Robert Lowell, Bipolar Disorder and Creativity

Robert Lowell, Bipolar Disorder and Creativity

My first article regarding Abraham Lincoln based on the biography, Lincoln, by David Herbert Donald emphasized that Lincoln’s unipolar depression disorder allowed for genius which we would like to see in all leaders. Mania of bipolar disorder adds creativity. Winston Churchill was a statesman whose bipolar disease allowed for great leadership and his prodigious writing of history. Kay Redfield Jamison in her book Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament (Simon and Schuster, 1993) documents an exhaustive study of poets, writers, painters and composers who either had depression alone or bipolar disorder.

Jamison puts it succinctly “I believe that mania and genius not uncommonly exist together, that suffering can be brought to some good, that the fast swither of mania can fire ambition, steel the nerve, and give high wind to imagination.”

As I go through Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius Mania, and Character also by Kay R. Jamison my intent is to review her purely psychological history of William Robert Traill Spence Lowell IV. His creative genius would not have existed without his periods of mania and psychotic mania.

Lowell was born in 1917 and died in 1977 He was the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1947-8. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1947 and 1974 and the National Institute of Arts and Letters Award in 1947.

You will be amazed that he accomplished all this during his most active episodes of bipolar mania with psychosis (16 hospitalizations) between 1948 and 1968.

Robert Lowell’s parents Charlotte Winslow Lowell and Robert Traill Spence Lowell III had only one child, Robert Lowell born in 1917. Charlotte Lowell spent many years of her married life alone as her husband was away at sea. She suffered from what was called “psychotic feinting spells.” Lowell wrote that the only thing she enjoyed “was taking brisk walks and grieving over the fact that she was pregnant. She took pride in looking into the gray Atlantic and saying, without a trace of fear or illusion, ‘I wish I could die.’” Jamison meticulously traces bipolar disease and schizophrenia back through her mother’s line back to the Mayflower in 1642.

Between 1951 and 1957 Lowell said, “During this time I have had five manic depressive breakdowns. Short weeks of a Messianic rather bestial glow, when I have to be in a hospital, then dark months of indecision, emptiness etc. So the dark and light are not mere decoration and poetic imagery, but something altogether lived, inescapable. Even survival had to be fought and fought for.”

Lowell wrote his first poem at age seventeen and by later that same year he had written thirty. His fist subjects were of “death and decay, God and art.” In 1940 he married Jean Stafford whose own mental illness rivalled the periods of mania that were now beginning to define Lowell. She was already a well-known writer but suffered from major depression, attempted suicide and was hospitalized several times for alcoholism.

In 1945 he deliberately crashed his car and beat up his first wife. He was described by her as 1945, “jealous, enraged, almost certainly manic,” although not yet diagnosed. Not only did he try to strangle her but he did the same to two other women in the future.  He was observed to be “unrecognizable” in a manic rage. His first arrest by police was after the episode in 1945. Having divorced  Jean Stafford (his first wife) in 1948, his first hospitalization for mania was in February of 1949. Jamison states that this “came in the wake of his wrangling with God and The Devil; virtually all of remaining attacks of madness would be prefigured by intense love affairs. These romantic obsessions, like his earlier ruling passion for the Church, would be forsaken once sanity returned.” There are no details of that hospitalization.

Two months later, April 1949, he was hospitalized again at the Baldpate Hospital outside Boston. Shortly before he told his mentor Allen Tate’s wife that he had discovered the secret of the universe. He also told her the names of her husband’s lovers over the years. Then, reputedly, he held Tate out of a second-story window while reciting Tate’s poem “Ode to the Confederate Dead.” Later Lowell opened the window in his hotel room and shouted obscenities to the world beyond. It took four policeman to overpower and handcuff him. This was all the more horrifying because he had met and was engaged to Elizabeth Hardwick. She would later follow through with the marriage two weeks following his discharge! She would be with him for the next twenty-three years.

His doctors briefly considered that he might be schizophrenic but that diagnosis was thrown out because of the episodic nature of his disease with periods of wellness. He received six electroconvulsant (ECT) treatments in June of 1949.  Although mostly used for refractory depression it was beneficial for psychotic mania as well.

What became a pattern for the rest of his life he fell into deep depression after recovery from mania? Retrospectively Hardwick said of Lowell, “I didn’t know what I was getting into, but even if I had, I would have married him. He was not crazy all the time—most of the time he was wonderful.” She was able to see that even at his most manic that his aberrancy was an “illness—one that needed medical treatment.” He would rapid cycle between deep depression and hallucinatory and delusional mania.

During the next three years he was euthymic (stable) and he was able to travel in Europe, teach and write. However in 1953 while teaching a seminar on American studies in Salzburg Lowell relapsed. He was in love with an Italian music student and disappeared from the castle (the site of the conference). The authorities found him at the German border. He talked 24 hours on end. Back at the castle Shepherd Brooks the director described the chaos he caused.

Overtly manic, police cars were everywhere. “All the faulty were at one end of the castle.  At the other Professor Lowell was on the top floor surrounded by police…barricaded in his room and wouldn’t come out. He was wearing just a pair of shorts, looking wild and terribly strong, and charged with adrenaline.” Lowell was taken to the American Army Hospital in Salzburg and then transferred to the U.S. Army Hospital in Munich. He had twelve ECT treatments.

Upon return to the states in 1954 Lowell became a visiting professor at the University of Cincinnati. Midway through the four month engagement mania hit again. He was unable to finish a lecture on Robert Frost and Hardwick had a court order to commit Lowell in the Jewish Hospital in Cincinnati. Hardwick described Lowell’s manias as a brain “literally hot, whirling…fevered, ashen and shaken out of shape.” Lowell received twenty ECT treatments combined with sedation.

He was transferred to the Payne Whitney Clinic of the New Your Hospital toward the end of May 1954 for what was called convalescence. Two weeks into the hospitalization he became overtly manic. He was treated with Thorazine for the first time. This pattern of psychotic manias followed by deep depressions was the norm for Lowell for the next 13 years.

Lowell liked being a bit manic, a universal finding among bipolar individuals. He said “having manic episodes control me was terrifying, I like to have these feelings but under my control—feelings of speed, instantaneous reaction to people, environment.”

The next two years were calm with Lowell writing poems and giving readings at Harvard. In January of 1957 they had their only child Harriet Winslow Lowell. He would write about her in many poems.

That December, however, he zoomed up to the clouds. …”without telling Hardwick, he invited more than forty friends to a party. Her night was chaos. He insulted his guests, in the deft and awful way that only those who are manic can. He pitted guest against guest, sent the wine and cocktail glasses flying off a coffee table with a dramatic sweep of his foot. Alcohol flowed.”

His psychiatrist there was Dr. Marion Woolston who was a second year psych resident. Lowell told her that he had stopped seeing his psychiatrist that fall because “I was too busy writing.” He had been working on his most famous Life Studies poems. Dr. Woolston noted that “the desirability of psychosis as a qualification for great artistry.” Eventually Thorazine induced a remission. He was even allowed day passes to teach his graduate seminar.

Hardwick speaks about the depression that usually followed his manias, “He is proudly aware that depressive symptoms—fear, remorse, uncertainty, anxiety, chaos—are always threatening him and he would try rather wreck his whole life than have these symptoms for a moment. The doctors think he is scared to death and so do I.”

The narrative continues the same from 1957 to 1967. Lowell received Lithium in February of 1967. He wrote to Elizabeth Bishop (a lifelong friend): “Nothing new worth writing about, except that I have another doctor now, and there seems to be real hope that my manic seizures can be handled by a new drug, Lithium, and that all my giddy reeling’s come from a kind of periodic salt deficiency in some lower part of the brain. At least, this drug is now working with many.”

Lithium’s use in the U.S. was slow to take on but by the late 1960’s, as blood levels could be easily measured, it became the treatment of choice for prevention and treatment of the manic side of bipolar disease as a “mood stabilizer.’” The mechanism of its ability to increase intervals between episodes has been elusive but partly is related to stabilizing the circadian rhythm of night versus day in the brain. The latter seems to be linked to a protein made by a gene which when not produced causes insomnia, depression and mania. It is the reason for jet lag. The history of lithium back to the mid 19th century is documented in my first book, An Insider’s View of Bipolar Disease.”

By June he wrote “I’m in terrific shape! I even have pills that are supposed to prevent manic attacks…” He went on to say, “The pills I am taking really seem to prevent mania. Two or three years will be necessary, but already critical months have passed. Ordinarily I would certainly have been in a hospital by now. The great thing is that even my well life is much changed, as though I’d once been in danger of falling with each step I took. All the psychiatry and therapy I’ve had, almost 19 years, was irrelevant as it would have been for a broken leg. Well, some of it was interesting, the most was jargon.”

A time chart in Jamison’s book shows that from 1967 to his death in 1977 Lowell was only hospitalized three times. These three were because he would sometimes stop the lithium. His stepmother stated that Lowell felt “lithium flattened him out and had a negative effect on his creativity.” William Lowell died of a heart attack in a taxi cab on the way to see Elizabeth Hardwick, then his ex-wife.

Jamison refers to Arnold Ludwig a psychiatrist who studies the psychopathology of eminent scientists (Edward Teller), artists (Vincent Van Gogh), writers (Ernest Hemingway), and other poets (Edna St. Vincent Millay), military leaders, civic leaders (Winston Churchill) found they were six times more likely to meet the criteria of bipolar disorder than the general population. (The italics are my examples of persons from each field). This applied to these individuals from the past and Jamison has found the same in current people in these fields and in particular well known artists and actors today.

What do I say at the end of this piece? Why have been advocating for mental illness for the last four years? I decided after retiring from medicine I would write about something I knew about. Having lived with bipolar disorder for over forty years that seemed the perfect fit. The wonderful people from NAMI (National Alliance for Mental Illness), the Mental Institute for Policy Organization (MIPO), Treatment Advocacy Center (TAC), the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) and the many friends and family I have made on social media have become family all ultimately trying to educate and end the stigma. Lincoln’s major depression disorder and Lowell’s bipolar disease make good tableaus to make others aware that these are brain diseases with neurotransmitter errors of a genetic basis just as real as type I diabetes is an error in insulin production in the pancreas. “Here ends my catechism.” Paul Golden, MD



Written by paul