A study conducted in 2012 at Karolinska Institute in Sweden found that anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and substance abuse are more common in creative individuals than in, say, accountants, and that authors in particular are twice as likely to commit suicide as the general population. The history of authors taking their own lives is, indeed, a long one, stretching back to ancient times.
The Roman writer Seneca the younger (ca. 4 B.C.-65 A.D.) served as tutor and minister to the despotic emperor Nero, but he built his lasting reputation as author and philosopher. His seven tragedies became popular during the English Renaissance, influencing such playwrights as Kyd, Marlowe, and Shakespeare.
Seneca also wrote a number of dialogues, and his 124 surviving letters to his friend Lucilius, dealing with various moral and ethical issues, are delightful reading. His “Senecan prose style” of curt, unadorned sentences influenced the development English prose, most clearly seen in the essays of Sir Francis Bacon.
Seneca, at about age sixty, became implicated in a conspiracy to assassinate Nero. Modern scholars question whether Seneca actually had anything to do with the plot, but Nero was convinced and ordered Seneca to commit suicide. Forced suicide was then viewed as a more respectable death than execution. The Roman historian Tacitus tells us that Seneca, in complying with the order, cut the arteries in both arms with a dagger, but “as his aged frame, attenuated by frugal diet, allowed the blood to escape but slowly, severed the veins of his legs and knees.” This also did not work, so Seneca asked a close friend, one skilled in medicine, to prepare a poison. “It was brought to him,” writes Tacitus, “and he drank it in vain, chilled as he was throughout his limbs, and his frame closed against the efficacy of the poison.” Seneca finally was placed in a hot bath “with the steam of which he was suffocated.”
The satirist Petronius (ca. 27-66 A.D.), credited with writing the Satyricon, and the accomplished young poet Lucan (39-65 A.D.) were also implicated in the plot to kill Nero, and they too had to commit suicide. Quite fittingly, Nero was soon overthrown and ended by taking his own life in 68 A.D.
Sir John Suckling (1609-1642) was part of that group of young English versifiers known as the Cavalier Poets or Cavalier Lyricists. Influenced by the lyric poetry of Ben Jonson, most were courtiers who supported the Royalist cause of King Charles I during the Puritan Revolution that led in 1642 to the English Civil War. The Royalists eventually lost the war, Charles lost his head, and the Cavalier Poets lost their livelihoods.
Sir John Suckling
John Aubrey in his Brief Lives describes Suckling as “but a slight timberd man, and of midling stature,” a great gamester and flashy dresser. He became popular at court for his wit and wealth. In 1639, during an expedition in the north to help subdue rebellious Scots, Suckling, at his own expense, raised a troop of 100 soldiers at a cost of £12,000. He outfitted them in white satin doublets, scarlet breeches and coats, fine hats with feathers, good horses and arms. They looked splendid. In fact, they looked much better than they fought, for the Scots quickly routed them.
Suckling, in 1641, fled to France after drawing the ire of the Puritan-controlled Parliament for his involvement in a plot to rescue one of the king’s favorites from the Tower. In France he soon exhausted his fortune, and “reflecting on the miserable and despicable condition he should be reduced to,” writes Aubrey, “having nothing left to maintaine him, he tooke poyson, which killed him miserably with vomiting.” Suckling was only 33.
A poet who took his own life at an even younger age than Suckling was Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770) of Bristol, England. As an extraordinarily precocious boy of only eleven or twelve, he conceived the idea of writing a series of lyric poems dealing with the history of Bristol, written presumably by a fifteenth-century monk named Thomas Rowley. Chatterton sent samples of the poems to Horace Walpole, whose popular novel The Castle of Otranto (1765) was supposed to be a translation from on old manuscript. Walpole, after consulting the poets Thomas Gray and William Mason, dismissed the Rowley poems as fraudulent.
Chatterton, nevertheless, thought his future success as an author assured. At about age 16 he traveled to London, where he attempted to establish himself as a prose writer and poet in his own right. But his genius lay in mimicking the style, themes, manners, and diction of the Middle Ages. In his own person and voice he remained a boy of 16; consequently, his writing lacked sufficient depth, learning, and maturity to interest publishers and readers. He also lacked patience and money. If he had possessed more of each, he might have allowed sufficient time for his genuine poetic gifts to mature.
People who knew him recalled later that while he possessed many agreeable qualities, he was also proud, haughty, quick-tempered, and extraordinarily vain. In addition, he had odd habits such as going for days without food or sleep, even when meals and a bed were provided for him. An aunt remembered that “He would often look steadfastly in a person’s face, without speaking, or seeming to see the person for a quarter of an hour or more, till it was quite frightful.” Sinking ever deeper into poverty and despair, he acquired some arsenic from an apothecary friend, and when Chatterton did not make an appearance next day, his landlady broke into his garret room and found his lifeless body sprawled on the bed. He had lived but 17 years, 9 months.
In 1777, seven years after Chatterton’s death, the first collection of the Rowley poems appeared in print. Opinions varied as to the poems’ authenticity. Some thought them genuine, others thought them fake. Samuel Johnson, who recognized them to be forgeries, nonetheless admired the talents of the youngster who wrote them. “This is the most extraordinary young man that has encountered my knowledge,” he said. “It is wonderful how the whelp has written such things.”
Chatterton appears to have been emotionally unbalanced, and this contributed to his suicide. Insanity ran in his family. But the twentieth century, not the eighteenth or nineteenth, produced the greatest number of emotionally troubled, unstable, neurotic, and even psychotic authors who ended by taking their own lives. The list is too long to cover in detail, but we can look at some representative examples, starting with Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931).
Lindsay used to take long walks of hundreds of miles, mostly through the Southern and Midwestern parts of the United States. During these walks he wrote poems and exchanged recitations of them for food and lodging. An early collection of his poems carried the title Rhymes To Be Traded For Bread. He came to be known as the “Prairie Troubadour,” for he did not simply recite his poems—he performed them by singing, chanting, shouting, and acting them out. Although he acknowledged that poetry was essentially for the inner ear, he referred to his histrionic performances as “Higher Vaudeville.” His poetry became widely popular for a brief time, and although he gave subsequent lectures and stage performances of his works, he never earned much money.
Entering his fifties with a wife and two children, little money, increasing debts, and dwindling popularity, he grew increasingly depressed. Near the close of 1931 he became ill, weak, and delusional. One morning, in the words of his friend and biographer Edgar Lee Masters, “He thought he heard voices on the porch plotting his death and the death of his wife, and blackmail. His wife could not assure him that he had been merely dreaming…. At dinner he fell into pitiful tears, saying that he was an old man, and that his life and work were finished.” Late that night, his wife “heard footsteps heavy and fast, and then the sound of Lindsay coming upstairs on his hands and knees. Mrs. Lindsay rushed out to get him, fearing that he was making for the room where the children were asleep. By this time, Lindsay was running through the upstairs hall, with his hands up, looking white and scared.”
Once Lindsay was put into bed, he asked for water, saying that he had drunk a bottle of Lysol. A short time later he uttered his last words: “They tried to get me; I got them first.” He died at about 1:00 a.m. on December 5 at age 52.
When American lyric poet Sara Teasdale (1884-1933) learned of Vachel Lindsay’s death, she wrote in a letter that it “shook me to my very roots. I did not realize how constantly I should miss him. He was the last knight errant.” The two had been friends for years. Lindsay in his younger days had been in love with Teasdale and wanted to marry her, but she realized that their limited finances would not make for a happy union, so she married instead Ernst Filsinger, a promising young businessman.
Although Teasdale and Filsinger were temperamentally compatible, Filsinger’s business commitments kept him abroad for months at a time, aggravating Teasdale’s chronic loneliness, anxiety, and depression. Feeling trapped and unfulfilled, she eventually obtained a divorce.
Teasdale apparently likened her poetry to “the small flute, hollow and clear,” clarity of language and imagery being key features of her lyric verse. A feeling of resigned melancholy permeates many of her best poems such as “There Will Come Soft Rains” and “I Shall Not Care.” Among recurring themes in her poetry are thoughts of death and reflections on suicide.
While on a trip to England in 1932, she contracted double pneumonia, from which she never fully recovered. Early on the morning of January 29, 1933, at the age of 49, she swallowed a large number of sleeping pills and lay down in a warm bath. Her nurse found her body a short time later.
British author Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) is known today for her modernist novels, perceptive criticism, and intelligent essays. She also boasted an impressive literary pedigree. Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, was an eminent critic and historian as well as editor of the Dictionary of National Biography. Sir Leslie’s first wife was the eldest daughter of the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, and Virginia’s godfather was the American poet James Russell Lowell.
Virginia Woolf’s half-sister Laura Stephen had to be institutionalized for mental illness sometime about 1897, and Virginia also suffered from periodic bouts of psychosis. During these episodes, Virginia often talked incessantly and incoherently, grew delusional and heard voices, and sometimes became violent with her nurses. In addition to mood swings and episodes of deep depression, she experienced five major mental breakdowns. In two of them she tried to kill herself with an overdose of the sedative veronal. Like her half-sister, she occasionally spent time in a mental institution.
In 1941, during the German air attacks on London in World War II, she and her husband, Leonard Woolf, moved to Rodmell in Sussex, sixty miles south of the capital. On March 28, while her husband worked in his study, she left him the following note:
I feel certain that I am going mad again: I feel we cant go through another of these terrible times. And I shant recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and cant concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I dont think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I cant fight it any longer, I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I cant even write this properly. I cant read. What I want to say is that I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me & incredibly good. I want to say that—everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I cant go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.
She then left the house and walked down to the bank of the River Ouse. There she put a large stone in her pocket and either walked or jumped into the water. A group of teenagers found her body floating in the river three weeks later.