A new study suggests poets are not the angst-ridden victims of popular belief. Compared to playwrights and novelists they are models of mental stability.
An analysis of 100 well-known British and US writers, including Hemingway, Waugh, Conrad and Scott Fitzgerald, found poets suffered less from severe depressions, alcoholism, personality deviations and marital and sexual problems.
There was one drawback for poets highlighted by the study: they suffered higher levels of severe manic depression, requiring hospital treatment, than playwrights and novelists. Mood swings between elation and depression were found in 25 per cent of them, against only 7 per cent of other writers.
They appeared to live longer; 43 per cent were over the age of 74 when they died, compared with 38 per cent of playwrights and only 24 per cent of novelists. While they were living, poets also enjoyed happier marriages than fellow scribes. More than 70 per cent of the playwrights had problematic or broken marriages, compared with just 26 per cent for poets.
Overall, only one third of the writers enjoyed satisfactory marriages, according to the study published today in the British Journal of Psychiatry. They were most likely to be poets and least likely to be playwrights. This may have been a result of the latter's promiscuity; more than 40 per cent of them were notorious for their sexual behaviour, compared with 20 per cent of novelist/poets, and 14 per cent of poets.
Dr Felix Post, emeritus physician at The Bethlem Royal Hospital and the Maudsley Hospital, London, collected data from the post-mortem biographies of the writers and compared abnormalities.
His controversial conclusion is that "greater inner turmoil and neural [nerve cell] activity involved in writing prose and plays" may result in the lower frequency of depressive disorders among poets.
Dr Post was building on a previous study from 1994 of 291 world-famous men, which concluded that writers were twice as likely to suffer depression and alcohol-related problems as other creative types.
The prevalence of personality deviations in the group of 100 writers was 30 per cent, higher than that in the 1994 study (20 per cent) and considerably higher than the incidence in the general population.
There was also a higher incidence in the study group of anxiety-depressive disorder (60 per cent) than of schizoid disorders (8 per cent) or of the anti-social, histrionic and narcissistic traits (23 per cent) which are most frequently encountered among the general population.
Dr Post concluded that poets, who had been excluded from his 1994 study because of their reputed mental and social instability, had been misjudged.
Alcoholism was at its lowest in poets (31 per cent) and highest in playwrights (54 per cent), with only three poets (Berryman, Hart Crane and Pope) and one novelist/poet experiencing alcoholic psychoses.
Overall, the study suggests that the difference between success and failure for a writer - be it poetry, prose or plays - may be a dysfunctional family background.
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