Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character
by Kay Redfield Jamison; New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017
560 pages • $29.95 (hardcover)
Reviewed by Burns Woodward, MD
Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire is an investigation of one of the most famous and well-documented cases of manic-depressive illness (the former term for bipolar disorder), as well as a fresh look at the relationship between mood disorders and artistic creativity. Kay Redfield Jamison’s previous books have taught us a great deal: Manic Depressive Illness, the textbook she co-wrote with Frederick Goodwin, is an essential reference.1 An Unquiet Mind, her bestselling memoir of her own bipolar illness, showed us what it means to experience extreme mood swings.2 Night Falls Fast was a fearless consideration of suicide.3
Now she returns to questions about mood and creativity raised by her groundbreaking 1993 book, Touched With Fire.4Setting the River on Fire goes much further, drawing on the words of Lowell and his highly articulate family members, friends, and doctors to give us one of the richest portraits ever written of bipolar illness and its effects on patients and those who care about them.
Lowell (1917-1977) was one of the most original and influential poets of the mid-20th century. His work drew extensively on his life experience, family history, and public events. From adolescence he experienced episodes of psychotic mania, followed by depressive remorse about his hurtful behavior. “I remember all the mean things I said and did while I was sick,” Lowell wrote. “One by one . . . I just shrivel with shame.” Yet he not only produced elegantly crafted poetry but maintained rich and lasting relationships with friends and family, especially his second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, who is in some ways the heroine of the book. He addressed his experiences of mental illness explicitly in poems like “Waking in the Blue,” “Home After Three Months Away,” “Man and Wife,” and “Skunk Hour.”
Jamison obtained consent from Lowell’s daughter to review the medical and psychotherapy records of his 20 hospitalizations. She juxtaposes Lowell’s distinctive observations of his mental status with the medical language of his doctors. Lowell’s mania responded well to the treatments of the times—ECT and later chlorpromazine. In the late 1960s, lithium gave him a few years of relatively stable moods. Jamison also discusses the role of Lowell’s psychotherapy in the generation of his poetry.
Dr. Woodward is Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine.
1. Goodwin FK, Jamison KR. Manic-Depressive Illness: Bipolar Disorders and Recurrent Depression. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press; 2007.
2. Jamison KR. An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness. New York: Alfred A. Knopf; 1995.
3. Jamison KR. Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide. New York: Alfred A. Knopf; 1999.
4. Jamison KR. Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. New York: Free Press; 1993.
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