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A Tragic Grandeur

1.

Robert Lowell’s star has waned very considerably since his death in 1977, when his obituarists treated him, along with Yeats, Eliot, Auden, and Wallace Stevens, as one of the handful of unquestionably great twentieth-century poets. The publication two years ago of Frank Bidart and David Gewanter’s massive edition of the Collected Poems did much to restore his work to public and critical view, but even now Lowell’s poems are, I would guess, less widely read, taught, and anthologized than those of his two friends and contemporaries Elizabeth Bishop and John Berryman—a judgment, if that is what it is, that would have astonished serious readers of poetry between the 1950s and the 1970s.

The death of a writer considered great when he or she was alive is quite frequently the occasion for a drastic revaluation: Tennyson shares began their long—temporary—slump shortly after 1892; Trollope’s critical reputation went into near-total eclipse after the posthumous publication of his Autobiography in 1883. In Lowell’s case, poetry itself appears to have shrunk from the high ground he commandeered: his grand conception of the poet as public figure and public conscience, half classical Roman and half seventeenth-century English, has gained little traction in the present era of notably small and private poems. In a climate of shy minimalism, Lowell’s finest work has tended to strike some younger readers as immodest, messianic, out of date.

Ian Hamilton’s critical biography of Lowell, published in 1983,* has not helped. Hamilton, an astute, sometimes lethal English critic, and a spare and private poet who always preferred the laconic to the lavish, unintentionally supplied many of the grounds for Lowell’s revaluation. His book remains indispensable—not least for the way in which he tracked down and elicited candid interviews from almost everyone who knew Lowell, from his first fiancée, Anne Dick, to a conscientious objector who’d been a fellow prisoner at the jail in Danbury, Connecticut, where Lowell served his felony sentence for refusing the draft. But where most of the people closest to Lowell saw him as a sane man cruelly afflicted by intermittent bouts of mania, Hamilton was inclined to see his life as one of overwhelming madness punctuated by spells of sanity. Lowell’s manic “antics,” and the emotional damage he inflicted when he was sick on those he loved, so dominated the book that John Carey, reviewing it for the London Sunday Times, reported that his first thought on closing its pages was, “What a skunk!”—a verdict that shocked Hamilton but has lingered insidiously in the air for the last twenty years or so. Caroline Blackwood, to whom Lowell was married at the time of his death, said that, reading the book, nobody would understand why people loved him.

Writing about the poems, Hamilton judiciously hedged his bets. There are many fine close readings, unusual in a biography, like his intent analysis of the emergence of the brilliant “Waking in the Blue” from a confused love poem, written in mania to Anne Adden, a young “psychiatric fieldworker” from Bennington College, whom Lowell met during one of his periodic incarcerations in McLean’s Hospital near Boston. But Hamilton’s Englishness hindered him from responding fully to the most powerful, and powerfully “American,” of Lowell’s poems. Reading him on “For the Union Dead” or “Waking Early Sunday Morning,” one sees him repeatedly trying to offer two queasy judgments, one positive and one negative, often in the same sentence, like this:

If, in itself, [“For the Union Dead”] seems overdeliberate and without the energy and rhythmic grace of the best of the Life Studies poems …it is nonetheless his first step towards extending the possibilities of his self-centeredness: towards treating his own torments as metaphors of public, even global, ills.

Such damning with faint praise was characteristic of Hamilton’s treatment of all but a few of Lowell’s poems, and it set the tone for the tacit revisionism that has greatly shortened the long shadow cast by Lowell over the poetry of the age a quarter of a century ago.

The Letters of Robert Lowell is sufficiently plump to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Collected Poems. Saskia Hamilton, no relation to Ian, has selected 711 letters from an undisclosed total. She writes that the “many wonderful letters” she has had to exclude from the book may sometime be published in a multivolume edition; it would have been helpful for the reader, to say the least, had she indicated just how many of Lowell’s letters now survive—are we looking at one in three? in five? in ten? Without that knowledge, and with no clue to her principles of selection, one can only say that this enthralling compilation feels broadly representative, even though it omits several important letters that are quoted or alluded to in the Hamilton biography. At any rate, I’ve spent a long time trying to sniff out some covert thematic bias and have found none worth reporting: so far as I can judge, the selection seems excellent, if a little wanting in the niceties of scholarly presentation.

Here, at last, is Lowell in vivid and complex chiaroscuro, living his “wayward but always rebounding life,” as he described it in a letter to his cousin, Harriet Winslow—more often well than ill, supremely dedicated to his vocation, blazingly intelligent, funny, a warm and generous friend. The “manic” letters arrive in irregular clusters, registering a total of fourteen major crack-ups for which he had tobe hospitalized in the twenty-eight years between 1949 and his death. Each cluster violently disrupts the prevailing current of sanity, in which Lowell gossips, tells stories, fights depression, argues, commiserates, talks shop, makes love, rehearses images for poems, all with such candor and impromptu eloquence that he makes a clear place for himself as one of the finest letter writers in modern literature.

Although there are earlier extant letters, Saskia Hamilton has chosen to begin with two letters that Lowell wrote to Ezra Pound in the spring of 1936, when he was slogging through his unsatisfactory freshman year at Harvard. Like an aspiring fifteenth-century painter seeking a place in Leonardo’s workshop, Lowell proposed that Pound should take him on as his apprentice: “I want to come to Italy and work under you and forge my way into reality.” The freshman explained that after going through a series of schoolboy crazes, including collecting marbles and turtles, birdwatching, and an obsession with Napoleon, he had come to poetry as a result of reading Homer “thru the dish-water of Bryant’s 19th century translation.” Homer’s world “contained a God higher than anything I had ever known, and yet his world blinked at no realities.” “All my life I had thought of poets as the most contemptible moth so you can see how violently I was molded and bent.” At Harvard, Lowell lamented, “I have yearned after iron and have been choked with cobwebs.” Having flattered Pound for recreating (in The Cantos) “what I have imagined to be the blood of Homer,” Lowell promised him, “You shan’t be sorry. I will bring the steel and fire, I am not theatric, and my life is sober not sensational.”

Heaven knows what Pound made of this. The letter’s swaggering pastiche of the Poundian manner, its mixture of boldness, humility, and awkwardness, its blurted confidences (about collecting more marbles and agates than any other boy at school, about having “never mixed well or really lived in the usual realities”), its more than faint smack of patrician entitlement, its precocious oddity, must have raised an eyebrow at the breakfast table. Pound had had his fill of Lowells since the days when Amy Lowell hijacked the Imagist movement and turned it into “Amygism.” But he evidently made some kind of prevaricatory reply, for Lowell was soon back, complaining that “your tone is hard to catch,” then launching into a critique of The Cantos that was designed to show Pound how the apprentice could improve on and outdo the master. For all its “quantity, music, directness, and realism,” Pound’s work was full of too many “spondées and compound nouns,” and essentially “static,” while Lowell meant to “bring back momentum and movement in poetry on a grand scale, to master your tremendous machinery and to carry your standard further into the century.”

At nineteen, Lowell knew exactly what he had to do and who he had to be—the standard-bearer of literary modernism in the second half of the twentieth century. One sees why his friends at the time, Blair Clark and Frank Parker—his first disciples—lived in awe of him, and also why Ford Madox Ford would remark a few months later that Lowell was the most intelligent person he’d met in Boston. There’s something both impressive and a little scary in the teenage Lowell’s inflexible resolve and certainty of ambition. Everything was in place except the poetry. While the letters to Pound are unmistakably “Lowellian,” the few poems that survive from his school and college days give no real hint of the style that would first become apparent in Land of Unlikeness, published in 1944 when Lowell was twenty-seven, with the furious “momentum and movement” of such poems as “The Drunken Fisherman.”

After his grim experience of family life in the tense and unhappy household of 91 Revere Street, it was inevitable that Lowell would try to build for himself an alternative, loving family of friends, if only to ensure that he would never again have to endure the “fogbound solitudes” of his boyhood. Pitching a tent on the lawn of Allen Tate’s house in Clarksville, Tennessee, in the summer of 1937, Lowell asserted his membership of the literary tribe where he found his truest parents and siblings, ancestors and cousins—a great multigenerational, affectionate, quarrelsome family of the kind that he must have dreamed of belonging to as a child.

By his mid-thirties, he was friends with, among others, Eliot, Pound, Williams, Frost, Santayana, Tate, Ransom, Warren, Jarrell, Bishop, Berryman, Mary McCarthy, J.F. Powers, Peter Taylor, Theodore Roethke, Delmore Schwartz, and Flannery O’Connor. He was married to Elizabeth Hardwick, and had earlier been married to Jean Stafford. Letters, most often signed “Love, Cal” to men as to women, were his means of sustaining this web of intimate relationships with an ever-growing circle (though it now looks more like a literary tradition) of writer friends. He was a tireless correspondent: the mail kept friendship alive, and nearly all Lowell’s friendships were ended only by death. A sonnet in Notebook quotes a grateful letter from Elizabeth Bishop: “Your last letter helped,/like being mailed a lantern or a spiked stick.” Reading Lowell here, one sees what she meant.

Bishop, introduced to him by Randall Jarrell in 1947, was like the sister he’d never had. Their work was almost uncannily complementary, and it’s hard to imagine how Lowell would have made the transition from the rhetorical verve and fervor of Lord Weary’s Castle and The Mills of the Kavanaughs to the restrained delicacy and precision of Life Studies without Bishop’s encouragement and example. Except in the throes of mania, when all such distinctions ceased to exist, there was safety and comfort for him in the fact that Bishop was lesbian and therefore out of bounds. Her far-flung addresses, in Florida and Brazil, made her the ideal recipient of news and gossip from inside the literary and political swim.

  1. *

    Robert Lowell: A Biography by Ian Hamilton (Random House, 1982), p. 530.

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