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A Poetry and Madness, Connected or Not?—and the Case of Hölderlin Elizabeth Sewell Poetry and the life of poetry I know about because it is my job. Madness I know by encounters with it, though not many: an honored teacher of mine in England, who was committed for some years to Bethlem Hospital (known to our forefathers as Bedlam) with a diagnosis of paranoia, and whom I visited as often as I could; myself sitting in an empty church in a New England city one snowy morning after one of the worst disasters of my life, saying to myself, "I am going to go out of my mind and it will be very inconvenient for everybody." We have all had such experiences. There are others that come close— falling totally and suddenly in love, for example. But as I begin to think about the possible relations between madness and poetry I am aware of a very doctrinaire voice within myself which wants to maintain that there is no essential or necessary connection between being a poet and being mad. This inner voice urges that to go mad is, in a poet as such, a betrayal of us all or at best a defection, as is also to commit suicide. The views this voice utters are, I realize, quite precisely pre-judice. I am admonishing myself, therefore, to do some thinking about the existence or non-existence of this relationship, in the hope that the reader, who may cherish prejudices similar to or different from mine, may be interested to do the same. We cannot turn to experts here: there are none or there are far too many, according as you look at it. Most lay people probably feel, as I do, a kind of sad resignation at how little we yet know about mental illness, its nature or its cure. Chemistry and the body clearly enter in, but it is not difficult to imagine that in another hundred and fifty years doctors and alienists will look back on our present outlooks and treatments with that kind of amazement we deal out to medical 42 POETRY AND MADNESS diagnoses and procedures of not so long ago: "Gout struck inwards," for instance, which turns up in the medical history of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. As for what may constitute mental illness, the recent trial of the young assailant of President Reagan comes to mind. The public witnessed experts on the left saying the young man was sane, experts on the right saying he was insane, and the jury, from their common sense presumably, being asked to adjudicate between the two views. It may be useful, then, for me to try out some sort of definition of what madness may mean: Madness: behavior or speech which deviates widely from what is commonly accepted in any particular culture at that place and time. While I am about it, I will try to delimit our other term, poetry, too: Poetry: the making and receiving of poems, closely-knit structures of words spoken or written, using every resource which language possesses; these structures have interpretative powers in regard to the universe, and produce effects, bodily, imaginative, mental , spiritual, on humans receiving them. There are difficulties with the above, certainly with the first, which could allow of political dissidents being committed as insane, and probably with the second as well. Several categories of humans other than those classed as "mad" may fit the first description—saints, geniuses, children, heroes, prophets, ecstatic lovers. That list, however , including the lunatic,' leads us directly to our poet, Friedrich Hölderlin, bom in 1770, died in 1843. He could fit into several of the categories of nonconformists just named—genius certainly, hero perhaps , prophet perhaps, ecstatic lover unquestionably, and I am not even sure about leaving out "Child." His poetry, in its turn, would fit fairly well with my other definition above. Writing poems of increasing power, originality, and beauty, unknown and unregarded in his lifetime and only in the last sixty years or so acknowledged as one of the great poets not merely of Germany but of the world...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6571
Print ISSN
0278-9671
Pages
pp. 41-69
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-13
Open Access
No
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