In March 1957 Robert Lowell began his fortieth year with a reading tour of the West Coast. It was a strenuous trip, with readings “at least once a day and sometimes twice” for fourteen days, and he was later to describe it as an important influence on his quest for a “new style.” The Beat poets had already trained California audiences to believe that poetry could be enjoyed by the untrained, and Lowell found himself willing to make some small compromises:
At that time, poetry reading was sublimated by the practice of Allen Ginsberg. I was still reading my old New Criticism religious, symbolic poems, many published during the war. I found—it’s no criticism—that audiences didn’t understand, and I didn’t always understand myself while reading.
Lowell began simplifying poems as he read, adding syllables, translating Latin into English: “I’d make little changes just impromptu…. I began to have a certain disrespect for the tight forms. If you could make it easier by just changing syllables, then why not?” In fact, Lowell’s respect for tight forms had been crumbling since 1953; that is to say, he knew then (and probably earlier, with the reviews of The Mills of the Kavanaughs) that whatever he wrote next, it would not be in strict meter. Indeed, he had already written several pieces that “broke meter”: his poem “Ford Madox Ford,” for instance, was first published in the spring of 1954.1
Lowell’s difficulty, however, was that rhyme and meter were for him very close to being the “natural speech” that William Carlos Williams and his followers were always calling for. The iambic pentameter was not an external, imposed literary method; after three books, it had become compulsive utterance. And it was probably harder for Lowell to discard rhymes than to invent them. Williams, he felt, was unique, but “dangerous and difficult to imitate.” His disciples were spiritless and programmatic. Although Lowell was in regular, admiring contact with the older poet at this time and had been particularly dazzled by a reading Williams had given at Wellesley in 1956 (“somehow he delivered to us what was impossible, something that was both poetry and beyond poetry”),2 he knew that the lessons he could learn from him would always be of the most general kind: loosen meter, abandon rhyme, use ordinary speech, introduce more characters, and so on. Even the very personal poems that Williams was writing in the mid-Fifties were of a radiant simplicity that Lowell could marvel at but never think to copy: “Williams enters me, but I could never enter him.”3
All the same, by 1957 Lowell had learned to mistrust both the means and the temper of his earlier work, the “used equipment,” the “inertia of our old rhetoric and habits”: for eighteen months the sober, therapeutic compromise had been to write in prose. And the compromise had been instructive. He had taken to studying prose texts in his poetry classes—“In prose you have to be interested in what is being said…it’s very exciting for me, like going fishing,” he wrote to Randall Jarrell. He had discovered a (for him) new style of formal discourse—paradoxical, ironic, whimsically oblique but capable of elegiac weight. He had learned how to give voice to a wide range of what might be called the moderate emotions: affection, regret, nostalgia, embarrassment, and so on. He had become an expert at contriving sentences that could be elevated and yet speakable, and had found a literary voice that could encompass something of his social self—that is to say, the teasing, mischievous, gently sardonic side of his own nature.
The obvious next step for Lowell was to perceive that some, if not all, of these considerable gains could be carried over into poetry, that if elements of rhyme and meter could be injected into the sane and solid corpus of his prose reminiscences, he would in effect have found a new but “safe” function for many of the “old tricks” he had been ready to abandon. The “excitement” of poetry could vitalize and be restrained by the sturdy, detailed worldliness of prose:
When I was working on Life Studies, I found I had no language or meter that would allow me to approximate what I saw or remembered. Yet in prose I had already found what I wanted, the conventional style of autobiography and reminiscence. So I wrote my autobiographical poetry in a style I thought I had discovered in Flaubert, one that used images and ironic or amusing particulars. I did all kinds of tricks with meter or the avoidance of meter. When I didn’t have to bang words into rhyme and count, I was more nakedly dependent on rhythm.4
And, of course, Lowell’s prose “studies” not only suggested a new style; they also offered an almost limitless new subject. In 1976, the year before he died, looking back over his life’s work, Lowell was to acknowledge that “the thread that strings it together is my autobiography, it is a small-scale Prelude, written in many different styles and with digressions, yet a continuing story….”5 In his first three books, autobiography had been oblique, almost clandestine; now he was free to be both distorting and direct. It seems never to have occurred to him that his personal history might not be of considerable public interest. And this, as Elizabeth Bishop pointed out to him, was his huge natural advantage:
And here I must confess (and I imagine most of your contemporaries would confess the same thing) that I am green with envy of your kind of assurance. I feel I could write in as much detail about my uncle Artie, say,—but what would be the significance? Nothing at all. He became a drunkard, fought with his wife, and spent most of his time fishing…and was ignorant as sin. It is sad; slightly more interesting than having an uncle practicing law in Schenectady maybe, but that’s about all. Whereas all you have to do is put down the names! And the fact that it seems significant, illustrative, American etc. gives you, I think, the confidence you display about tackling any idea or theme, seriously, in both writing and conversation. In some ways you are the luckiest poet I know!
From mid-August through October 1957 Lowell completed eleven poems in free verse—many of them turned into free verse from a first draft in couplets. He wrote to William Carlos Williams:
I’ve been writing poems like a house on fire, i.e. for me that means five in six weeks, fifty versions of each. I’ve been experimenting with mixing loose and free meters with strict in order to get one accuracy, naturelness [sic], and multiplicity of the prose, yet, I also want the state and surge of the old verse, the carpentry of definite meter that tells me when to stop rambling. There’s no ideal form that does for any two of us, I think. P.S. I see I forgot to say that I feel more and more technically indebted to you, growing young in my forties!
These poems included final versions of “Beyond the Alps,” “Words for Hart Crane,” “Inauguration Day: January 1953” and “To Delmore Schwartz” (this last a poem he’d begun in 1946). The new poems were “Skunk Hour,” “Man and Wife” (though, interestingly, the superbly metrical first lines of this had been written three months earlier), “Memories of West Street and Lepke,” “To Speak of the Woe That Is in Marriage” (originally part of “Man and Wife”), “My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow,” “Commander Lowell,” and “Terminal Days at Beverly Farms.” In October he wrote—rather nervously—to Randall Jarrell:
I’ve been writing poems lately again, my first in a good four years. And I want to try them out on you! Do you feel in the mood? I’ll send one [“Skunk Hour”], and then if I get a peep out of you, will follow it with four or five more. I’ve been loosening up the meter, as you’ll see and horsing out all the old theology and symbolism and verbal violence.
Two weeks later he heard that Jarrell did like “Skunk Hour,” and he wrote again:
I’ve been working like a skunk, doggedly and happily since mid-August and have seven or eight poems finished (?) some quite long and all very direct and personal. They are mostly written in a sort of free verse that takes off from the irregularities of my Ford poem. I’ll get them typed up for you next week and mail them off. I’ll be very sad if you don’t like them.
In the first of these letters to Jarrell (October 11), Lowell remarks, “There’s a new English poet called Larkin that I like better than anyone since [Dylan] Thomas. I’ve been reading him since the Spring and really like him better than Thomas.” In his second letter (October 24) he recommends that Jarrell read the poems by W.D. Snodgrass which have appeared in an anthology called The New Poets of England and America: “I’m sure you remember him with his silly name and his Mahler songs. I had him off and on in classes at Iowa for years and thought that he had done one or two of the best poems that my students had written there.”6
In the case of the two younger poets, Lowell’s interest was not to do with matters of technique: Larkin used conventional forms, Snodgrass an intricate system of syllabics. It was more that, “unlike our smooth young poets,” each of them “says something.” Lowell spoke later, in an interview, of Snodgrass’s “pathos and fragility…fragility along the edges and a main artery of power going through the center,” and he admired the way in which Snodgrass’s sequence “Heart’s Needle” managed to treat with a kind of wry nobility a subject that in other hands might not have avoided sweetness and self-pity: the separation, by divorce, of the poet from his baby daughter. In Larkin he found irony, self-deprecation, a mockingly repressed unease, a willingness to speak directly out of intimate, if mediocre, states of feeling. With both poets the reader is more eavesdropper than audience; in both there is an antibardic element, an insistence on the poet as an ordinary man, with ordinary problems.
During 1957, Lowell had also been reading (and seeing) much of Elizabeth Bishop. He had often enough expressed his admiration of her “humorous commanding genius for picking up the unnoticed,” and he had warmly reviewed her first book, North and South, in 1947; ten years later, poems like “Florida” and “At the Fishhouses” would have come back to him with an exemplary new vividness. In 1947 he had written indulgently of her “bare objective language” and merely noted that “most of her meters are accentual-syllabic.” In 1957, though, he saw her as “a sort of bridge between Tate’s formalism and Williams’s informal art.” Again it was a combination of high, unfettered artfulness and “thinking-aloud” emotional directness that appealed to him. Bishop—with her intently charted shorelines, her humanly caught but still nonhuman creatures of the deep, her almost devout regard for humble details—offered a thoroughly “sound” model for a poet looking for ways into his own worldliness. And a poem like “Man-Moth” would have intensified his sense of fellow feeling; Bishop’s fine poem showed that there were ways of writing about, as well as out of, desperation:
Each night he must
be carried through artificial tunnels and dream recurrent dreams.
Just as the ties recur beneath his train, these underlie
his rushing brain. He does not dare look out the window,
for the third rail, the unbroken draught of poison,
runs there beside him. He regards it as a disease
he has inherited susceptibility to.
He has to keep
his hands in his pockets, as others must wear mufflers.
If you catch him,
hold up a flashlight to his eye. It’s all dark pupil,
an entire night itself, whose haired horizon tightens
as he stares back, and closes up the eye. Then from the lids
one tear, his only possession, like the bee’s sting, slips.
Slyly he palms it, and if you’re not paying attention
he’ll swallow it. However, if you watch, he’ll hand it over,
cool as from underground springs and pure enough to drink.
In the summer of 1957 Lowell spent hours in conversation with Elizabeth Bishop. She had visited Boston from Brazil, where she was living. “Before she had gone we had told each other almost everything that ever happened to us. She really has risen from the ocean’s bottom,” he wrote to Jarrell. Her response to his new poems was all that Lowell could have wished:
I find I have here surely a whole new book of poems, don’t I? I think all the family group—some of them I hadn’t seen in Boston—are really superb, Cal. I don’t know what order they’ll come in, but they make a wonderful and impressive drama, and I think in them you’ve found the new rhythm you wanted. Without hitches. Could they have some sort of general title….”Commander Lowell,” “Terminal Days at Beverly Farms,” “My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow” (the one I like best, I think. I think I’d like the title without the “my” maybe—to go with “Terminal Days” better?) “Sailing from Rapallo,” which is almost too awful to read, but a fine poem. They all also have that sure feeling, as if you’d been in a stretch (I’ve felt that way for very short stretches once in a long while) when everything, and anything suddenly seemed material for poetry—or not material, seemed to be poetry, and all the past was illuminated in long shafts here and there, like a long-waited-for sunrise. If only one could see everything that way all the time! It seems to me it’s the whole purpose of art, to the artist (not to the audience)—life is all right, for the time being. Anyway, when I read such an extended display of imagination as this, I feel it for you….
Bishop goes on to say that she still likes “the skunk one enormously” (“Skunk Hour” is dedicated to her), but she modestly supposes that “it’s exercises compared to the other ones.”
Lowell also sent his new poems to Allen Tate. Tate wrote back to him on December 3. His letter confirmed the extent of Lowell’s defection from the traditionalist camp, from the “rooftree” of Tate’s influence. It was almost as if Tate had suffered a personal—or even filial—betrayal. The only poem Tate liked was “Skunk Hour” (“very fine”—perhaps because it is in neat sestets and has an almost regular rhyme scheme), and he grudgingly allowed that the rhymed and metrical “Inauguration Day: January 1953” could be published “without compromise.” As to the rest:
all the poems about your family, including the one about you and Elizabeth [Hardwick], are definitely bad. I do not think you ought to publish them. You didn’t ask me whether they ought to be published, but I put the matter from this point of view in order to underline my anxiety about them. I do not mean to say that in some of these there are not sharp and even brilliant passages like the old Cal; it is simply that by and large, and in the total effect, the poems are composed of unassimilated details, terribly intimate, and coldly noted, which might well have been transferred from the notes from your autobiography without change.
The free verse, arbitrary and without rhythm, reflects this lack of imaginative focus. Your fine poems in the past present a formal ordering of highly intractable materials: but there is an imaginative thrust towards a symbolic order which the new poems seem to lack. The new ones sound to me like messages to yourself, or perhaps they are an heroic effort of the will to come to terms with the harsh incongruities of your childhood and of your later struggles with your parents, and you are letting these scattered items of experience have their full impact upon your sensibility. Quite bluntly, these details, presented in causerie and at random, are of interest only to you. They are, of course, of great interest to me because I am one of your oldest friends. But they have no public or literary interest.
To others, Tate was putting his objections even more forthrightly: these loose, self-centered poems made him wonder if Lowell wasn’t on the brink of a manic episode. Lowell had not had a breakdown for three years and Elizabeth Hardwick was indignant when she heard that Tate was originating rumors of this sort. There had, she might have admitted, been a short spell during the summer when both she and Elizabeth Bishop had been worried that Lowell was getting dangerously “high,” but by early December Bishop was able to congratulate her friend on somehow having averted a full-scale attack—“the whole phenomena [sic] of your quick recovery and simultaneous productivity seems to me in looking back to be the real marvel of my summer.” Later Bishop recalled, according to a friend, that “one reason she left Castine—with her friend Lota—after a few days was that she felt Cal was getting sick and part of it was getting very amorous with her. There was this reawakened interest in her as someone he was in love with.” And it was almost at this point that Lowell wrote his poem “The Two Weeks’ Vacation,” which recalls a 1947 visit to Bishop. The poem’s final stanza reads, in part:
And now ten years later, I see you to your plane in Bangor.
You are thirty pounds lighter,
Your uncertain fingers that float to your lips.
And you kiss them to me, and our fellowship
Resumes its old transcendence like a star.
After Bishop’s departure, Elizabeth Hardwick had reported to Lowell’s cousin Harriet Winslow (the surviving relation he felt closest to), “Bobby is fine. The happiest, healthiest couple are always writing the most brooding, neurasthenic works! This has indeed been one of our best times—this last year or so.” And as to the poems, Hardwick knew just how many hours of revision had gone into them (indeed she had herself helped with a good deal of the rewriting, and the manuscripts of Lowell’s prose pieces bear extensive evidence of her editorial advice). She told Tate that the three and a half months in which Lowell had been working on Life Studies had in fact been “marvellously quiet ones with us”: “he was not sick when he worked over and over those poems and I don’t agree with you in the least about them.”
By the time Hardwick had got around to scolding Tate, however, his diagnosis, or prediction, had been “uncannily” proved right. In early December, after a reading trip to Washington and New York, Lowell was unignorably beginning to speed up. For Hardwick, it was the familiar dilemma: these excitements could burn themselves out, she would tell herself, they didn’t always carry him “right off the track.” For the moment, she decided to wait and see. Unhappily, she didn’t have to wait for long. Dido Merwin, then married to the poet W.S. Merwin, recently recalled the day when Lowell decided to invite “le tout Boston” to an impromptu party—so impromptu that Hardwick learned about it only a few moments before the McGeorge Bundys actually arrived at her front door.
And up the stairs they streamed. Ivor and Dorothea Richards, Frost, Edmund Wilson, Mrs. Edmund Wilson…. I think Adrienne Rich was there. And Arthur Schlesinger—but everybody. Gertrude Buckman was in the kitchen crying. And Cal got Frost up into Harriet’s night nursery. Edmund Wilson fell down, or someone knocked him down. There was a table covered in glasses and Cal came up to this corner where a number of us were circulating, including Lizzie, and he sat down in a chair and dashed the glasses off the table with his feet and sat there, with his feet on the drinks table, surrounded by broken glass, and shouted, “Lizzie, Bill [Merwin] says Hiss wasn’t guilty.” Dorothea and Ivor Richards were sitting on the sofa and Dorothea said to me, “What a lovely party. Everybody’s having such fun!” There were punch-ups. There were insults. And Cal was just going round like the devil putting people against each other. It was the most extraordinary party—an absolute triumph for Cal…. The extraordinary thing was that nobody seemed to realize that he was mad.
In fact, probably everyone realized, but was too drunk to care. William Alfred, the Harvard medievalist who had recently become a close friend of the Lowells, remembers that his role at the party (agreed upon beforehand with Hardwick) was to see that all drinks were regularly stiffened: by this means, perhaps no one would hear when Lowell announced that celebrity X was indeed “the best second-rate poet in the city of Boston.” The strategy proved an incomplete success.
Some seventy-two sleepless hours after the party, the police were called. Lowell’s own psychiatrist had visited but had swiftly been sent packing. “It was terrible,” Hardwick remembers. “Everybody was milling around and we couldn’t do anything with him…he was just totally out of his mind.” In the end, Lowell was persuaded to accept treatment but insisted on being committed to one of the city’s public hospitals; his preference was for the fearsomely named Boston Psychopathic. William Alfred describes what happened:
Cal agreed to be admitted to the Boston Psychopathic, but only if he was accompanied by an old school friend of his, whom I would rather not identify. This friend was now an extremely elegant Boston swell and when the circumstances were explained to him, he agreed to meet Cal at the police station. So the police arrived at Marlborough Street to take him away. Before he left, he wanted to sit for a few moments in [his daughter] Harriet’s room and watch her sleep. He did this, with me telling the cops: “He won’t be long.” Then we left in the police wagon. And I remember the look on Cal’s face—it was as if the real Cal, the Cal I knew, were looking out at me from within the mania. It was very moving. I’d never seen him crazy. Then when we got to the police station they treated him very roughly—they wouldn’t even give him a glass of water. But his school friend arrived then, and he told the cop: “You will give Mr. Lowell a glass of water and you will keep a civil tongue in your head!” It was a bit better after that. Then we took him to the hospital. It was like taking a kid to boarding school and then having to walk away, having to leave him there. They took his clothes away. When I left, he was standing there in his underclothes.
During Lowell’s brief stay at the Boston Psychopathic, he met a girl called Ann Adden, a “psychiatric field-worker” from Bennington College, and almost immediately began to announce plans for a “new life.” He was going to change his will and leave everything to his new love, he said. As for Ann Adden, she seems to have been thoroughly beguiled and on more than one occasion helped Lowell to play truant from the hospital.
After a week or so the hospital discharged him; he had quieted down, the doctors said, and they thought that letting him out would be, Elizabeth Hardwick wrote, a “bold therapeutic measure.” It is hard not to suspect that they simply wanted to be rid of him. Certainly, he was far from well and for the next month seemed to be thoroughly adrift; he shuttled between the house on Marlborough Street and a room on Harvard Square, some days protesting his love for Ann Adden and on others imploring Hardwick not to abandon the Marlborough Street house. A letter written on January 20, 1958, from Elizabeth Hardwick to Cousin Harriet, gives an idea of the almost tedious bewilderment that prevailed thoughout these weeks:
Well, he’s back, but even when I was talking to Bobby about the time you called I felt how unwise I was to have him here now. He is very, very far from well. On the telephone he sounds all right, calm and considerate, but in person the excitement, the unreal plans and demands, the unpredictability have hardly altered basically. There is a superficial alteration because of the drugs. But the deep underlying unreality is there, the fact that no one else’s feelings really exist, wild projects, etc. I have not taken him back—awful phrase.
But she would not refuse him refuge, and he could not bear to abandon his study, his books, his family furniture: “the most stabilizing factor has been the house! The last thing I would have thought for a person like Bobby.” It was as if, at some level, Lowell knew very well that his adventure would not last; even as he grandly declared to Hardwick, “I promise nothing,” he was ensuring that there would still be an old life to come back to:
As one friend of Lowell’s has described it:
Cal had to be “in love.” Poets were always in love. He adored the metaphor of these situations—him in hospital and some girl waiting for him in a ski-lodge in Vermont. But he’d quickly get bored—they wouldn’t understand what he was talking about.
For a few days at the end of January 1958 it seemed that this “boredom” had indeed begun to settle in. Lowell returned to Marlborough Street, and on January 24 Hardwick felt confident enough to announce that “Things are really much better!” He seemed “more himself,” had begun teaching again and correcting student papers. “He seems to be setting down, quieting down gradually. I suppose underneath it had been harder for him to come back to the world than we know.” Lowell also began to focus once again on the new poems and, in particular, on Tate’s scathing view of them. Also on the twenty-fourth he wrote to Tate:
Let’s not have a fight about my poems. I like them, and people as different as my Washington Winslow relation, Elizabeth Bishop, Philip Rahv and T.S. Eliot liked them and thought they topped my work. But you don’t have to and I want us to stay as good friends as ever.
You were uncannily right about my getting sick again. I had a bout of about a month in the Boston Psychopathic and am now back—in fact, I’ve been back teaching now for three weeks.
On January 31 Tate replied, and his air of caution suggests that he still suspected Lowell to be worryingly high:
I am a little baffled by your letter. I had no intention of having a “fight” with you or anybody else. I just don’t feel angry. What I thought was quite simple, and it had nothing to do with thinking you had “betrayed the persona” I had of you. I simply thought that the poems contained intractable material, and that you were probably in a transition period from your early style to a new one. You have certainly reached the age when this is likely to happen. Nor did I think the poems all bad. It seemed to me that the personal poems were a little morbid, private and unorganized; and I was not put off because they were not like your old work; rather because they lacked the concentration and power, lacking as they seemed to lack, the highly formalistic organization of the old. Won’t you put down my dissenting opinion as the one negative vote, and let the opinions of others count? We can’t expect all our friends to like what we do all the time.
Tate also thanked Lowell for having praised his last group of poems, but pointed out, “There is a good deal of time between me and them, and they are beginning to look like old poems”; and, again, he tried to reassure his old friend that there could be criticism without quarrels. “Why should I ‘cut’ you in March? Come to, Cal. This is greatly beside the point.”
But before Tate’s letter arrived in Boston, Lowell had relapsed. The brief lull seems merely to have recharged him, and before the end of January he was once again, Elizabeth Hardwick wrote, “active as electricity.” She arranged for him to be admitted to McLean Hospital outside Boston, and the doctors there pronounced him “truly under the complete domination of childhood fantasies.”
During his first week in a locked ward at McLean’s, Lowell wrote a draft of the poem he later called “Waking in the Blue.” The first draft is titled “To Ann Adden (Written during the first week of my voluntary stay at McLean’s Mental Hospital),” and it reads as follows:
Like the heart-toughening harpoon,
or steel plates of a press
needling, draining my heart—
What use is my sense of humor,
basking over “Jimmy,” now sunk in his sixties,
once a Harvard all-American (if such were possible from Har- vard)
still with the build of a boy in his twenties,
as he lolls, ram-rod,
with the luxuriance of a seal
in his long tub,
vaguely sulphurous from the Vic–
His bone brow is crowned with a red golf cap
all day, all night,
and he thinks only of his build,
gobbling ice-cream and ginger ale—
how to be more shut off from words than a seal.
Thus day breaks in Bowditch Hall at McLean’s;
it ends with ‘Hughey’ 29,
looking like Louis XVI
released from his white whig [sic],
reeking and rolly-polly as a sperm whale,
as he careens about naked,
horsing down chairs.
This fine figure of bravado ossified young.
In between the limits of day, here,
hours and hours go by under the crew haircuts,
and slightly too little non-sensical bachelor eyes
of the R.C. attendants
(there are no blue-blooded
old Boston screwballs in the Catho–
Ann, what use is my ability
for shooting the bull,
far from your Valkyrie body,
your gold-brown hair,
your robust uprightness—you, brisk
yet discrete [sic] in your conversa- tion!
(a week later)
The night-attendant, a B.U. stu–
rouses his cobwebby eyes
propped on his Social Relations text-book,
prowls drowsily down our cor–
Soon, soon, the solitude of Allah,
will make my agonized window bleaker.
What greater glory than recapturing the moment of glory
Snow’s falling. Farther off in time,
a more illuminating snow:
on the slopes of the Mittelsell,
near Franconia, topped by Mount Washington,
you loom back to me, Ann,
tears in your eyes, icicles on your eyelashes,
bridal Norwegian fringe
on your coat, the wooly lining of a coat.
Your salmon lioness face is dawn.
The bracelet on your right wrist jingles with trophies:
The enamelled Harvard pennant,
the round medallion of St. Mark’s School.
I could claim both,
for both were supplied by earlier,
now defunct claimants,
and my gold ring, almost half an inch wide,
now crowns your bracelet, cock of the walk there.
My Goddess…. But where in liter–
has a goddess been able to stand up
to flesh and blood?
A lioness, then. With Descartes
I can almost lower animals to the realm of machines.
Ann, how can I charade you
In a lioness’s wormy hide?—
massive, tawny, playful, lythe [sic]?
God be thanked, I now weigh 200 pounds,
have been a man for forty years;
You are 19,
see me still a St. Mark’s sixth former,
my symbol the Evangelist’s winged lion!
From these diffuse beginnings, the finished poem—worked on over a period of three months—was to become a supreme example of Lowell’s new “in-formality,” an informality seamed with high instinctive artifice (if such were possible!): small, almost whispered intrusions of alliteration and half-rhyme, a shrewd, suspenseful balancing of short and long lines, an almost ceremonial tightening here and there into strict meter or heroic couplet. In his first draft, Lowell really is informal, hasty, talkative; in the completed poem he makes every accent and line break earn its formal keep—he elevates exuberant chatter into haunting, measured eloquence:
WAKING IN THE BLUE
The night attendant, a B.U. sopho–
rouses from the mare’s-nest of his drowsy head
propped on The Meaning of Mean-
He catwalks down our corridor.
makes my agonized blue window bleaker.
Crows maunder on the petrified fairway.
Absence! My heart grows tense
as though a harpoon were sparring for the kill.
(This is the house for the “mentally ill.”)
What use is my sense of humor?
I grin at Stanley, now sunk in his sixties,
once a Harvard all-American full–
(if such were possible!)
still hoarding the build of a boy in his twenties,
as he soaks, a ramrod
with the muscle of a seal
in his long tub,
vaguely urinous from the Victorian plumbing.
A kingly granite profile in a crim–
worn all day, all night,
he thinks only of his figure,
of slimming on sherbet and ginger ale—
more cut off from words than a seal.
This is the way day breaks in Bowditch Hall at McLean’s;
the hooded night lights bring out “Bobbie,”
a replica of Louis XVI
without the wig—
redolent and roly-poly as a sperm whale,
as he swashbuckles about in his birthday suit
and horses at chairs.
These victorious figures of bravado ossified young.
In between the limits of day,
hours and hours go by under the crew haircuts
and slightly too little nonsensical bachelor twinkle
of the Roman Catholic attendants.
(There are no Mayflower
screwballs in the Catholic Church.)
After a hearty New England breakfast,
I weigh two hundred pounds
this morning. Cock of the walk,
I strut in my turtle-necked French sailor’s jersey
before the metal shaving mirrors,
and see the shaky future grow familiar
in the pinched, indigenous faces
of these thoroughbred mental cases,
twice my age and half my weight.
We are all old-timers,
each of us holds a locked razor.7
The thread of marine images—seals, turtles, sperm whales—is insinuated with a casual air, but it serves to lend true elegiac weight to the near-cartoon images of Stanley and Bobbie: two high-born and historical New England “wrecks,” each of them kingly, thoroughbred and ossified in the habits of their pampered childhoods, and each of them therefore a terrible mirror image for the strutting, grinning, cock-of-the-walk St. Mark’s and Harvard poet: “We are all old-timers, / each of us holds a locked razor.” (But could Stanley or Bobbie ever hope to pull off the rhyming triumph of those last five lines—“faces,” “cases,” and then the “a” sound of “age” and “weight” supplying the hoist forward to “locked razor”: a final rhyme superbly softened, inexact and ominous?)
“Waking in the Blue” is twenty-five lines shorter than the original “To Ann Adden,” and the missing lines are those that Lowell specifically addressed to his new love. It is not known whether or not Ann Adden saw “her” version of the poem; if she did, she probably didn’t like it much. In spite of its air of high-spirited infatuation, its transmutations are surely too awesomely grandscale: Ann Adden becomes lioness, Valkyrie, goddess—“massive, tawny, playful, lythe”: a high price to pay for happening to be of Nordic origin. And there is a distinct note of menace in Lowell’s reference to “earlier, now defunct, claimants” to the insignia she jingles on her wrist. She, too, the poem seems to say, will shortly be “defunct”—but only when Lowell has tired of his mischievous “charade,” or has become bored with her both as metaphor and as reverential playmate. William Alfred saw “the real Cal” looking out at him from within the mania; Ann Adden might well have felt the same when Lowell addressed her as
My Goddess…. But where in liter–
has a goddess been able to stand up
to flesh and blood?
A lioness, then. With Descartes
I can almost lower animals to the realm of machines.
And sure enough, by the time Lowell was finished with his poem, he was also finished with Ann Adden: there is a near-chilling efficiency in his final excisions—“Waking in the Blue” reveals no trace of its first “inspiration.” Ann Adden is both written out and written off. (Although later on, it should perhaps be said, there is further cause for uneasy admiration: in a poem called “1958,” published in 1964, 8 and in “Mania” ,9 Lowell resurrects half a dozen of the discarded “Ann Adden lines” and blithely recasts them into elegy.)
In January 1958, though, Ann Adden was still a lively presence. Although she was adopting a fairly guarded style—“This time you must get well and I must not interfere”—she was still a regular visitor to McLean’s, and was assiduously following a reading program Lowell had devised for her.
During March, Lowell was allowed to spend weekends at home, and by March 15 he was well enough to begin the now familiar round of repairing and explaining. To Cousin Harriet he wrote apologizing for a “foolish, harsh letter” he had sent her from McLean’s:
It’s funny how the head fills with monstrous determination; all one’s real loves and knowledges fly away; one stands reborn, scheming, lonely, silly. Please accept my brief and simple apology. I am deeply sorry the whole business happened and sorry that you had to hear about it.
And on the same day, he wrote to Peter Taylor:
It’s not much fun writing about these breakdowns after they themselves have broken and one stands stickily splattered with patches of the momentary bubble. Health; but not of a kind which encourages the backward look.
To both, Lowell was optimistic about his new course of “systematic therapy,” but his assurances had an automatic ring. For the moment, his real need was to lie low, to “get to know” his old life once again. He wrote Taylor:
Life is serene; we go to the movies, and concerts; Harriet takes us for long walks over the Public Gardens grass on Sundays; I’ve been translating some Italian and German poems and have a desk drawer full of fragmentary poems and autobiography. Elizabeth has been terrific, and we’re awfully glad to be together.
He felt that there were “good times ahead, and little Harriet will never see the shadow that has darkened us and gone. I don’t think this is whistling in the dark.”
This tentative, “recuperating” mood, though, is most memorably caught in the poem Lowell began working on shortly after—or perhaps during—his first weekend “release” from McLean’s. It was the weekend of his forty-first birthday (March 1, 1958), and on March 2 Hardwick wrote:
I am feeling much better and so at last is Bobby. He was at home Friday afternoon—we went to the Symphony and then had dinner together; yesterday, Saturday, was his birthday and we went to the movies in the afternoon, bathed baby Harriet, had dinner here by the fire listening to Marriage of Figaro before B went back to the hospital. Next weekend he will be out to stay here, but will go back to the hospital on Sunday. He wants to come back to us. Gradually he has been getting better and then, what seems suddenly but really isn’t, he is pretty much himself once more.
Lowell’s own account is called “Home After Three Months Away,” and the second stanza describes baby Harriet’s bath scene:
Three months, three months!
Is Richard now himself again?
Dimpled with exaltation,
my daughter holds her levee in the tub.
Our noses rub,
each of us pats a stringy lock of hair—
they tell me nothing’s gone.
Though I am forty-one,
not forty now, the time I put away
was child’s-play. After thirteen weeks
my child still dabs her cheeks
to start me shaving. When
we dress her in her sky-blue cor–
she changes to a boy,
and floats my shaving brush
and washcloth in the flush….
Dearest, I cannot loiter here
in lather like a polar bear.10
Sentimental? Well, almost—and that “almost” is of key importance in understanding what Lowell was now looking for in poetry. “Home After Three Months Away” probably owes something to the example of W.D. Snodgrass’s “Heart’s Needle,” and it is worth remembering Lowell’s response to an interviewer who suggested to him that Snodgrass’s “best poems are all on the verge of being slight and even sentimental.” Lowell said:
I think a lot of the best poetry is. Laforgue—it’s hard to think of a more delightful poet, and his prose is wonderful too. Well, it’s on the verge of being sentimental, and if he hadn’t dared to be sentimental he wouldn’t have been a poet. I mean, his inspiration was that. There’s some way of distinguishing between false sentimentality, which is blowing up a subject and giving emotions that you don’t feel, and using whimsical, minute, tender, small emotions which most people don’t feel but which Laforgue and Snodgrass do. So that I’d say he had pathos and fragility—but then that’s a large subject too.
“Home After Three Months Away” is redeemed from sentimentality by its sheer technical control: in the lines above, see how the irregularly placed rhymes—“tub”/”rub,” “put away”/”child’s-play”—seem to be struggling toward the regularity, the calm of the ensuing couplets. In his new style, Lowell was becoming masterly in letting a poem’s shape declare its mood. But there are other ways in which the poet here darkens a sweet domestic interlude—the poem is placed (in Life Studies) immediately after “Waking in the Blue” with its metal mirrors and its locked razors—simply to be able to shave freely has become a hard-won luxury for Lowell. And the line “Dearest, I cannot loiter here” is made doubly moving if we know that the poet is not really “home”—his weekend is over, he now has to leave his child and go back to the “house for the mentally ill.” And, of course, it was Lowell’s own “child’s-play,” his bearish foolery, that had required him to be “put away.” The kingly references—“Is Richard now himself again,” “my daughter holds her levee in the tub”—force us back to Stanley in his “long tub” and Bobbie, the “replica of Louis XVI,” Lowell’s McLean’s playmates.
There are other, more secret ways in which “Home After Three Months Away” relates to Lowell’s view of his own mania as “child’s-play.” The first stanza, for example, reads:
Gone now the baby’s nurse,
a lioness who ruled the roost
and made the Mother cry.
She used to tie
gobbets of porkrind in bowknots of gauze—
three months they hung like soggy toast
on our eight foot magnolia tree,
and helped the English sparrows
weather a Boston winter.
In life, the Lowells did have a “terrifying maid who hangs suet bones for the starlings on our poor little magnolia—this last is sober truth, but I don’t ask belief.” Lowell had written this to Peter Taylor some two years before. And Elizabeth Hardwick has said:
The fact is that we had a conventional Scotch nurse for a time and I did not like her at all, but was reluctant to let her go and finally got the courage. The “suet” did not really happen to us. We saw it on a tree next door and thought it rather odd and sweet. (I was in a greatly distressed state about the nurse and I did “cry.”)
But hidden within the first three lines is something more than mere domestic data. For Lowell, Ann Adden had been the “lioness” to his “St. Mark’s winged lion”; she had also been a “nurse”—literally so, when he first met her at the Boston Psychopathic. She too has now “gone,” she will no longer make “the Mother cry.” For a time, Lowell seems to be saying, he himself had been a “baby” and the nurse/lioness Ann Adden had displaced his real “mother,” Elizabeth Hardwick. It was only in the very last versions of the poem that Lowell capitalized Harriet’s “mother” into a “Mother” figure. It could hardly be a more subterranean apology; indeed, it is unlikely that anyone other than Lowell himself would have been able to make the “lioness” connection. Many readers, however, might have been puzzled by the rather too weighty inversion of the opening line, “Gone now the baby’s nurse,” and might therefore agree that the gravitas becomes more understandable if one accepts that Lowell here uses a real-life coincidence (the “terrifying maid” had left Marlborough Street by the time Lowell came out of McLean’s) to smuggle in a very private renunciation of Ann Adden.
In one of his many drafts of “Home After Three Months Away” Lowell ended the poem as follows:
My madness gathered strength
to roll all sweetness to a ball
in color, tropical…
Now I am frizzled, stale and small.
The allusion is to Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”:
Let us roll all our Strength and all
Our Sweetness up into one Ball,
And tear our Pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the Iron gates of Life:
Thus, though we cannot make our Sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.
A fine description, Lowell would have felt, of the manic resolve he was now “cured” of; and also of the high energy and reckless idealism which, in theory and in others, he would always prize above timidity or common sense. The diagnosed “manic-depressive” will surely always have a buried yearning for the “tropical” terrain of his affliction; and the pursuit of “health” will in some measure always be more contractual than voluntary. The closing lines of “Home After Three Months Away” can be read as an expression of the cyclical, biochemical onset of “depression”; unscientifically, however, they are pure lament for the surrendered infancy of madness:
Recuperating, I neither spin nor toil.
Three stories down below,
a choreman tends our coffin’s length of soil,
and seven horizontal tulips blow.
Just twelve months ago,
these flowers were pedigreed
imported Dutchmen; now no one need
distinguish them from weed.
Bushed by the late spring snow,
they cannot meet
another year’s snowballing ener–
I keep no rank nor station.
Cured, I am frizzled, stale and small.
As always, Hardwick marveled at Lowell’s “recuperative powers”; they were “almost as much of a jolt as his breakdowns; that is, knowing him in the chains of illness you could, for a time, not imagine him otherwise.” And yet, she has said, he always managed to return to life “intact”:
…it seemed so miraculous that the old gifts of person and art were still there, as if they had been stored in some serene, safe box somewhere. Then it did not seem possible that the dread assault could return to hammer him into bits once more.
He “came to” sad, worried, always ashamed and fearful; and yet there he was, this unique soul for whom one felt great pity. His fate was like a strange, almost mythical two-engined machine, one running to doom and the other to salvation. Out of the hospital, he returned to his days, which were regular, getting up in the morning, going to his room or separate place for work. All day long he lay on the bed, propped up on an elbow. And this was his life, reading, studying and writing. The papers piled up on the floor, the books on the bed, the bottles of milk on the window sill, and the ashtray filled.
He looked like one of the great photographs of Whitman, taken by Thomas Eakins—Whitman in carpet slippers, a shawl, surrounded by a surf of papers up to his lap….Cal was not the sort of poet, if there are any, for whom beautiful things come drifting down in a snowfall of gift, the labor was merciless. The discipline, the dedication, the endless adding to his store, by reading and studying—all of this had, in my view, much that was heroic about it.
November 4, 1982
In Encounter II (April 1954), p. 32. ↩
Robert Lowell, “William Carlos Williams,” Hudson Review, no. 14 (1961-1962). ↩
Robert Lowell, “After Enjoying Six or Seven Essays on Me,” Salmagundi, no. 37 (Spring 1977), pp. 112-115. ↩
In 1951, Jarrell had written to Lowell from Princeton: “I had a boy at Colorado last summer who was good (an excellent Rilke translation) and most of his poems were excellent though unconscious imitations of you. You’d had him in a class. De Witt Snodgrass, poor ill-named one! When you influence people, when your poems influence theirs, that is—you really mow them down….” ↩
Life Studies (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1964), pp. 81-82. ↩
Near the Ocean (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1967), p. 41. ↩
Notebook 1967-68 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969), p. 89. ↩
“Home After Three Months Away,” Life Studies, p. 83. ↩