A new examination of the letters of Robert Burns reveals he may have had bipolar disorder.
Researchers at the University of Glasgow looked at more than 800 letters and journals written by Burns, in an attempt to analyse his mental state.
Scotland’s national bard has long been recognised as someone who experienced episodes of melancholia, but no detailed, systematic and objective assessment of his mental health had ever been undertaken.
The University’s Department of Literature tested a novel methodology, combining psychiatric and literary approaches, to assess the feasibility of using Burns’s extensive personal correspondence as a source of evidence for assessing the presence of symptoms of a clinically significant mood disorder.
The research has been published in The Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, looked at blocks of letters across four separate timeframes from 1786 to 1795.
The project, which started in 2015, also looked into his personal relationships and day-to-day life.
Moira Hansen, the principal researcher on the project, said: ‘The public perception of Robert Burns is well-documented; an icon in his native Scotland whose poetry and songs are celebrated worldwide, a man with a tempestuous personal biography culminating in his premature death in 1796 at the age of 37.
‘Although some aspects of Burns’ life have received extensive attention, some areas remain largely neglected, one of which is the poet’s mental health. Burns makes several references to melancholy in his correspondence and his poetry. In the two centuries since Burns’ death, this has become intertwined with Burn’s excessive drinking, due in no small part to its treatment by James Currie, Burns’s first official biographer.
‘In writing Burns’ biography, Currie sought to emulate Johnson’s work on Boswell, using the form to develop a better understanding of the frail nature of humanity, and to provide instruction. For Currie, a physician with a special interest in melancholy, this instruction was to warn of the adverse effects of alcohol on the condition, particularly in men of genius.’
The report said that analysis of 104 letters, divided across four sample time frames, provided significant information relating to the fitness of the methodology to test the hypothesis that Robert Burns was affected by a mood disorder.
Moira concluded: ‘Overall, these data suggest that Burns’s correspondence and personal writing are appropriate sources of evidence for symptoms of mood disorder, and that the use of a methodology based on modern clinical criteria to analyse these is a fit basis for a retrospective assessment for both depression and bipolar disorder.
‘No conclusion can be drawn on the potential presence of a mood disorder at this time.
‘This study adopted a novel approach to the examination of the mental health of Robert Burns. By combining clinical approaches to psychiatric diagnosis with literary approaches to textual analysis, the work has shown that the poet’s personal correspondence is an appropriate and intriguing source of evidence, indicating this is an approach which may be equally applied to other historical figures.
‘The work also indicates that further examination of Burns’s moods in relation to the criteria for mood disorders is warranted.’