Everyone agrees that Hopkins was not a carefree soul. More than most, he fretted and brooded. Off and on, he feel prey to melancholy and anomie. Sometimes—as during his years in Dublin—matters came to a head. Happily for us, Hopkins extracted immortal diamonds from this emotional ore—his so-called “terrible sonnets”. Unhappily for Hopkins, he had to do all the mining.
Enter the clinical psychologist. Hopkins, he avers, was suffering from depression. This, science tells us, is a well-defined mental disorder. It is characterized by the persistence of some critical combination of following symptoms: gloom, guilt, shame, and self-hatred; indecisiveness, irritability, pessimism, and rumination; fatigue, apathy, insomnia, and ahedonia; difficulty concentrating, psychomotor retardation, intermittentlachrymation, suicidal ideation; and—“no worse, there is no none”—low sex drive. As regards its causes, depression is product of inborn vulnerabilities, mediated by multiple genes, interacting with environmental stressors, like failure and loss. Some progress has been made towards identifying its biological basis. It’s no longer—as the Roman physician Galen believed—an excess of black bile, releasing noxious vapours. Instead, it’s serotonin-releasing neurons, too lazy to fire properly. Accordingly, standard therapy now consists, not only of trying to cheer people up, but also of giving their idle neurons a chemical prod. Equipped with such profound modern insights, it would surely be remiss not to interpret the life and work of Hopkins in light of them.
For example, when Hopkins awakens “to feel the fell of dark, not day”, have his sleep patterns not been disrupted, and his circadian rhythms unsprung? When he complains, “Why must disappointment all I endeavour end”, is he not being just a tad negativistic? And when he fixates on gastric sensations—“I am gall. I am heartburn”—has not lapsed into unhealthy self-absorption?
In Hopkins’s biography, moreover, key triggers of depression are apparent. These include insecure attachment, a lack of social support, and learned helplessness. Did Hopkins not sometimes long to make a deeper connection with others, lamenting “dead letters sent to dearest him that lives—alas!—away”? Did he not fail to integrate socially with his Jesuit peers, leading a lonely life “at a third remove”? And, burdened by his heavy teaching duties, was he not frustrated by his perceived failure to even “breed one work that wakes”?
So theory and research on depression can enrich interpretations of Hopkins’s life and work—and perhaps in ways more telling than those I have just described. In particular, they can enable scholars to make plausible and informed connections that they might otherwise miss. Nonetheless, when one applies clinical psychology in this way, it’s important to appreciate its pitfalls too.
Consider the controversy over what exactly ailed Hopkins. Was it major depression, a clinical condition? Or was it something milder, like dysthymia? There are actually two issues to decide here, one substantial, the other definitional.
The substantial issue pertains to the actual severity of the depressive symptoms that Hopkins experienced. Some commentators, like biographers Norman White and Robert Martin, interpret Hopkins’s depression as engulfing and disabling. Others, like Desmond Egan and myself, interpret it as troublesome but manageable. It’s a valid debate. The difficulty in resolving it arises in part because the sample of historical evidence open to commentators is necessarily scant and potentially unrepresentative. This creates ambiguity, and the more ambiguity there is, the greater the potential for reading meanings into Hopkins’s life and work rather than reading meanings out of it.
In this regard, the history of clinical psychology furnishes a salutary lesson. Freudian psychoanalysis—that sprawling body of thought and therapy—was once all the rage. Childhood was destiny, repression caused neurosis, and sex explained everything. The relevant “evidence” consisted solely of symbolic interpretations made by self-styled experts. We now know — thanks to subsequent scientific research and critical historical investigation—that Freudian psychoanalysis is 99% hogwash. All those symbolic interpretations—authoritatively made and respectfully believed—were delusional. Be warned: if it can happen to thousands of clinical psychologists, it can happen to Hopkins scholars too.
Let us now turn to the definitional issue. This pertains to identifying the boundary between major depression and dysthymia. Crucially, this boundary is not discovered: rather it is declared. To understand this, consider first how two physical ailments of differing severity—colds and ’flus—are distinguished. Colds are not ‘flus: you either have one, or you have the other. The symptoms differ, but a doctor can also check for biological signs—such as viral antibodies—that definitively tell the two ailments apart. But when it comes to distinguishing major depression from dysthymia, there are no underlying signs: they are only apparent symptoms. Moreover, the severity of depressive symptoms varies continuously from person to person, meaning there are no natural gaps, including none between major depression and dysthymia. Hence, any boundary between them must have been put there: it’s not out there in the world to begin with. Accordingly, the question of what ailed Hopkins—major depression or dysthymia—is as much a matter of definition as it is of diagnosis.
But surely, you say, clinical psychologists, with their years of practical experience, must know best where to draw boundaries. Well, less than you might expect. For example, studies show that, even when diagnosing major disorders using identical checklists, “experts” disagree surprisingly often. Indeed, diagnoses of depression are among the most divisive. So ask yourself this: if “experts” disagree, and there is no physical court of appeal, can a clinical diagnosis ever really be right or wrong? Isn’t it just a case of majority rule?
Clinical psychologists sometimes retort that their diagnostic difficulties stem from the complication of co-morbidity—that is, people presenting with more than one disorder at the same time. But this is an evasive gambit. The truth is that mental disorders are inherently fuzzy: they do not merely overlap. People mix and match symptoms in ways that confound neat characterization. True, there is usually a basic theme to people’s symptoms; but each person adds their own set of variations. Because of all this inherent fuzziness, there is always more than one defensible way of classifying clusters of symptoms. Hence, the question of even whether Hopkins had depression, and not something else, is partly a matter of definition too.
It gets worse: value judgments contaminate clinical judgments. For example, is homosexuality a disorder? Well, not since 1974 apparently, when a panel of “experts” removed it from that bible of mental pathology, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. And just last year, narcissism—a well-established personality disorder—nearly shared the same fate. Only a last-minute backlash from clinical psychologists kept it in—perhaps they feared losing business. So, is depression bad enough to be a definitely dubbed a disorder? Well, the answer is not clear-cut. No lesser an authority than Aristotle considered depression to be the source of artistic genius. And Robert Burton—whose book The Anatomy of Melancholy was Renaissance best-seller—regarded depression as a sweet meditative mood that had an unfortunate tendency to get out of hand. But let’s return to Hopkins during his Dublin years. Was he down in the dumps, and a candidate for Prozac? Or was his going through a Dark Night of the Soul, and a candidate for sanctity? I don’t know the answer. But I suspect clinical psychologists—lacking expertise in moral theology—don’t know it either. One thing’s for sure: in figuring out exactly what ailed Hopkins, we may have to stray beyond the realm of positive science.
I have dwelt on Hopkins’s depression a lot—and unduly so. Which brings me to my final point: depression was but one facet of Hopkins’s life and work, to be understood in the context of many other facets. Aristotle was partly right that artists are depressive—studies confirm a statistical correlation—but we must be careful not to caricature them. So suppose we wished to give a rounded and unbiased psychological portrait of Hopkins. How might we go about it?
Well, one way would be to characterize him in terms of several basic personality traits. But how can we identify these? As follows: if they are basic, they should matter in everyday life; and if they matter in everyday life, they should enter public discourse. Accordingly, the statistical analysis of adjectives habitually used to describe people should reveal those basic traits. And reveal them it does: the same handful of traits reliably emerges across different languages and cultures. In terms of two of these, Hopkins’s indeed fits the stereotype of the brooding artist: he was, relative to the average person, somewhat lower in extraversion (i.e., he was less talkative, assertive, and gregarious) and also somewhat lower in emotional stability (i.e., he was less buoyant, placid, and equable). But four traits still remain. In my estimation, Hopkins was also higher in openness to experience (i.e., he was more curious, creative, and imaginative), higher in conscientiousness (i.e., he was more self-disciplined, dutiful, and organized), higher in agreeableness (i.e., he was more friendly, considerate, and sympathetic), and higher in honesty-humility (i.e., he was more sincere, faithful, and unassuming), relative to the average person. This latter quartet of traits should not be neglected in interpreting his life and work: they are arguably just as relevant as the former pair.
As for his “terrible sonnets”, Hopkins’s depression hardly suffices to explain them. Depressive illness is frequent—the “common cold” of mental disorder—whereas superlative poetry is rare. Depression therefore explains Hopkins’s “terrible sonnets” only in so far as gravity explains plane crashes. It’s a necessary condition for their occurrence, but hardly a sufficient one, and definitely not the one of greatest interest. Consider: even Hopkins’s bare commitment to documenting his depression in exacting sonnet form testifies to his attempts to resist it. Moreover, each sonnet recounts a dogged search for meaning as much as it expresses a heartfelt cri de coeur. The tone recalls the counterpoint of Bach as much as the melodrama of Tchaikovsky. For me, the keynote of Hopkins’s “terrible sonnets” is resolute will, animated by faith, not wayward emotion, born of dysfunction. In terms of basic personality traits, I would say that Hopkins’s exceptional conscientiousness and honesty-humility shine through more than his impaired emotional stability.
In conclusion: when trying to understand Hopkins’s life and work, listen to what clinical psychologists have to say. But take care to recognize the pitfalls of diagnosing mental disorders, and to appreciate the validity of wider perspectives.