Forty years ago in the carpenter’s Gothic of Douglass House, demolished now, at Gambier, Ohio, in the long gabled upstairs room he shared with Peter Taylor, Robert Lowell had the intelligent habit of lying in bed all day. Around that bed like a tumble-down brick wall were his Greek Homer, his Latin Vergil, his Chaucer, letters from Boston, cast-off socks, his Dante, his Milton. Even in those days before he had published a word we knew he belonged among the peers who surrounded him.
The poems he wrote and rewrote and rewrote in bed then were as awkward as he was, the man of the Kenyon squad who plowed sideways into his own teammates, but strong as a bull, spilling them all over, who never won a game. He aspired to be a Rhodes Scholar, and thus had to be an all-around man like Whizzer White. In those days Lowell couldn’t tie his own shoe laces.
To our astonishment this nearly inarticulate fellow entered the Ohio state oratory contest. But we were not surprised at all when like Demosthenes he won the prize.
Lowell has written about his mother Charlotte and his father the Naval Commander. Charlotte was a Snow Queen who flirted coldly and shamelessly with her son. His father once ordered a half-bottle of wine for five at dinner.
Lowell brought Jean Stafford to Kenyon, shining she was, wearing a hat and gloves, tucked under her arm a mint copy from England of something mysterious to us, Goodbye to Berlin! They married, and, new Catholics, after a year on the Southern Review under Brooks and Warren, they holed up in Maine, as both have written. He went to jail as an objector to the War after attempts to get in the Navy. He didn’t like it that we had started bombing cities.
He lived in a fleabag under the old Third Avenue EI on about a dollar a day. In the room next door dwelled an ardent couple. “Be quiet,” one of them whispered, “the kid there might hear us.” He read all the books, and wrote and rewrote his poems. History was his eye-opener and his nightcap. He recited Vergil with Robert Fitzgerald. When he came to supper he ate enough for three days, and then graciously said, “I’m stuffed.” He got the Pulitzer Prize.
He went crazy, and being brought toward home after a cross-country charge he squatted, powerful and sweating, in the rotunda that was then LaGuardia airport. The cops came and sat down on the floor with him. They discussed Italian opera. He was taken to the first asylum. Cured, well-known now, he kept writing his wonderful poems. He married Elizabeth Hardwick who brought him up. She gave him Harriet his daughter.
They moved from Boston to New York. Many times Elizabeth, as if Alcestis had had to do it over and over, faced the kingdom of the mad and dragged him home alive. He wrote frankly about his illness …