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From the Battlefield

Ronan Sheehan

Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire: A Darkness Altogether Lived, by Kay Redfield Jamison, Random House, ISBN: 978-0307744616

In October last year, late night television replayed a documentary series about the Vietnam War. The disparate footage broadcast featured scenes from the March On The Pentagon in October 1967. For a few seconds the unmistakeable figure of Robert Lowell, tall, gangly, bespectacled, was on screen. He was a featured speaker at the event.

About the year 2003, shortly after being discharged from Vergemount Hospital, where I had been admitted suffering from elation, the first part of manic depression, I attended a meeting organised by people whose children or siblings had committed suicide. They were ordinary Irish people, with no government grant or subsidy, holding hands in the face of their shocking, incomprehensible loss. Kay Redfield Jamison spoke to them. A handsome woman with a smiling face wearing a designer dress, her presence was soothing even before she spoke a word.

She told a story. She once had a friend, a designer of aircraft, who, like her, was diagnosed manic-depressive, a condition also known as bi-polar because its features are twin-moods, quite opposite moods, elation and depression. Elation is a sunburst of ideas and energy. Depression is melancholy and despair. Depression may lead to suicide. So she and her friend Charles made a pact. If ever either of them were suffering a bout of elation or depression they would contact the other, who would come to their aid and support. For a while the plan worked, then, for a long period, she heard nothing … she feared the worst. She made a phone call. Charles was dead. He had killed himself. The plan had failed.

That was the start of Kay Jamison’s speech. Next she launched into a paean of pure love for her dead friend. For suicide is not in its essence experienced as a set of statistics, however grim they may be. It is experienced as the sudden, unexpected, inexplicable disappearance of someone you love. A loss that is hardly bearable. A pain that does not go away. I remember looking around the room at the faces of the fellow countrymen and women who were suffering the pain of loss and confusion. And guilt too ‑could they have saved the life lost? Kay Jamison had reached them. She had, quite brilliantly, articulated the love, the hurt, the loss which she had experienced. It was pretty much the same as theirs. Now they could proceed together, the men and women of Dublin and the elegant professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins School Of Medicine. What can we do to prevent suicide? What can we do to ease the pain of those left behind?

Robert Lowell (1917-1977) was considered by many contemporaries to be the leading American poet of his day. He was born into a family which in Boston is called “Brahmin”, that is to say it could trace its lineage to ancestors who sailed from England to New England aboard the Mayflower in the seventeenth century. Lowell’s ancestors and the history of New England play an important part of his poetry. In 1972, working for a summer in New Hampshire, I discovered this:

For The Union Dead
Relinquunt Omnia Servare Rem Publicam

The old South Boston Aquarium stands
in a Sahara of snow now. Its broken windows are boarded.
The bronze weathervane cod has lost half its scales.The airy tanks are dry.

Parking spaces luxuriate like civic
sandpiles in the heart of Boston.
A girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored girders
braces the tingling Statehouse,

shaking over the excavations, as it faces Colonel Shaw
and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry
on St. Gaudens shaking Civil War relief
propped by a plank splint against the garage’s earthquake.

I have read the poem countless times since, with a sense of expectation or excitement that time has not diminished; nor has the experience disappointed.

Lowell was lavishly decorated. He was Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to The Library of Congress. He won the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award ‑ and so on. What brings Lowell and his biographer, Kay Redfield Jamison, together is not alone his distinction as a writer and a person: it is that both share the condition known as manic depression or bi-polar disorder. Lowell was hospitalised on many occasions for this malady. Kay Jamison has had access to all surviving friends who experienced this side of him, and to his hospital records. The agitation, uproar and danger of mania was a threat to his family and friends. Mania could also be a source of inspiration ‑ witness his book Life Studies.

Kay Redfield Jamison (born 1946) is Robert Lowell’s junior by thirty-odd years. She too has been decorated: professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine; honorary professor of English at the University Of St Andrews. Her work has been widely recognised by academe and she is the recipient of many awards. Much of her published work lies in the area of clinical psychology. Often, it considers manic depression from perspectives with which the lay person can identify: An Unquiet Mind is a memoir which describes her own experience with mania and depression. Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide explores attitudes to suicide from an historical perspective. Touched With Fire: Manic Depressive Illness And The Artistic Temperament charts the progress of a manic depressive gene from generation to generation is some families noted for their artistic ability. Byron and his ancestors are offered as a paradigm of this malaise. They are not alone.

Jamison notes that Lowell included “For The Union Dead” in a collection of poems selected by poets as their best work. He read it first in June 1960 in Boston Public Garden. The book ends with her account of this poem and its background in Lowell’s ‑ and his country’s ‑ history.

“For The Union Dead” pulls together many strands of Lowell’s thinking and experience: it combines his public voice and poetic conscience with autobiography. Bound in history, it is first and foremost an American poem. It stares into the American character as the eagle gazes into the sun. It is about a nation born in courage and descending into slack and rust. It is about valour and the corruption of valour. It asks which noble acts, which right things done, enter and stay in memory. What remains? What can be preserved? When art memorialises acts of courage and high deeds, can it stand against indifference? Is decay ‑ moral, civic, a “savage servility” ‑ inevitable?

Jamison does not solve the question that has challenged observers since ancient times. What exactly is manic depression? Is it an illness? Or an empowerment? But she does have one important advance to offer in the study of the condition. The experience of elation or depression is for the person who experiences it a traumatic experience, analogous to that of the battlefield. Which is perhaps why Robert Lowell could write so convincingly about violence. And why he and others in that situation should be treated for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Kay Redfield Jamison has given us an excellent work.


Ronan Sheehan, a Dublin writer-solicitor, graduated from University College Dublin in English and Latin in the 1970s.



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