Rhyme and Reason: The Emergence of the Poet as Tormented Genius

Renaissance humanism readily accepted Aristotle’s notion of the melancholy genius. The era’s most celebrated Italian poet, Torquato Tasso—a victim of persecution mania—spent seven years in Ferrara’s St Anna madhouse. Sadly, his death came only a few days before his planned crowning by the Pope as “king of poets” on the Capitoline Hill in 1595. The French philosopher Michel de Montaigne stood alone in dismissing an idolatry based on a view of poet as victim or prey to an obsessive imagination. Having met Tasso on his travels he recorded:

Countless minds have been ruined by their very power and suppleness … I felt even more vexation than compassion to see him in Ferrara in so piteous a state … not recognising himself or his works …

In Tudor and Stuart England, the quirkiness of the court jester or fool found an approval that went beyond mere amusement. These royal servants were considered trusted intimates to their kings and queens, and earned high praise for a candour which no other members of court could, or would, dare attempt. These eccentric specialists in satire and irony were heralded by the Dutch philosopher Desiderius Erasmus (In Praise of Folly, 1509) and their important role reached a wide audience in certain plays by Shakespeare. Elizabeth I’s favourite was Richard Tarlton, famed for his improvisatory doggerel verse and who, some have suggested, was the inspiration for Hamlet’s fond reflections on Yorick.

… the lunatic, the lover and the poet are of imagination all compact.
                               —William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Roy Porter, in his essay “Bedlam and Parnassus: Mad People’s Writing in Georgian England” (1987), suggests it is not such a long bow to draw, that such kept eccentrics served as an English prototype for the type of poet who was admired simultaneously as being “on the edge” and as a truth speaker to an inner circle. By the beginning of the seventeenth century, to find what Plato had described in poets as a “divine fury” was intended as a compliment. For instance, Michael Drayton lauded his colleague Christopher Marlowe: “For that fine madness still he did retain, / Which rightly should possess a poet’s brain.”

Porter argues that Georgian England, however, would have none of this. Neither of the poets William Collins (whose alcoholism led him to confinement in McDonald’s Madhouse in Chelsea) or Christopher Smart (locked away in London’s St Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics for his religious mania), nor their contemporary William Cowper (whose episodes of suicidal depression ensured internment at Nathaniel Cotton’s asylum at St Albans) held any truck with wanting to be perceived as having been consumed by melancholy genius. Nor were they celebrated as such.

This essay appeared in a recent Quadrant.
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The stereotype of the mad man of letters received its most vehement criticism in the form of Augustan poetry itself. Alexander Pope in The Dunciad bemoans “Nonsense precipitate, like running Lead / That slip’d through Cracks and Zig-zags of the Head”. And in his Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot (1734), friend John is asked to shut the door on hordes of prospective visiting wordsmiths:

Tye up the knocker, say I’m sick, I’m dead.

The Dog-star rages! Nay ’tis past a doubt,

All Bedlam, or Parnassus, is let out:

Fire in each eye, and papers in each hand,

They rave, recite, and madden round the land.

The Georgian spirit embraced a view that genius—including that which may have been described as poetic—could only be the offspring of a healthy body and a healthy mind. So, why such a sudden change in outlook?

Porter puts forward two intriguing explanations as to why he believes it became popular to satirise the notion of a supposed magical/mystical/mad/febrile-minded poet. First, he refers to a growing “lunatic fringe” in regard to religion. The civil wars had seen a dramatic increase in such “Enthusiasm”, as it was known, and practices such as speaking in tongues combined with a surfeit of end-of-world prophecies and the bellowing of impending doom did not sit well with those who preferred to view themselves as men of reason. Such “Enthusiasts” were easy pickings for those inclined to vilify and ridicule. Second, for Porter, the post-Restoration development of philosophical nominalism—with its emphasis on the particular rather than the universal—had come to applaud facts rather than fiction or fancies, statistics over rhetoric or bombast, and indeed some went as far as to suggest that an unrestrained imagination was a dangerous thing. The noted theologian Zachary Mayne expressed it thus:

Imagination is almost continually, in some Degree or other, hurtful and prejudicial to the Understanding. For … the Mind … will frequently, unawares, bring before its View Ideas that have little or no Relation to the Subject Matter of its Thoughts and Meditations.

While the randomness inherent in the association of thoughts, as expressed here, echoes views promulgated by the philosopher John Locke, it needs be said that Locke himself had argued that the imagination was crucial to the generation and formulation of ideas: as did writers such as Joseph Addison and Mark Akenside. Addison wrote a series of essays for the Spectator to this effect in 1712, while Akenside’s lengthy and didactic poem The Pleasures of the Imagination (1744) used these ideas as its springboard. Porter dissuades any suggestion that the Georgians devalued a creative imagination—rather, in his view, they simply dismissed its exclusivity for those poetically minded or mad (or both). And if the creative imagination was important and theoretically available to all—and indeed to be seen as a normal attribute of a higher functioning rational-minded human being—then the gift of a poet did not reside in the spark of the imagination alone. John Conolly, the psychiatrist responsible for putting an end to the physical restraint of the insane, wrote at the end of the Georgian era:

No error can be more unjust towards the whole race of poets, than to suppose them to be persons merely distinguished by imagination … in order to become a great poet [one] should be “a very accomplished gentleman”…

Accomplishment depended crucially on exercising judgment. A “vitiated judgment” in the words of John Munro, a practitioner at Bedlam, could very well define insanity, while his colleague William Battie at St Luke’s Asylum agreed, though used a variant terminology: “a deluded imagination”. Locke had noted that in daily life our imagination is in concert with a barrage of ideas associated with other ideas. This necessitated a pressing need for considered judgments based on our experience; otherwise, our minds would embark on endless tangents.

In Georgian literature, perhaps the most celebrated and indeed humorous treatment of Locke’s thoughts on this topic lie in the opening pages of Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Tristram’s future parents have been in the habit of winding the family hall clock on the first Sunday night of each month. Mr Shandy, who is described as a man of “extreme exactness … to which he was in truth a slave”, also makes a point on these evenings to address “other little family concernments”—such as marital sex—“so as not to be plagued and pestered with them the rest of the month”. Though we are told it is Mr rather than Mrs Shandy who has read Locke, it seems the latter is more the practitioner of precepts regarding the association of ideas as set out in Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, for at the precise moment of Tristram’s conception, the pull of associative thinking (sex and the hall clock) proves so strong that the maternal Shandy feels impelled to ask of her husband: “Pray, my dear, have you not forgot to wind up the clock?”

This is not to suggest that Mrs Shandy is deranged, for as far as we know, this inquiry was a singular event, and as Conolly once again explains:

… so long as the association of ideas is not beyond our power of suspension and revision, we are not mad … [however] when the association of ideas is so involuntary, so imperative and uncontrollable, that we cannot command it, cannot revise and correct it … we have lost our reason; then the faculty of imagination is in morbid excess, the power of attention is impaired, and comparison being no longer exercised, we are mad concerning that particular association of ideas.

While the Augustan age expressed a marked preference for sane and reasoned genius, a growing reading public would soon find it preferable to reinstate the concept of the poet as tormented genius; a unique individual who is besieged by the burden of a hyper-active imagination. In the Romantic era, poets such as Lord Byron would revisit previous responses to Tasso and unashamedly embellish them. In his “Lament to Tasso” he seemingly ignored the reverence with which Tasso was held, and lionised Tasso’s “Long years of outrage, calumny and wrong; / Implied madness, prison’d solitude”.

The Romantic poets themselves would be exalted to an even greater degree. Being “mad, bad and dangerous to know”, as Lady Caroline Lamb famously said of Byron, was marketing that money could not buy. His Childe Harold (1812) would make him the talk of literary London at the age of twenty-four, while The Corsair, published two years later, sold ten thousand copies on its first day of sale, an astonishing figure for those times. Such popularity was paradoxically at odds with the notion that became known as the Byronic hero: one who having dismissed established norms, consequently wallows in a rejection by society. As sales soared, the effect on the next generation was profound. Lord Macaulay would describe the Byronic hero as a man “proud, moody, cynical, with defiance on his brow and misery in his heart, a scorner of his kind, implacable in revenge, yet capable of deep and strong affection”.

The archetype was prone to wanderlust, melancholy, misanthropy, alienation and isolation, and by the end of the nineteenth century it had become a stereotype of the artistic temperament with its roots set down so deeply that, though now considered cliché, it is still embedded in mainstream sentiments today.

Another Byron, May, had married the poet’s second cousin. She became best known for her abridgments of the Peter Pan books by J.M. Barrie during the early years of the twentieth century. However, her titles such as A Day with Shakespeare (1913) were eagerly read by a broader audience (including key literary figures such as James Joyce) and her Days with the Poets series, published around the same time, presents a view of the poetic spirit as expressed by fin de siècle sensibilities. We shall look at two examples.

It is the norm for the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley to rise as early as six each morning, survey the Bay of Spezia from a veranda and then saunter down to where a small boat is moored. Once settled in its bow, he devours the works of Plato and Sophocles “eight lines at a time”. Since he is strictly vegetarian, he has forgone any semblance of a British breakfast and manages to get by on several rusks of dry bread which he stores in a pocket of his black short coat. As an aside, May Byron questions the attitude of the poet’s wife, Mary, and her dissatisfaction at the lack of amenities in their Italian living quarters. Since Percy himself is overwhelmed by the natural beauty of their new locale, he does not notice such things. On the contrary, he cherishes the remoteness from the stultifying society of English cities, where (despite a large readership) he feels shunned.

By noon he might feel inclined to write, for he is like a stringed harp who responds to the slightest of winds (here May Byron is referring to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s emblematic notion of the Aeolian harp as a metaphor for a poet’s responsiveness) and often his brain boils with thoughts that throw off images faster than he can comprehend, let alone commit to paper. We are asked to form our own picture of Shelley passing his fingers through his lank hair and notice that despite his tender years it is already showing signs of grey.

In the afternoon he will take to the sea, manning his boat’s tiller with one hand, clasping a book with the other, for he prides himself on his ability to steer and read in the same moment. While there is no mention of Shelley’s demise as the result of a boating accident, we are advised that those seeking the poet after sailing should head to the local forest where he will be found composing poems, most likely using the back of his guitar as a desk. He will remain here until nightfall and somebody will be sent to encourage him to return home. The poet will exhibit a reluctance to do so, but there will be no hint of resentment on his part. Rather, having returned, he will entertain eager listeners by reading aloud the works of John Milton and Edmund Spenser.

Conversely, the poet Byron’s day begins in the afternoon. At Pisa, he struggles into day clothes with the assistance of his trusted valet Fletcher. It is perhaps two o’clock and, as is the norm, he is in low spirits. His “despair and despondency” are due to the previous night’s activation of the brain and it is generally a picture of unease that the mirror surveys most mornings. Well might the poet state: “Through life’s dull road, so dim and dirty, / I have dragg’d to three and thirty”.

These thoughts precede a meagre breakfast, perhaps some claret and soda water and a listless poking at some Italian delicacy. Somewhere below the stairwell, local children will be playing and their boisterous noise will make the poet cringe. Becoming further downcast, he will throw himself upon a couch, but after a short time, when the boredom arising from this act of petulance consumes him, he will spring to his feet and begin to fidget with the balls on a billiard table, aimlessly rolling them about. In this sudden movement, the quick-witted observer would have noted a strangeness of gait—for yes, the poet is lame—and neither Byron’s own efforts nor that of his first-class tailor can disguise this fact. Despite this, however, when the mood takes him he can swim for five miles at a stretch. Furthermore, he is blessed with an unusual long-sightedness that can take in the vast vistas and dazzling panoramas described so effortlessly in Childe Harold. He is also adept at pistol shooting, hitting half-crowns at twelve yards despite a trembling hand (a vibration that he allows for by mental calculation and considers, so as to retain his reputation as a crack shot).

The sun soon sets and Byron the gentleman comes to the fore. His largesse in the company of others camouflages so effectively a loathing for mixed society that his guests will never guess this is the case, so enthralled are they by a personality that fascinates and a natural grandeur that all hold in awe.

Eventually the invited company will leave and the poet will stand stock still before an open window. Nightly, his brain becomes plagued with a cataclysm of ideas seeking expression under the stress of creative impulse. As debilitating as this sounds, here, at least for a time, Byron can momentarily cast aside his incessant melancholia, brought on by the thoughts of a miserable childhood, the unrequited love for the woman of his heart, the wife from whom he is alienated, the daughter he may never hold, the sister from whom he is estranged, the ancestral home that has passed into another’s hands, the recognition of the folly that has made him what he is—and he will launch himself into work—until exhaustion overtakes him and enables a few hours of fitful sleep.

In the Augustan spirit, Alexander Pope would dismiss such difficulties in the writing of poetry, simply insisting that “the sounds must seem an echo to the sense”. He would add: “I was never hippish in my life.”

Barry Gillard lives in Geelong. He wrote on Thomas Mann in the October issue.


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