Hopkins Neurosis and Art
Desmond Egan


Hopkins, Neurosis and Art

Desmond Egan, Poet


Edvard Munch: The Scream (Der Schrei der Natur)
‘Madness, frenzy, je ne sais quoi, the sublime, inexplicable, ineffable, unnameable, indefinable, inexpressible, neuter, trace. These are some of the concepts used in Western culture to recognise the obscure movement by means of which literature composes itself into a strangely secret body of language’. (1)

Taking Frias Martins’s comment as a summary of the situation, one must ask the question, Is there a necessary connection between literature and neurosis? (I declare a special interest here, as someone who has been writing full-time since 1987.) A necessary connection, that is; not an accidental one.

Art is created by people who have the usual limitations that flesh is heir to. This truism is often overlooked when the link between art and illness comes up for discussion - hence that opening quotation from Martins as a summary of popular misconceptions in this area. Some artists, writers, poets will be unhealthy in one way or another. Illness is part of life. It is an experience which, like any other, will have an influence on the artist.

True - but there is a difference in kind between work undertaken as therapeutic exercise - by patients, say - and that of someone like Frida Kahlo or Gerard Manley Hopkins. They were sufferers, yes, but being artists they could move beyond individual hurt to some perception of a universal truth.

Hopkins did so in some of his ‘dark sonnets', where the protagonist, driven by anguish, faces the temptation to despair and yet manages to cling onto something,

I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist - slack they may be - these last strands of man
In me or, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome, devouring eyes my bruised bones?

The lines are worthy of Job, battling to understand the problem of human suffering through his own. Because of an intense reaction to things; because of a capacity to feel, understand and express, the creative person can be especially vulnerable. In some respects, an outsider (as Colin Wilson famously explored) trying to achieve that detachment which is necessary to give shape to an experience. It might be expected that a poet, musician, or creative artist, because of such hyper-involvement might be more open to neurosis and eccentricity than the average, extrovert, person. There is plenty of anecdotal and biographical evidence to support such an assumption - and it is true that many great artists have become insane or had severe mental problems - but when Holderlin or Nietzsche or Schumann went mad, their great art was behind them. To posit an essential link betweeen creativity and disease is to go too far. To misunderstand the already mysterious processes of any work of art - and this inevitably leads - as much as the theory that everyone is a poet (but not a plumber) - to a vulgarisation of the concept, artist. Is art only born out of neurosis?

Is art only born out of neurosis? Is the poet or painter some kind of weirdo, a little crazy; a neurotic at best? The answer to these questions is No. Crucially, an artist - I say an artist - must be in control of his/her material/ fantasy/ emotion - whereas the neurotic is controlled by it and is not, therefore, its master. This is the core of the matter. Insisting on this, Charles Lamb in 1826 wrote a piece entitled, ‘On the Sanity of True Genius’ in which he refutes the idea that poetry is some kind of insanity. But the true poet dreams, being awake. He is not possessed by his subject, but has dominion over it... Where he seems to recede most from humanity, he will be found the truest to it.

Is the Poet an Artist a Weirdo, or a Neurotic at Best?

Is the poet or painter some kind of weirdo, a little crazy; a neurotic at best? The answer to these questions is No. Crucially, an artist - I say an artist - must be in control of his/her material/ fantasy/ emotion - whereas the neurotic is controlled by it and is not, therefore, its master. This is the core of the matter. Insisting on this, Charles Lamb in 1826 wrote a piece entitled, ‘On the Sanity of True Genius’ in which he refutes the idea that poetry is some kind of insanity,

But the true poet dreams, being awake. He is not possessed by his subject, but has dominion over it... Where he seems to recede most from humanity, he will be found the truest to it. (2)

More recently, Lionel Trilling, in his groundbreaking study, ‘Art and Neurosis’ makes the same point, Of the artist we must say that

Of the artist we must say that whatever elements of neurosis he has in common with his fellow mortals, the one part of him that is healthy, by any conceivable definition of health, is that which gives him the power to conceive, to plan, to work, and to bring his work to a conclusion. (3)

- and, dismissing the idea that the root of artistic power is neurosis, he goes on to make the telling point that, - if we still want to relate the writer’s power to his neurosis - we must be willing to relate all intellectual power to neurosis. (4) Emphasising the need for control does not mean that we should overlook the fact that the artist may gain some kind of release - as one does from doing anything well. Shakespeare suggests as much, as does his near-contemporary, John Donne quite explicitly, in his poem The Triple Foole,

I thought, if I could draw my paines
Through Rime’s vexation, I should them allay.
Griefe brought to numbers cannot be so fierce,
For, he tames it, that fetters it in verse

Let us not overlook tha verbs, ‘tames ’and ‘fetters’: Donne is emphasising the crucial need for the poet’s ‘taming’ the feeling rather than of being controlled by it. The distinction between art and therapeusis. This, too, is surely why poetry has something salvific to offer not only to the creator but to a suffering world, a world consumed by false values, a world that has lost its way and its nerve. Such relief, however, as Donne himself makes clear, is incidental to the creation, not descriptive of it. At this stage, may I be allowed to refer to a personal situation. Asked by an Amnesty group to which I then belonged, to write a poem on the theme of Peace, I became convinced that at the heart of the world’s search for peace lies the conflict between what is beautiful, in nature as in people, and the neurosis, the real neurosis, of fear, of pride, and of excess,

PEACE by Desmond Egan
Just to go for a walk out the road
just that
under the deep trees
which whisper of peace...

but sweet Christ that
is more than most of mankind can afford
with the globe still plaited in its own
crown of thorns...

too many of us not sure what we want
so that we try to feed a habit for everything
until the ego puppets the militaries
mirror our own warring face
too little peace (5)

Which leads to the question of the therapeutic use of some artistic disciplines such as painting, writing, sculpture.. as healing exercise. Such writing that is caught up in illness of one kind or another may well be valuable as a kenosis, an emptying or getting rid of some mental or physical ailment - but it cannot of itself offer the energetic shaping of an insight, the plerosis, which true art exemplifies.

The root of all neurosis, Norman Mailer once suggested in an interview, is cowardice, that is, an unwillingness or an inability to face up to reality. Therapeutic work may well be of help in this area but it is quite different from artistic creativity. Art is a confrontation, with no holds barred. Van Gogh may or may not have been schizophrenic - but he was also an artist. The same holds for Strindberg, Goya, Dostoievski, Schumann, Kahlo, Poe, Hopkins and many others who, though variously sharing the problems of the schizophrenic or the like, have also managed to create works that continue to enrich humanity.

The distinction is important if we are not to end up in the kind of confusion which leads to balladeer Bob Dylan’s receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, continuing a trend towards populism, while important literature goes unrecognised. As the editors of The Partisan Review put it,

... in a culture dominated by the media...the result is intellectual chaos - a cacophony of contra dictory opinions spreading all over the political and ideological map... What has been lost, then, is the power to discriminate...It is the less gifted writers and the trendy movements that give the appearance of an unbounded freedom of self-expression - and no common denominator except an enormous capacity for self-indulgence.(6)
‘The power to discriminate’ - this is the heart of the matter

Any discussion about art and the artist must begin from such discrimination, based on a recognition of the basic gift of an artist: the ability, no matter what his/her personal human problems are, to shape experience. And whether this happens in tranquillity, as Wordsworth suggested, or not, a work of art will always carry its own peculiar tranquillity, that calm implicit in the technical and emotional mastery necessary to objectify some aspect of the mystery of life. We do not deny the carpenter or electrician his craft; we must not deny the artist his/her peculiar gift. Nor the fearlessness, either, involved in its expression. The artist in his creativeness is not afraid. Therapeusis for those who are unwell may be helpful and even necessary but we only create confusion by making false claims for it, confounding its productions with something completely different. Part of the problem in distinguishing the valuable from the superficial in art nowadays lies in just such confusion, giving us journalist-novelists and professor-poets. Galway poet Padraic Fallon, decrying such anti-art, says that we are the worse for it, because,Feeling has been filched from us under false pretences, and a gate closed. (7) - false pretences leading, in Milton’s summary in Lycidas, to the tragic situation in which, The hungry sheep look up and are not fed .


The fearlessness of the artist, his/her willingness to pierce through the temporary, the death-bound, so as to arrive at something of permanent truth, is important in confronting the disease of fear. That must be why genuine Art is so therapeutic, and why mankind has always had its art and its artists. Lionel Trilling even affirms that, Poetry is indigenous to the very constitution of the mind.(8)

I do not say that art finds its essential definition as a therapy; I do, however, believe that Art may be a kind of medicine, since it and only it can offer the katharsis of pity and terror of which Aristotle speaks in his Poetics (9): that peculiar feeling of enlargement as humans which we experience even in viewing a tragic drama; that release which comes from the expression of some emotionally charged insight. And therefore with the control of emotion. Everyone has strong feelings but very few are artists; the newspaper theory that ‘we are all poets’ is a laughable misunderstanding of what is involved. What Aristotle has to say about dramatic tragedy is relevant to all of the arts. Through our vicarious encounter with some profound issue; through the creator’s battle to understand and to express it and, in so doing, to discover something permanent in the face of all that is passing, we can gain a deeper insight into life, a greater compassion, and even, perhaps, a greater strength in facing up to death itself. As John Donne puts it in Death, BeNot Proud,

One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

In one way or another, art encapsulates some kind of awakening. The world has plenty of physically or mentally sick people - but there are very few poets. If poetry is merely the outcome of disease, how can one explain this? How explain, for example, what Matisse said of Renoir in old age, after arthritis had caught hold of his fingers, gone so swollen and distorted that he had to tie the brush to his hand,

While his body wasted away, his soul seemed to gain strength and he expressed himself with increasing
ease. (10)
Such an act demands great psychic energy and the commitment of someone who, by refining his/her talent, has achieved a personal style adequate to, snatch out of time the passionate transitory (11)

The artist, in personal life, may be diseased, neurotic, even a little crazy - but in art he/she is healthy, full of psychic energy because all genuine art is an affirmation; optimistic at heart. In fact, it is the opposite of sickness or madness, although the intense demands it makes can at times drive a hyper-sensitive person towards the edge. The artist is more vulnerable, never ‘quite fully at home’, as Rilke puts it (12), in the hurly burly of everyday living. Easily misunderstood, an outsider, to one degree or another; never wholly fitting-in. For that reason, often considered eccentric, a weirdo, slightly mad.

But in the moment of creation, no one is more sane, more wholly attuned to reality. Nor will there be any dependence on the approbation of an audience. Here we have the difference between a creative person and a dilettante. The history of Literature is littered with the stories of those who died unknown, under-appreciated, rejected by the outside world and often poverty-stricken - Hopkins, Kavanagh, McKenna, Pessoa, Mangan, Kafka... but who nevertheless persisted in their work, sustained by a belief in it and by the thrill of making it. Ars gratia artis: achievement is not defined by acceptance; on the contrary, what fires the writer is, as Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it in the last poem he wrote, The fine delight that fathers thought... The roll, the rise, the carol, the creation (13)

If we take the case of Hopkins himself, it is possible to draw together all that we have already been suggesting. Much emphasis has been given - disproportionately so - to the sickly melancholy of Hopkins during his last five and a half years in Ireland. Those who take such an approach choose to see his ‘terrible’ sonnets as purely autobiographical. In doing this, they make a common academic mistake.

There is always a distance between the protagonist in any writing and its creator: ‘I’ is never ‘just I’. Parallel to that, the strange integrity of an artistic theme, its amalgam of memory, imagination, thought, feeling - that mysterious core of a poem - ought not be treated as somehow akin to a journalistic record of personal experience. So, to see, for example, Hopkins’s version of Job’s lament, Thou Art Indeed Just, Lord, as an autographical outpouring of near-despair is to miss the point. The poem’s amazing energy, its virtuosity of language, its mastery of all the resources of poetry... these are expressions of vitality rather than of sickness; of belief, rather than of despair.

All Art is dedicated to Joy
(‘Alle Kunst ist der Freude gewidmet) - Schiller

Schiller remarks that, ‘All art is dedicated to joy’ ‘Alle Kunst ist der Freude gewidmet’(14) and Nietzsche - who admired Schiller’s poem - offers a similar insight, maintaining that there is no such thing as pessimistic art, since all art is an affirmation of belief in life. To create a poem that is a poem takes enormous psychic energy. Those who harp on Hopkins’s sickness during those last Dublin years mostly overlook that fact. Nor can they offer any explanation for the magnificently affirmative sonnet, That Nature Is A Heraclitean Fire (And Of The Comfort Of The Resurrection), written a year before he died. It concludes with the powerful assertion that, ... this Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.

A similar claim can be made even for his ‘sonnets of desolation’ (as W.H. Gardner labelled them), all which he wrote in Dublin. As someone who struggles every day with words, I know how Hopkins felt after the outpouring of doubt and grief and almost (but not quite) despair that each of these wonderful poems embodies: he felt great! These 'dark sonnets' should be called ‘sonnets of hope’. For a start, not a single one declines into hopelessness. They are full of energy, itself a kind of belief. They also exemplify the flowering of his poetic genius in a crowning virtuosity of technique, despite the extremes of depression that Hopkins explores and catches in them. Take, at random, a few of the ‘darkest’, most anguished lines from one of these sonnets,

No Worst, There Is None,
No Worst, There Is None,
O the mind, mind has mountains.Cliffs of fall
Frightful. Sheer. No man fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who never felt their steep or deep.

Technically, this writing is exciting, fresh, inventive. One is struck by the force of that repeated word ‘mind’; by the compound adjective, ‘no-man-fathomed’ - a neologism and wonderfully evocative; by the assonantal ring of ‘steep’/ ‘deep’; by the imagery itself with its ‘cliffs of fall’: a highly suggestive metaphor and one which he develops with an inventiveness worthy of Shakespeare .... Such mastery of the capacities of language is what helps to make possible this sonnet’s unflinching look at human suffering. Harrowing though the poem is, it is energised by a belief in language itself and in the sacred function of poetry, which is to catch life in all of its aspects. The poem is charged with vigour, with a refusal to give up in the face of extreme anguish. With hope,
Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.

Not very cheering, perhaps, but Hopkins does look-for and find some kind of ‘comfort’ (this for a third time in the poem); and gives it weight at the finish. No more than that. No tagged-on resolution or easy way out; no superficial formula - and yet, some kind of affirmation, beginning with the vitality of the very language itself. This writing is a long way from being the product of mere neurosis. We need such poetry because it manages to catch in a few words the experience of struggling along in dark times while refusing to cave-in. This is a hope sonnet, hope not least in poetry itself and in its resources, including those of rhythm, musicality, metaphorical reach. And hope, fundamentally, in the Word - for a Christian, the Lord of language and of creativity. The poem includes a cry to The Holy Spirit as’Comforter’ and to Mary, as ‘mother of us’. It finishes on a note of patience. St. Ignatius in his Spiritual Exercises advises,

Let him who is in desolation strive to remain in patience, which is the virtue contrary to the troubles which harass him (15).

It is interesting that Hopkins wrote Patience, Hard Thing, (1918) in the spring of the following year. In his last poem, To R.B., written to Robert Bridges in April 1889, Hopkins acknowledges the energy necessary to write,

... with aim
Now known and hand at work now never wrong.
Sweet fire the sire of muse, my soul needs this...

My aim here is to defend for Poetry the psychic wellbeing which it demands; to acknowledge that it takes shape in spite of, not because of, whatever limitation or illness the creator may be enduring. Or may not. Magnificently, art springs from vitality, not from illness. Philip Sandblom, in his study, ‘Creativity and Disease’ reaches the same conclusion (16), In great artists, the passion to create generates a willpower strong enough to defy the worst disease. If we need art and its affirmative power, what are we to make of the position of the arts in to-day’s world? An article in the Swiss journal, Passages, asks the question, Is the allegedly art-loving public staying away from artistic events in droves? (17)

The answer, as anyone involved in the arts would agree, would seem, alas, to be Yes. Classical concerts are, for the most part, poorly supported; poetry books generally do not sell; ballet and theatre companies struggle for subsidies to survive; the short story is, for all practical purposes, dead; the novel has been too often replaced by,shallow, journalistic, ‘lit’. The main book reviewer for The Sunday Times publishes a volume arguing that there are no criteria for art and that, therefore, the popular taste is decisive. This from a professional book critic, who passes judgment every week. Another reviewer in The Irish Times, asked to choose her books of the year (2011) chose 40 titles! The closing ceremony for the London Olympics might have been a showcase for the great heritage of English culture, but turned into one more Pop concert,

The beating down of the wise
And great art beaten down. (18)

But surely if culture encapsulates and defends the truth of things with insight, and sanity and if ‘The truth shall set you free’ (19) then the statement by the distinguished Portuguese author Frias Martins that,

Contemporary culture has displaced Literature from its centre , preferring more immediate pleasures such as (pop) music, video clips, cinema, multimedia performances etc. (20) is symptomatic of some kind of ‘anti-literary apocalypse’ expressive of a global neurosis, that ‘sickness in being’ of which Gabriel Marcel has spoken and written. What would Thoreau, who mourned that even, A perfectly healthy sentence, it is true, is extremely rare. For the most part, we miss the hue and fragrance of the thought. (22) as long ago as in 1841, make of the present situation?

A world without cultural values tends to be one in which real culture is not valued: yes, a neurotic world, one more in need than ever of the healing and wholeness which great art can offer - and which Hopkins’s poetry does.


(1) Manuel Frias Martins, Em Theoria/ In Theory, 2003, Ambar, Lisbon; p.193

(2) Charles Lamb, in New Monthly Magazine, May 1826

(3) Lionel Trilling, Art and Neurosis, USA, 1949, p. 179

(4) Trilling, op. cit. p. 171f.

(5) Desmond Egan, Elegies, Goldsmith, Kildare, 1996

(6) Edith Kurtzweil, William Phillips, editors, Writers and Politics, A Partisan Review Reader, Routledge and Kegan Paul, Boston, 1983, Introduction, p. 6

(7) Padraic Fallon A Poet’s Journal, ed. Brian Fallon, Lilliput, Dublin 2005 p.58

(8) Trilling, op.cit. p.52 (9) Aristotle, Poetics, 6, 1449 b.

(10) Quoted in Sandblom, Creativity and Disease, Marion Boyars, London 1992; p.IV

(11) Patrick Kavanagh, The Hospital, in The Complete Poems, Goldsmith, Kildare, 1984

(12) Rilke, The Duino Elegies, no.1, Selected Poems tr. Leishman, Penguin, London, 1964

(13) Gerard Manley Hopkins, To R.B. , The Poetical Works, ed Mackenzie, Oxford, 1990

(14) Schiller, An Die Freude, 1785, famously used by Beethoven in the last movement of his 9th Symphony

(15) Quoted in Mackenzie, The Poetical Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins, OUP, Oxford, 1992; p.460

(16) Sandblom, op.cit.; p. 200 (17) Pro Helvetia, Passages, 51, vol. 3, Zurich, 2009

(18) W.B. Yeats, The Fisherman (19) John 8:31-32: ‘So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

(21) Martins, op. cit. p. 238 (22) Henry David Thoreau, Journal, Jan 10, 1841

Read other Lectures by Desmond Egan at the Hopkins Festival

As Kingfishers Catch Fire - and Analysis (2004)
Hopeful Hopkins (2008)
Hopkins and Hiberno English (2012)

Desmond Egan, poet, is a Founder and Artistic Director of The Gerard Manley Hopkins Festival since 1987