Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire

Jamison, Kay Redfield

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Biography

Annotated by:
Glass, Guy
  • Date of entry: Jun-14-2017


Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire is “a study of genius, mania, and character” of American poet Robert Lowell (1917-1977).  It is meant to be neither an autobiography nor a critical study of Lowell’s literary output, but a study of an artist and his lifelong battle with Bipolar I Disorder, and an appreciation of how his art and illness were inseparably linked. The author, Kay Redfield Jamison, is a distinguished psychologist who has been quite open about her own struggles with the same disease, and whose lifework consists of exploring the link between Bipolar Disorder and creativity.     

Eschewing a purely chronological approach, Jamison divides her work into sections entitled “Origins,” “Illness,” “Character,” “Illness and Art,” and “Mortality.” In the first, she traces the history of mental illness within the poet’s illustrious Boston family.  We learn that Lowell’s great-great-grandmother was institutionalized at McLean Asylum for the Insane, which was to be the site of several of the poet’s own hospitalizations.  “Illness” is a clinical case study in prodromal childhood symptoms that progress to full-blown manic episodes. We follow the progress made by 20th century psychiatry from psychotherapy and ECT to Thorazine, and, finally, with the introduction of Lithium, to the possibility of prophylaxis against recurrences.
Later, in “Illness and Art,” Jamison brings her thoughts about creativity and art to full fruition by discussing what her research reveals about writers and artists.    

Appendices include diagnostic criteria for Bipolar Disorder, and an explanation of how Lowell’s psychiatric and medical records were made available by his daughter for the benefit of this volume.  


Robert Lowell left a trail of emotional devastation in the wake of his manic episodes.  He did bad things to people when he was not manic as well, notoriously making the decision to incorporate portions of personal letters into a book of poems.  This caused tremendous pain to his ex-wife and unleashed a torrent of criticism.  Jamison depicts an admirable character here whose strength of character enables him to triumph over mental illness and create masterpieces.  On the other hand, as Lowell was at his most prolific and inspired when hypomanic  (as he said, “I write in mania and revise in depression.” p. 300), secondary gain was achieved from being ill.  In recognition of his genius, people looked the other way at behaviors that would not have been tolerated from anyone else.  An earlier biography made Lowell into a monster and did much to tarnish his reputation. One might make a case for saying that Jamison is so enamored of her subject that she errs in the opposite direction. The truth surely lies somewhere in the middle.   

Quibbles aside, Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire is a substantial, impressive book.  It can be recommended not only to those who enjoy poetry or the work of Robert Lowell, but to anyone who wants to learn about the relationship between art and mental illness from one of the top experts in the field. 


In a memoir, An Unquiet Mind (1995), Jamison discusses her Bipolar diagnosis.  Both this and Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament (1994) are the subject of previous Database annotations.

Robert Lowell’s essay “Near the Unbalanced Aquarium” is a first-person account of a manic episode and hospitalization.  The narrator’s loose associations give a sense of the author’s thought process.  This essay is found in Robert Lowell: Collected Prose (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, New York, 1990).


Alfred A. Knopf

Place Published

New York



Page Count