John Dryden observed in 1681 that "Great wits are sure to madness near allied, And thin partitions do their bounds divide," echoing the observation made centuries ago by the philosopher Aristotle that madness and genius seem to go hand in hand. In this cultural tradition, we often believe that the mental illnesses of great poets are simply a condition of their own artistic genius.

We poets in our youth begin in gladness; but thereof comes in the end despondency and madness. ~ William Wordsworth ~

Why might creative people be prone to such dementia? Perhaps it is the fact that their subject is the world of experience itself, reflected through their creations. Perhaps in some cases it is the unceasing pressure and stress that is the nature of celebrity. In their attempt to tell the truth as they see it, poets may find pain, yet their craft itself might offer one way to lend them power over that pain.

The lunatic, the lover, and the poet,
Are of imagination all compact.
~ William Shakespeare ~

The interest in the controversial aspects a poet's life itself can sometimes draw attention away from their creations. There is a general tendency for the sensational and pathological to attract heightened notice by the general public. This may not always be a negative thing, however, as it can generate more interest in a poet's work.

These pages present stories about and works by several widely admired poets who courted emotional disaster throughout their lives. Sometimes their struggle was transformed into brilliant creations. Sometimes the pain was simply too overwhelming, and they succumbed to it. The tales of their lives demonstrate that often tormenting relationship between pain and creativity.