On Robert Lowell

And we are put on earth a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love…
—Blake

Biographies of poets are hard to believe. The moment they are published they become fiction, subject to the same symmetry of plot, incident, dialogue as the novel. The inarticulate wisdom of really knowing another person is not in the broad sweep of that other person’s life, but in its gestures; and when the biography is about a poet the duty of giving his life a plot makes the poetry a subplot. So we read from the comfort of a mold. The book becomes an extension of the armchair, the life becomes the shadow cast by the reader.

Inevitably the biographies of poets, no matter how different, become a series of ovals in frontispieces. Robert Lowell has become one of these ovals, his dates now closed, the hyphen completed.

We are poor passing facts,
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name.

The life itself is shattering. Lowell died at sixty. Most of that life had been spent recovering from, and dreading, mental attacks, of having to say early “my mind’s not right,” but more than drugs restored him. The force that is the making of poetry, while it took its toll of his mind, also saved him. His heroism is primal, his servitude to it savage. Bedlam, asylum, hospital, his bouts of mania never left him, but they also never left him mad. Clinically, they can be listed in depressing records of collapse and release, but what cannot be described in prose is their titanic bursting out of manacles.

All that cold sweat now congealed into an epoch, on the marble forehead of a bust! We look at the face on the book jackets, the brow shielding the eyes from the glare of pain, and we complete it as we dared not when he was alive. To use the past tense about him, not Lowell so much as “Cal,” is almost unendurable. The present is the tense of his poetry. The eyes, with their look of controlled suffering, still hurt. We wince and look away.

In life we looked at that large head, heard his soft jokes, watched his circling hands, knowing that he would become one of the great dead. The jolt that we get now is reading the work as part of the past. His industry was frightening. The head was square and noble, but it was also an ordinary American head, and it was this unrelenting ordinariness that denied itself any sort of halo. He was a man of enormous pride and fanatical humility. He softened objects around him,blurred their outlines, made the everyday myopic, saw political systems as played out. History lived in his nerves, not as a subject but as irrational repetition.

If modern suffering cannot achieve sublime tragedy but ends in breakdown, no poet before Lowell has written so close to his own nerves. The poems …

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