Here at My Poetic Side, we love to explore new topics relating to our poets, so this week we decided to do some sleuthing on something a little more gruesome than usual, putting our CSI hats on and investigating the sometimes-disturbing cause of deaths of some of our favourite poets. Ok, so we know it sounds a little morbid, but it’ll be interesting, we promise!
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In recent posts, we used our current pool of resources and database to look at the most common words used in poetry and the most poetic cities in the world. However, for this post, we had to gather fresh research from scratch, as we had the birth and death places and dates of poets, but we did not have the cause of death.
We carefully researched 239 poets across the past six centuries, then analysed this data and, as you can see, we have presented it in infographic format so you can get a quick overview of any trends and standout points. At the bottom of the page, you can click on each cause of death for more detailed information. For example, if you choose ‘suicide’, and then select ‘Sara Teasdale’, you will see that she was born in 1884 and died in 1933 from a drug overdose.
At the top of the infographic, you can see all of the causes of death across the 239 poets analysed – poets including the likes of Sylvia Plath, John Keats, Thomas Hardy, Oscar Wilde, Phillis Wheatley, Anne Sexton, and Wilfred Owen. You will see that cancer is the most common cause of death, with 12 per cent of poets suffering this fate. Of course, there are some poets that died of ‘unknown’ causes. This can be because there is some mystery surrounding their death. However, in most cases, it is because it can be difficult to clarify information from the centuries ago, as a lot of the data is ambiguous.
The point above is highlighted by the fact that half of the poets that we analysed that died in the 16th century passed away of unknown causes. Therefore, it is difficult to get a real sense of any patterns during this period. The youngest poet to die was Christopher Marlowe. He was arrested at the age of 29 years old, as several bills were posted threatening Protestant refugees from the Netherlands and France that had settled in London. However, a few days later he was murdered when Ingram Frizer stabbed him in the eye, although it has been deemed that he did so in self-defence.
As we move into the 17th century, the life expectancy increases from 46 years old to 54 years old. More data is available, with only three poets dying from unknown causes. 14 per cent of poets analysed died of tuberculosis, while other poets died of execution, kidney failure, and syphilis. It was indeed John Wilmot that suffered from the latter, passing away at 33 years of age, making him the youngest to die during this time frame. It is said that alcoholism also played its part, while many argue that Bright’s disease caused him to suffer from renal failure.
The 18th century saw the death of the first published African-American female poet, Phillis Wheatley. She died at the age of 31, presumably due to complications resulting from the birth of her third child, who also passed away three and a half hours after her death. Other causes of death from this period included endocarditis and tuberculosis.
As we move onto the 19th century, much more data becomes available to us, and a greater number of poets were assessed. The most common cause of death during this period was tuberculosis, with six poets passing away due to this disease. This is perhaps unsurprising when you consider that tuberculosis peaked during the 18th and 19th century, causing millions of deaths across Europe, especially in the lower classes of society. Unfortunately, this is the disease that led to the death of John Keats at just 25 years old.
One notable death from the 19th century that is surrounded by a lot of mystery is that of Percy Bysshe Shelley, who drowned in July 1822 during a sudden storm in the Gulf of Spezia. However, a lot of people speculate that his death was not accidental at all, claiming that he was depressed and did not want to live any longer.
It is also worth noting that life expectancy was 60 years old during this period. However, someone that far exceeded this was Oliver Wendell Holmes who died at the grand old age of 85. The American poet passed away quietly after falling asleep, with his son stating that his death was as peaceful as anyone could wish for a loved one.
So, what about the 20th century? Cancer started to take over during this period, with 21 poets dying from the disease, accounting for 15 per cent of those analysed. The same number of poets also died from heart attacks during this time frame. However, perhaps more surprisingly was the high number of suicides recorded, nine to be precise. Sylvia Plath’s suicide was one of the most notable. She had tried to take her life numerous times, and on February 11th, 1963, she succeeded by placing her head in the oven with the gas turned on.
Plath was only 30 years old when she passed away, but she was not the youngest poet to die during that period. Bonnie Parker died at the age of 23. As part of the famous duo, Bonnie and Clyde, she was ambushed and killed in May 1934. Two Louisiana officers and four Texas officers shot the couple who were notorious American criminals that killed and robbed people as part of their gang during the Great Depression.
You will see that a number of poets were killed in action in the 20th century, which is no doubt due to the World Wars. This included Wilfred Owen, Phillip Edward Thomas, Keith Douglas, Joyce Kilmer, and Isaac Rosenberg. Keith Douglas died as a result of mortar fire while a sniper shot Joyce Kilmer. Other common causes of death throughout this era include tuberculosis, stroke, pneumonia, and cerebral haemorrhage.
Finally, we move onto the 21st century, and a notable difference in lifespan. The youngest to die was a respectable 67 years old – Mahmoud Darwish, and the oldest to die was R. S. Thomas, at 87 years old. As you can see, there is only a 20 years difference between the two poets, whereas for other periods this difference was a lot greater.
Of course, as we are not far into the 21st century, there are fewer poets to analyse. Of those that were analysed, the most common cause of death was again, cancer. Aside from this, other causes include leukaemia, kidney failure, Alzheimer’s disease, and heart condition. As you can see, the likes of suicide, accidental death, and murders have decreased.
You can use the infographic and the detailed research to draw your own conclusions. But, as you can see, there are some evident patterns, which are related to the times. This includes the large number of deaths due to tuberculosis in the 18th and 19th century, and cancer in more recent times. Moreover, you could also deduce that suicides were greater in the 20th century not due to the poets’ tortured souls, but because less help was available and times were tough, although, you’d need to dig a little bit deeper to prove this theory!
Extra: Browse the detailed data!
Click on a Cause of death and then choose a Writer to see more information.