“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died five years ago, in September 1977; this admirable narrative of his life—which in some ways will probably not be superseded—has been written with skill and dispatch by Ian Hamilton, an English poet who knew Lowell well during Lowell’s last years in England.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 Kenyon he “found himself”—he graduated summa cum laude in classics, and was class valedictorian.
Shortly before graduation he married the brilliant Jean Stafford; he spent a year at Baton Rouge studying with Brooks and Warren, and he became (for a few years) a Roman Catholic; after a brief stint at Sheed and Ward in New York he moved back south to write the poems that appeared in the fall of 1944 as Land of Unlikeness. By then, Lowell had already been in prison as a conscientious objector. In 1946, Lowell and Stafford separated (Lowell having “fallen in love” with Delmore Schwartz’s former wife Gertrude Buckman, a form of manic behavior that was to recur throughout his life). Lowell’s repeated crises of manic-depressive illness had not yet been accurately diagnosed; but as early as his high-school years they had been serious enough to cause consultation with psychiatrists, and the illness flared up as often as once a year.
Lord Weary’s Castle appeared in 1946; in 1948 Lowell met Elizabeth Hardwick at Yaddo, and they were married in 1949. The long marriage (1949-1972) included periods in Boston (where Lowell taught at Boston University) and in New York (with Lowell commuting to teach at Harvard). It also included two years in Europe (1950-1952), the birth of Harriet Lowell in 1957, and the publication of a remarkable series of volumes: The Mills of the Kavanaughs (1951), Life Studies (1959), Imitations (1961), For the Union Dead (1964), Near the Ocean (1967), and Notebook 1967-68 (1969; revised 1970).
In 1970, in England, Lowell began the relation with Caroline Blackwood which led to their marriage in 1972 (she had borne a son, Sheridan, in September of 1971). There followed, published together in 1973, History, For Lizzie and Harriet, and The Dolphin—the first two volumes quarried from the Notebook poems, the third a new set of poems about Lowell’s life in England. In 1977, after his separation from Caroline Blackwood, Lowell’s last poems appeared in Day by Day.
Certain of his public actions also became known: he had refused an invitation to Lyndon Johnson’s White House party, and he had participated in the antiwar march on Washington in 1967 described in Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night. The literary public who followed Lowell’s career knew of his stunning beginning, when he received a Pulitzer prize, a Guggenheim, and an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters after the publication of Lord Weary’s Castle. They had seen him break his style and invent a new one in Life Studies, and they had been unsettled by Lowell’s torrent of sonnets in the Seventies, from Notebook through The Dolphin. The prizes and awards continued until his death.
If we ask what Hamilton’s biography has added to this skeletal life story (which we have known from Lowell’s own poems, from newspapers and public accounts, and from the biographies of other poets), the first thing we must mention is that Hamilton has compiled a harrowing record of suffering. Though in many ways it is the suffering of others that is chronicled here—all those people mistreated and abused by Lowell in his madness—we cannot forget the central suffering of Lowell himself. The documentation on Lowell’s episodes of manic-depressive illness is relatively sparse: Lowell apparently did not leave many notes on his illness (clinical depression by its nature is lethargic and unproductive, and mania is too active for writing); the doctors would not release medical records. What is chiefly documented, by conversation with others, is the grotesque drama of mania: Lowell would become irritable and “too merry,” would fall in love with anyone conveniently to hand, would talk unstoppably, identifying with various great men of history (“Achilles, Alexander, Hart Crane, Hitler and Christ” according to one source), and would become truant, truculent, and dangerous.
This single story is retold many times—too many times for the comfort of the reader. The sheer unintelligibility of madness survives all attempts to harness it to narrative, as voluntary and involuntary commitments succeed each other, each time against a background of helpless friends or relatives and uncertain doctors. It is Elizabeth Hardwick’s twenty years of endurance, through almost yearly sieges of distress when she had to hospitalize Lowell and then see him through the grim days of recovery, that cannot really be narrated in this book. Hardwick herself is generously frank in recollection (as are other close friends, who trusted Hamilton not to vulgarize their disclosures). But such episodes can only be recalled, not really exposed in their full daily exhaustion, apprehension, expense, embarrassment, and terror for all concerned. Reading the biography, feeling the next episode of madness about to break, one wants to put the book down and refuse yet one more entry into what Lowell called “the kingdom of the mad.”
Hamilton’s tone in retelling these incidents is a decent and steady one; he never relishes the grand guignol, he is never eager to reveal the hidden. He sees clearly the centrality of both mania and depression—those extremes of pyschic experience—to Lowell’s extremes of diction; and though he assumes (as modern medical opinion does) a biological origin to Lowell’s illness (which was eventually controlled by lithium), he also sees the various Freudian explanations that could be assigned to the particular forms Lowell’s madness took (religious mania, identification with tyrants and saviors, and proposals of marriage, among others).
Lowell’s own remarks about madness tend to be stoical and underplayed, but sometimes the truth is unveiled: “When I wake, it is as though I had been flayed, and had each nerve beaten with a rubber hose.” The sentence (from an unpublished manuscript of the early Fifties) is in the present tense of habitual experience; Lowell woke daily this way, in bad times. “I would catch myself asking whining questions. Why don’t I die, die: I quizzed the face of suicide in the mirror.” (The word “quizzed” carries Lowell’s inescapable irony.) “In the presence of persons, I was ajar”—like an object. The isolating grief of madness appears, too:
After six or seven weeks at the Payne-Whitney Clinic, my bluster and manic antics died away. Images of my spoiled childhood ached inside me, and I would lean with my chin in my hand, and count the rustling poplars, so many leagues below me, which lined the hospital driveway and led out to the avenues of Manhattan, to life. I used to count the poplars, and gave them the names of old ladies. This one was my Great Aunt Sarah. That one was Cousin Susy Pickering. That was Cousin Belle Winslow. That was Mrs. Robbins. That was Gaga [the pet name of Lowell’s maternal grandmother].
Imagining the confinement and loneliness that generated the remembered aunts and cousins in the poplars, the reader glimpses the way weeks went by for Lowell in the hospital.
As Lowell began to mistrust the manic impulses visible in much of the early verse, with its fantasies of condemnation and control, he wrote to Pound (in 1955) that he was seeking “the pain and jolt of seeing things as they are”—a program understandable only in the light of Lowell’s unsparing knowledge of his tendency to delusion. Lowell’s hope of a permanent cure through lithium—defeated at least in part by his tendency to be the worst of patients, incapable of following any regimen correctly—is perhaps insufficiently dwelt on by Hamilton in his chronicle of the madness. The upspringing of confidence in the new medication, the English romance, the reckless self-expatriation, the fathering of a son at fifty-four—it is a drama wrecked by the recurrence of insanity, by Caroline Blackwood’s fear of Lowell’s illness, and by the instability and precariousness of the marriage, the third for both Lowell and Blackwood. This desperate last try for a new life left Lowell exhausted, and produced the valedictory tone that suffuses his last book.
Another aspect, besides the madness, that Hamilton fully describes is the presence of friends in Lowell’s life. Nobody so difficult was ever blessed by so many staunch and faithful friends. They turn up, over and over, to be of help in bad times; they write letters; they visit. They were mostly writers, and Lowell could count on them for a ready response to his work and, in most cases, for a quick understanding of his purposes. There were of course defections and objections too—Tate writing, of Life Studies, that “all the poems about your family…are definitely bad.” Interestingly enough, Tate’s description of the poems was in part very accurate (“…details, terribly intimate, and coldly noted…an heroic effort of the will to come to terms with the harsh incongruities of your childhood”). It was the coldness of the notation that Tate could not forgive. Later, friends like Elizabeth Bishop felt qualms about the poems that quoted and rephrased letters and telephone calls to Lowell from Hardwick. But on the whole, Lowell’s friends knew the power and originality of his mind; that knowledge prompted them to trust Lowell’s instincts as he veered and tacked from one verse model to another.
And yet, in spite of all the vivid mutual interest between Lowell and his friends, all the letters and books exchanged, all the forgiveness extended, the solitude of the act of writing remains harshly present throughout this book. The social part of writing that Lowell loved—showing his drafts to people, taking advice, revising his revisions—could come only after the poem was conceived, in that isolating first phase of invention and formation. The double solitude of intermittent hospitalization and intermittent imaginative conception occupied the greater part of Lowell’s adult life. We cannot see this hidden solitary center in a biography; we can only see the periphery, the letter-writing and conversation and play-producing and political activity.
Hamilton gives substance to periods of Lowell’s life that were formerly shadowy—the two years in Europe (which produced the interest in modern European poetry visible in Imitations) and the improbable campaign trips with Eugene McCarthy in 1968 (to name only two instances). Every venture of the poet into spheres other than poetry (or the criticism or teaching of poetry) confirms our notion that Lowell, like Baudelaire’s albatross, was unhampered only in flight. Once loosed into the domain of words, Lowell was matchless—free, exhilarated, confident, far-ranging, a master of inspired calculation. Away from words, he was impractical, incompetent at the simplest sustaining of daily life, and almost comically abstracted and forgetful. Hamilton, though he describes Lowell’s practical helplessness, manages to do it without patronizing his subject. Hamilton exercises neither false pity nor false superiority; he takes in Lowell with a cool glance, surveying the life with the detachment of someone from another country.
This absence of partisanship or rancor is in part a gain, but also a loss. Lowell’s own fierceness of attachment to the American past is somewhat distantly seen in this biography. But it lay in the background of all Lowell’s activity—the poetry, the adaptation of Melville and Hawthorne into dramatic form, the political activity, and the writing of prose. Hamilton grants the American bias in Lowell without especially feeling it himself, and this estrangement from the subject partly cools our sense of Lowell’s own fervor. Hamilton’s brief accounts of each of Lowell’s books, though succinct and accurate and well observed, do not quite add up to a view of Lowell’s career. These rapid, incisive, and on the whole just remarks are prefaced, in each instance, with excerpts from contemporary reviews of the volume in question (reviews often mutually contradictory). But the literary and moral service Lowell performed for his American readers cannot quite be felt by Hamilton, a reader from another country.
It is not too much to say that for some of us Lowell gave us back our environment and our past—the Public Garden, the Shaw Memorial, the State House, King’s Chapel Burying Ground, Harvard, Marlborough Street—to name some of the Boston instances. He restored to us the company of New England writers, from Emerson to Eliot, by incorporating them and commenting on them. He made the American nineteenth century—in which he was wholly at home—live in the twentieth. He set our American English beating its wings in new ways, with large gestures of spend-thrift display. While Hamilton recognizes all this intellectually, his Lowell is a rather more universal and European poet than I think Lowell really was.
Perhaps what an Englishman (in the quotation I cite, it is Jonathan Miller) sees as lunacy is in some way natural to Americans, who float free of a European past: Miller says that for Lowell, in excited conversation, all history became “a simultaneous event where it was possible for everyone to meet everyone…. I think that in his full-blown lunacy all the distinctions of time vanished altogether, and the world was populated by a series of tyrants and geniuses all jostling with one another.” I rather think that this vast theater of competing events is the European past as Americans must see it. If anything provides a base on which to construct a map of Lowell’s career, it is just this sense of the welter of history, seen from the distance of the New World. Hamilton quotes, rightly, one of Lowell’s last unpublished sentences: it is about Santayana, but comes from Lowell’s own sense of self:
He had spent a lifetime trying to drive back the New England he had been born to, its fashions, its morals, its reigning minds. They were too hateful, and in a way too cherished, for him to quite deny their existence.
Lowell’s flight to European history can never quite “deny the existence” of the primary material in New England.
Hamilton’s literary intelligence appears in his telling choice of such illuminating sentences, not only from Lowell but from others, illustrating Charlotte Lowell’s impossible nagging, Commander Lowell’s stuffiness, Jean Stafford’s wit, Randall Jarrell’s vivid judgment—to mention only those now dead. What is interesting to see is how Lowell’s own words dominate the pages on which they appear. He was almost incapable of writing a dull sentence. The passion for the right description ruled him in letters and prose, as well as in poetry. Some interestingly awful sentences appear in very early drafts of poems, where the basic configuration is being scrawled down before it can escape, and associations are being hastily gathered. The drafts that Hamilton quotes are so fascinatingly bad at times that we long for more. Until we have all the manuscript evidence, no real biography, it is clear, is possible—at least in so far as the real biography lies in the accomplished work.
And that is what is still lacking here—for all the wealth of reminiscence and anecdote provided by Hamilton—a sense of the inner life that was lived along with the outer life. We badly need an intellectual biography of Lowell. Lowell’s mind, as all who knew him agree, was rapacious and darting, brilliant in its individual flights, full of smuggling and piracy in its bold appropriations from the past of ideas, terms, personalities, appearances, and events. Tenacious and obstinate in search, it was (at the other extreme) flexible and gracious in its handling of data. His conversation often swam into heady reaches of association quite beyond those of his hearers; and behind his every use of a word with intent, there lay the Latin echoes, the punning contexts, of that word. He was high-handed with his reading—the Latin historians, Napoleon, and Stalin all indeed lay down together in his mind. We still know far too little of what he read, and the chronology of that reading.
An atavistic Calvinism and a mocking humor kept perpetual company in him. He liked Arnold’s tribute to the actress Rachel well enough to borrow it to praise Israel Citkovitz (Caroline Blackwood’s second husband); Arnold had praised Rachel for being able to contain within herself, as actress, all the styles of previous epochs. Lowell aspired to the same comprehensiveness of recognition and use of the intellectual past; it was that comprehensiveness of reference that made his talk so startling and inventive, while his irony gave it point and brilliance.
The intellectual biography that will present the evolution of Lowell’s mind will be written one day. But in the meantime, we have been given an unexpected gift by a foreign poet—the first account of the life of one of our American poets. We should perhaps be equally grateful to the people close to Lowell who have been willing to recall the life, joining themselves to Lowell’s own long effort “to give / each figure in the photograph / his living name.” Even so, Lowell’s art, for all its intimate connection to lived event, seems finally to elude the tether of narrative. The fate of all literary biography is to remind us of the insufficiency of the life as an explanation of the art.
December 2, 1982