‘Melancholy and low spirits are half my disease’: physical and mental health in the life and works of Robert Burns

Hansen, Moira Elizabeth (2020) ‘Melancholy and low spirits are half my disease’: physical and mental health in the life and works of Robert Burns. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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Printed Thesis Information: https://eleanor.lib.gla.ac.uk/record=b3381451


Robert Burns is celebrated the world over as Scotland’s national bard, a prolific creative genius who produced over 700 poems and songs before his untimely death in 1796 at the age of only 37. Almost every area of his life has been subject to scrutiny and extensive commentary. However, one aspect which has been largely ignored is that of his mental health, despite many references in his letters to ‘blue devilism’, ‘melancholia’ and his ‘diseased nervous system’, and several poems seemingly pointing to a depressive state of mind. It has been suggested previously that Burns suffered from periods of clinical depression or was affected by bipolar disorder.

This thesis consists of three sections which address this question and its wider implications. The first section involves the close analysis of Burns's personal writing in conjunction with accounts and additional evidence from his friends and family to determine the degree to which a diagnosis of clinical depression or bipolar disorder can be supported. It also explores the interplay between Burns’s disordered moods and the manifestation of physical symptoms. The second section examines how Burns understood and related to his mental state, particularly within the context of his relationship with Frances Dunlop. It then goes on to explore the impact of his mood state on key aspects of his life. The final section examines the impact of Burns's mood state on his creative output, exploring how episodes of elevated and depressed mood affected the quality, quantity and content of the poetry and songs produced. Case studies explore how Burns used his creativity as a means of expressing his extremes of emotion.

As a whole, the thesis offers a significantly improved understanding of Robert Burns’s mental health and its role in shaping aspects of his life. It demonstrates that Burns was possibly affected by what would now be recognised as Type II bipolar disorder before going on to show that the periods of disordered mood associated with the condition had some influence on key events in his life. Furthermore, there is clear evidence that Burns’s attempts to understand, reconcile and express his disordered mood states resulted in the recurrent use of particular features within his creative output, thus offering his poetry as a further source of material from which an understanding of the impact of his disordered moods can be drawn.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Additional Information: Supported by UoG Lord Kelvin Adam Smith PhD Scholarship.
Keywords: Robert Burns, melancholy, mental health, creativity, bipolar disorder, medical humanities.
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General)
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts & Humanities > School of Critical Studies > Scottish Literature
Supervisor's Name: Carruthers, Professor Gerard and Smith, Professor Daniel
Date of Award: 2020
Depositing User: Moira Hansen
Unique ID: glathesis:2020-79040
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 11 Mar 2020 16:17
Last Modified: 21 Feb 2023 15:05
Thesis DOI: 10.5525/gla.thesis.79040
URI: https://theses.gla.ac.uk/id/eprint/79040

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