By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
It’s been suggested many times that there’s a fine line between the poet and the madman, and sometimes, perhaps, no line at all. And so it’s of little surprise that poets down the centuries have written so frequently about madness, mental turmoil, and other disturbed psychological states. Here’s a selection of the very best poems about madness of various kinds.
Anonymous, ‘Fowls in the Frith’.
Foulës in the frith,
The fishës in the flod,
And I mon waxë wod;
Much sorwe I walkë with
For beste of bon and blod.
This poem, which is around 800 years old and reproduced in full above, is ambiguous: the speaker ‘mon waxë wod’ (i.e. must go mad) because of the sorrow he walks with, but what causes this sorrow? The last line is ambiguous, too: does ‘beste’ mean ‘beast’ or ‘best’?
The spelling reveals nothing, and in the context of that final line it could be either. If the sorrow is a result of the ‘best of bone and blood’, it could refer to a woman (who is the best living thing in the world, according to the poet) or, as has also been suggested, Christ (a divine being in human form).
So, the poem can be read either as a love lyric or as a religious lyric. ‘Fowls in the frith’, by the way, means ‘birds in the wood’, though the latter sounds less haunting and beautiful.
Oliver Goldsmith, ‘An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog’.
This poem by the Irish poet and playwright Oliver Goldsmith (1728-74) is about a rabid dog that bites a man, and the effect that this act of violence has on the people of London:
This dog and man at first were friends;
But when a pique began,
The dog, to gain some private ends,
Went mad and bit the man …
William Blake, ‘Mad Song’.
The wild winds weep,
And the night is a-cold;
Come hither, Sleep,
And my griefs infold:
But lo! the morning peeps
Over the eastern steeps,
And the rustling birds of dawn
The earth do scorn …
No list of the best ‘mad’ poems would be complete without something from the visionary poet and artist William Blake (1757-1827), who was dismissed as a ‘lunatic’ on more than one occasion during his lifetime.
Based on the ‘mad songs’ from Reliques of English Poetry, a hugely influential and popular eighteenth-century anthology of recently rediscovered Border ballads and Early Modern songs, this poem recalls Tom o’ Bedlam from these early songs (and, by association, Shakespeare’s King Lear, one of Shakespeare’s great studies of madness).
Robert Browning, ‘Porphyria’s Lover’.
That moment she was mine, mine, fair,
Perfectly pure and good: I found
A thing to do, and all her hair
In one long yellow string I wound
Three times her little throat around,
And strangled her. No pain felt she;
I am quite sure she felt no pain …
One of Browning’s most disturbing poems – and it’s up against quite a bit of competition – ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ is spoken by a murderer, a man who strangles his lover with her own hair. It was one of Browning’s first great poems, published in 1836 (as ‘Porphyria’) when the poet was still in his mid-twenties.
It was also one of his earliest experiments in the dramatic monologue, a form which he and Alfred, Lord Tennyson developed in the 1830s. Despite the poem’s reputation as one of Browning’s finest dramatic monologues, it – like much of Browning’s early work – was largely ignored during his lifetime.
Emily Dickinson, ‘Much Madness Is Divinest Sense’.
Much Madness is divinest Sense –
To a discerning Eye –
Much Sense – the starkest Madness –
’Tis the Majority
In this, as all, prevail –
Assent – and you are sane –
Demur – you’re straightway dangerous –
And handled with a Chain –
This short poem (reproduced in full above) by the reclusive genius Emily Dickinson reads like a commentary on Polonius’ famous comment in Hamlet: ‘Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t’. If you step out of line of mainstream opinion or dogma, you’re viewed as mad, bad, and dangerous, and need locking up. Many users of social media may find that this poem strikes a chord…
Lewis Carroll, ‘The Mad Gardener’s Song’.
He thought he saw an Elephant,
That practised on a fife:
He looked again, and found it was
A letter from his wife.
‘At length I realise,’ he said,
‘The bitterness of Life!’
This poem is less famous than some of the others on this list, largely because it first appeared in Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno books (1889-93), which met with less critical and popular acclaim than the Alice books. Nevertheless, it’s great fun, focusing on a man who confuses a letter from his wife with an elephant practising on a fife, and a hippo for a banker (well, who hasn’t?).
Allen Ginsberg, ‘Howl’.
‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness’, this classic poem of the Beat Generation famously begins.
Completed in 1955, ‘Howl’ is dedicated to Carl Solomon, whom Ginsberg had met in a mental institution, and the poem is, in one sense, an extended meditation on mental instability and despair. Are those who we consider ‘sane’ really so? And are those who are branded ‘mad’ really insane?
Sylvia Plath, ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song’.
Sylvia Plath shared her birthday with Dylan Thomas, and she also shared a fondness for the villanelle form. ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song’ is an interesting and inventive take on the villanelle, written when Plath was still a student in the early 1950s. Who is the ‘you’ Plath addresses in the poem?
It’s possible to see the poem as a response to schizophrenia and to posit that the ‘you’ is actually Plath, or a version of her: she is addressing herself. The repetitive and closed-off nature of the villanelle might, then, be viewed here as a vehicle for conveying Plath’s own sense of psychological confinement.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.