Current writers see mental disorders in the lives of many artists, whether or not the artist was diagnosed and treated at the time. English Romantic poet William Blake, known for his poetry’s elaborate personal mythology and for visions he claimed to literally see, has been called schizophrenic. Some identify bipolar disorder in the blisses and depressive depths that may be found in the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Either schizophrenic or affective (mood) disorders have been ascribed in the twentieth century to many artists, including writers August Strindberg , Charles Baudelaire, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Joseph Conrad, and Franz Kafka. Many of these writers wrote about mental problems, as in Coleridge’s depressed “Dejection, an Ode” or Kafka’s dreamlike and paranoid works. Researchers have argued that mental disorders are much more common among artists than among the general population.
Others say such conclusions are overstated and caution about drawing conclusions regarding authors’ lives from their work. Many artists, however, have recorded their own mental problems or time spent in asylums. The British poet Christopher Smart, after a fever, was in and out of madhouses and saw himself as excessive in “mirth and melancholy.” William Cowper, another British poet of the eighteenth century, wrote about his difficult mood fluctuations. Nineteenth century British writer John Ruskin, whose grandfather had been psychotic, had a breakdown in 1861 and major depression through 1862.
In the twentieth century, Virginia Woolf suffered a major breakdown in 1904, refusing to eat and hearing voices, which she recorded in fictitious form (attributed to a tropical fever) in The Voyage Out (1915). Woolf experienced depression all of her life and ultimately killed herself. In the United States, a group of poets, called the confessional school, became famous for their mental disorders. Robert Lowell and members of his circle, including Theodore Roethke and John Berryman, all wrote poetry about the experience of mental illness. Although the image of the mad poet has captured the popular imagination, one may recall that such decidedly sane poets as William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens, to name two, were also active and influential in American poetry in the late twentieth century.