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 many other resemblances. They both had trust funds, shared a mild upper-class snobbery, and did not have to work (an anomalous condition among poets, by and large). They both endured unsatisfactory childhoods: Bishop (an only child) had a father who died in her infancy and a mother who went permanently insane; Lowell (an only child) had a father who failed at everything he did and a mother who had not wanted him (see the poem “Unwanted”).
Both poets were tormented, throughout their adult lives, by ill health, mental and physical (Lowell by manic-depressive illness, which after the Sixties was partially but never completely controlled by lithium; Bishop by life-long depression, as well as by appalling allergies, dangerous asthma, and arthritis). Both damaged their health further through alcoholism, and were entirely aware of each other’s struggles with drink and its consequences (in Bishop’s case, shaming falls, crying jags, broken promises, and inability to work for long periods of time).
Each had a succession of erotic partners; each needed terribly to be taken care of. Both were utterly impractical; both for a while found partners who accepted their dependency (Bishop in her long relation with the dominating Lota de Macedo Soares in Brazil, Lowell in his long marriage to the remarkably patient and loving Elizabeth Hardwick). Yet each saw the apparently permanent arrangement crack: Lota committed suicide in Bishop’s New York apartment; Lowell fell in love with Caroline Blackwood while in England and married her. The letters between the poets follow all the griefs and soothe the wounds; there is a profound kindness in each toward the other during the catastrophes that attended them, and a real attempt to understand each other’s erotic decisions. They wish each other happiness even in the most improbable circumstances for attaining it.
But the relation between Bishop and Lowell could remain unbroken chiefly, one feels, because they never had to live together. There were brief visits back and forth, here and there, and a never-interrupted conversation that slid easily from utterance to writing. Writing letters was for Bishop—especially when she was living in a wholly Portuguese-speaking environment in Brazil—a way of talking in English. “Oh dear—now I don’t want to stop talking,” she says once she has started a letter. “Well, I didn’t mean to end on this note—“ she apologizes, after writing about the pain of Lota’s death, “so I’ll write two—or 200—more sentences on this page.” She quotes with amusement, but also with endorsement, Virgil Thomson’s remark that “one of the strange things about poets is the way they keep warm by writing to one another all over the world” (and one feels that Lowell and Moore were kept warm by Bishop as she was by them).
Bishop was too shy to talk comfortably on the phone, and in letters she found her best way of “talking”—one that left her free from the imaginative strain of composing poetry or stories or (worst of all) writing prose on command. Her fluency and freedom in letters woke a strain of gaiety in her that even in bad times was able to lighten her complaints. Part of the gaiety was the self-irony she had in common with Lowell: “I flatter myself we are both awfully well-preserved, don’t you think?” (she asked when she was nearing sixty). “But then when I see a snapshot of myself I wonder who that pleasant, foolish-looking old lady is….” Lowell matches her in self-irony: on his attempt to regain normalcy after an attack of lunacy, he comments:
Gracelessly, like a standing child trying to sit down, like a cat or a coon coming down a tree, I’m getting down my ladder to the moon.
One could see these letters as a set of self-portraits, set pieces at oblique angles, always with a relish in hyperbole, adjectives, metaphors, similes that illustrate the self.
Bishop’s lifelong enjoyment of letters by others led her to offer a course at Harvard in 1971 on “Personal Correspondence, Famous and Infamous.” She had written to Lowell in 1970 that
a very good course could be given on poets and their letters—starting away back. There are so many good ones—Pope, Byron, Keats of course, Hopkins, Crane, Stevens, Marianne.
Besides the poets, her course included her favorite dryly satiric letter-writer, the Anglican clergyman Sydney Smith (“He’s the person who can always cheer me up,” she told me, impulsively lending me her own copy as a cure for what ailed me at the moment).
Long before her Harvard course was conceived, in her forties, she was writing to Lowell,
I have just finished the Yeats Letters—900 & something pages—although some I’d read before. He is so Olympian always, so calm, so really unrevealing, and yet I was fascinated.
Yeats is nonetheless reproved for including trivia:
Why do so many famous men have to write hundreds of letters about after-lunch-I-lie-down-for-an-hour, and now—I’m eating fruit-&-vegetables…. Well, he has magnificence, even so.
Lowell shared Bishop’s relish for letters, and her taste in authors: when Bishop wrote him a disapproving letter he replied by saying, “I feel like [Robert] Bridges getting one of [Gerard Manley] Hopkins’ letters, as disturbed as I am grateful”—confident that Bishop would know just what he meant.
The poets’ unlimited ability to allude to, and mutually recognize, almost any canonical work gave their letters an emotional subtext always: when Lowell, depressed after an attack of mania, gave Bishop his own two-volume Works of George Herbert (earlier owned by other Lowells), he briefly quoted Herbert in his inscription: “Thy mouth was open, but thou couldst not sing.” They both knew the context—Herbert’s “Death,” in which he addresses the voiceless death’s-head; and Bishop silently understood that Lowell feared he could no longer write. Over and over, this “emotional shorthand” (Moore on Chinese poetry) of allusions unaccompanied by quotation marks is the infrastructure of their letters. A word from Eliot here, from Tennyson there, comes invisibly trailing a whole poem behind it, initiating a wordless sympathy.
These letters are almost always entertaining. The poets not only saw themselves ironically, they contemplated their own language ironically even as they were writing it. Stylists both, they were unable to remain unconscious of their deployment of words: Bishop stops in the middle of a comment on Randall Jarrell’s view of women to reproach herself for her unmonitored style:
And Oh dear! Randall on the subject of women! Why didn’t he think it over a little more! He can’t really think all those clichés or Mackie [his wife] would have left years ago, I should think….
—a lot of thinks here—
And Lowell, summing up his illness, arrantly conceives of a Gothic metaphor in high style, punning on the headless horseman of legend: “My disease, alas, gives one (during its seizures) a headless heart.” But the most diverting elements here, on both sides, are the meant-to-amuse passages, sent because they would be delightedly consumed. Lowell’s are centered on people, because he had an interest in character and society almost matching that of a novelist. He was jealous of Bishop’s lyric transparency: “I feel so envious, old portraitist and dramatic monologist that I am.” (I asked him once why he so admired the poems of Hardy, and he said, “Because they’re about the real relations between men and women”—one of his own chief subjects.) His social set pieces sent to Bishop have a grotesque comedy. I quote the one describing the London household of William Empson, the English literary critic who had taught for some years in China; the dramatis personae include Empson’s wife Hetta and Lowell’s friend the painter Frank Parker:
I saw quite a lot of Empson. They live in a hideous 18 room house on the edge of Hampstead Heath. Each room is as dirty and messy as Auden’s New York apartment. Strange household: Hetta Empson, six feet tall, still quite beautiful, five or six young men, all sort of failures at least financially, Hetta’s lover, a horrible young man, dark, cloddish, thirty-ish, soon drunk, incoherent and offensive, William [Empson], Frank Parker red-faced, drinking gallons, but somehow quite uncorrupted, always soaring off from the conversation with a chortle. And what else? A very sweet son of 18, another, Hetta’s, not William’s, Harriet’s age. Chinese dinners, Mongol dinners. The household had a weird, sordid nobility that made other Englishmen seem like a veneer.