Wild Poets in Horace’s “Ars Poetica” (“The Art of Poetry”)

Why do we think poets are mad, wild, and disheveled?

Did it begin with Horace?  I have been reading Horace’s  Ars Poetica (The Art of Poetry), a  witty guide to the history and composition of classical poetry.  A little more than halfway through this charming didactic poem, Horace mocks unkempt Roman poets who affect madness. Horace’s hexameters are labyrinthine and his expression of thoughts so interwoven with abstruse ancient culture that English translations are unclear without notes:   if you don’t read the Latin, good luck to you.   Here is my rough, mostly literal prose translation of this passage, with notes in parentheses.

Because Democritus [“the laughing philosopher”]  believed  talent was a luckier advantage than [knowing] the wretched art, and excluded sane poets from Helicon [a mountain sacred to the Muses], most poets do not bother to cut their fingernails, nor their beards; they seek seclusion and avoid the baths.  For a man will obtain the esteem and name of poet if he never entrusts his head– which couldn’t be cured of insanity in the three Antyricas (three towns where hellebore, used to treat insanity, was grown]–to a barber.

This satiric passage seems very modern. Certainly we have met our share of disheveled poets at poetry readings, though I mostly see professor poets these days. Some modern translations of this passage, however, make it more difficult than it already is.   In Smith Palmer Bovie’s 1959 translation, he substitutes Swiss psychiatrists  for the three Antyricas towns where  hellebore grows.  He writes,

For surely the name
And the fame of the poet will attach itself to that dome
Which has never entrusted itself to the shears of Licinus,
Which trips for treatment three times as many
psychiatrists
As even Swiss harbors have failed to set straight.

Bovie’s translation is clever but too coy for my taste. Swiss psychiatrists in a Roman poem composed in the first century B.C.?  I  finally remembered “dome” used to be slang for “head.”  But it was only after I read the Latin that I realized Bovie was trying to update the Latin passage  for a 20th-century audience.

Are modern poets mad?  Certainly  many have had depression or manic-depressive illness (bipolar disorder):   Edgar Allen Poe, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Ezra Pound,  Robert Lowell,  Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, to mention a few.    Some believe madness is part of creativity. Personally, I think it must have hindered their work.  Think of how brilliant they would have been without that pain.

Who are your favorite mad poets?  And what is your theory?   Does madness enhance or obstruct creativity?

The Real Mad vs. the Literary Mad

Mr. Dick flies kites for therapy.

Mr. Dick flies kites for therapy.

I empathize with the mad. They suffer.  “I have suffered more than Jesus Christ,” a  friend said during a bout of madness.  Shocking, but I understood.  The mad not only do mad things, but remember their madness and suffer. My cousin was escorted by the police from a grocery store for singing in the aisles about poisoned air. After her meds were adjusted she was humiliated by the memory, even though her psychologist assured her the air IS poisoned and she had told the truth during her mania.

Fritz Eichenberg's illustration of Heathcliff.

Fritz Eichenberg’s illustration of mad, suffering Heathcliff.

If only, my cousin said, she had literary madness.  It is easier, we agree, to understand the Literary Mad than the Real Mad.

For instance,

  1. Mr. Dick, Betsey Trotwood’s lodger in David Copperfield, cannot concentrate on writing his “Memorial” because  King Charles I’s head keeps popping up in his own head. He flies a kite for therapy.  He’s a sweet mad character.
  2. Mrs. Bertha Rochester, the mad wife of Rochester in Jane Eyre, is one of the most violent of literary madwomen.  She lives in her husband’s attic, bites a visitor, and, during an escape from the attic, sets fire to Rochester’s bed curtains.  Jane’s discovery of the mad wife destroys her wedding, but gives Jane ample time to reflect on her love for Rochester and for Rochester to repent. In Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, a retelling of Jane Eyre, Bertha is not mad at all.
  3. The unstable Linda in Doris Lessing’s The Four-Gated City has been on meds for years and lives in pain in the basement of her husband Mark’s house.  Gradually Linda realizes the pills are killing her psychic knowledge.  When she is off the pills, she is able to use her powers.  She’s a good witch!  Only more realistically presented.
  4. Miss Havisham in Great Expectations lives in tatters and chaos because she was jilted decades ago.  She raises her ward Estella to hate men.  Monomania!
  5. Heathcliff in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights  will do anything to get revenge.  Rescued by the kind Mr. Earnshaw, he was a member of the family until Mr. Earnshaw’s death. Then  Hindley Earnshaw trampled him under and made him a servant, and Catherine Earnshaw married Edgar Linton even though she loved Heathcliff because it would “degrade” her to marry him now that he was fallen so low. Heathcliff goes so far as to kidnap  Catherine’s daughter Cathy and force her to marry his son.    Madness!

With the exception of Mr. Dick,  Linda, and Bertha in Jean Rhy’s novel, these are thoroughly unpleasant characters.  And we meet some of the unpleasant mad in real life.

Fritz Eichenberg's woodcut illustration of Bertha examining Jane.

Fritz Eichenberg’s woodcut illustration of Bertha escaped from the attic examining Jane.

I love my mad cousin, but then she is so pleasant. Not all are so  kind.  When I taught an Adult Ed Latin class for three terms, I had students who loved languages, students who never cracked a book but came to socialize, and one megalomaniac student who had simply run out of people to annoy.   Today I ran into him/her at a coffeehouse, and after ten second’s conversation fled. He/she pretends he has found errors in Wheelock’s Latin, the highly respected first-year textbook he/she never mastered. (It’s complete nonsense:  he/she knows nothing.)  My husband copes by glaring at him/her and not speaking. Why oh why can men do that and I can’t?

In a literary novel, would this student would be one of the Bad Mad or one of Dickens’ mere addled characters?