Madness, Poetry, and Choosing Not to Die

Robert Lowell wrote those two lines in his poem “Night Sweats.” It’s one of my faves (the full poem is below). It’s a love poem, about a man who suffers mental illness, and his wife, who keeps him alive.

Robert Lowell
Robert Lowell

It’s a brutal poem. Lowell suffered from manic depression. These days, people say “manic depression,” and most people think. . .well, I’m not sure what they think; some don’t want to think on it at all.

It’s not “manic depression” or “bipolar,” two spineless, milk-toast terms that try to soften a most horrendous disease, in these days when we soften so as not to offend. We are so, so sensitive. We lack backbone.

Madness. That’s the word. Come to my house when I’m having an attack. Look at me, then look at the faces of my loved ones. Think of the clearest image you can of a man who’s gone insane. Then put yourself in the room with him. And stay there.

This poem, “Night Sweats,” holds, for me, familiar images. I’ve had to make trips to the psyche ward. Also, the love: when the speaker sees his wife come through the door, he lifts, just slightly, from the insanity. He loves her; and he knows the hell he’s putting her through. I love Michelle, my wife, who has been through the same Inferno.

So, I “relate” to the poem. But, that’s not the only reason I like it—I like it because it’s beautiful. Art. Literature. I soak myself in poems and great prose, because art, so many times in my life, has saved me from the madness, even if for only brief moments; moments in which I can build again, to haul myself out of the ocean of shattered glass that is mental illness.

But, those two lines—oh those two lines. Always inside me is the child who died.

I’ve read a couple of bios on Lowell. He started showing signs of the illness early on, in childhood. That’s bad; mine didn’t kick in until seventeen (which is a “traditional” time for it to begin). He had a rough go with his parents, a cold mother, a father who was more of a haze. Lowell didn’t suffer physical or sexual abuse as a child. And yet, he was able to write those two lines.

Now, that’s my interpretation—the lines feel an awful lot like childhood abuse. I bet other survivors of horrible childhoods have seen something similar in those words.

They shook me, to my bones. And yet, I didn’t hurt myself, didn’t start cutting or thinking about taking my Harley over a ravine. I sobbed, for a long time. Not just with the surge of an unearthed emotion, but with the beauty of the lines themselves. Look at them. Read them deeply. If your childhood was cousin to mine, you’ll know it; and if you had a childhood relatively freed up from the violence of others, well, at least you’ve got the opportunity to come to a deeper understanding of someone else’s suffering.

So, what does it mean when a poet writes a poem with those two lines in it, yet did not suffer what I find in his lines? It means he was brilliant. Fucking brilliant.


“Night Sweat” by Robert Lowell

Work table, litter, books and standing lamp,

Plain things, my stalled equipment, the old broom–

But I am living in a tidied room,

for ten nights now I’ve felt the creeping damp

float over my pajamas’ wilted white. . .

Sweet salt embalms me and my head is wet,

everything streams and tells me this is right;

my life’s fever is soaking in night sweat–

one life, one writing! But the downward glide

and bias of existing wrings us dry–

always inside me is the child who died,

always inside me is his will to die–

one universe, one body. . .in this urn

the animal night sweats of the spirit burn


Behind me! You! Again I feel the light

lighten my leaded eyelids, while the gray

skulled horses whinny for the soot of night.

I dabble in the dapple of the day,

a heap of wet clothes, seamy, shivering,

I see my flesh and bedding washed with light,

my child exploding into dynamite,

my wife. . .your lightness alters everything,

and tears the black web from the spider’s sack,

as your heart hops and flutters like a hare.

Poor turtle, tortoise, if I cannot clear

the surface of these troubled waters here,

absolve me, help me, Dear Heart, as you bear

this world’s dead weight and cycle on your back.





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