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The Link Between Literature and Mental Illness, Part 3


WALT WHITMAN – American Poet (1819 –1892)

In “Earth, My Likeness,” found in Leaves of Grass, Whitman describes his personal experience of manic-depression.

Earth, my likeness,

Though you look so impassive, ample and spherical there,

I now suspect that is not all;

I now suspect there is something fierce in you eligible to burst forth,

For an athlete is enamour’d of me, and I of him,

But toward him there is something fierce and terrible in me eligible

to burst forth,

I dare not tell it in words, not even in these songs.

Whitman alludes to his inner self that is “fierce” and “terrible” and describes it as a force that can “burst.”  Similar to other manic-depressive writers, Whitman diction is fueled by an exaggerated tone.  Whitman did not have the foreknowledge to understand the mystery of his mind, however, the description found in the text is able to voice his condition.  He compares himself to the earth and acknowledges that like the earth that can appear “impassive, ample and spherical” he can appear one way when beneath the surface he is capable of destruction.  Whitman closes the poem leaving the reader wondering what is so bad that he can’t disclose the experience.  Whitman points to appearances versus reality and admits something inside exists, yet fear keeps him silent.

ANNE SEXTON – American Poet (1928 – 1974)

Anne Sexton who describes herself as “a woman of excess, of zeal and greed” (“Cigarettes And Whiskey And Wild, Wild Women”) also suffered from manic-depression.  As seen in Selected Poems of Anne Sexton, the poem “Again and Again and Again” states:

I have a black look I do not

like. It is a mask I try on.

I migrate toward it and its frog

sits on my lips and defecates.

It is old. It is also a pauper.

I have tried to keep it on a diet.

I give it no unction.

There is a good look that I wear

like a blood clot. I have

sewn it over my left breast.

Like Coleridge’s repetitive diction that describes the ongoing reality of his condition, “Day after day, day after day” (“The Rime of the Ancient Marine”), Sexton also often repeats words.  She calls her poem “Again and Again and Again” using redundancy to describe the ongoing nature of her disease.  She uses metaphors to describe the dark side of her sadness and the duality of her nature.  She describes her dark side as a “black look” which she refers to as a “mask.”  She uses the metaphor of a frog that defecates on her lip to describe its ugliness.  The defecation described also alludes to its ability to taint her speech.  She describes it as “old” and something she tries to “keep on a diet” but has no control even though she has “tried.”  Sexton than switches gears to discuss the other side of her nature which she refers to as her “good look.”  She uses a “blood clot” as a metaphor to describe its ability to sit there blocking other states of mind.

Sexton’s poem “Despair” examines her depression:


I don’t like you very well.

You don’t suit my clothes or my cigarettes.

Why do you locate here

as large as a tank,

aiming at one half of a lifetime?

Couldn’t you just go float into a tree

instead of locating here at my roots,

forcing me out of the life I’ve led

when it’s been my belly so long?

Sexton describes her mental state as a tank that aims “at one half of a lifetime.”  Sexton points to her lifetime of moods of despair that occupy half of her existence.  She reiterates the ups and downs of manic-depression and the time frame imposed with her condition.  She describes it as something that is located in her “roots,” as it stems from her brain.  She points to it as something that forces her out of her life and rests in her “belly so long.”  It sits inside the center of her being making it impossible to avoid.

In Sexton’s poem “Her Kind” Sexton writes:

I have gone out, a possessed witch,

haunting the black air, braver at night;

dreaming evil, I have done my hitch

over the plain houses, light by light:

lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.

A woman like that is not a woman, quite.

I have been her kind.

I have found the warm caves in the woods

Sexton continues to use dark metaphors to describe the depressive side of manic-depression.  She describes herself as a “witch” that haunts the “black air” who is “out of mind.”  She closes the stanza stating that she is “not a woman, quite.”  Her use of comma separates her thoughts as she tacks on “quite” to show she is a woman, but of a different sort.  A woman that is perhaps misunderstood.  Sexton’s use of metaphor and description reflects her thoughts on her dark side.  She alludes to a state of mania as she describes herself as “haunting the brave night” as she lashes out onto the world.  Sexton suggests that a state of mania is possibly synonymous with a state of depression.   At the pinnacle of mania may be a kind of severe depression where an individual has lost sight of reality and is sucked into an alternate state of maniacal depression.  Such information put forth in literary expressions of the mind can be revealed and underscored in specific words and content of a work.  It is possible to see through the lens of a manic-depressive individual the realities of the disease and intricate nature of manic-depression.  Maybe depression sits in a heightened maniacal episode which can be described through a piece of text.   Similar to Roethke who refers to “That place among the rocks – is it a cave (“In a Dark Time”), Sexton also uses a cave as a metaphor to discuss her depressed state of mind which she describes as “warm caves in the woods.”  Sexton provides insight into her mental state as she paints an image of a warm light in the darkness; like mania in depression or depression in mania.  Maybe it’s not mania versus depression. Through word choice some poets point to the possibility that an acute maniacal state is simultaneously a magnification of depression.

There are numerous poetic works that show parallels in diction used to describe a manic-depressive condition. An examination of poets that suffer from manic-depression reveals similarities in their work that could provide a gateway to the beginnings of treatment.  One theme that resurfaces in manic-depressive poets points to the confusion behind interpreting or understanding aspects of the disease.  Poets write about “something” inside that is not right.  Poets were unclear about their internal thoughts, however, through examining their works there are particular words and content found in the text that reveal the enigma of their mental state and their attempt to define it.

Dickinson writes, “And Something’s odd — within –“ (“The First Day’s Night Had Come”).  Bukowski also spoke of “something wrong with me”  (“Melancholia”) yet neither of them had the foreknowledge of their condition, or know the signs of a potential mood disorder.  Whitman also discusses his feelings about his state of mind but does not dare to describe it.  Regardless, he uses words similar to other writers to express his feelings.  Whitman writes, “But toward him there is something fierce and terrible in me eligible to burst forth, I dare not tell it in words, not even in these songs” (“Earth! My Likeness”).  Roethke also describes an “inner weight of woe / That God himself can scarely bear (“Elegy”).  Like Whitman who is scared to describe his mental state, Roethke points to God as not even capable of bearing his mental woe.  All four poets discuss their internal condition with similar text which can only attempt to capture and magnify their experience.

Sexton uses diction to describe her condition that is also similar to Bukowski’s work.  Both Sexton and Bukowski speak of something dark and mysterious.  They use similar language to describe their condition which, at the time, was not clearly diagnosed.   Bukowski realizes the inevitable nature of his condition and “greets it like an old friend” (“Melancholia”).  Bukowski acknowledges that he has no control over his mental state and describes it with similar verse as other manic-depressive writers.  Both Bukowski and Sexton point to the mouth as a metaphor to help describe their mental state.  As seen in Sifting through the madness of the word, the line, the way: New Poems, Bukowski celebrates the source of his ability to write in his poem “so you want to be a writer.”  He describes it as something that comes out of your “mind and your mouth.” He writes:

so you want to be a writer?

if it doesn’t come bursting out of you

in spite of everything,

don’t do it.

unless it comes unasked out of your

heart and your mind and your mouth

and your gut,

don’t do it.

Unlike Bukowski, Sexton poem “Oh Demon” speaks of her condition as a terrible thing that comes out of her mouth.

Oh demon within,

I am afraid and seldom put my hand up

to my mouth and stitch it up

covering you, smothering you

from the public voyeury eyes

of my typewriter keys.

Sexton describes a demon within that she is afraid of because she can “seldom put my had up / to my mouth and stitch it up.”  Through the use of metaphor, each poet present two perspectives on describing their experience, however, both share the ability to acknowledge that there is something inside that cannot be ignored.  Bukowski makes a definitive statement about what he describes as necessary to produce good writing and in doing so, describes that pulse inside that produces his work.

unless it comes out of

your soul like a rocket,

unless being still would

drive you to madness or

suicide or murder,

don’t do it.

unless the sun inside you is

burning your gut,

don’t do it.

Bukowski describes the inevitable nature of manic-depression and its ability to cause internal strife that can “drive you to madness.”  Mania produces a mental state that can emotionally charge an individual and Bukowski’s diction connotes that as he describes writing as something that “will come out of your soul like a rocket.”  His metaphor of a rocket helps to explain his mental state and paints a picture for others to begin to understand the nature of mania.  He provides the metaphor of a “sun inside you” that is “burning your gut.”  Bukowski uses the sun to describe the overpowering nature of manic-depression.

Similar diction runs through poets of manic-depression.  Just one example found in a few poems previously cited is the word “burst.”  Coleridge writes, “…my Mind has been irradiated by Bursts only of Sunshine – at all other times gloomy with clouds, or turbulent with tempests. (Jamison 221).  Likewise, Whitman writes, “there is something fierce and terrible in me eligible to burst forth (“Earth!  My Likeness”).  Bukowski writes, “if it doesn’t come bursting out of you / in spite of everything / don’t do it (“so you want to be a writer”).

One word describes the mental experience of three separate writers.  Is it a coincidence that the word “burst” is used in three different poems to discuss the nature of their mental state?  They use the same word to write about something they have no knowledge of yet, use similar language to describe that “something.”

The majority of mental illness diagnoses are NOS (not otherwise specified.)  It is very likely that future poets will suffer a mood disorder NOS.  Like those analyzed before their arrival who do not have a definitive diagnosis, there is hope.  The ability of these writers to strike a chord in the literary world may not be an ability learned, or completely understood, but it cannot be ignored.  It is a raw mental vein running straight from the mind to the paper.  It is often times not tried, or orchestrated, but a bloodline to the page.  A writer has their craft to express their mind which is evidence to further expose the intricate nature of how the mind works.  There is no certain way a writer can explain the fierce flow of ideas from word to word, line to line, stanza to stanza, any more than a doctor can fully understand a disease that has no clear diagnosis, and is often reduced to NOS (not otherwise specified.)  Both are like throwing darts in a dim light, however, through a careful look at writers works in the past, the present, and those yet to be discovered, we may find some answers to the behaviors of manic-depressive people.  These writers all share moments captured in writings that reflect their mind which serve as a tool for education.  Through a thorough examination of these trends, one may better understand the mind Not Otherwise Specified, and find answers to the plethora of questions surrounding the diagnosis of manic-depression.

Pen and paper image available from Shutterstock.

The Link Between Literature and Mental Illness, Part 3

Erica Loberg

Erica Loberg was born and raised in Los Angeles, CA. She attended Columbia University in New York and graduated with a BA in English. She is a published poet and author of Inside the Insane, Screaming at the Void, What Men Should Know About Women, What Women Should Know About Men, Diamonds From The Rough and Undressed.

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APA Reference
Loberg, E. (2013). The Link Between Literature and Mental Illness, Part 3. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 21, 2018, from


Last updated: 30 Jul 2013
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Jul 2013
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