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1 - Revisiting Robert Lowell's Mental Hospital Poems

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 June 2019

Astrid Franke
Affiliation:
Professor of American Studies at Tübingen University and the author of Keys to Controversies: Stereotypes in Modern American Novels (1999) and Pursue the Illusion: Problems of Public Poetry in America (2010).
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Summary

ONE OF THE RECENT new approaches to Robert Lowell has come from the field of disability studies, or more narrowly, in arguments for neurodiversity, or more widely, from the medical humanities. I am thinking, of course, of Kay Redfield Jamison's new biography of Robert Lowell, but also her earlier book Touched with Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, as well as Isabelle Travis’ article “‘Is Getting Well Ever an Art?’: Psychopharmacology and Madness in Robert Lowell's Day by Day”; the chapter “Robert Lowell and the Chemistry of Character” in Nikki Skillman's book The Lyric in the Age of the Brain; and Allen Thiher's Revels in Madness: Insanity in Medicine and Literature, which mentions the confessional poets in chapter nine. Jamison argues in both books for a close correlation between bipolar disorder (or manic-depressive illness) and creativity, which, as she would be the first to acknowledge, is an old idea going back to antiquity, expressed by the term “divine madness.” It is expressed in age-old topoi of the Dionysian and the Apollonian or, in Lowell, the fiery production of poetry in manic phases and the rigorous, disciplined revision of them in depressive ones. The argument here is ultimately about an ahistorical model of the mind and creativity. History is only relevant as material for the creative mind to work on in Jamison and for the historically conditioned invention and development of pharmaceuticals in Skillman and Travis. For Skillman, the overall benevolent effects of lithium gave Lowell the courage and energy to write Notebooks, which she reappraises in this light, whereas the reoccurrence of his attacks of mania then led to another resigned withdrawal from the belief in materialist models of the mind in Day by Day. In a similar fashion, but with the opposite conclusion, Travis argues that the widespread use of Thorazine and other anti-psychotic drugs led to a normalization of madness; her interpretation of Day by Day, then, reads these poems as “representing and remedying suffering in a culture where psychopharmacology has normalized madness.”

In contrast to more traditional studies of the representation of madness in literature, these recent scholarly works all negotiate a difficult course between the historicity of the humanities and the ahistorical assumptions underlying most medical practices.

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Robert Lowell in a New Century
European and American Perspectives
, pp. 14 - 24
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2019

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  • Revisiting Robert Lowell's Mental Hospital Poems
    • By Astrid Franke, Professor of American Studies at Tübingen University and the author of Keys to Controversies: Stereotypes in Modern American Novels (1999) and Pursue the Illusion: Problems of Public Poetry in America (2010).
  • Edited by Thomas Austenfeld
  • Book: Robert Lowell in a New Century
  • Online publication: 26 June 2019
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/9781787444645.002
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  • Revisiting Robert Lowell's Mental Hospital Poems
    • By Astrid Franke, Professor of American Studies at Tübingen University and the author of Keys to Controversies: Stereotypes in Modern American Novels (1999) and Pursue the Illusion: Problems of Public Poetry in America (2010).
  • Edited by Thomas Austenfeld
  • Book: Robert Lowell in a New Century
  • Online publication: 26 June 2019
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/9781787444645.002
Available formats
×

Save book to Google Drive

To save content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

  • Revisiting Robert Lowell's Mental Hospital Poems
    • By Astrid Franke, Professor of American Studies at Tübingen University and the author of Keys to Controversies: Stereotypes in Modern American Novels (1999) and Pursue the Illusion: Problems of Public Poetry in America (2010).
  • Edited by Thomas Austenfeld
  • Book: Robert Lowell in a New Century
  • Online publication: 26 June 2019
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/9781787444645.002
Available formats
×