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The Groundbreaking Link Between Mental Illness And Literature, Part I

writerThe recent episode of Charlie Rose: The BRAIN Initiative features a panel of experts at the forefront of the latest discoveries of the brain.  The panel includes: Thomas Insel of the National Institute of Mental Health, Story Landis of the National Institute of Health, Cornelia Bargmann of Rockefeller University and William Newsome of Stanford University.  At the head of the discussion is Eric Kandel of Columbia University.  He stated we are 15-100 years from coming close to understanding the dynamics and intricacies of the brain.


The panel discusses recent technological advances that allow experts of the brain to better unfold the complexities of the brain. They analyze brain scans to learn about the mind. Midway through the discussion, Charlie poses a fundamentally crucial and significant addition to the discussion worthy of notable discovery:

“What do we need to do to broaden the conversation?”


I have often analyzed how mental illness can be tracked, discovered, and understood through the written word. Let’s take a break from science and take a look at literature. The analysis of writings opens a door to explore alternative methods of understanding individuals suffering from manic-depressive disorder.  Through a thorough examination of writings, we can look at specific mental states of individuals, which in turn may inform those looking for answers, or symptoms of bipolar minds, which often times get NOS (Not Otherwise Specified) as a diagnosis.  The medical field continues to evolve in their understanding of the intricate, often mysterious behaviors of manic-depressive individuals.  A look at reoccurring themes and stylistic techniques may reveal affected writers share a commonality in their writings.  An exploration of the works may help find a way for society to better understand individuals suffering from mental disease, and discover those not yet diagnosed with manic-depression.


Throughout history there have been writers and poets that suffer from manic depression.  If we take a close look at the writings of these renowned writers we find a link to mental illness and the English language. An examination of their stylistic techniques, diction, metaphor, simile and expression manifest their mental illness which can help discover how mental illness can be learned outside of science, engineering, and neurology.


Today I am going to take an in-depth look at three known writers who suffered from manic depression disorder: Emily Dickinson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Wordsworth.


EMILY DICKINSON – American Poet (1830 – 1886)


Emily Dickinson suffered from manic-depression and spent the majority of her life in seclusion, yet was able to produce over eighteen hundred poems.  In The Complete Poems by Emily Dickinson, she describes her experience of bipolar disease in “The first Day’s Night had come.”


The first Day’s Night had come —

And grateful that a thing

So terrible — had been endured —

I told my Soul to sing —


She said her Strings were snapt —

Her Bow — to Atoms blown —

And so to mend her — gave me work

Until another Morn —


And then — a Day as huge

As Yesterdays in pairs,

Unrolled its horror in my face —

Until it blocked my eyes —


My Brain — begun to laugh —

I mumbled — like a fool —

And tho’ ’tis Years ago — that Day —

My Brain keeps giggling — still.


And Something’s odd — within —

That person that I was —

And this One — do not feel the same —

Could it be Madness — this?


Dickinson opens the poem reflecting on the first day of her episode which she expresses as “terrible.”  She is “grateful” she is able to have “endured” that day, which she specifically distinguishes as “The first Day’s Night.”  The beginning of her manic state of mind is acknowledged as she pinpoints the beginning of her bipolar voyage.  She personifies her soul and tells it to sing, but her “strings were snapt.”  The strings serve as a metaphor for her mind which is “snapt” and “her bow — to atoms blown –.”   The diction “snapt” and “blown” describes a maniacal brain that is synonymous with her terminology.  She then mends her mind through work “until another morn.”

Dickinson’s diction parallels behaviors found in mania, as thoughts are fierce, quick and explosive.  She mirrors her thought process in her diction, which allows insight into her mind and through words she interprets that state.  Dickinson also describes a common theme in mania that allows a person to work at an excessive rate, which can provide relieve from the fluidity of thought.   Through her “work” she can utilize her mind and “mend” it through writing as it excels at a mind blowing pace.

Then she is met with another “day as huge / As Yesterdays in pairs.”  The manic state continues as it is paired to the previous day.  She describes that day as “horror in my face” which “unrolled….until it blocked my eyes.”  The word “horror” sends a clear image of the reality of her mind and her experience.  Her mania escalates to a point where it has taken over her brain and her ability to control it.  She uses the words “blocked my eyes” to underscore her inability to control that state which is fueled by manic energy as her brain begins “to laugh.”  Mania is often marked by inappropriate fits of laughter which she describes by going right to the source “my brain” to pin point the location causing that reaction.  A maniacal episode can also alter ones use of words and the ability to control those words which makes her “mumble – like a fool.”  She reflects on that day which was “Years ago” however, she is not free from the shadow of mania as it continues, “giggling – still.”  Childlike features often mark a bipolar brain in a manic episode.  Her placement of the word “still” after the dash reflects her continual manic episodes which are a constant experience throughout her life.

Dickinson then digs deeper into the enigma of that state of mind as she refers to it as “odd.”  She admits to something odd “within / That person that I was” and draws a line between the person that she was “And this One” as they “do not feel the same –.”  She closes with the question “Could it be Madness – this?”  She recalls those days and questions if they reflect a mad mind.  In this final stanza, Dickinson plays with words as she states something is odd “within” that person….and this one.” The syntax of the language allows interpretation as “something’s odd – -within” can apply to both “That person” before and “this One” now.

Her play with words continue as she finishes with a question “Could it be Madness – this?”  She exercises the duality of her thoughts as she makes a distinction between then, and now, and then completes the poem in the present tense.  She doesn’t say could that have been madness, but points to “this” madness which can refer to her madness being constant.  Her use of the dash works to illustrate this point.  Dickinson’s use of the dash, which distinguishes her work, points to a mind operating in a unique pattern that demands dashes to express thought.  Dickinson’s use of the dash works to display the communication of her mind and reveals how her thoughts move from her mind onto the page.

Another one of Dickinson’s poems titled, “They shut me up in Prose,” also manifests her mind through stylistic techniques and underscores how manic-depressive individuals can be mistreated, which is a common theme found in the treatment of bipolar individuals who are often times ostracized due to their behavior.


They shut me up in Prose —

As when a little Girl

They put me in the Closet —

Because they liked me “still” —


Still!  Could themself have peeped —

And seen my Brain — go round —

They might as wise have lodged a Bird

For Treason — in the Pound —


Himself has but to will

And easy as a Star

Abolish his Captivity —

And laugh — No more have I —


Dickinson opens her poem stating, “They shut me up in Prose,” which can mean she was shut up by prose and she was able to turn to writing to exercise her mind.  Dickinson reflects on her mind and discusses how others react to her bipolar behavior.  She refers to a “They” who “shut me up in Prose” at the earlier stages of her life “Because they liked me still.”  The diction “still” has duel meaning as “still” can mean physically “still” or mentally “still.”  She alludes to the fact that outsiders prefer her to be still and be free from a brain that goes round and round causing certain behavioral traits to unfold; traits that may not fall under the umbrella of what constitutes socially acceptable.  A manic state influences thinking, judgment, and social behaviors in ways that often cause serious problems and embarrassment which is reflected in how she was treated.

She continues on and repeats the word “still” with an exclamation point to emphasize the ridiculousness of people wanting her to be “still” when they do not know her mental state for if they “Could themselves have peeped — / And seen my Brain – go round — / They might as wise have lodged a Bird / For Treason – in the Pound -.”  The rhyme scheme also dictates an internal rhythmical pattern stemming from her mind.  The bird is a metaphor for her brain as she describes it as going “round” as it spins, thus, cannot remain still.  She uses the description of a bird pounded for treason to describe how useless it is to try and make her remain “still” for her brain will not allow that to occur.  Dickinson points to the need to “Abolish his Captivity – And laugh.”  She immediately switches gears in tone and thought, as she laughs “No more.” The overall theme of isolation and social rejection reveals itself as the need for outsiders to quiet a mood imbalanced individual manifests itself and the uselessness of trying to control certain behaviors comes forth.


SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE – English Poet (1772 – 1834)


WILLIAM WORDSWORTH – English Poet (1770 – 1850)


English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, considered “the most restless, unsettled, and dendritic of minds,” (Jamison 220) was also marked with manic-depression.  Coleridge’s life often consisted of impulsive decisions made during maniacal episodes.  As cited in Romanticism: An Anthology by Duncan Wu it states, “Coleridge joined the King’s Light Dragoons under the name Silas Tomkyn Comberbache.  And after six weeks he was discharged and the Regimental Muster Roll recorded: ‘discharge S. T. Comberbache Insane; 10 April 1794.’”  At this time, in a letter to his brother, Coleridge writes:


I laugh almost like an insane person when I cast my eye backward on the prospect of my past two years – What a gloomy Huddle of eccentric Actions, and dim-discovered motives!.. – since that period my Mind has been irradiated by Bursts only of Sunshine – at all other times gloomy with clouds, or turbulent with tempests…. It had been better for me, if my Imagination had been less vivid….I seized the empty gratifications of the moment, and snatched at the Foam, as the Wave passed by me. – My Brother, you shudder as you read (Jamison 221).


Coleridge speaks of his last two years and describes them as having “eccentric Actions, and dim-discovered motives!”  He admits his actions are fueled by an unknown source that is dimly discovered.  He descriptively tells the story of his manic-depressive states as he uses metaphors and bold language to depict states of “Bursts only of Sunshine” or “turbulent with tempests.”   Coleridge “seized the empty gratifications of the moment, and snatched at the Foam, as the Wave passed by me.”  His impulsive mood is described here with fierce language like “seized” and “snatched” as he uses the metaphor of a wave to describe the ebb and flow of his bipolar states.  Coleridge admits to grabbing onto those moods to pursue empty gratifications.  He describes his imagination as “vivid” which is often a trait of manic-depression as ideas explode in the mind vividly and clarity takes hold.

William Wordsworth, a friend of Coleridge, also experienced bouts of manic-depression as seen through his writings.  Wordsworth writes concerning poets:


By our own spirits are we deified?

We Poets in our youth begin in gladness;

But thereof come in the end despondency and madness (Jamison 52).


Wordsworth comments on the downward spiral of a bipolar mind as the disease manifests itself substantially with age.  He distinguished “youth” in “gladness” and “the end” comes “madness.”  His insight into the disease is underscored as he acknowledges a shift in youth and age which happens to bipolar individuals when the symptoms of the disease increase with time.

Wordsworth also believed that poetry was best suited for the common man and should reflect universal truths as seen in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads:


To this knowledge which all men carry about with them, and to these sympathies in which without any other discipline than that of our daily life we are fitted to take delight, the poet principally directs his attention (149).


Wordsworth places value on poetry that speaks to all individuals and reflects aspects of daily life.  Such an assessment raises the question: does a manic-depressive writer have a different insight into the human condition?  Coleridge comments on his thoughts on poetry and points to the syntax, and the placement of words, as defining a great poet: “In the truly great poets… there is a reason assignable, not only for every word, but for the position of every word” (256).

Coleridge’s meticulous attention to detail reveals a particular mind at work, as seen in his masterpiece from Lyrical Ballads, “The Rime of the Ancient Marine.”  The story of a Mariner on a long sea voyage begins a journey fueled with ups and downs in the ebb and flow of the waves.  The Mariner tells his story to a wedding guest, and in doing so, Coleridge is able to exercise his mind through the narrative.  He exemplifies a mind working at a unique level as it exhibits knowledge gleaned from his own experiences with his mental state, and through the narrative the nature of his mind is unveiled.  Coleridge writes:


All in a hot and copper sky,

The bloody Sun, at noon,

Right up above the mast did stand,

No bigger than the Moon.


Day after day, day after day,

We stuck, nor breath nor motion;

As idle as a painted ship

Upon a painted ocean.


Water, water, everywhere,

And all the boards did shrink;

Water, water, everywhere,

Nor any drop to drink (111-122).


Coleridge’s use of language paints the picture of a mind stuck in an apathetic state.  His colorful diction and imagery reveals itself as the Mariner and the wedding guests enter uncharted waters and it becomes calm.  The “hot and cooper sky” and “bloody Sun” connotes a painful state that hovers above the mast and sits there “Day after day, day after day.”  Like most depressive episodes that last for days or more, Coleridge points to a prolonged state that continues for days where they are “stuck” with no “breath nor motion.”  Depression is described as suffocating and paralyzing.  He uses the metaphor of a ship which can represent the mind or condition of a depressed mental state.  He describes the experience like an, “idle…painted ship,” to reveal the frozen condition of that mental state.  The mind is stuck in an environment that is still as he describes the ship “upon a painted ocean.”  As the ship sits in the ocean it enters a holding pattern.  This is synonymous with a state of depression that can develop into a complete apathetic state of nothingness, where ones mental state is frozen, and the world around a person can become immobile.  A deep depressed state reaches a level of pure staleness where nothing can alleviate the mind, as Coleridge writes “Water, water everywhere, / And all the boards did shrink.”  The mind drowns as the boards shrink with saturation.  Water represents the deathly force that sinks the depression deeper.  The image clearly articulates the feelings experienced by a person suffering from manic-depression.  The narrative reveals a mind in depression that gets caught in the calm eye of the storm: the pinnacle of a depressed state.  This plummets a person deeper into a state of helplessness where water can drown you.  The image of water represents the journey of a bipolar person that sails through life with bouts of depression and gets caught in depleted states of nothingness.  Coleridge is able to provide detailed insight into the emotional complexities of depression in his imaginative metaphor enriched with diction in a narrative that continues to explore the world of a bipolar individual.  Coleridge continues:


The souls did from their bodies fly—

They fled to bliss or woe!

And every soul, it pass’d me by

Like the whizz of my crossbow!’ (221-224).


Coleridge makes a distinction between the fates of the shipmates using bipolar diction with the words “bliss” and “woe!”  He provides a simile as the souls passed him by like a “whizz of my crossbow” explanation point!  He emphasized the sound of the crossbow with his use of a double zz and is able to represent the internal sounds of his mind.  His experience of an elevated mental state provides language to describe the bodies as they “fly.”  The passion in his diction and the simile of a crossbow describes his manic thoughts that whiz by inside his head at a rapid pace.  The crossbow serves as a compass to demonstrate the minds ability to move from one state to another.  The mania is lost as the crossbow “pass’d me by” leaving him “alone” in his own depressed state.  Coleridge continues:


Alone, alone, all, all alone,

Alone on a wide, wide sea!

And never a saint took pity on

My soul in agony  (223 – 226).


Coleridge reiterates the state of the Mariner’s mind through repeating the word “alone” three times and “all” two times, as if being alone is a long endured dark place on a “wide, wide sea.”  The repetition of words and use of the exclamation point resonates with other bipolar writers.  The absolute nature of this fact is extreme as the sentiment is repeated with exclamatory punctuation.  This sentiment mirrors that of a depressed person who can feel long stretches of loneliness and dark times which unfold in waves similar to that of a sea.  Coleridge writes “and never a saint to pity on me” which points to the hopelessness often endured during bouts of depression where one feels completely abandoned with no one to turn to.  Coleridge states not even a “saint” took “pity” on him.  His use of the word “pity” points to a heightened state of desperation that begs for help.  He completes the stanza with just a few lines to sum up the Mariners condition: “my soul in agony.”  Like other bipolar writers who sum up states of mind in short, to the point words that express a severe thought, Coleridge exemplifies the ability of a manic-depressive mind to relay its thoughts without any pontification.  The word “agony” says it all without any necessary explaining while the word “soul” is a large word to encompass the deep emotional state of his being.  Coleridge continues:


Fly, brother, fly! more high, more high!

Or we shall be belated:

For slow and slow that ship will go,

When the Mariner’s trance is abated (427-430).


Coleridge uses speech that is emblematic of people who react to those that suffer from a mental disease.  Fear fuels the reaction of the voyager who desires to move as fast as possible to get going on in their journey and not be “belated.”  Individuals with mental illness are often shunned from others and made to be ostracized and feel like there is something wrong with them.   This sentiment echoes Dickinson’s poem “They shut me up in Prose.”  Individuals often times get labeled as weird or scary which further isolates them.   The desperation of the guest to go fast and move on is exemplified in the heightened panic fueled by anxious desperation in the line “fly, brother, fly!  More high, more high!”  The forceful language and repetition of “fly” and “high” point to the need to break away from the alternative which is a ship that will go “slow.”   When the Mariner’s trance is “abated,” they will be stuck with him and his depleted depressed state, which is shown through the wording “slow and slow that ship will go.”  The ship serves as a metaphor for a depressed mind that moves slowly versus a manic high that flies, hence, the wording reveals insight into the mind of a bipolar person’s mental journey.  The diction in Coleridge’s piece reflects bipolar swings as the guests represent the high of mania that often causes a person to mentally rise in chemical levels of flight.  This is juxtaposed with the Mariner that represents the lethargic nature of depression.  In just four lines Coleridge unmasks the feelings of mental disease with expressive language, metaphors, tone and characters.

Coleridge recognizes the importance of structure in writing, hence, reveals how a particular brain can operate through meticulous attention to detail.  The placement of each word, earlier shown in Dickinson’s writings, provides a commonality among bipolar writers which will be further explored in my next article featuring the writings of Charles Bukowski and Sylvia Plath.


A speech given by President Obama that launched the Brain Initiative noted that ideas are the future.  If we take a look at creative ideas outside of science like poetry, art, music, these “ideas” can link us to knowledge of the brain which in turn will better our future.


Stay tuned.

Pen in the hand of a woman image available from Shutterstock.

The Groundbreaking Link Between Mental Illness And Literature, Part I

Erica Loberg

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APA Reference
Loberg, E. (2013). The Groundbreaking Link Between Mental Illness And Literature, Part I. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 16, 2018, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/manic-depression/2013/07/17/the-groundbreaking-link-between-mental-illness-and-literature-emily-dickinson-william-wordsworth-and-samuel-taylor-coleridge/


Last updated: 18 Jul 2013
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 18 Jul 2013
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.