“In relation to Gauguin, Van Gogh and Rimbaud, I have a distinct inferiority complex because they managed to destroy themselves. . . . I am more and more convinced that, in order to achieve authenticity, something has to snap.”

In “Resolution and Independence,” Wordsworth lamented that “We Poets in our youth begin in gladness, / But thereof come in the end despondency and madness.” This observation, as well as Sartre’s in the epigraph, testifies to the self-destructive risk to the writer who may be drawn to poetry as a means of expressing, rather than objectifying and controlling, the anarchy of feeling that occasionally threatens to erupt. In any case, since the time of Wordsworth, we have had a long, unbroken Romantic literary tradition marked by the idealization and indulgence of feeling, especially despondency and madness—at the expense of reflective thought. Some years ago, Winfield Scott remarked that “Our saddest stories are biographies of 20th Century America writers, Thomas Wolfe, Hart Crane, Vachel Lindsay, Scott Fitzgerald, Edna Millay, Eugene O’Neill, probably Hemingway when we know it.” He went on to remark that it would take “a combination of psychologist, sociologist, literary historian and critic, as well as an expert in alcoholism, to try to explain why.”

In Manic Power: Robert Lowell and His Circle, Jeffrey Meyers combines all of these skills to add the latest sobering chapter to what I have called the unbroken line of Romantic verse that, in glorifying emotion as such, reaches an extremity in madness. Meyers, a professor of English at the University of Colorado, here presents a concise, sharply delineated composite biography of four tragic post-World War II American poets—Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell, John Berryman, and Theodore Roethke. A final chapter narrates the story of Sylvia Plath, the suicide-poet who knew them or their work and who preceded them in death. Without flinching from the anarchy of their disordered personal lives and the suffering they caused their relatives and friends, Meyers contends that

mental illness seemed to stimulate their creative genius, for the constant anxiety, terror and sense of doom intensified isolation and introspection, heightened the intellectual defiance of the social outcast who questions and challenges conventional ideas about morality, and encouraged the poet to control the potentially dangerous element in his character through the order and form of art.

Their verse reflects, in short, a manic power.

Plato of course suspected the poet’s rhapsody of being a derangement of the mind itself But implicit in his criticism was the view that the rhapsodic inspiration of the poet is a transient madness in which reason is temporarily eclipsed by the numinous afflatus of the god. But with the modern poets whom Jeffrey Meyers has brilliantly analyzed, we are faced with a prolonged or recurrent madness not of divine origin. Lowell, Berryman, Jarrell, and Roethke were poets who. Professor Meyers tells us, had ineffectual or absent fathers, strong, seductive, or even monstrous mothers who “devoured their sons, unwilling sexual substitutes for their fathers, with an overwhelming passion.” As he recounts it, “The poets’ serious problems with their parents led to tempestuous marriages, which were characterized by infidelity, alcoholism, violence and mental breakdowns. . . . The lack of a father and presence of an oppressive mother not only contributed to their emotional instability, but led them to mistreat their wives in order to vindicate their fathers and punish their mothers.”

It is Meyers’ view that all four of these poets were trapped in an identical pattern of eccentricities that faded into and out of violence and insanity. Roethke had his first breakdown in 1935 at the age of 27; Berryman in 1939 at the age of 25; Lowell in 1949 at the age of 32. All were hospitalized for mental illness; shock treatment was common. Jarrell, on being released from a psychiatric ward after a failed suicide attempt, ran out onto a highway in 1965 and threw himself in front of an automobile. In 1972 Berryman, like his own father, also committed suicide—by jumping off a bridge in Minneapolis. (Auden is said to have been the source of a malicious tale to the effect that Berryman left a suicide note for Lowell saying “Your move, Cal.” But Lowell and Roethke died of heart attacks undeniably connected to their alcoholism and manic frenzy.)

Under ordinary circumstances, it would take some digging into the biographical archive to document the mental illness of these poets. Professor Meyers in fact gives us the result of this kind of research. But these poets—rejecting Eliot’s call for impersonality in verse—incorporated their experience of madness right into the poetry they wrote: they bled directly onto the page. And herein, I am afraid, lies a large part of their morbid appeal. We go to their powerful poems as people rush to the scene of an automobile accident—for the chill, the ghastly thrill, of seeing the bodies strewn about and bleeding.

In a brilliant reformulation that cuts right through the cant of much apologetic defense of the Lowell circle. Professor Meyers remarks that “The literary manifestation of the mental illness of Lowell, Berryman and Roethke came to be known as confessional poetry.” The same is true of Jarrell, who was only “more covert in the expression of his psychological depression.” In this judgment Meyers is perfectly on target. All four exposed their childhood unhappiness, rage at parents, marital chaos, and mental derangement, in their poetry, with a thrilling candor. Lowell, the most distinguished of the four poets and the acknowledged leader of the group, led the way, excoriating his parents in Life Studies, exposing the conjugal strife he created for his long-suffering wife Elizabeth Hardwick, and confessing in “Skunk Hour” that “My mind’s not right.” According to Meyers, Lowell “dominated his friends by an overwhelming force of will and led them to disaster and destruction” and encouraged “the impulses that fed the crackup verse of his students, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, and led directly to their suicides.” This is a harsh judgment, one which refuses to romanticize the Lowell circle as they romanticized themselves, but it is based on the documented facts of their jealous and imitative interrelationships.

Sylvia Plath, for example, acclaimed Life Studies as an “intense breakthrough into very serious, very personal, emotional experience which I feel has been partly taboo. Robert Lowell’s poems about his experience in a mental hospital, for example, interested me very much”—as well they might have, since she had already tried and failed to commit suicide, an experience she then recounted in The Bell Jar and several poems. Lowell’s revelation of what she called his “naked psyche” became the model for Berryman’s Dream Songs, Jarrell’s “Thinking of the Lost World,” Plath’s “Daddy,” and Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz”—all intimate self-exposures of damaged sensibilities.

As Meyers skeptically notes, both Berryman and Lowell believed that “madness gave the poet a kind of visionary power and put him in touch with deeper truths that were beyond the reach of ordinary men.” Even Roethke, in “In a Dark Time,” exalted the demented state: “What’s madness but nobility of soul / At odds with circumstance?” With this viewpoint it is no wonder that Roethke tried to induce attacks of madness by the Rimbaudian trick of deranging his own senses. On one occasion he went into the woods, deliberately started dancing in circles, stripped off his clothes, and went into a frenzy. He claimed to experience cosmic consciousness, sexual excitement, and “this curious sense that you’re actually being transformed literally into an animal”:

You start getting fantasies—I mean, of power, lion-like power. . . . Of course, this was madness, you see, but the relationship between the ecstasy and madness is . . . one of the things that the headshrinkers know. . . . I woke up on the morning . . . with very little sleep, and decided I wanted to get to [the Dean’s] office.”

What the Dean thought was not reported.

On the whole, however, the poets analyzed in Professor Meyers’ absorbing study did not induce but were content to blame their madness on parents, wives, or friends. Berryman went so far as to blame America itself for their dementia: “You ask why my generation seems so screwed up? . . . It seems they have every right to be disturbed. The current American society would drive anybody out of his skull, anybody who is at all responsive; it is almost unbearable. It doesn’t treat poets very well.” If this seemed paranoid, Lowell embraced the explanation: “John B., in his mad way keeps talking about something evil stalking us poets. That’s a bad way to talk, but there’s truth to it.” If anything was stalking the poets, however, it was the deranged inner self in each that could not be kept at bay. It was this self that led Berryman to say that, in order to create, the poet had to experience “the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. . . . I hope to be nearly crucified.”

But Berryman in fact crucified himself because he could not accept his father’s suicide. A journal entry for 1954 reveals both his rage at his father and his feelings of excremental worthlessness: “So [my] dream is my bloody father looking down at me, whom he’s just f—ed by killing himself, making me into a s—t: and taunting me before he flushes me away.” Like Berryman, Plath also had the insane impulse to dig up the body of her father, so as to rage at him for having had the cruelty to die of diabetes when she was eight. And in “Daddy,” she imaged the father Otto Plath as a Nazi, a devil, and a vampire; she then transmogrified him into her husband Ted Hughes, who finally had had to separate himself from her and from this madness. She got her “revenge” on them both by gassing herself to death in 1963. But neither of these hapless men ever approached the cruelty of Sylvia herself, who—in her mode of dying—permanently scarred her two children, who were in the house at the time. One of the merits of Professor Meyers’ work is that he continually reminds us of the cost, to their loved ones, of these deranged feelings.

Lowell was of the opinion that it was perhaps “an irrelevant accident that [Sylvia Plath] actually carried out the death she predicted”: it was “part of the imaginative risk.” But as Professor Meyers’ evidence makes dazzlingly plain, the mental problems of these writers were deeply rooted in the psychic constitution of each poet, not in the imaginative risks of writing verse. Nor was their derangement caused by American society, which honored them by giving them grants, awards, teaching jobs, recognition, publicity, praise, and success. (They were in fact the most celebrated writers of their time.) In any case, toward the end, Lowell remarked to Roethke, “There must be a kind of glory to it all that people coming later will wonder at. I can see us all being written up in some huge book of the age. But under what tide?” Jeffrey Meyers has now written that book, and Manic Power offers a sharply critical account of the chaotic lives they translated directly into the disturbing verse. The book cannot fail to create a sense of wonder, but it is not quite of the kind Lowell hoped for. If these poets did not attain the glory they claimed for themselves—they were inferior to their predecessors Eliot, Stevens, and Frost—their story is nevertheless a parable of the risks—for poet and reader—of cultivating and romanticizing extremes of feeling.


[Manic Power: Robert Lowell and His Circle, by Jeffrey Meyers; New York: Arbor House; $17.95]