Text: Frederic Rowland Marvin, “The Poet Not an Epileptic,” New York Daily Tribune (New York, NY), vol. XXXV, whole no. 10,779, October 18, 1875, p. 2, col. 5


[page 2, column 5, continued:]



To the Editor of The Tribune.

SIR: In THE TRIBUNE to-day “S. H. W.,” in an article headed “Poe, Critic, and Hobby,” takes Mr. Fairfield to task for calling Poe an epileptic. While I cannot recommend Mr. Fairfield’s book, “Ten Years Among Spiritual Mediums,” permit me as a physician a word with regard to literary madmen.

The two kinds of insanity which more frequently exhibit themselves through means of literature are epileptic insanity and melancholia. Epilepsy in itself is not insanity, but is very closely related to it: the children of epileptics being especially liable to insanity. Were we to judge of epilepsy only in the light of muscular convulsion we should form an erroneous estimate both of the disease and of the morbid literature of many of its victims. Muscular convulsion has been assigned a too prominent place in the ordinary definition of epilepsy. There are forms of epilepsy unconnected with such convulsion. In nocturnal epilepsy the morbid phenomena of motion are so slight that the disease may exist for years without attracting attention. In epileptic vertigo and syncope we frequently find no convulsion. And separate from all recognized forms of epilepsy, who can doubt the existence of an epileptic neurosis which manifests itself by convulsive phenomena of a mental rather than muscular nature. This epileptic neurosis is characterized by other phenomena than those which pertain to convulsive epilepsy. The latter is accompanied with violent muscular convulsion and loss of consciousness, and followed in most cases by fatality, while the latter may never manifest itself through the muscular system, and is frequently connected with exalted consciousness, and does not lead to fatality, but is characterized by remarkable intellectual activity, and frequently terminates in acute, sub-acute, or chronic mania.

Says Dr. Maudsley, in his “Responsibility in Mental Diseases,” “There can be little, if any, doubt in the minds of those who do not subscribe to the Mohammedan faith, that an epileptic seizure was the occasion of Mohammed’s first vision and revelation, and that, deceived or deceiving, he made advantage of his distemper to beget himself the reputation of a divine authority. The character of his vision was exactly of that kind which medical experience shows to be natural to epilepsy. Similar visions, which are believed in as realities and truths by those who have them, occur not unfrequently to epileptic patients confined in asylums. For my part, I would as soon believe there was deception in the trance that converted Saul the persecutor into Paul the Apostle, as believe that Mohammed at first doubted the reality of the events which he saw in his vision.”

Were Mohammed now living, he would be confined in an asylum, and the Koran would not be revealed. We shall never know how many revelations as wonderful as any which dawned on the astonished vision of Mohammed or Swedenborg are prevented, and how many incipient religions are nipped in the bud by judicious doses of bromide of potassium, belladonna, zinc, and other remedial agents. Certain it is that the wards of asylums are thickly settled with prophets, apostles, saints and mediums, of whose visions and revelations the world was deprived. Ann Lee was an epileptic, and her revelations and system of theology are the outcome of insanity. Cæsar and Petrarch were epileptics, and the writings of the latter clearly indicate the misfortune of their author. Edgard [[Edgar]] Allan Poe was in no sense of the word an epileptic. He was never subject to convulsions, nor do his writings indicate an epileptic neurosis. As for the story which a gentleman is said to have received from Mrs. Clemm, and which Mr. Fairfield accepts, it is highly improbable, and I for one reject it.

As for Mr. Fairfield’s assertion concerning “Ulalume” that “thus sang he, then died,” it is without foundation, and S. H. W. is correct in saying, “‘Thus sang he,’ then wrote ‘Eureka,’ ‘The Bells,’ ‘Annabel Lee,’ and other of his most memorable poems.”

F. R. M.

New-York, Oct. 13, 1875.




Frederic Rowland Marvin, M. D. (1847 — 1918) was a Professor of Psychological Medicine and Medical Jurisprudence in the New York Free Medical College for Women, and the author of The Philosophy of Spiritualism and the Pathology and Treatment of Mediomania (New York: Asa K. Butts & Co., 1874). This book was based on two lectures read before the New York Liberal Club on March 20 and 27, 1874. He is incorrectly identified by John Carl Miller as Frederick K. Marvin.

The quotation about Mohammed is taken from Responsibility in Mental Disease, by Henry Maudsley, M. D., London: Henry S. King, 1874, pp. 52-53. (In the same year, it was published in New York by D. Appleton and Company, with the same pagination. It became a standard work on the subject and was reprinted many times.)


[S:0 - NYDT, October 18, 1875] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - The Poet Not an Epileptic (Frederic R. Marvin, 1875)