Popular Science Monthly/Volume 42/January 1893/Genius and Suicide
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Genius and Suicide
By Charles W. Pilgrim
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WINSLOW, in his Anatomy of Suicide, says, "A person who accustoms himself to live in a world created by his own fancy, who surrounds himself with flimsy idealities, will, in the course of time, cease to sympathize with the gross realities of life," and any one who will take the trouble to read the biographies of men of genius will see that this statement is borne out to a remarkable degree. Probably the most striking example of this doctrine, as well as the most pathetic instance of suicide in the annals of literature, is found in the records of Chatterton's short life. From the beginning shadows hovered over him. He was the posthumous child of a poor widow, whose dead husband had been a rough, drunken fellow, and a singer and subchanter in the cathedral choir of Bristol. The mother supported herself by dressmaking in one of the back streets of the old town, and the boy was only able to gain the rudiments of an education in a charity school. His biographer tells us that he was of a peculiar temper, sullen and silent, and given to sudden fits of weeping or violent rage. When only ten years of age he began to write verses, and although he was too shy and diffident to make a confidant of any one, his secret soon became known among the little blue-coats of Colston's Charity School. His uncle, Richard Phillips, was the sexton of the church of St. Mary Redcliffe, in Bristol, one of the most beautiful specimens of parochial church architecture in all England, and many of this strange boy's days were passed studying the inscriptions on the altar tombs and in poring over the forgotten parchment deeds which had lain for years unheeded in the oaken chests in the old muniment-room above the porch. So much of his time was spent in solitude, and he seemed to have so few of the characteristics of children, that many regarded him as weak in intellect. But even then he was thirsting for fame, and while only a child was wont to say that a man might do anything he chose. It was the accidental discovery of the old parchment deeds in the parish church that led this child of genius to perpetrate the Rowley forgeries, and to claim that these products of his own imagination had lain in the old chest for more than three centuries. Failing to obtain the patronage of Sir Horace Walpole, he determined to seek his fortune in London, and in order to obtain his release from Lambert, an attorney into whose employ he had been bound, he sat down on Easter eve, April 17, 1770, and penned his Last Will and Testament, in which he intimated his intention of committing suicide. Among his satirical bequests he leaves his "humility" to the Rev. Mr. Camplin, his "religion" to Dean Barton, and his "spirit and disinterestedness" to Bristol. This strange document had the desired effect, and Lambert canceled his indentures. So, with a light heart, a lighter purse, and a bundle of valuable manuscript under his arm, he set out, at the age of seventeen, to gain fortune and fame as a man of letters in the great metropolis. His afterlife is well known. Nothing but disaster followed. He lacked the simplest necessities of life, but even when starving wrote cheerful words and sent small gifts to the mother and sister left behind. Failure met him at every hand, and by degrees he sank lower and lower into the depths of despair, until finally, with his last penny, he purchased sufficient arsenic to end his unhappy life. He was found on his cot of straw with torn manuscript all about him. Thus ended the brief, strange life of the "fatemarked babe who perished in his pride."
Another example of Winslow's doctrine is Hugh Miller, the self-taught genius, who was born at Cromarty, in the north of Scotland, on the 10th of October, 1802. Like Chatterton, he had little patience with the schools. He would play truant in order to enjoy a book in freedom on the hill or by the sea, and his old schoolmaster feared that he would become a dunce. Curious to state, when it became necessary for him to decide upon a trade, he chose that of stone-mason so that he might be unemployed in the winter frosts, and thus have opportunity to read and write.
For fifteen years he worked in the quarry during the pleasant days of summer, and spent the hours of winter prosecuting the object of his ambition—the writing of good English. His clear, choice diction caused the Edinburgh Review to ask, "Where could this man have acquired his style?" little thinking that the greater part of his life had been spent in the quarry and hewing-shed.
His work attracted so much attention that in 1840 he was called to the editorial chair of The Witness, a semi-weekly paper published in Edinburgh for the purpose of securing spiritual independence. Unremitting labor resulted, and the night following the completion of his greatest work, The Testimony of the Rocks, he yielded to the strain to which his overworked brain had been subjected and sent a bullet through his heart.
Another similar case is that of Robert Tannahill, a Paisley weaver, who was one of the most popular successors of Burns in song-writing. He was born in 1774, apprenticed to his father's trade when twelve years of age, and composed his songs as his shuttle went to and fro. He apparently had a single love affair, which occasioned the composition of the popular song, "Jessie, the Flower of Dunblane." He was shy, sensitive, and awkward, and therefore uncomfortable except in the presence of his humble friends. His monotonous existence was broken only by occasional trips to Glasgow, and the one memorable day in all his life was when James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, paid him a visit. The meeting was prolonged into the night, and the parting was painful and pathetic. Tannahill, grasping the hand of his poet-brother, said, while tears suffused his eyes: "Farewell! We shall never meet again." His words were prophetic, for shortly afterward his body was found stark and stiff in a pool near his house.
To come down to more recent times, we have but to recall the melancholy end of Richard Realf, an English peasant, born in Framfield, Sussex County, June 14, 1834. I can not better give the story of his life than by quoting freely from a letter written to Rossiter Johnson in 1875, who was at work upon a short biography of the poet for the Little Classic Series. In this letter he says: "I never received any education in my boyhood, except for a year or two at the little village school. We were a large family and very poor, and I went to work in the fields at a very tender age." At fifteen, or thereabouts, he states that he began to write verse, "lisping in numbers, for the numbers came." When sixteen he went to visit his sister, who was a servant in the family of a physician at Brighton, and the wife of the doctor, who was a lady of literary tastes, manifested an interest in him and made him her amanuensis. A physician, who lectured on phrenology, shortly afterward became a guest of his benefactress, and learning of the young poet's ventures made use of some of them in one of his lectures to illustrate the organ of ideality. Among the listeners was Lady Byron. She with Rogers, Mrs. Jameson, and Lady Jane Pell, determined upon publishing a collection of his verses, and did so in 1852, under the title of Guesses at the Beautiful. He soon realized that he was in danger of being spoiled by condescending patronage and praise, and therefore wrote to Lady Byron, who was then at her country residence in Surrey, begging her to get him away from surroundings which might make him forget the honest peasant parentage from which he sprang. She at once made arrangements for him to go down to Leicestershire to her nephew, Mr. Noel, manager of one of her estates, where he would have opportunity to study the science of agriculture as well as to prosecute his literary purposes. Like all men of poetic temperament, he had the fatal faculty of falling in love, and an attachment soon sprang up between himself and the eldest daughter of Mr. Noel. Realizing that there was a gulf between them which could never be bridged, he determined to come to America. Reaching New York in 1854, he began to explore the slums for the purpose of writing sketches, but instead became a sort of Five Points missionary. He kept at this work for two years, and then in 1856 conducted a large number of Free State emigrants to Kansas. He became intimate with John Brown, was with him at Harper's Ferry, and narrowly escaped lynching. He enlisted in 1862 and served through the war with credit, rising by promotions to the rank of captain. The next step in his history has a local interest for us who live in the western part of New York, for in the autumn of 1867 we hear of him in Rochester writing a series of remarkable poems for the Rochester Union. It was there that Rossiter Johnson, who was then assistant editor of the Democrat and Chronicle, became interested in him, and it was also there that he contracted the unfortunate marriage which darkened his life and ultimately brought it to an end. Johnson, who has written fully of this episode, tries to excuse him by saying that the woman had nursed him through a critical illness, and that his gratitude made him believe that he could find peace and contentment where an ordinary man would have known that nothing but disappointment and unhappiness would follow. Realf himself said that he thought his mind was obscured at the time. After some years of misery he procured a divorce and remarried. Happiness seemed to be near again, but after two years, upon some technical grounds, the Superior Court reversed the decision of the lower court and declared his divorce illegal. Misfortunes then began to fall thick and fast. His second wife and children, for he had become the father of triplets, grew ill. Additional heavy drains were made upon his purse by a widowed sister and a paralytic brother, and to add to his cup of bitterness his first wife followed him to California and insisted upon claiming support. At last, bowed down and broken by misfortune, worry, and overwork, he ended with laudanum his eventful and unhappy life in the autumn of 1878. He made two attempts before success resulted, and between them composed the poem beginning "De mortuis nil nisi bonum," thus reminding us of Marcus Lucanus, "the eminent Roman poet of the silver age," who repeated lines from his poems descriptive of death as his lifeblood ebbed away.
If we were to look carefully into the histories of the lives of men of genius, we should find many names to add to the number already mentioned, and still more to swell the list of those who had attempted the deed without meeting with success.
Haydon, the celebrated historical painter and writer, overcome by debt, disappointment, and ingratitude, laid down the brush with which he was at work upon his last great effort, Alfred and the Trial by Jury, wrote with a steady hand "Stretch me no longer upon this rough world," and then with a pistol-shot put an end to his unhappy existence.
Richard Payne Knight, the poet, Greek scholar, and antiquary, was a victim of melancholia, and finally destroyed himself with poison.
Burton, the vivacious author of The Anatomy of Melancholy, who had the reputation of being able to raise laughter in any company, however "mute and mopish," was in reality constitutionally depressed, and it is believed that he was at last so overcome by his malady that he ended his life in a fit of melancholy.
Kleist, poet and dramatist, brooded over suicide, attempted it once unsuccessfully, and finally, by agreement with Henriette Vogel, who believed herself affected with an incurable disease, repaired to a small inn near Potsdam, where they ended their lives together.
Lessmann, the humorous writer, like Burton, put an end to himself in a fit of melancholy.
Sir Samuel Romilly, a man of brilliant genius, by whose efforts the criminal laws of England were remodeled—a man loved for his sweet nature and upright manliness—while overcome by grief at the death of his wife, with his own hand sought rest beyond.
Michael Angelo, after receiving a painful injury to his leg by falling from a scaffold while at work upon The Last Judgment, became so melancholy that he shut himself in his room, refused to see any one, and "resolved to let himself die." Fortunately, his intentions were frustrated by the celebrated physician Bacio Rontini, who learned by accident of his condition.
Vittoria Alfieri, of whom it has been said that every event in his life is either a factor of disease or a symptom of mental alienation, attempted suicide in Holland, while making one of his restless trips through Europe in search of change.
Kotzebue, who at last met a tragic death at the hand of an assassin, was at one time so melancholy that he meditated self-destruction. Happily, however, as he tells us, his habit of composition was so firmly fixed that he went on with his work and produced one of his finest dramas, Misanthropy and Repentance.
Cowper, as is well known, when bowed down by religious melancholy, made two unsuccessful attempts upon his life.
Chateaubriand, the brilliant representative of French literature, became so thoroughly discontented with himself and the world that he attempted to take his life.
Dupuytren, the distinguished anatomist and surgeon, whose kindly nature induced him to leave a large share of his fortune for the establishment of a benevolent institution for the relief of distressed medical men, contemplated suicide even when at the acme of his fame.
Cavour, "the regenerator of Italy," and one of the greatest of modern statesmen, twice attempted to kill himself.
Lincoln, as Herndon tells us in The True Story of a Great Life, was subject to fits of extreme melancholy. Nicolay also says that beneath his apparently cheerful and sunny nature there was an undercurrent of deep sadness. At one time, according to Herndon, his melancholy reached such proportions that his friends, "fearing a tragic termination, watched him closely day and night." At this time Lincoln himself wrote: "I am now the most miserable man living. To remain as I am is impossible. I must die, or be better, as it appears to me." While thus suffering he wrote and published a paper on suicide. But, to the glory of civilization, the shadows lifted, and he lived to place his name in perpetual honor by freeing the nation from "the incubus of slavery."
Lamartine, poet, statesman, and orator, when overcome by reverses which were as sudden as his successes had been, looked longingly toward the tomb.
George Sand declared that, whether it was that bile made her melancholy or that melancholy made her bilious, she had been frequently seized by a desire for eternal repose.
Goethe, who thought the suicide of the Emperor Otho worthy of praise, slept for several nights with a dagger under his pillow, trying to get up sufficient courage to imitate the act.
Comte, in a fit of depression, threw himself into the Seine; and there is abundant evidence that Shelley, whose unhappy life was clouded by the suicide of two women, himself contemplated the deed. Fanny Imlay's death by laudanum in the Swansea inn was followed in a few weeks by the recovery of Harriet Westerbrook's lifeless body from the Serpentine. The tragic death of Harriet was a frightful blow to Shelley, and there is no doubt that his character was altered by it. Thornton Hunt says, "I am well aware he had suffered sorely, and that he continued to be haunted by certain recollections which pursued him like an Orestes"; and Woodbury adds, "From that time a shadow fell upon him which never was removed." Whether it was the recollection of the watery grave of the woman he had wronged, or whether it was only the desire to rend the veil which hides the mysteries of the Great Beyond, it is certain that Shelley on more than one occasion contemplated self-destruction.
In Trelawney's interesting records of Shelley and Byron two striking instances are given. The first is a letter from Lerice, dated June 18, 1825, in which the poet writes: "You, of course, enter into society at Leghorn. Should you meet with, any scientific person capable of preparing prussic acid, or essential oil of bitter almonds, I should regard it as a great kindness if you could procure me a small quantity. It requires the greatest caution in preparation and ought to be highly concentrated; I would give any price for this medicine. You remember we talked of it the other night, and we both expressed a wish to possess it. My wish was serious, and sprang from the desire of avoiding needless suffering. . . . I need not tell you," he adds, "that I have no intention of suicide at present, but I confess it would be a comfort to me to hold in my possession that golden key to the chamber of perpetual rest." Notwithstanding the denial that he contemplated suicide, an incident which happened soon afterward, and which is related by Trelawney in the same interesting chapter, leaves no doubt that Shelley more than once felt the suicidal impulse to an almost irresistible degree. To make free use of Trelawney's graphic words: "On a calm, sultry evening, while Jane (the wife of Shelley's friend Williams) was sitting on the sands before the villa on the margin of the sea with her two infants watching for her husband, Shelley came from the house dragging his skiff. After launching her, he said to Jane: 'The sand and the air are hot; let us float on the cool, calm sea; there is room with careful stowage for us all in my barge.' She accepted the invitation, and, with the children, got into the boat. They soon drifted from the shore, and the poet, unconscious of her fears or of their danger, fell into a deep reverie, probably, as Trelawney suggests, reviewing all that he had gone through of suffering and wrong, with no present and no future. Jane spoke to him several times, but her remarks met with no response. "She saw death in his eyes." Suddenly he raised his head, his brow cleared, and his face brightened as with a bright thought, and he exclaimed joyfully, "Now let us together solve the great mystery." "With a woman's instinct Jane knew that her only chance was to distract his thoughts, and, suppressing her terror and assuming her usual cheerful voice, she answered promptly: "No, thank you, not now. I should like my dinner first, and so would the children." This gross material answer to his sublime proposition so shocked the poet that he was brought back to himself, and paddled his cockleshell boat into shallow water.
A deep melancholy pervades all of the poet's letters from Pisa and Leghorn, and it was at this time that he was engaged upon The Triumph of Life, which was left unfinished by his untimely end. The poem closes abruptly with these words: "Then what is life? I cried." A sentence of profound significance, as Mr. Symonds says, when we remember that the questioner was now about to seek its answer in the halls of death. "With all this evidence before us that death was not unwelcome when it came on that fatal Monday in the winds and waves, is it not fair to assume that had it not come as it did a record of suicide would have been added to one of the most interesting as well as one of the most melancholy histories in the annals of English song?
The examples mentioned have been taken at random, and I am well aware that an exhaustive search would have made this paper many times as long. My only aim has been to cite a few prominent examples in illustration of a subject which to my mind is one of fascinating interest, and to draw, if possible, some deductions from them.
Evidence is not lacking to warrant the assumption that genius is a special morbid condition, and the anthropological school of which Lombroso is the brilliant master is daily gaining converts. Although the doctrines which he advocates have recently received a remarkable impetus, they are not essentially new. Centuries ago Seneca taught that there was no great genius without a tincture of madness, and Cicero spoke of the furor poeticus. It is also more than a hundred years since Diderot exclaimed: "Oh, how close the insane and men of genius touch! They are chained, or statues are raised to them." Lamartine speaks of the mental disease called genius; Pascal says that extreme mind is akin to extreme madness; and everybody is familiar with Dryden's couplet:
"Great wits are sure to madness near allied,
And thin partitions do their bounds divide."
This is not a pleasant theory I will admit, but, as Lombroso says, does not the botanist find the same thing; and "has not Nature caused to grow from the same germs and on the same clod of earth the nettle and the jasmine, the aconite and the rose"?
But even though this view be not fully accepted, if we take into consideration the fact that the poet lives in an ideal world surrounded by creatures of his own imagination, to whom he attributes the most exaggerated sentiments, it seems to me reasonable to believe that sooner or later unhealthy introspection must be awakened and followed, not infrequently, by the development of morbid tendencies.
But, above all else, it is my belief that a lack of proper training in the early years of life was at the bottom of the unhappiness and mistakes in nearly all the cases mentioned. In the lives of Chatterton, Miller, Tannahill, and Realf, the ones which we have the most closely analyzed, we find a similarity of conditions truly remarkable. Each was born to poverty of the direst kind, each had but little systematic training, and each drifted about upon the sea of knowledge until stranded upon its shoals. If these unhappy lives teach us anything, they certainly show the necessity of guiding with the utmost care the physical, the moral, and the intellectual course of the erratic child of genius. The precocious child especially should receive our most careful attention, for there is more than a grain of truth in the old adage that "genius at five is madness at fifteen." I am myself convinced that precocity is quite as often an indication of morbidity as it is of genius. In rare instances it fulfills its promises, but it only does so when the overactive and unequally developed brain receives proper nourishment and judicious exercise. If the early training be wrong, disappointment is sure to result, and "the huddled knowledge," as Disraeli says, "like corn neglected in a well stored granary, perishes in its own masses."