On Robert Lowell

From a memorial address given at St. Luke’s Church, Redcliffe Square, London, October 5, 1977.

I can recall being shy of meeting him, and perhaps others were too, because of that nimbus of authority that ringed his writings and his actions. In his fifties here in England, he already had the status of classic. Yet because of the way he divined us when we did meet him, he bound us to him as a person. In a room full of people, his quick scanning eyes could throw a grappling hook to the person he was meeting, as he came forward, half buoyant, half somnambulant, on the balls of his feet, his voice at once sharp and sidling. At those tentative moments, and on other more leisurely occasions when he could play the stops and pull the carpet in a conversation, he touched and strung in us a chord of fidelity and gratitude that we are gathered here to play once more.

That medieval phrase, “the fall of princes,” kept surfacing in my head for days after his death. Just as in that older dispensation the order and coherence of things were ratified in the person of the prince, so in the person and poetry of Robert Lowell the scope and efficacy of the artistic endeavor seemed exemplified and affirmed. He did not pitch his voice at “the public” but he so established the practice of art as a moral function within his own life that when he turned outward to make gestures against the quality of the life of his times those gestures had been well earned and possessed a memorable force. He alone had the right to call his conscientious objection to the Second World War a “manic statement,” but his open letter declining an invitation to the White House in 1965 was dignified and more potent than other, more clamorous, if equally well-intentioned, protests that followed.

He spoke at that time with a dynastic as well as an artistic voice, recalling how both sides of his family had a long history of service to the rem publicam, and this preoccupation with ancestry was a constant one. From beginning to end, his poems called up and made inquisition of those fathers who had shaped him and the world he inhabited. When he was a young poet graves and graveyards stirred his imagination, and there is a morose funerary splendor about his early meditations on the New England heritage: their rhetoric is both plangent and pugnacious, as they “lurch / for forms to harness Heraclitus’ stream.” The voice we hear in them is oracular and penitential, and its purpose is redemptive, as if by its effort toward understanding and its pining for transcendence it might conjure an “unblemished Adam” from what he was later to call “the unforgivable landscape.”

To the very end, memory remained for him both a generating and a judicial faculty. Indeed, I can think of no more beautiful evocation of its relevance to Robert Lowell’s…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.