J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, July 08, 2018

Robert Burns’s “damn’d melange of fretfulness and melancholy”

Last month the B.B.C. reported on a published paper by Moira Hansen, Daniel J. Smith, and Gerard Carruthers about the moods of Robert Burns (P.D.F. download).

Specifically, the paper is titled “Mood Disorder in the Personal Correspondence of Robert Burns: Testing a Novel Interdisciplinary Approach.” Hansen is a graduate student at the University of Glasgow’s College of Arts while Smith is a Professor of Psychiatry and Carruthers co-director of the Centre for Robert Burns Studies.

As for the “Testing” aspect, it’s important to note that people have been writing about Burns’s periods of depression since, well, Burns. He described himself in November 1793 as feeling “altogether Novemberish, a damn’d melange of fretfulness and melancholy…my soul flouncing & fluttering.” Since his first biographer, Burns scholars have debated the causal links between his moods, his art, and his drinking. In the past few decades scholars have come back to interpreting Burns through the lens of psychological depression.

This team of researchers used Burns’s letters from November 1793 (and lack of letters in the following month) as a benchmark for depression. They had an independent party choose three random points elsewhere in the poet’s correspondence for further assessment and comparison—apparently by Hansen. As for the method of analysis:
Any of these symptoms [manic, hypomanic and depressive] might be evidenced in the text of the letters by a range of features including, but not limited to: explicit discussion; descriptive and figurative language; allusion; tone; coherence of flow of ideas; and length and quantity of letters written in any given period.
I wish the paper had more detail about the measurement of those qualities and how the researchers avoided subjective judgments.

The researchers concluded that there’s ”evidence to suggest Burns' mood cycled between depression and hypomania.” But really, I think, this was a test whether their methodology matched what they and others already knew. The real disputes here are probably whether (a) scholars can reputably diagnose mental disorders over a wide chronological and cultural gap, and (b) whether such conclusions are meaningful to the literary work.

This paper is part of a larger project with its own website. Hansen will go into more detail on Burns’s changing moods, how they affected his behavior and relations with others, and how they affected his poetry. She has the advantage of a large body of writing, collected early and kept reasonably intact. Can the method work with figures whose correspondence was not so assiduously assembled?

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