With the exception of the last chapter, which attempts to prove that Socrates did not die of hemlock poisoning, this collection of essays deals with the impact of mental, physical, and addictive illness on the literary works of 12 authors. Lacking a rigid thesis, the essays are not "yoked by violence together." They are linked, albeit loosely, by a theme: literary creations, particularly poetry, cannot escape the influence of disease on their creators. Boswell's 19 attacks of gonorrhea, Swinburne's flagellant masochism, Keats' tuberculosis and opium addiction, Chekhov's tuberculosis, Lawrence's suppressed homosexuality, Shadwell's gout and insanity, among other examples, highlight this theme.
Characterized in its introduction as a "medical analysis" of literary works, the book is, in effect, much more than that. It is also a literary, historical, and philosophical analysis bolstered by numerous direct quotations and more than 400 references. As such, it deals perceptively with its subjects, particularly with