Letters suggest Robert Burns was bipolar, academics say

Was Robert Burns bipolar? Scottish poet suffered from severe ‘depression and hypomania’, according to a study of his private letters

  • His mood swings may explain periods of intense creativity and unstable love life
  • Burns used the expression ‘blue devilism’ to describe periods of depression 
  • Letters from December 1793, detailed the poet feeling ‘altogether Novemberish’
  • Researchers looked at blocks of letters written over nine years of Burns’ life
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Scotland’s national bard Robert Burns may have had bipolar disorder, according to a study of 800 of his private letters and journals.

Researchers said the poet’s moods flipped between ‘depression and hypomania’ – which could explain his periods of intense creativity and unstable love life.

The poet spoke about feeling ‘altogether Novemberish, a damn’d melange of fretfulness and melancholy… my soul flouncing and fluttering’.

Experts say Burns also often used the expression ‘blue devilism’ to describe periods of depression throughout his life.  

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Scottish poet Robert Burns (pictured) was bipolar and had dramatic mood swings, according to an analysis of 800 private letters and journals written the bard

Burns was born 25 January 1759 and died 21 July 1796 and was widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland.

He was  a high-ranking member of the Freemasons and much of his popularity stems from the fact he was a farmer’s son who could speak to the common man. 

Claims about the poet’s mental health have been made before based on biographies of the writer. 

In the latest project, which started in 2014, researchers from the University of Glasgow looked at blocks of letters written over nine years of Burns’ life. 

They used modern psychiatry methods to analyse his state of mind. 

Experts said two of the letters met the criteria for clinical depression and that gaps where the poet appeared to have written no letters could indicate social withdrawal.

One block of letters from early 1787 showed evidence of depression and anxiety ‘about being exposed to the public’ after Burns travelled to Edinburgh. 

Writings from 1790 detailed ‘a period of great physical and creative activity for Burns’, the team said.

The initial findings have been published in The Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh.

Moira Hansen, principal researcher on the project, said: ‘Blue devilism was the term Burns used to describe periods of depression which he suffered, periods which affected his life and his work’. 

She said that this was ‘not something you would automatically expect of someone with a worldwide reputation for knowing how to enjoy himself – and something that our project is properly studying for the first time. 


One letter detailed the poet feeling ‘altogether Novemberish, a damn’d melange of fretfulness and melancholy… my soul flouncing & fluttering’. Pictured is the first page of the letter Robert Burns wrote to Agnes McLehose, issued by the National Library of Scotland

WHAT EVIDENCE DO WE HAVE OF ROBERT BURNS’ MOOD SWINGS?

Scotland’s national bard Robert Burns may have had bipolar disorder, according to a study of 800 of his private letters and journals.

Researchers said the poet’s moods flipped between ‘depression and hypomania’ – which could explain his periods of intense creativity and unstable love life.

Here are some extracts from his letters that were used by researchers from the University of Glasgow to come to this conclusion. 

Letters from 29 October 1793 to 12 January 1794

– During this time Burns was living in Dumfries and it was generally a time of melancholia.

Burns says he is feeling ‘altogether Novemberish, a damn’d melange of Fretfulness and melancholy…my soul flouncing & fluttering’.

He says that ‘on whatsoever this man doth set his heart, it shall not prosper.’

‘I am in a compleat [sic] Decemberish humour, gloomy, sullen, stupid’, he wrote.

His daughter was ill at the time and the experience had shown him ‘on what a brittle thread does the life of man hang!’

Letters from 29 November 1786 to 5 February 1787

– This could be interpreted as a period of hypomania when Burns tends to exaggerate and self-aggrandise.

Burns describes himself as a man of ‘independent fortune at the plough-tail’.

He believe he is above other ‘needy, sharping authors’ who are subject to the ‘modest sensibility, mixed with a kind of pride, that will ever keep [them] out of the way of those windfalls of fortune.’

He said he is ‘in a fair way of becoming as eminent as Thomas a Kempis or John Bunyan’ and ‘shall soon be the tenth Worthy, and the eighth Wise Man, of the World’.

Burns believes his birthday should be remembered in a similar way to the Battle at Bothwell Bridge.

Letters from 30 July 1790 to 17 January 1791

– This is a period of great physical and creativity activity for the poet, demonstrated by ‘hypomanic’ letters.

During one week the poet rode around 200 miles in four days and also attended a court case in Dumfries.

He wandered the banks of the River Nith and produced free-flowing verses, saying ‘to keep within the bounds of Prose was impossible’.

Letters from 22 September 1794 to 8 March 1795

– These letters show signs of hypomania but researchers do not believe it to be a true episode.

Burns was living in Dumfries with his wife and five children. 

He was heavily involved in writing and editing songs for the Edinburgh publisher George Thomson. 

He was writing on average 0.9 letters per week.

There were no extracts from this period included in the paper, published in The Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. 

‘The work published in this article shows that we can use Burns’ letters as a source of evidence, in place of having the face-to-face interviews a psychiatrist would normally have’, she said. 

Researchers have pinpointed evidence which showed bouts of increased energy and hyperactivity, as well as periods of withdrawal from day-to-day life.

‘Further work to take account of the conventions of letter writing in the 18th century, who Burns was addressing his letters to and the different activities he was involved in at the various stages of his life is still being carried out’, said Ms Hansen. 

‘But we now believe Burns may have had what we would recognise today as bipolar disorder.’

Researchers will carry out further in-depth analysis to create a mood map of his life to chart these highs and lows. 

They want to link it to what was happening both in his private and public life to judge how it impacted on his writing.

Professor Daniel Smith, professor of Psychiatry at the University of Glasgow, hopes the findings can help to de-stigmatise psychiatric disorders.


Researchers have pinpointed evidence which showed bouts of increased energy and hyperactivity, as well as periods of depression and a withdrawal from day-to-day life

WHO WAS ROBERT BURNS AND WHY IS HE CONTROVERSIAL?

Robert Burns was born 25 January 1759 and died 21 July 1796 and was widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland.

He was  a high-ranking member of the Freemasons and much of his popularity stems from the fact he was a farmer’s son who could speak to the common man.

But he also led a varied social life which exposed him to different sections of society.

In his poems, he often used small subjects to express big ideas and he is often thought of as a pioneer of the Romantic movement.

For instance, in ‘To a Mouse’, he draws a comparison between the lives of mice and men. 

He was a source of inspiration to the founders of both liberalism and socialism after his death.

Burns has a national day named after him on the 25th January each year. 

At New Year, his poem ‘Auld Lang Syne’ is still sung to this day.

For 200 years his birthday has been celebrated with suppers in his honour. 

The poet Liz Lochhead outed Robert Burns as a sex pest, highlighting a 1788 letter written to Bob Ainslie in which Burns implies he raped his pregnant girlfriend Jean Armour.

He bragged of giving his lover a ‘thundering scalade [a military attack breaching defences] that electrified the very marrow of her bones’, and said he ‘f****d her until she rejoiced’.

Lochhead described his letter as a ‘disgraceful sexual boast’.

‘[It] seemed very like a rape of his heavily pregnant girlfriend. It’s very, very Weinsteinian’, she said.

‘Not only did Burns make Weinsteinian claims in his correspondence, his poetry abounds with physical violence against women’, writes Daniel Cook, senior lecturer in English at the University of Dundee in The Conversation.

‘Not published until after his death, Merry Muses of Caledonia is stuffed with the bawdiest songs you’re ever likely to read’, he writes.

However, Dr Cook says these works can help us to reconsider human concerns.

‘After Weinstein, the time is right to reevaluate how we respond to literary traditions’, he writes.

‘Rather than using literature (or private correspondence) to out so-called sex pests, though, we can use it as a vehicle for understanding the long history of sex pesting.’

 

‘Obviously it hasn’t been an easy task given our subject has been dead for more than 200 years’, he said.

‘We hope that the possibility that Scotland’s national bard, a global icon, may have had bipolar disorder will contribute to discussions on the links between mental illness and creativity.’

He said it might also help to de-stigmatise psychiatric disorders such as bipolar disorder and depression.

‘Robert Burns was a complicated man, with an amazing catalogue of work produced in a short lifetime before he died at 37’, said Professor Gerard Carruthers, co-director of the University’s Centre for Robert Burns Studies.

‘Today he holds a fascination not just for Scots but a worldwide audience.

‘The fact that Scotland’s national bard may have had bipolar disorder is part of the telling and understanding of all aspects of the bard’s story to reveal a more accurate picture of the real Robert Burns’, he said. 

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