The Mad Poets

The Letters and Prose Writings of William Cowper, Vol. 1, ‘Adelphi’ and Letters 1750–1781,

edited by James King, edited by Charles Ryskamp
Oxford University Press (Clarendon Press), 598 pp., $115.00

The Letters and Prose Writings of William Cowper, Vol. 2, Letters 1782–1786

edited by James King, edited by Charles Ryskamp
Oxford University Press (Clarendon Press), 652 pp., $149.00

The Letters and Prose Writings of William Cowper, Vol. 3, Letters 1787–1791

edited by James King, edited by Charles Ryskamp
Oxford University Press (Clarendon Press), 630 pp., $110.00

The Letters and Prose Writings of William Cowper, Vol. 4, Letters 1792–1799

edited by James King, edited by Charles Ryskamp
Oxford University Press (Clarendon Press), 498 pp., $150.00

The Letters and Prose Writings of William Cowper, Vol. 5, Prose 1756–c. 1799 and Cumulative Index

edited by James King, edited by Charles Ryskamp
Oxford University Press (Clarendon Press), 246 pp., $72.00

William Cowper: Selected Letters

edited by James King, edited by Charles Ryskamp
Oxford University Press (Clarendon Press), 236 pp., $55.00

The Poetical Works of Christopher Smart, Vol. 2, Religious Poetry

edited by Marcus Walsh, edited by Karina Williamson
Oxford University Press (Clarendon Press), 472 pp., $95.00

The Poetical Works of Christopher Smart, Vol. 3, A Translation of the Psalms of David

edited by Marcus Walsh
Oxford University Press (Clarendon Press), 480 pp., $120.00


The first severe attack of the depression that was to make so much of the life of the poet William Cowper an unbearable torment occurred when he tried to take up the practice of the law. Born in 1731, the son of a Hampshire rector, he was unstable from infancy; he lost his mother when he was six and he was mercilessly bullied at school. His elegant poetic talent was late in appearing. In the moving account of his melancholy and his religious faith, Adelphi, he writes:

I became in a manner complete master of myself and took possession of a set of chambers in the Temple at the age of twenty-one [in 1753]….

I was struck not long after my settlement in the Temple with such a dejection of spirits as none but they who have felt the same can have the least conception of. Day and night I was upon the rack, lying down in horrors and rising in despair.

The religious poetry of George Herbert provided some consolation, although by 1753, the poems of the previous century were bound to seem, as Cowper called them, “gothic and uncouth.” Cowper was related on his mother’s side to John Donne, who also, no doubt, seemed gothic and uncouth.

Cowper’s own poetry enjoyed a great reputation for at least a half century after his death: it has since lost much of its luster. The new critical edition, of which only the first volume has been issued, may restore it. However, most of his verse is probably too amiable and diffuse for modern readers—it retains some of the elegance of Pope’s style without the extreme formality, but also without the malice or the bite. His correspondence, once as famous as his poetry, is in many ways a more impressive achievement. He seizes the tone of conversation without mannerism, and makes the people to whom he wrote live for us.

During this initial onset of madness, prayer was some help, but the temporary cure, when it came a year later, was achieved in true eighteenth-century fashion by landscape, the sight of the sea near Southampton:

Here it was that on a sudden, as if another sun had been kindled that instant in the heavens on purpose to dispel sorrow and vexation of spirit, I felt the weight of all my misery taken off. My heart became light and joyous in a moment, and had I been alone, I could have wept with transport.

Ten years later, in 1763, the second professional crisis of Cowper’s life was the occasion for his second period of depression. A member of a popular group of young writers (called “the Geniuses”) who founded the Nonsense Club, where they read aloud their works, he spent the decade writing light poetry. He had not been a success as an attorney and had wasted most of his patrimony, but there was a chance of his being named Clerk of the Journals in the House of Lords, a lucrative position that was at the disposal of one of his kinsmen. “The business of that place, being transacted in private, would exactly suit me,” observed Cowper. A rival for the post appeared however and opposed the nomination, and Cowper was told that he would have to appear for an examination at the Bar of the House to see if he was qualified.

Being necessarily ignorant of the nature of that business, it became expedient that I should visit the office daily in order to qualify myself for the narrowest scrutiny. All the horrors of my fears and perplexity returned. A thunderbolt would have been as welcome to me as this intelligence. I knew to a demonstration that upon these terms the Clerkship of the Journals was no place for me. To require my attendance at the Bar of the House that I might there publicly entitle myself to the office was in effect to exclude me from it….

My continual misery at length brought on a nervous fever. Quiet forsook me by day and sleep by night. A finger raised against me was now more than I could stand against.

Once again Cowper tried prayer, but without hope: “I saw plainly that God alone could deliver me, but was firmly persuaded He would not and therefore omitted to ask it.” Finally, Cowper reached the limits of his despair:

I now began to look upon madness as the only chance remaining. I had a strong foreboding that it would fare so with me, and I wished for it earnestly and looked forward to it with impatient expectation.

Madness seemed to Cowper a solution—in fact, as he writes, his “only chance.” It is, of course, a solution like suicide, and depended equally on a strange mixture of cowardice and courage. Cowper did indeed attempt suicide several times, and his detailed accounts of his failures are painful to read. The report of his attempt to hang himself lost him the post in the House of Lords that he had both hoped for and dreaded. It was at this point that Cowper’s depression took a new and most terrifying form: religious despair. Awareness of sin brought him the sudden conviction that he was eternally damned. Everything he now did only seemed to confirm this:

In every book I opened I found something that struck me to the heart. I remember taking up a volume of Beaumont and Fletcher which lay upon the table in my kinsman’s lodging and the first sentence I saw was this, “The justice of the gods is in it.” My heart immediately answered, “So it is of a truth,” and I cannot but observe that as I found something in every author to condemn me, so it was generally the first sentence I pitched upon. Everything preached to me, and everything preached the curse of the Law….

Cowper’s madness led him to devise clever tests to confirm his ultimate damnation:

I made many passionate attempts towards prayer, but failed in all. Having an obscure notion about the efficacy of faith, I resolved upon an experiment to prove whether I had faith or not. For this purpose I began to repeat the Creed. When I came to the second period of it, which professes a belief in Christ, all traces of the form were struck out of my memory, nor could I recollect one syllable of the matter. While I endeavoured to recover it, and just when I thought myself upon the point of doing so, I perceived a sensation in my brain like a tremulous vibration in all the fibres of it. By this means I lost the words in the very instant when I thought to have laid hold on them.

The assurance by a clerical friend of “the corruption of every man born into the world, whereby we are all the children of wrath, without any difference” brought Cowper some consolation, as it has comforted generations of Puritans. “This doctrine set me more upon a level with the rest of mankind and made my condition appear to me less desperate.” The moments of confidence, however, were very brief and Cowper’s torments were to last another eight months. They were no less painful for being self-inflicted:

I slept my usual three hours well and then awakened with ten times a stronger sense of my alienation from God than ever. Satan plied me close with horrible visions and more horrible voices…. A numbness seized upon the extremities of my body, and life seemed to retreat before it. My hands and feet became cold and stiff; a cold sweat stood upon my forehead; my heart seemed at every pulse to beat its last and my soul to cling to my lips as if upon the very point of departure.

For Cowper, total madness still seemed a solution, and when it came and he finally achieved what he had longed for, the moment was the most terrifying of all:

At eleven o’clock my brother called on me, and in about an hour after his arrival that distemper of mind which I had before so ardently wished for actually seized me.

While I traversed the room in the most terrible dismay of soul, expecting every moment the earth would open her mouth and swallow me, my conscience scaring me, the avenger of blood pursuing me, and the city of refuge out of reach and out of sight, suddenly a strange and horrible darkness fell upon me. If it were possible that a heavy blow could light upon the brain immediately without touching the skull, such was the sensation I felt.

Cowper was taken by his brother to an asylum where he was treated with a humanity as rare in our time as it was in the eighteenth century. Even there, he attempted suicide. This period of depression lasted eighteen months, after which he renounced all his professional life and most of his income, and retired to live quietly in the country.

Another decade passed quietly, while Cowper was lodged in the house of friends, the Reverend Morley Unwin and Mrs. Unwin, whose piety resembled and sustained his own. During this time, Cowper was persuaded to write hymns by the evangelical preacher John Newton, a former slave-trader whose brutal and fanatical character cannot have helped Cowper’s mental instability. The evangelicals were believed by their High Church enemies to encourage insanity. “There is not a madhouse in England,” wrote Sydney Smith, “where a considerable part of the patients have not been driven to insanity by the extravagance of these people.”1

On the death of the Reverend Unwin, Cowper’s neighbors and friends felt that it was improper for him to continue to live in the same house as the widow without marrying her. Accordingly, he became engaged to Mrs. Unwin, who was, as he said, like a mother to him. The engagement was broken by his third period of depression in 1773. It would appear as if his crises were each neatly calculated to release him from the need to face his responsibilities—or what his society held to be his responsibilities, an opinion to which Cowper mildly subscribed. Nevertheless, his madness gave him the leisure to write his poetry and his correspondence, while driving him from his profession and from the distractions of London. “God made the country, and man made the town,” he wrote resignedly after madness had reduced him to poverty, and he was living largely upon the charity of the friends who loved him.

Cowper did not choose madness: it chose him, and he acquiesced. The words “voluntary” or “involuntary” cannot be made relevant in his case. The full extent of his madness is revealed by his belief that God had commanded him in a dream to commit suicide. He was not able to carry out the command, and this was his unforgivable sin. God had rejected him for this, and from then on Cowper, deeply and fanatically religious, never attended a church service and never uttered a prayer. There was no use in prayer: he no longer existed for God.

In his poetry, which always displays a delicate balance of the didactic and the playful, and in his exquisite correspondence with friends and relatives, he deals with his pathological melancholy for the most part obliquely or politely. The most beautiful account is the letter of January 16, 1786, to his cousin Lady Hesketh:

You do not ask me, my dear, for an explanation of what I could mean by anguish of mind, and by the perpetual interruptions that I mentioned. Because you do not ask, and because your reason for not asking consists of a delicacy and tenderness peculiar to yourself, for that very cause I will tell you. A wish so suppressed is more irresistible than many wishes plainly uttered. Know then that in the year 73 the same scene that was acted at St. Albans, opened upon me again at Olney, only covered with a still deeper shade of melancholy, and ordained to be of much longer duration. I was suddenly reduced from my wonted rate of understanding to an almost childish imbecility…. I could return a rational answer even to a difficult question, but a question was necessary, or I never spoke at all…. I believed that every body hated me, and that Mrs. Unwin hated me most of all; was convinced that all my food was poisoned, together with ten thousand megrims of the same stamp….

It will be thirteen years in little more than a week, since this malady seized me. Methinks I hear you ask,—your affection for me will, I know, make you wish to do so,—Is it removed? I reply, in great measure, but not quite. Occasionally I am much distressed, but that distress becomes continually less frequent, and I think less violent. I find writing, and especially poetry, my best remedy…. As soon as I became capable of action, I commenced carpenter, made cupboards, boxes, stools. I grew weary of this in about a twelvemonth, and addressed myself to the making of birdcages. To this employment succeeded that of gardening, which I intermingled with that of drawing, but finding that the latter occupation injured my eyes, I renounced it, and commenced poet. I have given you, my dear, a little history in shorthand; I know that it will touch your feelings, but do not let it interest them too much. In the year when I wrote the Task, (for it occupied me about a year,) I was very often most supremely unhappy, and am under God indebted in good part to that work for not having been much worse. You did not know what a clever fellow I am, and how I can turn my hand to any thing.

This is written with extraordinary tact. In The Madhouse of Language, an interesting and stimulating recent book about descriptions of madness and the writings of madmen in eighteenth-century England, Allen Ingram cites a similar letter to John Newton and claims that

Cowper’s emotions are so well in hand that his prose is at times hardly in touch with them at all. The balance and propriety of a grammar and expression…suggest not an engulfment by feelings of despair but rather a linguistic endeavour that is at a remove from the reality of the obsession and of the terrible knowledge that lies behind it.2

This is to displace the center of gravity of Cowper’s prose: it is not with his own emotions that he seeks to remain in touch, but with the feelings of his correspondent. The wonderful achievement of Cowper’s letters is the sympathy realized at almost every point with those to whom he writes.

Even in those letters from the last months of his life, in the depths of his irrational misery, he conserves the sense of what the friend to whom he writes will comprehend, as in the following letter to Lady Hesketh of January 22, 1796:

My thoughts are like loose and dry sand, which the closer it is grasped slips the sooner away. Mr. Johnson [a distant relative] reads to me, but I lose every other sentence through the inevitable wanderings, and experience, as I have these two years, the same shattered mode of thinking on every subject, and on all occasions. If I seem to write with more connexion, it is only because the gaps do not appear.

It is, indeed, only through an effort of sympathy with another that he could deal adequately with his madness in his poetry—particularly in the brief masterpiece of his last year, 1799, the account of a drowning man in The Castaway.

Not long beneath the whelming brine, Expert to swim, he lay;
Nor soon he felt his strength decline, Or courage die away;
But waged with death a lasting strife,
Supported by despair of life.


Nineteen years after Cowper’s death, William Blake, fascinated by a passage on religious mania in a book by Spürzheim called Observations on the Deranged Manifestations of the Mind, or Insanity, wrote in 1819 on the fly-leaf an account of a vision of William Cowper. (I presume that Blake had read Adelphi, which had been published three years before.)

Methodism, &c. 154. Cowper came to me and said: “Oh! that I were insane, always. I will never rest. Cannot you make me truly insane? I will never rest till I am so. Oh! that in the bosom of God I was hid. You retain health and yet are mad as any of us all—over us all—mad as a refuge from unbelief—from Bacon, Newton, and Locke.

Mad as a refuge from unbelief”—from what was felt as the monotonous and unsatisfying rationality of the modern scientific and philosophic movement.

Blake, like Cowper, found madness an escape, a way of life that could be chosen with all its terrors. (I use the word “madness” in the loose meaning it had then—as any extravagant form of alienation either of behavior or of perception.) Blake’s madness was a happier solution than Cowper’s, his sanguine temperament was sustained by indignation. He could identify the enemy: Bacon, Newton, and Locke—and, above all, Sir Joshua Reynolds, president of the Royal Academy.

In the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth centuries, madness had its attraction as well as its miseries. On June 9, 1796, the young Charles Lamb wrote to his equally youthful friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, about a brief period when he had been in an insane asylum.

I look back upon it at times with a gloomy kind of Envy. For while it lasted I had many hours of pure happiness. Dream not Coleridge, of having tasted all the grandeur & wildness of Fancy, till you have gone mad. All now seems to me vapid; comparatively so…

For Lamb, madness brought color and excitement into a drab existence. Perhaps, too, he remembered a scene from Goethe’s Werther, in which a strange young man tells the hero about a time in which he was as happy as a fish in water, and his mother later confides that this period of happiness was when he had been held in chains in a madhouse.

Roy Porter in Mind Forg’d Manacles: A History of Madness in England, from the Restoration to the Regency3 insists that, for the Romantics, poetic genius was not to madness near allied, but that genius was basically healthy, and calls as a witness Charles Lamb’s essay “The Sanity of True Genius.” He does not appreciate the irony in the essay, and, above all, he does not go far enough. For the Romantics, paradoxically, insanity itself was healthy. At the opening of Aurelia, his spiritual autobiography, Gerard de Nerval wrote:

I shall try to transcribe the impressions of a long sickness which took place entirely in the mysteries of my mind—and I do not know why I use the word sickness, for never, as regards myself, have I ever felt in better health.

In a letter of November 9, 1841, to Mme. Alexandre Dumas, Nerval added:

They only let me out [of the insane asylum] to move definitively among reasonable people when I agreed formally that I had been “sick,” which made me lose much of my self-respect and even of my veracity. “Confess, confess,” they called to me, as one did in the past to heretics and witches….

It would be cruel to say that madness, always the subject of profound anguish, became fashionable between 1750 and 1850, but there is a grain of truth in the statement. At this time, madness became not simply a mental disability; nor was it only a withdrawal from the distress of everyday life, and a protest against intolerable social conditions or against a debilitating rational philosophy. It had gained a new ideological charge: madness was a source of creative energy.

Several of the finest German writers of the generation from 1770 to 1820 would be considered clinically mad by most standards: the career of Jakob Michael Lenz, the greatest of the Sturm und Drang dramatists aside from Goethe (and a close friend of Goethe’s), was destroyed by mental illness; Friedrich Hölderlin passed the last decades of his life in an almost total schizophrenia; Heinrich von Kleist ended his with a suicide pact; and the Romantic poet Clemens Brentano was afflicted with a religious melancholia and depression as great as Cowper’s. In these cases and others, the most remarkable creative work was accomplished before the onset of mental illness (unlike the case of the great mad English poets Christopher Smart and John Clare, who did some of their most memorable writing within the walls of an asylum).

Still, for all these writers—and for many of their contemporaries—madness was an ideal as well as an anti-ideal, a state that transcended consciousness, and that escaped the mechanical and blind workings of rationalism, but also a state that could not be controlled and could end with the destruction of the individual mind. Madness, for the Romantic artist, was more than the breakdown of rational thought; it was an alternative, which promised not only different insights but also a different mode of reasoning.

As Hölderlin wrote in 1801:

Indeed! and exultant madness likes to mock mockery
When it suddenly seizes the singers in holy night.

(Drum! und spotten des Spotts mag gern frohlockender Wahnsinn,
Wenn er in heiliger Nacht plöt- zlich die Sänger ergreift.)
Bread and Wine

Madness was an unpredictable form of inspiration. It had its own methods of persuasion, a logic of the night and of dreams, in some ways as powerful and as convincing as the logic practiced during the day. Nowhere is this clearer than in the tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann, the German Romantic writer. In his stories, the world of everyday reality coexists with a world of delusion which gives significance to the former: the “real” world has priority but is unintelligible without the irrational and often absurd world of shadows, magic, and paranoia that is always present.

In Hoffmann’s last work, Meister Floh (“Master Flea”), the young Georg Pepusch falls in love with the beautiful Dortje Elwerdink, the Dutch niece of the flea-trainer—who claims to be the reincarnation of the scientist Leuwenhoek, buried a hundred years ago in Delft. He also claims that his niece is the Oriental flower princess Gamahel. When Pepusch finds Dortje kissing a military officer, she explains that this is the genie Thetel who had saved her back in Samarkand. Pepusch becomes certain that he knew Dortje in that former life, when he was a thistle who protected the flower princess. The author remarks:

It was a good thing that [Pepusch] did not communicate this idea to other people: they would have believed him mad and locked him up, although the idée fixe of the partially mad is often nothing else than the irony of an existence which precedes the present.

This comic madness of children’s fairy tales serves here as the basis for a bitter satire on the Prussian judicial system, one section of which was censored and only discovered in 1906 in the Berlin police archives.

Hoffmann was not more than marginally mad, but in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, he and many writers tried to enter sympathetically into the mind of the insane, or to create effects which playfully or seriously mimicked insanity, like the comedy of Ludwig Tieck’s The Upside Down World, which begins with the epilogue (“Ladies and gentlemen, how did you like the play?”).

In the literature of previous centuries, madmen are depicted as either serious or comic. Comic madmen are fools and eccentrics: they are congenitally foolish, like Don Adriano de Armado in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost or Molière’s Harpagon in The Miser. Serious madmen, on the other hand, are driven mad: Ophelia loses her mind because of Hamlet’s cruelty; King Lear is made insane by his daughters’ unnatural ingratitude; Orestes (in Racine’s Andromache) goes mad after he commits murder when so ordered by the woman he loves, who then turns on him once the deed is done. Great occasions make for great madmen.

In theory, fools and madmen cannot be separated: the Fool in King Lear calls Lear a fool, and Hamlet’s simulated madness is mirrored by Polonius’s foolish wisdom. In The Anatomy of Melancholy (of 1621),4 Robert Burton affirms a universal madness:

For indeed who is not a Foole, Melancholy, Mad?—…who is not brain-sick? Folly, Melancholy, Madnesse, are but one disease, Delirium is a common name to all.

We are all mad because man cannot tell truth from illusion: the senses delude us, there is no certainty except in divine revelation. Nevertheless, Renaissance literary decorum largely obliged writers to distinguish between the tragic hero, who becomes mad through great misfortune or great sin, and the pedants and bumpkins who illustrate the universal inbred folly.

This important but dubious distinction begins to slip away in the Enlightenment. It was now the routine of everyday life that drove men to insanity, and madness of the most tragic sort was revealed in the commonplace. In Goethe’s sensational best seller of 1774, Werther may have commited suicide out of thwarted love (and he inspired an astonishing number of suicides among enthusiastic contemporary readers); but it was his inability to make a career at Court and his contempt for the society in which he was forced to live—the monotony of existence, in short—that created the emotional impasse in his life. Thackeray’s famous parody reflects the new emotional climate:

Werther had a love for Charlotte
Such as words would never utter.
Would you know how first he met her?
She was cutting bread and butter.

The intolerable social conditions of everyday life could create an atmosphere of madness. In The Tutor (1774) by the Sturm und Drang writer Jakob Lenz, a comedy (as Lenz called it on publication) or a tragedy (as he described it in his correspondence), a poor young man, hired to tutor the children of an aristocratic family, gets the young girl pregnant, is forced to take flight, and eventually castrates himself. The play reflects Lenz’s feeling of humiliation during his own experience as a tutor. Like Cowper, Lenz refused to adjust to the professional conditions of making a living. A few decades later, the madness portrayed by Wordsworth in The Thorn, The Ruined Castle, and The Idiot Boy is deeply rooted in the ordinary lives of the poor and the middle class.

The old truism that we are all slightly mad, which we saw in Burton and which runs through sixteenth-and seventeenth-century thought from Montaigne and Shakespeare to Pascal, now changes its meaning. When Valentine, in William Congreve’s Love for Love of 1695, is, like Hamlet, simulating madness, he says, “I am Truth, and I can teach thy tongue a new trick.”5 It is no longer our innate incapacity to distinguish reality from illusion that makes us mad, but an active and aggressive refusal to acknowledge reality. “But I am Truth, and come to give the World the Lie,” says Valentine. The resistance to reality has become not a simple innate imperfection, like original sin, but dynamic and creative. This made an understanding of madness essential to a view of humanity. Around 1780, the German satirist George Christoph Lichtenberg, who was to inspire so much of German Romantic thought, jotted down in his notebooks:

From the folly of men in Bedlam, it should be possible to determine more about the nature of Man than has been done until now.

The deformation of reality that we call madness was beginning to be understood as an indispensable element of human nature—and not necessarily a perverse one. To some extent, after all, it is only a matter of convention and social pressure whether a person is certified as a lunatic. It is not clear that Cowper, with his conviction of damnation, or Blake, with his visions of angels and the ghost of William Cowper, was any more insane than those people today who believe that no one was gassed at Auschwitz, who think that the Biblical tower of Babel was built to sight intruders from outer space, or who maintain that AIDS is the just vengeance of God on perverts and drug fiends. Which varieties of madness are to be stigmatized or isolated? The whole of our common culture is shot through with beliefs that are demonstrably irrational.


In the eighteenth century, the normalization of madness, like so much else, was influenced and confirmed by Rousseau. In the first book of the Confessions6 he recounts his adolescent fear of revealing his desires:

A thousand times, during my apprenticeship and since, I went out with the intention of buying some delicacy. I approach the pastryshop: I see women at the counter; I already think I can hear them laugh and make fun of the little glutton…my desire grows with my shame, and I return in the end like an idiot, eaten up by desire, having enough in my pocket to satisfy it, and not having dared to buy anything.

This is perhaps the first description of the paranoia of everyday life, the terrifying conviction that revealing our secret desires puts us in the power of those who can read our minds. It was the intensity of his desire that made it impossible for Rousseau to buy his pastry: the paranoiac fear that he could not hide his thoughts. The roots of insanity are found in the trivial desires and acts that make up ordinary experience.

It was the mad poets who revealed this most clearly. Their truths caused embarrassment: “It is not,” as Rousseau said, “what is criminal which is hard to speak, but what is ridiculous and shameful.” In Kleist’s Penthisilea of 1808 (a drama that Goethe rejected as morbid, and no wonder), the Amazon queen not only kills her lover Achilles in battle, but in a frenzy that transcends consciousness disfigures and eats him alongside her dogs. She comes to her senses, horrified to realize what she has done, yet remembering her delight:

Like many who hang about the neck of the beloved,
She spoke the words: she loved him, o so much
That she could, from love, almost eat him.
Then afterward she proved what she said, the fool.
—scene 24, lines 2991-2994

The greatest of Romantic dramatists, and the only one to write in a Shakespearean style who can be compared to Shakespeare without being diminished, Kleist was the master of embarrassment. I know of no more powerful and moving scene in tragedy than the third act of The Prince of Homburg, where the courageous young military hero, faced with a sentence of death, grovels like a terrified dog to beg for his life. It shames everyone on the stage and everyone in the audience.

In almost all these poets (Kleist is perhaps the one exception), insanity takes the form of religious mania. In every case, a protest is registered against the suppression of religious sentiment by the Enlightenment, and we might think we are witnessing the reaction against the French philosophes, a reaction which determined the religious revival after the downfall of the Jacobin leaders of the revolutions. Nevertheless, it is significant that for none of these poets did any respectable form of religion provide an inspiration or an adequate “refuge”—to use Blake’s word for his madness. In the early career of the London poet Christopher Smart, between 1749 and 1759, we find little beyond some light satirical and didactic verse; his few religious poems are accomplished but not striking. In 1759, however, he suddenly attempted to make people in the street kneel down and pray with him, and this, along with his continual drinking, was the reason given for locking him up in a madhouse. (On his release he tried to sue the people responsible.) Clemens Brentano, the most exquisitely musical of German Romantic poets, returned to Catholicism in 1817: for the next seven years he took down the dictation of a nun who had miraculously received the stigmata of the crucified Christ, and tried to work her vision into a trilogy on the life of Christ; his conversion marked the end of his creative poetic activity.

Neither the blandly conservative established churches on the continent or in England nor even the new popular sects, like the Methodists, were able to fill an intellectual void, even if they could satisfy some emotional needs. The religious thought, Catholic or Protestant, of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is rarely stimulating: the one grand exception is the terrifying philosophy of Joseph de Maistre, for whom the life of any religious institution depended upon blind obedience to an absolutely arbitrary divine will, just as all civilization rested upon the continuous menace of capital punishment. His philosophy is a form of religious melancholia hardened into dogma, and its emotional power explains its curious fascination for intellectuals like Baudelaire.

De Maistre’s great strength was that he could face absurdity without flinching. “The entire human race,” he wrote, “comes from one couple. This truth has been denied like all the others. Who cares?” The eighteenth century as a whole, however, was embarrassed by absurdity, including the fundamental and profound absurdities of religion. “I believe in you,” Voltaire once said, looking at a splendid sunrise, “but as for your son and Madame sa mère, that’s something different.” Credo, quia absurdum: “I believe, because it is absurd”—this is one of the oldest expressions of the Christian faith. “Absurd” here meant impossible, illogical, unjustifiable, and incomprehensible. It did not, until the eighteenth century, mean ridiculous, even comic. Perhaps not since the late Roman Empire, at the time of Lucretius, had the mysteries of religion seemed unworthy of serious consideration by most members of the governing classes. The Enlightenment condemned religious enthusiasm as appropriate only for the uneducated and the great unwashed, and tried to strip dogma of all the traditional mysteries, paradoxes, and foolishness. The result was an anodyne deism widespread among cultivated people throughout Europe and England; and David Hume at the end of his life made a devastating argument that the difference between deism and atheism was largely one of verbal emphasis.

Since the new philosophy of the Encyclopedists had removed the life-giving madness from religious thought and from religion, it is understandable that the only original and vital religious poetry between 1760 and 1840 should have been written by poets considered genuinely mad by their contemporaries: Smart, Blake, and Hölderlin. Smart’s masterpiece is A Song to David, and it has a rapid succession of images and a rhythmic swing that carry the reader with increasing excitement along its eighty-six six-line stanzas. Published after Smart’s release from the asylum, it made some critics conclude that Smart was as mad as ever: the most sympathetic critic found a “great rapture” and called it “a fine piece of ruins.”7 The most personal of Smart’s works, Jubilate Agno (“Rejoice in the Lamb”), was so eccentric that it was not considered publishable until 1940. Written in imitation of Old Testament prose poetry (above all the Psalms and the Prophets), it combines Smart’s own life with mystical and occult writing and the Bible. In the following lines the cryptic names Shephatiah and Ithream refer to two of the sons of King David:

Let Shephatiah rejoice with the little Owl, which is the wingged Cat.

For I am possessed of a cat, surpassing in beauty, from whom I take occasion to bless Almighty God.

Let Ithream rejoice with the great Owl, who understandeth that which he professes.

For I pray God for the professors of the University of Cambridge to attend and amend.8

Later in this work, the poet gives a striking description of his method:

For my talent is to give an impression upon words by PUNCHING, that when the reader casts his eyes upon ‘em, he takes up the image from the mould which I have made.

This punching9 was not to eighteenth-century taste, and not until our century has Smart been given his due.

The more Smart’s poetry and religion reflect his madness, the more acceptable they are to readers in our time. It is hard to admire the more sober versification of the Psalms, in which “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” becomes

The shepherd Christ from heav’n arrived
My flesh and spirit feeds
I shall not therefore be depriv’d
Of all my nature needs.

Madness clearly helped Smart to find an original voice.

William Blake invented his own religion by turning Christianity satirically on its head; Satan is the Messiah, and Evil is Eternal Delight. In his Prophetic Books he created his own Pantheon. Although Blake as an illustrator was appreciated in his lifetime and later, and the Songs of Innocence and Experience were read throughout the nineteenth century, the Prophetic Books, like Smart’s poetry, had to wait for the twentieth century for republication (or, indeed, publication).

Friedrich Hölderlin used the Greek pantheon, not as a traditional poetic decoration, but as a serious representation of natural universal forces. As we read his hymns and his elegies, we become disturbingly aware that he accepted the existence of the ancient gods. Many of his greatest poems, written between 1797 and 1805, were brought to light only in the twentieth century.

Hölderlin’s most moving elegy, Bread and Wine, is also his most explicit work. Direct contact with divine forces, experienced by mankind in classical Greece, is now lost: the Gods have abandoned us. (We ought to be reminded of the once-famous vision from Jean Paul’s novel of 1797, Siebenkäs, in which Christ descends again upon earth to tell the weeping multitudes that there is no God and that they have no Father.)

But my friend, we come too late. Indeed the Gods live
But over our heads above in another world.
They act endlessly there, and they seem to have little regard
Whether we live, so much do they consider us.
Since not always can a weak vessel contain them.
Only at times can mankind endure divine fullness.
Henceforth, dreaming of them is life. Nevertheless, going astray
Helps, like sleep, and need and night make strong
Until enough heroes, nurtured in the bronze cradle,
Their hearts, as in the past, similar in force to the heavenly ones,
Arise in thunder. However, I think it often
Better to sleep, than to be as I am without companions,
Thus to wait; and what to do meanwhile and to say
I do not know, and for what pur- pose are there poets in a lean time.
But they, you say, are like the wine god’s holy priests
Who roamed from land to land in the holy night.
Bread and Wine, Stanza 7 (of 9)

In the final stanza Hölderlin explicitly confounds Christ with the wine god Dionysus. The Gods have permanently withdrawn from the world: only at night, in sleep and madness, can we find them again. The poet’s madness is his passport to a lost world.

None of this—not the poetry of Blake, Hölderlin, Smart, Lenz, nor Cowper—has much in common with the conservative religious revival of the early nineteenth century, when Wordsworth and Coleridge at last became uncomplaining members of the Church of England, and Chateaubriand in 1802 published the enormously influential and beautiful Genius of Christianity (a book wickedly described by Senancour as a treatment of Christianity in troubadour style—that is, something like Ye Olde Frensshe Caffé, and Chateaubriand’s friends roared with laughter when they read aloud the chapter on virginity to each other). By contrast, the work of Blake, Hölderlin, and Lenz is a reaction against the contemporary teachings of the churches, both Catholic and Protestant, which preached an intolerably repressive sexual morality and often a passive submission to social injustice.

It is understandable that most of these poets would not be fully appreciated or even completely published until the twentieth century. Nineteenth-century religion could not absorb either Hölderlin’s mystic paganism or Blake’s radical sexual morality. Indeed, a passage in Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell of 1793 parallels the work of a contemporary lunatic, the Marquis de Sade:

the weak were caught by the strong, and with a grinning aspect, first coupled with, and then devour’d, by plucking off first one limb and then another, till the body was left a helpless trunk. This after grinning and kissing it with seeming fondness, they devour’d too; and here and there I saw one savourily picking the flesh off his own tail. As the stench terribly annoy’d us both, we went into the mill, and I in my hand brought the skeleton of a body, which in the mill was Aristotle’s Analytics.

So the Angel said: “Thy phantasy has imposed upon me and thou oughtest to be ashamed.”

I answer’d: “We impose on one another, and it is but lost time to converse with you whose works are only Analytics.”

The nineteenth century did not like to face Blake’s combination of sexuality and religion; I must confess that the passage concerns monkeys, but the reference to Aristotle transforms the whole into an attack on conservative theology. Many of the religious aspirations of the late eighteenth century were partially suppressed: they continued to exist under cover, and to resurface only from time to time. The twentieth century’s reevaluation of the poets once dismissed as mad is a proof of their vitality.

There was, of course, a political side to their poems: rebellion is particularly open in the work of Lenz, Blake, and Hölderlin. In fact, the first full appearance of Hölderlin’s madness coincides with the arrest of hundreds of students in Germany for sympathizing with the principles of the French Revolution. A letter from a friend (Sinclair) to Hölderlin’s mother tries to reassure her that the madness is only faked in order to avoid arrest for treason, and it is clear from police reports that only Hölderin’s mad behavior (he went about the streets shouting, “I am not a Jacobin”) saved him from trial. One of Hölderlin’s friends, Böhendorff, wrote at this time in his diary: “It is astonishing how many have recently gone mad.” If Hölderlin’s madness was, at least in part, only put on, he must have found it impossible to shake off. On the other hand, Blake was never placed in an asylum—he had made a professional success in a small way as an engraver—but he was put on trial for treason and narrowly escaped; he was defended by a friend of William Cowper.

Even Cowper’s apparently uncritical acceptance of the Calvinistic evangelical faith is given an odd turn by his madness. A letter of May 10, 1780, to his friend, the pastor John Newton, makes it clear how odd, and how conscious he was of the oddity:

That a Calvinist in principle, should know himself to have been Elected, and yet believe that he is lost, is indeed a Riddle, and so obscure that it Sounds like a Solecism in terms, and may well bring the assertor of it under the Suspicion of Insanity. But it is not so, and it will not be found so.

I am trusted with the terrible Secret Myself but not with the power to Communicate it to any purpose. In order to gain credit to such a Relation, it would be necessary that I should be able to produce proof that I received it from above, but that power will never be given Me. In what Manner or by whom the denoüement will be made hereafter, I know not. But that it will be made is certain. In the mean time I carry a load no Shoulders Could Sustain, unless underpropped as mine are, by a heart Singularly & preternaturally hardened.

To many contemporary observers, the most intolerable aspect of evangelical Christians was their conviction that they were members of a small band of the Elect, chosen by God for salvation and Heaven, while the rest of the world is predeterminedly and irrevocably damned. Nothing was more resented than the way they considered themselves “a chosen and separate people, living in a land of atheists and voluptuaries,” as Sydney Smith observed. Cowper stands this on its head and his madness acts as a criticism of Calvinism: he knows that he is one of the elect, and God has revealed to him personally that he will be forever damned. It is, of course, God who has hardened his heart.

This returns us once again, rightly, to the misery and anguish of madness, in spite of the moments that it sometimes brought of ecstatic delight. For all of these poets, insanity was a solution, involuntary and voluntary, of the difficulties of reconciling a poetic sensibility and a religious vision with the lack of an independent income and the exigencies of making a living.

The most tragic case was perhaps that of Lenz, whose works embody the sharpest social criticism and whose poetic career lasted only five years before his madness overwhelmed him and embarrassed his friends. It was difficult to help him. A kind-hearted pastor and doctor, Jean Frédéric Oberlin, tried for several months; he kept him from bathing in an icy river in the dead of winter, or from tearing off the bandages from his wounded foot. Finally Oberlin sent him away with friends to Strasbourg and wrote in his diary:

Some will say we should never have taken him in; others, that we shouldn’t have kept him so long; a third group—we should never have sent him away.

We cannot judge someone like Lenz, Oberlin observed, because we lack the ability to represent faithfully the totality of his case:

Often a tone, a glance that cannot he described, hides something that signifies more than every action that could previously be set down.

The diary of Pastor Oberlin came into the hands of the young Georg Büchner, who was to achieve the greatest dramatic representation of madness with Woyzeck in 1836. He first wrote a short novel on Lenz’s madness, using Oberlin’s diary but inventing many details in an attempt to enter sympathetically into Lenz’s mind. At the end of Büchner’s account Lenz returns to Strasbourg:

It was shadowy, the closer they got to Strasbourg, on high a full moon, all distant objects dark, only the mountain nearby drew a sharp line, the earth was like a golden goblet, over which the moon poured its foaming waves of gold. Lenz stared peacefully out, no presentiments, no pressure: only there grew an obscure anguish in him, the more the objects lost themselves in the darkness. They had to put up at an inn: there he made further attempts to lay hands on himself, but was watched too sharply. On the following morning, by gloomy rainy weather, they reached Strasbourg. He seemed quite reasonable, spoke with people; he did everything the way others did, but there was a horrible emptiness in him, he felt no more anguish, no desire: his being was a necessary burden to him—in this way he went on living.

  1. 1

    From the first of two articles entitled “Methodism,” The Edinburgh Review, 1808.

  2. 2

    Routledge, Kegan and Paul, 1991, p. 152.

  3. 3

    Harvard University Press, 1987.

  4. 4

    Democritus to the Reader” (Oxford University Press/Clarendon Press, 1989), Vol. 1, p. 25.

  5. 5

    (Chicago University Press, 1967), Act IV, Scene I, line 488.

  6. 6

    Vol. 1 (Paris: Editions de la Pléiade, 1933), p. 37.

  7. 7

    Quoted in Smart, Poetical Works, Vol. 2, edited by Walsh and Williamson (Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 100.

  8. 8

    Smart, Vol. 1, Fragment B, lines 68–69, edited by Williamson (Oxford University Press, 1980), p. 23.

  9. 9

    Smart, Vol. 1, Fragment B, p. 69. Line 404: “punching” is in a larger script in the manuscript; I have added capitals. Williamson writes, “the metaphor is from type foundry.”