Was Robert Burns' infamous 'blue devilism' a sign of bipolar disorder?


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The Independent Culture

Robert Burns, one of Scotland’s most important literary figures, wrote of his mood swings and melancholia as “blue devilism”. Today, experts suggest it might be diagnosed as bipolar disorder.

Glasgow University organised a symposium for medical experts and Burns specialists to scrutinise the mental and physical health of Scotland’s bard, whose work includes "Auld Lang Syne" and "Tam o’ Shanter".

It is the first time medical and literary academics have met to address the question over whether Burns suffered from bipolar disorder. The organisers hope it will led to a research project into the issue.

Daniel Smith, reader in psychiatry at the University of Glasgow, said: “Burns had a complicated and some might say tempestuous personal history, with bouts of melancholic depression.”

He continued: “It is possible that his life history and his prodigious literary outputs may have been influenced by a recurrent disorder of mood, such as bipolar disorder.”

Burns died in 1796 at the age of 37 and, Dr Smith said, “was known to have serious depression”. In 2009, an analyst suggested the poet was the victim of manic depression after scrutinising his letters and writing.

The expert Joan Charles said a manuscript for "A Winter Night" revealed him to be in a “deep, dark place”. Robert Crawford, the poet’s biographer, also suggested he may have suffered from serious mental illness.

Dr Smith, a medical adviser to Bipolar Scotland has worked with Gerry Carruthers, co-director of the centre for Robert Burns Studies at the university for a year on the topic.

Professor Carruthers said: “Today is a starting-point. What we may do is chart his creative output against some of his own testimony about his moods. No one has ever done that.”

He also suggested it could be the topic of a PhD. “Burns is a very positive role model in some ways, he has an almost manic story of creativity. Maybe this is a good time to remove the stigma of bipolar.”

The link between creativity and mental illness has been drawn since antiquity, Dr Smith said, pointing out that Aristotle observed: “No great genius has ever existed without a strain of madness.”

The symposium included talks on medical knowledge in Burns’s day, creativity and mental health and medical theories about Burns’s death.