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. This did not mean he thought it a distinction. He hated it, hated making a fool of himself and being a trouble to other people, hated the time and work lost to it. Everything the doctors prescribed he did but the illness had its own power of accessions and remissions.
Some Lowell money and his own solid earnings brought him and his family a living in fair style. The elegance, grace, and power of a great man came to him without his noticing.
He was big, well-shouldered, and light on his feet but bore a noticeable physical diffidence like a polite stammer. His face was big, gnathic, and classically formed, with owl spectacles that slid down his nose, and his head was feathered around later with his longish gray hair. His fingers were clean and delicate. He poked and pointed with them as he talked. Teasing or telling stories, for instance his endless saga of the tribe of bears whose misbehaviors parodied those of his friends and relations, he had a special sing-song voice. Otherwise, except in public reading, it was a Boston soar then mutter. His only sport was trout-fishing.
He had confounded his old mentors with Life Studies, which they said was not literature, and he should not publish. They were right, it was not literature. Blake and Whitman and the man he oddly admired so much, Hart Crane, were not literature either but they made literature move over for them.
Calligraphers recognize in one another’s lettering what they call a man’s “fist,” his unchangeable personal style. Lowell’s lines might be pentameters of Miltonic elevation,
When the whale’s viscera go and the roll
Of its corruption overruns this world
Beyond tree-swept Nantucket and Woods Hole
And Martha’s Vineyard, Sailor, will your sword
Whistle and fall and sink into the fat?
Or they might be in the off-hand slang of his middle period,
The season’s ill—
We’ve lost our summer millionaire,
who seemed to leap from an L.L. Bean
catalogue. His nine-knot yawl
was auctioned off to lobstermen.
A red fox stain covers Blue Hill.
Or, characteristically, the lines bring old catch-phrases to a focus so sharp it hurts.
My hopped up husband drops his home disputes,
and hits the streets to cruise for prostitutes,
free-lancing out along the razor’s edge.
This screwball might kill his wife, then take the pledge.
The unchanging element of Lowell’s poetry was that whatever he was writing about in whichever one of his many styles, the words loomed everywhere as if in some huge magnifying lens of etymology and idiom and sound—and yet were always in the stream of English speech.
Lowell’s genius and his grinding labor brought to verse in English not only technical mastery on a scale otherwise scarcely attempted in this century, but then his courage and honesty brought, to crib from myself, “a new generosity and dignity to the whole enterprise of poetry.” He was not afraid of mistakes and made plenty of them, or so it seemed to me, in the mulled-over Note-books.
As a boy he had studied Napoleon and he liked being famous. Francis Parker, who did the etchings for every one of Lowell’s books, says that while he was chained in the special Nazi cells for Dieppe survivors he would sometimes fancy that his school chum Cal Lowell had at last been named Commander of Allied Forces.
Lowell drank and smoked too much as became his generation, and tolerated around him an incredible number of fools. If he went to an art museum he liked everything, even nineteenth-century steel engravings; or would say one might come to it if one saw them often. He was fond of going to operas too and liked them all. To fellow poets he was cordial, and respectful of their work. But once in a while in a flash it would come out that he had them all precisely ranked and not so very highly either.
Fame, titles, great names attracted him as they do all those who know their souls belong on the upper slopes. He loved maybe five or six people and he loved them all his life. He was also dangerous, as men in his dimensions can be.
In New York, Lowell ruled a writer’s roost as he saw fit, and then married Caroline Blackwood. They lived in England. She gave him his son Sheridan. He wrote every day and read everything, was well and ill, off and on. I am told that the kind of heart attack that took him, in a New York taxi on the afternoon of September 12 as he was returning to Elizabeth and Harriet, just all at once puts you to sleep.
“…I gather from your phone calls the summer has had some very hard moments for you. It’s miraculous, as you told me about yourself, how often writing takes the ache away, takes time away. You start in the morning, and look up to see the windows darkening. I’m sure anything done steadily, obsessively, eyes closed to everything besides the page, the spot of garden…makes returning a jolt. The world you’ve been saved from grasps you roughly. Even sleep and dreams do this. I have no answer. I think the ambition of art, the feeding on one’s soul, memory, mind etc. gives a mixture of glory and exhaustion. I think in the end, there is no end, the thread frays rather than is cut, or if it is cut suddenly, it usually hurtingly frays before being cut. No perfected end, but a lot of meat and drink along the way.”
from a letter to Frank Bidart, September 4, 1976