Pudding Stone

Robert Lowell: Life and Art

by Steven Gould Axelrod
Princeton University Press, 286 pp., $14.50

Robert Lowell
Robert Lowell; drawing by David Levine

Because it is the first work on Robert Lowell to appear since his death sixteen months ago, Steven Axelrod’s new book will be looked to for some first glimpse of a comprehensive view, consciously phrased in the light of the end of the poetic canon (only a few poems remain unpublished). The myth of Lowell’s life and work proposed by Axelrod—my noun is not in itself a criticism, because all accounts of a career reveal an implicit myth—does not differ very much at first from the received ideas which by now encrust the Lowell canon: after apprentice work imitative of Tate in Land of Unlikeness (1944) Lowell becomes famous with his first notable book, Lord Weary’s Castle (1946), which encompasses “three related themes…history, current events, and God.” The Mills of the Kavanaughs (1951) is a mistake, Life Studies (1959) is the great watershed, Imitations (1961) is really a book of personal poems, not translations. Axelrod’s recapitulations take on a personal shape when he turns to the later books. He praises For the Union Dead (1964) while admitting its “drought”; he is uncertain about Near the Ocean (1967), especially about the title poem; and he is positively impatient with Notebook 1967-68 and its two recastings, first as Notebook (1970), then as History and For Lizzie and Harriet (1973).

For Axelrod, the quintessential Lowell is to be found in The Dolphin (1973); though he is polite to Day by Day (1977), he writes only sketchily about it. The poems receiving “major treatment” are, predictably, “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” “Skunk Hour,” “For the Union Dead,” “Waking Early Sunday Morning,” and the prologue and epilogue to The Dolphin. Lowell’s religious, artistic, and political engagements are recounted in some detail; the marriages are briefly mentioned. Various influences are proposed, with the chief drama of influence lying in the opposed attractions of Tate (“European,” formalist, metrically regular and rhymed) and Williams (“American,” open, metrically free and unrhymed). The general thesis of Axelrod’s book, suggested by his subtitle, is that Lowell, after being too greatly preoccupied with art and symbols, achieved in Life Studies a “breakthrough” by writing about “direct experience and not symbols” (Lowell’s words) and that “all of Lowell’s subsequent work centered around his quest for the craft and inspiration to bring even more experience into his art, and his related quest to account for the place art makes in experience.” Axelrod concedes that “art and experience continued to retain an important thin edge of distinctness for Lowell—art was experience that had been ‘worked up,’ imagined into form,” but the tendency of this book is to blur that “thin edge,” as Axelrod passes systematically from “life” to “art,” episode by episode, through Lowell’s decades of writing.

The inconceivable gap—no “thin edge”—which separates life from even the most apparently mimetic art does not figure in this book. Since only a few people in any given century…

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