Even the briefest survey of the most innovative minds in literature will reveal that mental illness often goes hand in hand with creative expression. The label ‘mad genius’ is then not simply a popular term used to romanticize an artist’s eccentricity, but an accurate (if slightly insensitive) description. Creativity is often the outlet through which artists expel the truths of their deepest sentiments; madness in some cases seems to be the catalyst that drives and inspires some artists to create in the first place.
To the creative and sensitive mind, the highs and lows of life certainly inspire the need to render the paradigm of human experience in all of its extremes. Perhaps artistic expression is the only field in which one can actually achieve more success from being mentally unsound than stable. But is there a link between mental illness and a greater creative ability? There are many accomplished poets and authors who didn’t suffer from mental illness and have reached literary stardom. Rarely, however, were their personal lives free of conflict and rarer still do the greatest literary masterpieces deal outside of the most torturous or heartfelt experiences humans can undergo; rarely is creative expression free of tension.
Neurologists have found strong evidence to support the idea that there exists a correlation between higher creative ability and personality traits that make a person more vulnerable to psychiatric illnesses. In other words, it’s been scientifically proven that mental instability increases creative ability. A psychological theory that posits that poets, in particular, are the more likely to suffer from mental illness than any other creative writers was introduced in 2001. The theory was appropriately dubbed the Sylvia Plath effect, after the famed American poet who struggled through depression and committed suicide at age 30. Modern medicine allows for a greater exploration of the psychological aspects of artistic drive which will make for a more biologically telling analysis of what it means to be an artist.
The following list features some of the most influential minds in English literature who also suffered from mental illness. It’s safe to assume that given the content of their creative works, their emotional and psychological strife had a great impact on their poetry. These mad poets have communicated to the world the cavernous depths of personal anguish while also demonstrating the height of artistic expression. Their words, however stark or intrinsically forlorn, have earned them a place in literary history and most importantly, have touched and inspired many for years to come.
10. Jack Kerouac: Schizophrenia and Depression
American poet and novelist, Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) was a prominent figure of the Beat Generation, and he suffered from schizophrenia. During World War II, Kerouac enlisted in the US Navy Reserve but was determined to be unfit for service after an extensive psychological examination that diagnosed him with the disorder. In addition this diagnosis, his later drug use has been linked to bouts of depression. Kerouac’s poetry, which like his novels sought to incorporate an awareness and understanding of the rapidly changing world he found himself a part of, features the recurring themes of introspection and personal loss.
9. Theodore Roethke: Manic Depression
American poet Theodore Roethke (1908-1963) is widely considered to be one of the greatest American poets of the 20th century. He also suffered from recurrent mental breakdowns, several of which he was hospitalized for. His poetry describes the personal anguish of pursuing spiritual truth in desiring transcendence from the mortal world.
8. Edgar Allan Poe: Undiagnosed Bipolar Depression
Gothic writer and one of the original American romantics Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) is one of the most celebrated writers of the horror and mystery genres . He was also a prolific poet whose forlorn and often tragic themes reflected his own sentiments. Some historians attribute his creative efficacy to his bouts of depression and sporadic manic episodes. Poe’s letters often detail his ongoing drinking problem and suicidal thoughts. The cause of his death is still unclear but it’s been theorized that alcohol abuse had much to do with it.
7. Tennessee Williams: Clinical Depression
The American poet and playwright Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) is most renowned for his Broadway plays. He was also a poet who grappled with mental illness throughout his career, often resorting to alcohol and drug abuse to cope with his deep-seated depression. He detailed his personal struggle with emotional distress in his memoirs. Some critics believe Williams to have written many of his main characters in his own self-image: that of an outcast, a sensitive soul in an unloving world.
6. Ernest Hemingway : Undiagnosed Depression
American author and journalist Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954 for his great contribution to English literature. Many of his literary works are considered American classics. Hemingway’s poetry and literature are characterized by an often cruel representation of a war torn world and its effects on the human psyche, drawn from his own traumatic experiences as a soldier during World War I. Some years after his mysterious death his widow revealed he had committed suicide.
5. Dylan Thomas: Undiagnosed Depression
Dylan Thomas (1914-1953), the Welsh poet whose bohemian lifestyle and excessive drinking shocked many in literary circles, quite literally drank himself to death. His poetry dealt in the romantic tradition but treated contemporary themes. Thomas’ writing career began early, after he dropped out of school at sixteen he went on to publish his award winning first book of poetry at the age of 20. His turbulent and reckless life, marked by precarious love affairs and alcohol abuse, attests to the instability of his own mental state.
4. Virginia Woolf: Bipolar Disorder
A prominent creative genius of the 20th century, English poetess and novelist Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) is well known for her wild mood swings and life long battle with depression. Her works center largely on expressing the psychological and emotional lives of her characters. Tragically, at the age of 59, she committed suicide by drowning, leaving behind a note to her husband explaining that she felt her madness coming on and felt the need to escape it.
3. Emily Dickinson: Undiagnosed Depression
The prolific poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) wrote over one thousand poems throughout her life in a unique and inventive style that broke the mold of what was widely and traditionally considered to be true poetic expression. Recent studies suggest that Dickinson suffered from extreme mood swings characterized by sporadic periods of creativity. In life, she was extremely reclusive and her poems were for the most part kept entirely secret. Analyzing her poetry, which often dealt with mortality, religion, isolation, and the prominent themes of introspection and self-contemplation definitely lend an understanding of the inner workings of Dickinson’s dark and beautiful mind.
2. Anne Sexton: Depression and Mania
American poet Anne Sexton (1928-1974) struggled with depression and mania leading to several suicide attempts for much of her life. Her deep, confessional poetic works, which center largely on her relationship with her lovers, family and children, as well as her experiences as a woman, won her the Pulitzer Prize in 1967. Her troubled life reached a tragic end; at 46 years old she committed suicide.
1. Sylvia Plath: Bipolar Depression
Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) is an iconic American poet whose work almost exclusively dealt with dark, emotional themes. The themes of suicide, isolation, and strained connections with others most prominent in her poetry are often confessional accounts of her own troubled experiences. Her only novel, The Bell Jar — a modern classic — is a semi-autobiographical account of her declining state of mental health, suicide attempts, and her stay at a mental institution. The poet committed suicide at the age of 30 within the same year the book was released. Plath’s poetry deals largely with misery, emotional distress, and a fascination with death.