American Poet

Robert Lowell: A Biography

by Ian Hamilton
Random House, 527 pp., $19.95

“In truth I seem to have felt mostly the joys of living; in remembering, in recording, thanks to the gift of the Muse, it is the pain.” This closing sentence in Robert Lowell’s “Afterthought” to Notebook will come to mind as readers finish this first biography of Lowell. In remembering, in recording, it is the pain that dominates. Lowell died five years ago, in September 1977; this admirable narrative of his life—which in some ways will probably not be superseded—has been written with skill and dispatch by Ian Hamilton, an English poet who knew Lowell well during Lowell’s last years in England. Hamilton writes with the authority of personal acquaintance and personal sympathy, as well as with a different authority (rare in literary biographers)—the authority of one who reads Lowell’s work with accuracy, understanding, and a sense of its technical interest.

Hamilton has interviewed most of the people still living who knew Lowell well and has had access to all the Lowell papers (those deposited in the Houghton Library at Harvard as well as the later papers recently sold to the University of Texas at Austin). He has read letters of Lowell’s still in private hands (though of course not all extant letters). He has also read the writings of Lowell’s mentors and friends (Eberhart, Ransom, Tate, Jarrell, Taylor, Schwartz, Berryman, Bishop) as well as those of Lowell’s wives (Jean Stafford, Elizabeth Hardwick, Caroline Blackwood). He has looked into the history of those New England families—the Winslows, the Starks, the Lowells—so central to the poet’s consciousness of self and destiny. And he has done all this preliminary work with curiosity, speculation, and generosity of mind. What I miss in the work is a rendering of the depth and brilliance of Lowell’s mind, and a rendering of the passion of his Americanness—absences to which I will return.

Hamilton keeps a clear narrative purpose alive in his spare and intelligent prose: this is above all a life, not—for better or worse—a life-and-works. It is divided into twenty-five brisk chapters—the first two taking Lowell up to his eighteenth year (1935), the next ten carrying him to thirty-seven (in 1954, the year of his mother’s death), and the latter half of the book—the next thirteen chapters—covering roughly the last twenty years.

The outlines of the story are well known. (Lowell called his poems “my verse autobiography”). Robert Traill Spence Lowell, Jr., was born in Boston in 1917, the son of Charlotte Winslow and Robert Lowell, a naval officer. After an unruly childhood, and an even more unruly adolescence at St. Mark’s (where he was taught by Richard Eberhart), he entered Harvard, more by his parents’ wish than by his own. Unsuccessful there, he was (through the intervention of the psychiatrist Merrill Moore, who had ties to the Fugitives) taken to meet Allen Tate in Tennessee. Lowell ended up following John Crowe Ransom from Vanderbilt to Kenyon; at Kenyon he met his close lifelong friends Peter Taylor, Randall Jarrell, and John Thompson, and at…

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