The selected letters of Elizabeth Bishop (edited by Robert Giroux) and of Robert Lowell (edited by Saskia Hamilton) have been warmly praised and much quoted by biographers and critics. Thomas Travisano, one of Bishop’s most incisive commentators, has now joined with Saskia Hamilton to issue in a single book the moving thirty-year correspondence between Bishop and Lowell, revealing how this long literary and personal friendship developed and evolved, underwent painful strains, and always recovered. The poets were often geographically very distant from each other (Lowell in America, Bishop in Brazil; Lowell in England, Bishop in America); and even when they were on the same continent, they were rarely in the same state (Lowell in New York, Bishop in Oregon or Massachusetts). If they were to continue to be friends, it would have to be chiefly on the page; but each was so essential to the other that the correspondence—sometimes delayed, but always resumed—was never allowed to die.
To read through the eight hundred pages of this edition is of course unnatural; it exists to be looked into, to be browsed in, to be leafed through. (In absorbing this long relationship, the reader is greatly helped by the detailed annotation of the letters: Travisano and Hamilton have minutely identified every poem, every article, every person, every event mentioned by the poets.) Since many of the most significant literary letters had already been singled out by biographers and critics, even before the publication of the individual letter-editions, what remains to be gleaned from this new overview? It is the often delicate negotiation back and forth between two difficult and distressed poets, determined to keep the current of their writing truthful, yet equally determined to encourage and praise.
What was it that made “Cal” and “Elizabeth”—as they called each other—so necessary to each other’s happiness? Certainly, they both had other literary friends and acquaintances. Lowell had three literary wives—Jean Stafford, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Caroline Blackwood—but they were all novelists; it is probably no accident (in spite of his delight in intelligent and literary women) that he never married a poet. Before she ever met Lowell, Bishop had known—in a great stroke of luck—the long-lived Marianne Moore, who became a warmly interested mentor and friend. Lowell had as his closest Kenyon friends the novelist Peter Taylor and, more uneasily, the poet and critic (and novelist) Randall Jarrell. Yet Lowell and Bishop came together from their first meeting with an almost magnetic force, and clung to each other from then on. In fact, Lowell long cherished a fantasy (not shared by Bishop) that they might have married—and the fact that they did not was, he said, the one great might-have-been in his life.
As we see the letters against the background of the lives, we find the likenesses that brought the poets into close sympathy with each other. Poetry was the first and foremost: they were each other’s admiring readers. But there were …