The Mad Ones: The “Self” and The “Other” in Romantic and Beat Literature

“…the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!'”- Jack Kerouac, On The Road (5-6)

With their rejection of the Enlightenment and their support of Sensibility, Romanticism’s “chief emphasis was upon freedom of individual self‐expression: sincerity, spontaneity, and originality” which became “the new standards in literature, replacing the decorous imitation of classical models favoured by 18th‐century neoclassicism” (The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms 260). This Romantic turning towards the “emotional directness of personal experience” and the rejection of the “ordered rationality of the Enlightenment as mechanical, impersonal, and artificial” (The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms 260) resulted in the study of the “self” but also an interest in the “other”. The “other” was embodied in those individuals who were outside the realm of “normal”: addicts, the mentally ill, outsiders, etc. The lack of reason with which these individuals operated fascinated the Romantics, as they embodied the freedom they aspired to. This “freedom of self-expression” can also be seen in the work of the Beats, a group of post WW2 writers who were also attempting to infuse their mechanical, emotionless surroundings with originality and passion:

In opposition to the materialism and prevailing standards that defined happiness as securing a place for oneself within the higher echelons of Corporate American, the Beats promoted a turning inward…The Beats initiated a radical break with the old formalistic forms of expression, introducing a new relation to power and language, particularly the poetic voicing of personal experience and the articulation of positions of marginality. (Elkholy 3)

Here we see the Beats writing about “personal experiences” and articulating “positions of marginality,” or perspectives of the “other.” However, while the Romantics of the 18th century were interested in the “other” and the “self” as separate entities, with the Beats, a fusion of these Romantic ideas are realized: they were interested in the “self” and they personally embodied the “other.” This phenomena of the “poet as other” can be seen specifically in the poem Howl, by Beat writer Allen Ginsberg.

As a break from the norm, the “other”, the “mad ones”, the “outsiders”, captured the attention of the Romantics. This interest is illustrated in Charlotte Smith’s On Being Cautioned Against Walking on a Headland Overlooking the Sea, Because it was Frequented by a Lunatic: “I see him more with envy than with fear;  / He seems (uncursed with reason)” (10, 12). The freedom with which the mad person lives is enticing to a poet who is interested in breaking free from the shackles of Enlightenment and reason: “For the Romantics, madness was a new way of looking at reality, a different way than the usual, everyday one…[those who] do not conform to established rules” (Drobot 76) are seen as mad because “Madness frequently discovers itself merely by unnecessary deviation from the usual modes of the world” (Boswell).


While Smith longed to live freely, Ginsberg sees this notion realized during the era of the Beats in which the poet is not just witnessing the “other” but he is the “other”; and not only is he the other but he is surrounded by the “other”: 

New York Beat writers in particular turned to the underworld of the thief, the hustler, the hobo, and the addict for their inspiration…Turning to the oppressed and the downtrodden, they carved out a subculture parallel to those lived by marginalized Americans. Significantly, however, unlike the marginalized, who are cast out of society, many Beat writers and beats cast themselves out of society, choosing a form of self-marginalization in explicitly rejecting the mainstream. (Elkholy 4) 

In Howl, this “subculture” is explored in three parts by Ginsberg as he utilizes his original style of the “breath-length poem.” With this style, every line is to be delivered in one breath which Ginsberg exercised so he could “speak freely” without “self-conscious inhibited stoppings and censorships which latter factors are what destroy speech and thought rhythm” (Ginsberg, To Eberhart from Ginsberg 26). Ginsberg’s breath-length line style corresponds to William Wordsworth’s Romantic notion of the “spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion” (308).

In Part I of Howl, Ginsberg explores and describes the lives of the Beats and himself:

I saw the best minds of my generations destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,” (Howl, and Other Poems 1-3)

The “best minds” refers to fellow Beats, and they are “destroyed by madness” because their natural outlets are rejected by the society they live in, leaving them “starving” and looking for “an angry fix.” Here drugs and spirituality are being connected. While at Columbia University, Ginsberg had an auditory vision of William Blake reading poetry (referenced in line 6 of Howl: “who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war,”); this event had such a profound affect on Ginsberg that he tried to re-create the moment through the use of drugs. So here, the “fix” can refer to the “best minds” longing for transcendence, creativity, or spirituality, possibly through the use of drugs to create an altered state (a passage to creativity which can be seen in Thomas De Quincey’s Confession’s of an English Opium Eater and in the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge). “[A]ncient heavently connection” also suggests not only a visionary experience but was also used as a slang term for a source of narcotics in the 1940s and 1950s (Stephenson 386).

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These opening lines describe the madness perpetuated by the poet who has experienced transcendence, and longs for recovery of that state; the pursuit of which turns him further into a madman, an outcast:

[T]he poet, for a visionary instant, transcends the realm of the actual into the realm of the ideal, and then, unable to sustain his vision, returns to the realm of the actual. Afterwards, he feels a sense of exile from the eternal, the numinous, the superconscious. The material world, the realm of the actual, seems empty and desolate. (Stephenson 386)

This “realm of the actual” coincides with the Romantic rejection of reason and their longing for transcendence. We see the poet in a state of: “desperately seeking reunion with the vision” this anguish is then, “intensified by a society which refuses to recognize the validity of the visionary experience and maintains a monopoly on reality, imposing and enforcing a single, materialistic-rationalist view.” (Stephenson 388)

Ginsberg goes on to describe another form of “other” which he and (some of) the Beats embodied:

who howled on their knees in the subway and were dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts, who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy. (35-36)

What is significant is the response to being “fucked in the ass.” Here they “screamed” with “joy.” Here we see the “free” spirit of the “other” embodied in the poet. Self-consciousness does not exist here, and Ginsberg expresses a life lived authentically without “artificiality” and without a distinction between private and public behaviour, as Ginsberg states: “There was some conscious intention to make a cultural breakthrough, to talk in public as we talked in private…so the original inspiration was to behave in public as we do in private” (Ball 92).

In Part II of Howl, Ginsberg introduces the force that has “destroyed” his generation. It is a character named Moloch who represents materialism, capitalism, industrialization: 

Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! 

…Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets like endless Jehovahs! Moloch whose factories dream and croak in the fog!

Moloch who entered my soul early! Moloch in whom I am consciousness without a body! Moloch who frightened me out of my natural ecstasy. (83-84, 87). 

This section not only describes the opposing force to the “other” and the longing to experience “natural ecstasy” with freedom from reproach, but it was conceived and written by Ginsberg while high on peyote (Portuges 124) ie: in an altered state in pursuit of “natural ecstasy.” Here, we see the “fusion” of poet and other.

The final section of Howl, Part III, can be seen as an expression of solidarity with Carl Solomon, who was at one point a fellow patient (of Ginsberg’s) at Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital. Ginsberg describes Solomon’s “madness” as a rebellion against “Moloch,” which Ginsberg advocates and therefore “extends” his hand as an act of “compassion” (Howl: Original Draft Facsimile, Transcript & Variant Versions 154):

I’m with you in Rockland where we wake up electrified out of the coma by our own souls’ airplanes roaring over the roof they’ve come to drop angelic bombs the hospital illuminates itself imaginary walls collapse O skinny legions run outside O starry-spangled shock of mercy the eternal war is here O victory forget your underwear we’re free. (111)

This seemingly ceaseless line, without breaks, without time to take a breath, seems mad and out of control. It is the expression of the “mad” to the “mad” in a string a poetry not dictated by formal rules. With Howl, the Romantic poet’s introspection and envy of the “mad” is joined as Ginsberg states: “we’re free.”

In the 1950’s, authentic, uncensored personal revelation in literature, “risked violating critical canons and legal statues.” Within this rigid environment, the poet, the artist, the “other”, reconnects with a “natural ecstasy” by following their “own heart’s instincts, overturning any notion of propriety, moral value, [and] superficial maturity” and exposing their true feelings of “sympathy and identification with the rejected mystical, individual even [the] mad” (Ginsberg, To Eberhart From Ginsberg 18).

The coveted otherness in 18th century Romanticism is achieved in the Romanticism of the Beats, which is exemplified in Ginsberg’s Howl. Here, now, there is a fusion of the “self” and the “other” wherein the poet is able to explore the madman around and within himself and  “burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles [with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls] exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!'” (Kerouac 3-4, [Ginsberg 11])


Featured Image Credit: Gustave Courbet, The Desperate Man, 1843–45

Body Images:

  1. Francisco Goya, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, 1797-99
  2. William Blake, The Ancient of Days, 1827

Works Cited:

“Romanticism.” The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Ed. Chris Baldick. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990. 260. Print.

Alvarez, A. “Drugs and Inspiration.” Social Research 68.3 (2001): 779-95. Print.

Ball, Gordon. “Wopbopgooglemop: “Howl” and Its Influences.” The Poem That Changed America: “Howl” Fifty Years Later. Ed. Jason Shinder. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006. 92-99. Print.

Boswell, James. “The Life of Samuel Johnson”. ENGL 323: Romantic Delusions: Drugs, Madness, and the Romantic Imagination. Comp. Heather McAlpine. Abbotsford: University of the Fraser Valley, 2014. Print.

Drobot, Irina-Ana. “Affliliations of the Persona in Howl by Allen Ginsberg with the Romantic Tradition of the Poete Maudit.” The Scientific Journal of Humanistic Studies 6.10 (2014). Web.

Dullea, Gerard J. “Ginsberg and Corso: Image and Imaginaton.” Thoth 2.2 (1971): 17-27. Print.

Elkholy, Sharin N. The Philosophy of the Beats. Lexington: U of Kentucky, 2012. Print.

Ginsberg, Allen, and Richard Eberhart. To Eberhart from Ginsberg: A Letter about Howl, 1956: An Explanation by Allen Ginsberg of His Publication Howl and Richard Eberhart’s New York times Article “West Coast Rhythms,” Together with Comments by Both Poets and Relief Etchings by Jerome Kaplan. Lincoln, MA: Penmaen, 1976. Print.

Ginsberg, Allen. Howl, and Other Poems. San Francisco: City Lights Pocket hop, 1956. Print.

Ginsberg, Allen. Howl: Original Draft Facsimile, Transcript & Variant Versions, Fully Annotated by Author, with Contemporaneous Correspondence, Account of First Public Reading, Legal Skirmishes, Precursor Texts & Bibliography. Ed. Barry Miles. New York: Harper & Row, 1986. Print.

Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. New York, NY, U.S.A.: Penguin, 1991. Print.

Portuges, Paul. The Visionary Poetics of Allen Ginsberg. Santa Barbara: Ross-Erikson, 1978. Print.

Smith, Charlotte. “On Being Cautioned Against Walking on a Headland Overlooking the Sea, Because it was Frequented by a Lunatic.” ENGL 323: Romantic Delusions: Drugs, Madness, and the Romantic Imagination. Comp. Heather McAlpine. Abbotsford: University of the Fraser Valley, 2014. Print.

Stephenson, Gregory. “”Howl”: A Reading.” On the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg. Ed. Lewis Hyde. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan, 1984. 386-93. Print.

Wordsworth, William. “Preface to Lyrical Ballads.” The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Ed. David H. Richter. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007. 306-318. Print.

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