by her father, she was an eminent mathematician, arguably the first computer programmer in the world. A gambler betting on horses and living in financial chaos, her temper was "extremely violent" (BLJ 1821, IX: 77), and it was "not unlikely considering her parentage" ... her father's temper was "what it was" ... and her mother's was "a nice little sullen nucleus of concentrated savageness to mould [her] upon" (BLJ 1821, IX: 77)--to say nothing of "her two grandmothers--both of whom [...] were as pretty specimens of female Spirit, as you might wish to see on a Summer's day" (BLJ 1821, IX: 77). In other words, Ada inherited from her father "a mercurial temperament that swung precipitously from the ecstatic and grandiose to the melancholic" (Jamison 1994: 161). Now she said that there was in her "nervous system such utter want of all ballast and steadiness" that she could not regard her "life or powers as other than precarious" (Baum 1986: 65), and then she believed that she was "simply the instrument for the divine purpose to act on and thro'. ... Like the Prophets of old, I shall speak the voice I am inspired with. I may be the Deborah, the Elijah of Science." (Moore 1977: 154)
In behavioural terms, it is eccentricity that stands out. "I have been extravagant" (BLJ 1805, I: 86) could almost be the heading to the biography of any poet. In 1816 or thereabouts, when a guest at Newstead Abbey, Shelley was certainly bemused to see that "Lord Byron's establishment consisted, besides servants, of ten horses, eight enormous dogs, three monkeys, five cats, an eagle, a crow, and a falcon; and all these, except the horses, walked about the house which every now and then resounded with their unarbitrated quarrels, as if they were the masters of it." He found later that his "enumeration of the animals in this Circean Palace was defective, and that in a material point": he had "just met on the grand staircase five peacocks, two guinea hens, and an Egyptian crane." (cf Marchand 1957: 923)
Shelley failed to mention the celebrated bear, kept in the family chapel who, when reunited with Lord Byron at Newstead Abbey, would swim at large, alongside his master, in a vault leading to the graves of the monks who had formerly inhabited the Byron ancestral home. Lord Byron had acquired the tame bear when a student at Trinity College, Cambridge regulations forbidding inmates to keep dogs on the premises but never mentioning bears, for example. And Shelley's catalogue also missed mentioning dozens of other "curiosities" that are sure to have been hosted on the estate of an eccentric owner who, when coming back home in July 1811 from a two-year "Grand Tour" of Portugal, Spain, Gibraltar, Malta, Greece, and Turkey brought souvenirs like "four ancient Athenian skulls, dug out of Sarcophagi--a phial of Attic Hemlock--four live Tortoises--a Greyhound ... two live Greek Servants." (BLJ 1811, II: 59)
Now, it is not only eccentricity or nonconformism that Byron's biography illustrates, his behavioural temperament giving a fairly comprehensive picture of an accentuated personality in the manic-depressive vein by and large--by singling out clusters like:
You don't like my 'restless' doctrines--I should be very sorry if you did--but I can't stagnate nevertheless--if I must sail let it be on the ocean no matter how stormy--anything but a dull cruise on a level lake without ever losing sight of the same insipid shores by which it is surrounded. (BLJ 1813, III: 119)
I am so changeable, being every thing by turns and nothing long,--I am such a strange melange of good and evil, that it would be difficult to describe me. (Lovell 1969: 220)
I am so bilious--that I nearly lose my head--and so nervous that I cry for nothing--at least today I burst into tears all alone by myself over a cistern of Gold fishes--which are not pathetic animals ... I have been excited--and agitated and exhausted mentally and bodily all this summer--till I really sometimes begin to think not only "that I shall die at top first"--but that the moment is not very remote.--I have had no particular cause of grief--except the usual accompaniments of all unlawful passions. (BLJ 1819, VI: 214)
I differed not at all from other children, being neither tall nor short, dull nor witty ... but rather lively--except in my sullen moods, and then I was always a devil. (BLJ 1813-1814, VIII: 258)
[The others think of me as] the votary of Licentiousness, and the Disciple of Infidelity. (BLJ 1808, I: 146)
[I admit I was] buried in an abyss of Sensuality, given to Harlots, and in a state of Concubinage. (BLJ 1808, I: 158)
[Long before their one-year marriage was over, Lady Byron complained that her husband] had for many months professed his intention of giving himself up either to women or drinking, and had asked [her] to sanction these courses, adding however that he should pursue them whether [she] gave him leave or not. Accordingly for about three months before [her] confinement he was accustomed to drink Brandy & other liquors to intoxication, which caused him to commit many outrageous acts, as breaking & burning several valuable articles, and brought on paroxysms of rage or frenzy--not only terrifying but dangerous to [her] in [her] then situation [her pregnancy]. (Elwin 1962:328)
At present I am better--thank Heaven above--& woman beneath. (BLJ 1816, V: 141)
[In May 1818 I lived in] a world of other harlotry. (BLJ 1818, VI: 40)
[My dark mood is strangely mixed], for though I feel tolerably miserable, yet I am at the same time subject to a kind of hysterical merriment, or rather laughter without merriment, which I can neither account for nor conquer. (BLJ 1811, II: 75)
During the last year I have had to contend with distress without--& disease within:--upon the former I have little to say--except that I have endeavoured to remove it by every sacrifice in my power--& the latter I should not mention if I had not recent & professional authority for saying--that the disorder which I have to combat--without much impairing my apparent health--is such as to induce a morbid irritability of temper--which--without recurring to external causes--may have rendered me little less disagreeable to others than I am to myself.--I am however ignorant of any particular ill treatment which your daughter has encountered:--she may have seen me gloomy--& at times violent--but she knows the causes too well to attribute such inequalities of disposition to herself--or even to me--if all things be fairly considered. (BLJ 1816, V: 20)
As long as I can remember anything, I recollect being subject to violent paroxysms of rage, so disproportioned to the cause, as to surprise me when they were over, and this still continues. I cannot coolly view anything that excites my feelings; and once the lurking devil in me is roused, I lose all command of myself. I do not recover a good fit of rage for days after: mind, I do not by this mean that the ill-humour continues, as, on the contrary, that quickly subsides, exhausted by its own violence; but it shakes me terribly, and leaves me low and nervous after. (Lovell 1969:80)
[I am feeling] the same indifference which has frozen over the 'Black Sea' of almost all my passions. (BLJ 1814, IV: 121)
It is that very indifference which makes me so uncertain and apparently capricious. It is not eagerness of new pursuits, but that nothing impresses me sufficiently to fix; neither do I feel disgusted, but simply indifferent to almost all excitements. (BLJ 1814, IV: 121)
[I am feeling] quite enervated and indifferent. (BLJ 1814, IV: 153)
[In March I was] plagued by sleeplessness and "half-delirium" for a week. (BLJ 1817, V: 187)
I have been considering what can be the reason why I always wake, at a certain hour in the morning, and always in very bad spirits--I may say, in actual despair and despondency, in all respects--even of that which pleased me over night. In about an hour or two, this goes off, and I compose either to sleep again, or, at least, to quiet. (BLJ 1821, VIII: 42)
I know that without sleep one must either die or go mad. I would sooner die a thousand times. (Page 1985:152)
My melancholy is something temperamental, inherited. (BLJ 1820, VII: 189)
[While at Harrow I was] peevish and fretful. (BLJ 1804, I: 48)
[Dear Augusta, your letter] acted as a cordial on my drooping spirits and for a while dispelled the gloom. (BLJ 1804, I: 48)
This season kills me with sadness every year. You know my last year's melancholy--and when I have that disease of the Spirit--it is better for others that I should keep away.... Love me. My soul is like the leaves that fall in autumn--all yellow--A cantata! (BLJ 1820, VII: 185)
As to my sadness--you know that it is in my character--particularly in certain seasons. It is truly a temperamental illness--which sometimes makes me fear the approach of madness--and for this reason, and at these times, I keep away from everyone. (BLJ 1820, VII: 186)
[In September I was having] a mountain of lead upon my heart. (BLJ 1821, VIII: 230)
I am not sure that long life is desirable for one of my temper & constitutional depression of Spirits. (BLJ 1821, VIII: 216)
I never was in such low spirits in my life. (BLJ 1805, I: 62-63)
[By the end of 1806 and into the beginning of 1807, Lord Byron was in the throes of] alternate moods of depression, ambition, and reckless indulgence. (Marchand 1957: 125)
I have recovered every thing but my spirits, which are subject to depression. (BLJ 1807, I: 106)
I am so out of Spirits, & hopes, & humour, & pocket, & health, that you must bear with my merriment, my only resource against a Calenture. (BLJ 1811, II: 51)
I am growing nervous (how you will laugh!)--but it is true,--really, wretchedly, ridiculously, fine-ladically nervous.... I can neither read, write, or amuse myself, or any one else. My days are listless, and my nights restless.... I don't know that I shan't end with insanity, for I find a want of method in arranging my thoughts that perplexes me strangely. (BLJ 1811, II: 111-112)
I am very low-spirited on many accounts. ... I am indeed very wretched.... all places are alike, I cannot live under my present feelings, I have lost my appetite, my rest, & can neither read, write or act in comfort. (BLJ 1811, II: 117-118)
[January 1813 found Lord Byron] exceedingly wearied. (Marchand 1957: 382)
I am ennuye beyond my usual tense of that yawning verb, which I am always conjugating; and I don't find that society much mends the matter. I am too lazy to shoot myself--and it would annoy Augusta ... but it would be a good thing for George [Byron's first cousin and successor to his title], on the other side, and no bad one for me; but I won't be tempted. (BLJ 1813, III: 236)
I am out of sorts--out of nerves--and now and then--(I begin to fear) out of my senses. (BLJ 1819, VI: 216)
What is the reason that I have been, all my lifetime, more or less ennuye. [I] presume that it is constitutional,--as well as the waking in low spirits, which I have invariably done for many years. Temperance and exercise, which I have practiced at times, and for a long time together vigorously and violently, made little or no difference. Violent passions did;--when under their immediate influence--it is odd, but--I was in agitated, but not in depressed spirits. (BLJ 1821, VIII: 15)
I have found increasing upon me (without sufficient cause at times) the depression of Spirits (with few intervals) which I have some reason to believe constitutional or inherited. (BLJ , IX: 47)
I am not well; and yet I look in good health. At times, I fear, I am not in my perfect mind;--and yet my heart and head have stood many a crash, and what should ail them now? They prey upon themselves, and I am sick--sick-- ... "why should a cat, a rat, a dog have life--and thou no life at all?" (BLJ 1814, III: 246)
I have nothing more to hope, and may begin to consider the most eligible way of walking out of [life], probably I may find in England somebody inclined to save me the trouble.... I wish I could find some of Socrates's Hemlock. (BLJ 1810, II: 29)
At twenty three the best of life is over and its bitters double.... I am sick at heart ... I have outlived all my appetites and most of my vanities. (BLJ 1811, II: 4748)
[Lady Byron reported that her husband] used to get up almost every night and walk up & down the long Gallery in a state of horror & agitation which led [her] to apprehend he would realize his repeated threats of Suicide. (Elwin 1962: 256)
[Lady Byron further reported that her husband] had his loaded pistols & dagger (which are always by his bedside at night) on the table through the day, and frequently intimated a design of Suicide. Once he seized the dagger, & ran with it to his own room, the door of which [she] heard him lock." (Elwin 1962: 344)
[Lady Byron then mentioned her husband's] hints of self destruction. The night before last, [she] went as usual to his room to light his Candles & seeing a Draught on the chimney piece which looked fermenting, [she] said "What is this?" "My Draught, to be sure--what did you think it was? Laudanum?" [She] replied jokingly that [she] was not even thinking of Laudanum & the truth--that [she] thought the Draught spoilt, which caused [her] inquiry. He immediately looked very dark & black (in the old way) & said "I have plenty of Laudanum--& shall use it." Upon [her] laughing & trying to turn off the subject he only repeated in the most awful manner his most solemn determination on the subject. (Elwin 1962: 413)
"Which is the best and quickest poison?" [Lord Byron asked his physician not long before he sailed for Greece.] (Marchand 1957: 1052)
I know that without sleep one must either die or go mad. I would sooner die a thousand times. (Page 1985:152)
Do you suppose that I wish for life? ... I have grown heartily sick of it, and shall welcome the hour I depart from it. (Millingen 1831: 119)
Your efforts to preserve my life will be vain. Die I must: I feel it. Its loss I do not lament; for to terminate my wearisome existence I came to Greece. (Millingen 1831:141)
With "a morbid sensibility to his lameness" (Galt 1830: 11), "mad--bad--and dangerous to know" (Marchand 1957: 131), Byron was "born to so much illustrious, and to so much bad blood" (Nichol 1880: 12) that could hardly be paralleled in the history of world literature. Indeed, "the Byrons seem to have grown more irresponsible with each generation, until the summit of social irregularity is reached in the character and conduct of the great-uncle and the father of the poet, if not in the poet himself" (Marchand 1957: 3) in whom symptoms consistent with mania (episodic promiscuity, violent rages, restlessness, risk taking, poor judgement and extreme irritability) join symptoms consistent with depression (ennui, lethargy, sleeplessness, despair, suicidal thoughts), the two of them occurring for the first time while he was a schoolboy at Harrow and then getting a recurrent, episodic pattern with depression worsened over time to such a degree that his involvement with the Greek independence is highly likely to have been visioned by himself as a probable road to death--"had he not died in Greece he would have killed himself in another way" (Jamison 1994: 153). By all intents and purposes, then, Byron's death could be classified as parasuicide, no matter how different the tableau at Missolonghi was like, in 1824. In mid-February he was sitting in Colonel Stanhope's room, talking jestingly, when "on a sudden he complained of a weakness in one of his legs; he rose, but finding himself unable to walk, called for assistance; he then fell into a violent nervous convulsion, and was placed upon a bed: while the fit lasted, his face was hideously distorted; but in the course of a few minutes the convulsion ceased, and he began to recover his senses: his speech returned, and he soon rose, apparently well. During the struggle his strength was preternaturally augmented, and when it was over, he behaved with his usual firmness" (Galt 1830: 152). After this attack of epilepsy,
[on] the 1st of March he complained of frequent vertigoes, which made him feel as though he were intoxicated; but no effectual means were taken to remove these portentous symptoms; and he regularly enjoyed his daily exercise, sometimes in boats, but oftener on horseback. His physician thought him convalescent; his mind, however, was in constant excitement; it rested not even during sleep. On the 9th of April, while sailing, he was overtaken by the rain, and got very wet: on his return home, he changed the whole of his dress; but he had been too long in his wet clothes, and the stamina of his constitution being shaken could not withstand the effects. In little more than two hours he was seized with rigors, fever, and rheumatic pains. During the night, however, he slept in his accustomed manner, but in the morning he complained of pains and headache; still this did not prevent him from going out on horseback in the afternoon--it was for the last time. On returning home, he observed to one of the servants that the saddle was not perfectly dry, from having been so wet the day before, and that he thought it had made him worse. He soon after became affected with almost constant shivering; sudorific medicines were administered, and blood-letting proposed; but though he took the drugs, he objected to the bleeding. Another physician was in consequence called in to see if the rheumatic fever could be appeased without the loss of blood. This doctor approved of the medicines prescribed, and was not opposed to the opinion that bleeding was necessary, but said it might be deferred till the next day. On the 11th he seemed rather better, but the medicines had produced no effect. On the 12th he was confined to bed with fever, and his illness appeared to be increasing; he was very low, and complained of not having had any sleep during the night; but the medical gentlemen saw no cause for alarm. Dr Bruno, his own physician, again proposed bleeding; the stranger still, however, thought it might be deferred, and Byron himself was opposed to it. "You will die," said Dr Bruno, "if you do not allow yourself to be bled." "You wish to get the reputation of curing my disease," replied his Lordship, "that is why you tell me it is so serious; but I will not permit you to bleed me." On the 13 th he sat up for some time, after a sleepless night, and still complained of pain in his bones and head. On the 14th he also left his bed. The fever was less, but the debility greater, and the pain in his head was undiminished. His valet became alarmed, and, doubtful of the skill of the doctors around him, entreated permission to send to Zante for an English physician of greater reputation. His Lordship desired him to consult the others, which he did, and they told him there was no occasion to call in any person, as they hoped all would be well in a few days. His Lordship now began to doubt if his disease was understood, and remarked repeatedly in the course of this day, that he was sure the doctors did not understand it. "Then, my Lord," said Fletcher, his valet, "have other advice." "They tell me," rejoined his Lordship, "that it is only a common cold, which you know I have had a thousand times." "I am sure you never had one of so serious a nature." "I think I never had." Fletcher then went again to the physicians, and repeated his solicitations that the doctor in Zante might be sent for; but was again assured that his master would be better in two or three days. At length, the doctor who had too easily consented to the postponement of the bleeding, seeing the prognostications of Dr Bruno more and more confirmed, urged the necessity of bleeding, and of no longer delay. This convinced Byron, who was himself greatly averse to the operation, that they did not understand his case. On the 15 th his Lordship felt the pains abated, insomuch that he was able to transact some business. On the 16th he wrote a letter, but towards the evening he became worse, and a pound of blood was taken from him. Still the disease was making progress, but Dr Bruno did not yet seem much alarmed; on the contrary, he thought were more blood removed his recovery was certain. Fletcher immediately told his master, urging him to comply with the doctor's wishes. "I fear," said his Lordship, "they know nothing about my disorder, but"--and he stretched out his arm--"here, take my arm and do whatever you like." On the 17 th his countenance was changed; during the night he had become weaker, and a slight degree of delirium, in which he raved of fighting, had come on. In the course of the day he was bled twice; in the morning, and at two in the afternoon. The bleeding, on both occasions, was followed by fainting fits. On this day he said to Fletcher, "I cannot sleep, and you well know I have not been able to sleep for more than a week. I know that a man can only be a certain time without sleep, and then he must go mad, without anyone being able to save him; and I would ten times sooner shoot myself than be mad, for I am not afraid of dying--I am more fit to die than people think." On the 18th his Lordship first began to dread that his fate was inevitable. "I fear," said he to Fletcher, "you and Tita will be ill by sitting up constantly, night and day"; and he appeared much dissatisfied with his medical treatment. Fletcher again entreated permission to send for Dr Thomas, at Zante: "Do so, but be quick," said his Lordship, "I am sorry I did not let you do so before, as I am sure they have mistaken my disease; write yourself, for I know they would not like to see other doctors here." Not a moment was lost in executing the order, and on Fletcher informing the doctors what he had done, they said it was right, as they now began to be afraid themselves. "Have you sent?" said his Lordship, when Fletcher returned to him.--"I have, my Lord." "You have done well, for I should like to know what is the matter with me." From that time his Lordship grew every hour weaker and weaker; and he had occasional flights of delirium. In the intervals he was, however, quite self-possessed, and said to Fletcher, "I now begin to think I am seriously ill; and in case I should be taken off suddenly, I wish to give you several directions, which I hope you will be particular in seeing executed." Fletcher in reply expressed his hope that he would live many years, and execute them himself. "No, it is now nearly over; I must tell you all without losing a moment." "Shall I go, my Lord, and fetch pen, ink, and paper." "Oh, my God! no, you will lose too much time, and I have it not to spare, for my time is now short. Now pay attention--you will be provided for." "I beseech you, my Lord, to proceed with things of more consequence." His Lordship then added, "Oh, my poor dear child!--my dear Ada!--My God! could I have but seen her--give her my blessing--and my dear sister Augusta, and her children--and you will go to Lady Byron and say--tell her everything--you are friends with her." He appeared to be greatly affected at this moment. His voice failed, and only words could be caught at intervals; but he kept muttering something very seriously for some time, and after raising his voice, said, "Fletcher, now if you do not execute every order which I have given you, I will torment you hereafter, if possible." This little speech is the last characteristic expression which escaped from the dying man. He knew Fletcher's superstitious tendency, and it cannot be questioned that the threat was the last feeble flash of his prankfulness. The faithful valet replied in consternation that he had not understood one word of what his Lordship had been saying. "Oh! my God!" was the reply, "then all is lost, for it is now too late! Can it be possible you have not understood me!" "No, my Lord; but I pray you to try and inform me once more." "How can I? it is now too late, and all is over." "Not our will, but God's be done," said Fletcher, and his Lordship made another effort, saying, "Yes, not mine be done--but I will try"--and he made several attempts to speak, but could only repeat two or three words at a time; such as, "My wife! my child--my sister--you know all--you must say all--you know my wishes"-The rest was unintelligible. A consultation with three other doctors, in addition to the two physicians in regular attendance, was now held; and they appeared to think the disease was changing from inflammatory diathesis to languid, and ordered stimulants to be administered. Dr Bruno opposed this with the greatest warmth; and pointed out that the symptoms were those, not of an alteration in the disease, but of a fever flying to the brain, which was violently attacked by it; and, that the stimulants they proposed would kill more speedily than the disease itself. While, on the other hand, by copious bleeding, and the medicines that had been taken before, he might still be saved. The other physicians, however, were of a different opinion; and then Dr Bruno declared he would risk no farther responsibility. Peruvian bark and wine were then administered. After taking these stimulants, his Lordship expressed a wish to sleep. His last words were, "I must sleep now"; and he composed himself accordingly, but never awoke again. For four-and-twenty hours he continued in a state of lethargy, with the rattles occasionally in his throat. At six o'clock in the morning of the 19th, Fletcher, who was watching by his bed-side, saw him open his eyes and then shut them, apparently without pain or moving hand or foot. "My God!" exclaimed the faithful valet, "I fear his Lordship is gone." The doctors felt his pulse--it was so. (Galt 1830: 154-157)
Poe's agony of grief
Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849). Alcohol use' one methods by which he fought "the intolerable morbidity of his manic-depressive state of mind" (Bett 1952):
I am constitutionally sensitive--nervous in a very unusual degree. I became insane, with long periods of horrible sanity. During these fits of absolute unconsciousness I drank, God knows how much or how long. As a matter of course, my enemies referred the insanity to the drink rather than the drink to the insanity.
Drug (laudanum) abuse, another method by which he sought "a temporary forgetfulness of the misfortunes and setbacks to which he seemed predestined" (Bett 1952). In a letter to Annie Richmond (16 November 1848) we can see this "need" (Damon 1930: 170) to reach out for the laudanum in a suicidal bid to escape his psychological pain:
You saw, you felt the agony of grief with which I bade you farewell--You remember my expressions of gloom--of a dreadful horrible foreboding of ill--Indeed--indeed it seemed to me that death approached me even then, & that I was involved in the shadow which went before him ... I remember nothing distinctly, from that moment until I found myself in Providence--I went to bed & wept through a long, long, hideous night of despair--When the day broke, I arose & endeavoured to quiet my mind by a rapid walk in the cold, keen air--but all would not do--the demon tormented me still. Finally I procured two ounces of laudanum ... I am so ill--so terribly, hopelessly ill in body and mind, that I feel I cannot live ... until I subdue this fearful agitation, which if continued, will either destroy my life or, drive me hopelessly mad.
Bipolar I disorder with depression when already in his mid-twenties:
My feelings at this moment are pitiable indeed. I am suffering under a depression of spirits such as I have never felt before. I have struggled in vain against the influence of this melancholy--You will believe me when I say that I am still miserable in spite of the great improvement in my circumstances. I say you will believe me, and for this simple reason, that a man who is writing for effect does not write thus. My heart is open before you--if it be worth reading, read it. I am wretched, and know not why. Console me--for you can. But let it be quickly--or it will be too late. Write me immediately. Convince me that it is worth one's while--that it is at all necessary to live, and you will prove yourself indeed my friend. Persuade me to do what is right. I do not mean this--I do not mean that you should consider what I now write you a jest--oh pity me! for I feel that my words are incoherent--but I will recover myself. You will not fail to see that I am suffering under a depression of spirits which will not fail to ruin me should it be long continued.
Not to mention mania with its "hyperacusis," an increase in the awareness of objects progressing to some disarray of the senses:
Not long ago, about the closing in of an evening in autumn, I sat at the large bow--window of the D--Coffee-House in London. For some months I had been ill in health, but was now convalescent, and, with returning strength, found myself in one of those happy moods which are so precisely the converse of ennui --moods of the keenest appetency, when the film from the mental vision departs ... and the intellect, electrified, surpasses as greatly its everyday condition, as does the vivid yet candid reason of Leibniz, the mad and flimsy rhetoric of Gorgias. Merely to breathe was enjoyment; and I derived positive pleasure even from many of the legitimate sources of pain.
So far so good, if one seeks conformity to the ancient rule that genius is never alien to madness:
I am come of a race noted for vigor of fancy and ardour of passion. Men have called me mad; but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence--whether much that is glorious--whether all that is profound--does not spring from disease of thought--from moods of mind exalted at the expense of the general intellect. They who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night. In their gray visions they obtain glimpses of eternity ... They penetrate, however, rudderless or compassless into the vast ocean of the 'light ineffable.'
This vision in Eleonora is supplemented by the philosophy of "tainted blood" in The Fall of the House of Usher:
During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher ... Its proprietor, Roderick Usher ... spoke of acute bodily illness--of a mental disorder which oppressed him ... I was at once struck with an incoherence--an inconsistency ... an excessive nervous agitation ... His action was alternately vivacious and sullen. His voice varied rapidly from a tremulous indecision (when the animal spirits seemed utterly in abeyance) to that species of energetic concision ... may be observed in the lost drunkard, or the irreclaimable eater of opium, during the periods of his most intense excitement ... It was, he said, a constitutional and a family evil, and one for which he despaired to find a remedy.
Family taints and curses played Poe too. His younger sister Rosalie was mentally retarded, his elder brother William was a heavy drinker and died at a young age (Cumston 1909). The siblings, orphaned before he was three years old, were entrusted to an Irish nursemaid who fed them on gin-soaked bread and laudanum in order to quiet them (Meyers 1992). Poe himself was not yet forty when he was found unconscious on a street in Baltimore. "When brought to the hospital, he was unconscious of his condition--who brought him or with whom he had been associating ... To this state succeeded tremor of the limbs ... and vacant converse with spectral and imaginary objects on the walls ... his answers were incoherent and unsatisfactory ... I found him in a violent delirium ... until three on Sunday morning. At this time ... he became quiet, and seemed to rest for a short time; then gently moving his head he said 'Lord help my poor soul!' and expired" (Dr. Moran; apud Harrison 1970). The diagnosis included diabetic coma (Hill 1968), encephalitis, delirium tremens, pneumonia (Scarlett 1978), head trauma (Patterson 1992), rabies (Benitez 1996), seizure disorder (Bazil 2005), this last label being based on symptoms like episodic unconsciousness, confusion, and paranoia that were attributed at the time to alcohol or drug abuse. The former "misdiagnosis" must have been caused by the incomplete description of complex partial seizures in Poe's time; they will have been there, and they may have been followed by "prolonged confusion and postictal psychosis" (Bazil 2005). Alternatively, complex partial epilepsy is likely to have played a part in his physical demise and, to be sure, in his fiction:
* some prolonged altered consciousness in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket:
[S]uddenly, a loud and long scream or yell, as if from the throats of a thousand demons ... without having once raised my eyes to learn the source of my alarm, I tumbled headlong and insensible upon the body of my fallen companion.
* a "swoon" hardly coming from The Inquisition:
He who has [never] swooned, is not he who finds strange palaces and wildly familiar faces in coals that glow; is not he who beholds floating in mid-air the sad visions that the many may not view; is not he who ponders over the perfume of some novel flower; is not he whose brain grows bewildered with the meaning of some musical cadence which has never before arrested his attention.
* several attacks of "catalepsy" in The Premature Burial:
Sometimes, without any apparent cause, I sank, little by little, into a condition of hemi-syncope, or half swoon; and, in this condition, without pain, without ability to stir, or, strictly speaking, to think, but with a dull lethargic consciousness of life and of the presence of those who surrounded my bed, I remained, until the crisis of the disease restored me, suddenly, to perfect sensation. At other times I was quickly and impetuously smitten. I grew sick, and numb, and chilly, and dizzy, and so fell prostrate at once.
* an epileptic seizure in The Pit and the Pendulum:
Then, all at once, there came a most deadly nausea over my spirit, and I felt every fibre in my frame thrill as if I had touched the wire of a galvanic battery, while the angel forms became meaningless spectres ... the blackness of darkness supervened; all sensations appeared swallowed up in a mad rushing descent as of the soul into Hades. Then silence, and stillness, and night were the universe.
* a species of epilepsy not infrequently terminating in trance itself in Berenice when Berenice was "seized with epilepsy in the early morning, and now, at the closing of the night the grave was ready for its tenant."
* the macropsia to be seen in temporal lobe seizures, in The Sphinx:
Estimating the size of the creature by comparison with the diameter of the large trees near which it passed--the few giants of the forest which had escaped the fury of the land-slide--I concluded it to be far larger than any ship of the line in existence. I say ship of the line, because the shape of the monster suggested the idea--the hull of one of our seventy-fours might convey a very tolerable conception of the general outline. The mouth of the animal was situated at the extremity of a proboscis some sixty or seventy feet in length, and about as thick as the body of an ordinary elephant. Near the root of this trunk was an immense quantity of black shaggy hair--more than could have been supplied by the coats of a score of buffaloes; and projecting from this hair downwardly and laterally, sprang two gleaming tusks not unlike those of the wild boar, but of infinitely greater dimension. Extending forward, parallel with the proboscis, and on each side of it, was a gigantic staff, thirty or forty feet in length, formed seemingly of pure crystal, and in shape a perfect prism:--it reflected in the most gorgeous manner the rays of the declining sun. The trunk was fashioned like a wedge with the apex to the earth. From it there were outspread two pairs of wings--each wing nearly one hundred yards in length--one pair being placed above the other, and all thickly covered with metal scales; each scale apparently some ten or twelve feet in diameter. I observed that the upper and lower tiers of wings were connected by a strong chain. But the chief peculiarity of this horrible thing, was the representation of a Death's Head, which covered nearly the whole surface of its breast, and which was as accurately traced in glaring white, upon the dark ground of the body, as if it had been there carefully designed by an artist. While I regarded this terrific animal, and more especially the appearance on its breast, with a feeling of horror and awe--with a sentiment of forthcoming evil, which I found it impossible to quell by any effort of the reason, I perceived the huge jaws at the extremity of the proboscis, suddenly expand themselves, and from them there proceeded a sound so loud and so expressive of wo, that it struck upon my nerves like a knell, and as the monster disappeared at the foot of the hill, I fell at once, fainting, to the floor.
All of these descriptions are too accurate to come ex nihilo. Alcohol consumption must have been there, because he "drank to excess, became coarse and vulgar, fell into fits of the deepest gloom ... followed by several days of sickness" (Robertson 1921). Such binge drinking, however could hardly account for complete loss of memory, loss of self-control and an abnormal ideation. Neither could the small quantities lead to withdrawal symptoms of such intensity. As suggested by a friend: "I ... while walking with Poe, and feeling thirsty, pressed him to take a glass of ale with me. Almost instantly a great change came over him. Previously engaged in an indescribably eloquent conversation, he became as if paralyzed, and with compressed lips and fixed, glaring eyes, returned, without uttering a word, to the house which we were visiting. For hours, the strange spell hung over him. He seemed a changed being, as if stricken by some peculiar phase of insanity." (cf. Robertson 1921)
Poe never suffered from a grand mal seizure, but the afore-mentioned semiology of his spells is indicative of complex partial status epilepticus, the quiet confusion and behavioural changes being "consistent with temporal lobe onset seizures" (Bazil 2005). To top it all, then, Poe was also epileptic.
As for Poe's death, it did not only raise a multitude of questions about the circumstances that led to his mysterious and untimely disappearance but also a great number of controversies about the various diseases, afflictions and addictions that were posthumously attributed to him, such as tuberculosis, cholera, rabies, syphilis, brain lesions, seizures, epilepsy, catalepsy, paranoia, drugs and alcohol abuse, etc. Since there is no way of unequivocally diagnosing Edgar Allan Poe or the maladies he suffered from during his life, one solution would be to analyse the characters he gave life to in his tales, characters that can offer some evidence of his obvious personal emotional distress. In 1847, his wife Virginia died of tuberculosis after six years of tormenting agony and Poe became notably depressed. When Joseph W. Walker spotted him in Gunner's Hall he sent an urgent message to Poe's old friend Joseph Snodgrass who later remembered his state: "When I entered the barroom of the house, I instantly recognized the face of one whom I had often seen and knew well, although it wore an aspect of vacant stupidity which made me shudder. The intellectual flash of his eye had vanished, or rather had been quenched in the bowl; but the broad, capacious forehead of the author of The Raven ... was still there, with a width, in the region of ideality, such as few men have ever possessed." (Thomas&Jackson 1987: 844)
Poe continued to drink and write until 1849 when he died in a Baltimore hospital. The doctor that looked at him, later considered an unreliable witness, described his condition as follows: "When brought to the hospital he was unconscious of his condition--who brought him or with whom he had been associating ... He remained in this condition from 5:00 in the afternoon--the hour of his admission--until 3:00 [the] next morning. This was on 3 October. To this state succeeded tremor of the limbs, and at first a busy, but not violent or active delirium--constantly talking--and vacant converse with spectral and imaginary objects on the walls. His face was pale and his whole person drenched in perspiration. We were unable to induce tranquility before the second day after his admission. Having left orders with the nurses to that effect, I was summoned to his bedside as soon as consciousness supervened, and questioned him in reference to his family, place of residence, relatives, etc. But his answers were incoherent and unsatisfactory. He told me, however, he had a wife in Richmond, which I have since learned was not the fact, that he did not know when he left that city or what had become of his trunk or clothing ... This state continued until Saturday evening (he was admitted on Wednesday) when he commenced calling for one 'Reynolds,' which he did through the night up to three on Sunday morning. Having become enfeebled from exertion he became quiet, and seemed to rest for a short time; then gently moving his head, he said 'Lord help my poor soul!' and expired." (Fisher 2010: 71-72)
We are tempted to join a host of authors and make references to Arthur Gordon Pym's final scene by identifying "Reynolds" as the Antarctic explorer Jeremiah Reynolds, whose reports provided Poe with source material for the story, and arguing that Poe's last thoughts on his deathbed went to the exploration of unknown territories that led to his knowledge of a new dimension: "Perhaps to his dim and tortured brain, he seemed to be on the brink of a great descending circle sweeping down like the phantom-ship in the Manuscript found in a Bottle into 'darkness and the distance.' In that first published story, Poe had written, 'It is evident that we are hurrying onward to some exciting knowledge--some never to be imparted secret, whose attainment is destruction.'" (Hobson Quinn 2011: 19)
Poe's attraction to horror fiction and the new direction (shifting focus from matters aesthetic to reality) that he gave to the world can be identified in the anxiety to separate from and reunite with the divine source of creation which is the origin of rupture and death wish in his writing. The techniques of the doubling of character, of the first-person narrative, of replacing reality by sub-realities subjectively presented by the distorted minds of his characters and placing them in a sisific pendulation between hope and despair and a permanent search for identity represent the instruments he uses to define his style. As his own life had been scarred by tragedy his works evince his gloomy passionate soft spots--a tormented and sometimes neurotic fixation on death and violence and an overall affinity for the beautiful yet tragic mysteries of life.
Poe's dealing with death stretches over the whole dimensionality of the subject: death's physical signs, death-bed imagery, the phenomenology of dying with all its stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance), the effects of putrefaction on the body, the process of inhumation, the tomb entrapment, the return from the grave, the feelings of loss and mourning, the need to inflict death on himself and others representing the elements that help with the creation of the esoteric symbolism totalizing the concept of mortality. Going beyond the Gothic perception of his days, unlike most of his contemporary writers, Poe refused to soften mortality and continued to write about death and memory: "Who ever really saw anything but horror in the smile of the dead ? We so earnestly desire to fancy it 'sweet'--that is the source of the mistake; if, indeed, there ever was a mistake in the question." Poe left no clear evidence (journals, notebooks) of his method or the relationship between the author and his texts. In The Philosophy of Composition, interestingly enough, when referring to the death of a beautiful woman he mentioned the unity of impression, beauty or brevity but omitted to talk about his characteristic obsessions (premature burial, murder, disease, madness, revenge, etc.); nonetheless he left no private record which might help in deciphering the peculiar conjunctions sometimes present in his works: humour and horror, passion and parody, mystery and irony. But the insight into his nightmarish vision is evident in the writing itself, which allegorizes mortality in the relation between language and death.
Perhaps the desire to write originates in the paradox that the death of writing actually guarantees the life of its spirit. The finality death brings creates in the self the wish to symbolically ascend, ending in "the temporal activity of writing" which "apparently functioned for him as a diversion from melancholy, as an exploration of anxiety, and as a mode of discovery and analysis. He could simultaneously manage his dread through imaginative play--sometimes converting it to an object of satire--and construct speculative versions of death experience. Now haunted by the figure of the Red Death, now probing the spirit world through mesmeric revelation, Poe embraced the life of writing "as a saving response to the consciousness of his own mortality and to disorienting changes in the contemporary meaning of death." (Kennedy 1987: 28)
The repetition of the same setting has led psychoanalysts to the conclusion that spatiotemporal imagery is nothing more than a representation of the Oedipus complex. The labyrinth has as centre the image of a dying woman, of absolute destruction. Moreover the image of the labyrinth (vortex, maelstrom) with its set of opposites (exterior versus interior, light versus dark, life versus death, dream versus reality) stands for a spatio-temporal verticalization that anticipates the fall into sleep, the loss of consciousness or death. The spiral is both integrative and destructive (cf. Cotrau 1999), a paradox that reinforces the ambiguity of Poes fictional world. The uncontrollable urge to write horror fiction arises from the bottom of a soul overcharged with awe for the world's biggest mystery--the existence of life after death. By placing his female characters in near-death experiences or resurrections from death Poe offers his male narrators the opportunity to live the reality of transcendence; Ligeia is in this way a symbol of the continuity of personal identity and a pathway to eternal salvation. In The Oval Portrait the image of a doomed beautiful woman is used by the author to express the death of beauty and the beauty of death suggesting that the fate of the protagonist is somehow connected to a female.
The last year of Poe's life started well from the literary point of view (he completed the final version of The Bells, began Annabel Lee, and was also writing Hop Frog and Von Kempelen and His Discovery) but after the fund rejection from the journals he was hoping to benefit from for his literary magazine, he collapsed into despair: "my sadness is unaccountable, and this makes me the more sad. Nothing cheers or comforts me. My life seems wasted--the future looks a dreary blank" (apud Hobson Quinn 2011: 18). However he decided to travel to Richmond through Philadelphia to deliver a series of lectures but apparently began drinking after a long period of sobriety and even lost at the railway station the suitcase containing the lectures he was about to deliver. A week later he wrote to Maria Clemm confessing his adventures ("I have been taken to prison once since I came here for getting drunk; but then I was not. It was about Virginia") but there was no evidence of Poe ever being arrested. The day after his supposed arrest he asked for a friend's protection from men who, according to his story, were trying to assassinate him. A few days later he felt well enough to leave the house unaccompanied and visited a reporter, hungry, without having any money and wearing only one shoe. George Lippard raised some money for Poe to head to Richmond, his intended destination. There are a number of unreliable descriptions of him in Richmond, but there has always been much myth-making in his case. Poe himself shifted from one mood to another with great ease and did so in his romantic life--while trying to renew his advances towards Elmira Shelton he was thinking of another woman: "I want to live near Annie ... Do not tell me anything about Annie--I cannot bear to hear it now--unless you can tell me that Mr. R. is dead" (apud Hobson Quinn 2011: 19). One day before making the fateful journey to Baltimore, where he was supposed to edit a volume of poetry, he visited Elmira Shelton who in letter to Maria Clemm concluded that "he was very sad, and complained of being quite sick. I felt his pulse, and found he had considerable fever." (apud Hobson Quinn 2011: 19)
The correspondence before Poe's death reveals the anxiety he suffered from and the dread of permanent separation from the mother: "Oh God, my Mother, shall we ever again meet? If possible, oh come! My clothes are so horrible, and I am so ill. Oh, if you could come to me, my mother. Write instantly--oh do not fail" (letter to Maria Clemm--July 14, 1849); "Most of my suffering arose from that terrible idea which I could not get rid of--the idea that you were dead" (letter to Maria Clemm--July 19, 1849). Exactly three months before his death Poe wrote to Maria Clemm another letter in which he shared his vision of simultaneous departure: "The very instant you get this, come to me. The joy of seeing you will almost compensate for our sorrows. We can but die together. It is no use to reason with me now; I must die. I have no desire to live since I have done Eureka. I could accomplish nothing more. For your sake it would be sweet to live, but we must die together. You have been all in all to me, darling, ever beloved mother, and dearest, truest friend" (letter to Maria Clemm--July 7, 1849). She embodied in Poe's vision three distinct roles: she was "beloved mother," "truest friend" and his "darling." He did not bear the idea of extinction unless he was together with her as in death he would be reunited with the mother figure from whom death has estranged him years before. Unfortunately so, he departed from this world alone and without saying good-bye to his confident and mother figure. His last words were the name "Reynolds," a name associated with the great vortex in the polar seas which promised "some exciting knowledge--some never-to-be-imparted secret, whose attainment is destruction." (Poe 2009: 82)
The Ultima Thule daguerreotype--as it was named by Poe's fiancee, the poet Sarah Helen Whitman--exposes the tension and pain on Poe's face on the day the picture was taken, nearly a year before his death and it was long commented upon and interpreted ever since. It was most probably taken "at the very hour when he looked the worst that he ever looked in his life" and ironically it " became the best known to the world" (Allen 1926: 782). Although the cause of his death remains a perfect mystery what is certain is the fact that he had consumed alcohol before he was found "in great distress" on October 3 (a statement directly and indirectly supported by other contemporaries as well--Robert Snodgrass, John P. Kennedy, John R. Thompson). In fact, just like the daguerreotype indicates, in the last two years of his life he showed the signs of heavy drinking and maybe other health problems (however, instead of medical records we only have memoirs and personal correspondence that evidence his problems with alcohol, depression and illnesses, which further deepen the mystery). A succession of doctors, historians or just amateurs have advanced tuberculosis, epilepsy, diabetes, and encephalitis as possible causes of Poe's death. However, other sensational contradictory and unreliable diagnoses have emerged (rabies--1996, and carbon monoxide poisoning--1999). If we take into consideration that Poe's death was caused by an episode of heavy drinking aggravated by a pre-existing condition, there is a series of unanswered questions that remain: What did the author do between September 27 and October 3? What is the identity of his alleged drinking companions and why did they leave him in that state? What was his real route and whereabouts? Why was he wearing clothes that were unlike anything he usually wore? One plausible explanation for all of these uncertainties is the so-called "cooping" theory, a frequent practice at the time that involved intoxicating people, changing their appearance and forcing them to vote repeatedly at various polls for the same candidate but disjointed by the fact that it emerged some twenty years after Poe's death as a means of rehabilitating his reputation.
Yet, even in death Poe's personality created a lot of controversy. Two days after his passing, one of Poe's rivals, Rufus Griswold, published a vicious obituary in the New York Daily Tribune: "Edgar Allan Poe is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it. The poet was well-known, personally or by reputation, in all this country; he had readers in England, and in several of the states of Continental Europe; but he had few or no friends; and the regrets for his death will be suggested principally by the consideration that in him literary art has lost one of its most brilliant but erratic stars. [...] He walked the streets, in madness or melancholy, with lips moving in indistinct curses, or with eyes upturned in passionate prayer (never for himself, for he felt, or professed to feel, that he was already damned, but) for their happiness who at the moment were objects of his idolatry" (apud Fisher 2010: 192). And this was only the beginning of his defamation campaign. Probably jealous of Poe's talents, Griswold approached the moneyless heirs to Poe's literary estate and published damaging and distorted memoirs (that claimed Poe was an opium addict, a deserter, that he had an affair with the second wife of his foster father, etc.). However Griswold's distortions had the opposite effect and actually increased Poe's popularity. Charles Baudelaire's 1852 essays disclosed the different image he had in Europe and particularly in France, where Poe was greatly admired.
The sadness of the moon
In terms of artistry and, arguably so, poetic genius, the three poets (Samuel Johnson, Lord Byron, Edgar Allan Poe) whose biographies we have examined come first in their respective classes: preromanticism, romanticism and late romanticism; and so do they in their respective (psycho)pathologies. We shall consequently conclude that the greater the poet the more severe his (psycho)pathological symptomatology.
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Doina Cosman Iuliu Hatieganu University of Medicine
Bogdan C.S. Pirvu Iuliu Hatieganu University of Medicine
Dana Turliuc Grigore T. Popa University of Medicine
Mihaela Prioteasa University of Craiova
Felicia Burdescu University of Craiova
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|Title Annotation:||Poe, Poe, Poe ...|
|Author:||Cosman, Doina; Pirvu, Bogdan C.S.; Turliuc, Dana; Prioteasa, Mihaela; Burdescu, Felicia|
|Publication:||Romanian Journal of Artistic Creativity|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2014|
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