T.S. Eliot, in conversation with C.S. Lewis, maintained that poets themselves were the best critics of poetry, whereas Lewis opposed this view, declaring that one did not have to be a trained chef to be a discriminating gourmet. Robert Lowell’s prose is criticism of a very high and very special kind, being often akin to portraiture, and self-portraiture, as well as memoir and dazzlingly brilliant meditation. This book will enchant everyone who cares for Lowell’s poetry, as well as anyone interested in American letters, if those two categories are in any way distinct. We are greatly indebted to Robert Giroux for assembling the book, and putting it together was no easy task, as the brief introduction makes clear. Whatever else it is, it is a volume of energetic prose and piercing insight, so lively and persuasive that even when one finds oneself, as I occasionally have, in disagreement, one’s respect for the writer is in no way diminished.
Among other things, absolute consistency is not to be asked for or expected, the book being composed of “occasional pieces” written to celebrate the birthdays of friends, to salute the appearance of their books, or in memorial tribute at their deaths. Some are simply the casual notations formulated in interviews. The earliest was written by a schoolboy of eighteen, others not long before Lowell’s death, and he never took occasion to make them harmonize with one another. The astonishing fact is that the book, despite its heterogeneous character and the long span over which the individual pieces developed, has a remarkably coherent view of its many topics and, more often than is common in the way of ordinary criticism, or even the best of it, says what it says in a way that is electric and memorable.
The first of the book’s three parts is devoted to appreciations of most of Lowell’s best contemporaries, though the list, which follows, is obviously partial and selective: Ford Madox Ford, Frost, Stevens, Ransom, W.C. Williams, Eliot, Richards, Tate, Winters, Penn Warren, Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, Kunitz, Jarrell, Dylan Thomas, Berryman, Voznesensky, and Sylvia Plath. It is irrelevant to ask why Pound or Marianne Moore or Roethke or any number of others is not here; these were the pieces asked for, volunteered for specific celebrations or funeral tribute, and every one of them is at once critically deft and endearingly personal. Lowell tended to be personal about all poets, as a former student of his at Harvard, Judith Baumel, observed in the Harvard Advocate shortly after his death.
“He was,” she wrote,
a gossipy reader and teacher of poetry. In his nineteenth-century class we read Wordsworth’s “Anecdote For Fathers” and he joked about what a tyrannical father Wordsworth was. He told stories as if they were the latest news. He enjoyed bringing the lives of poets to bear on their work. Lowell could sum up an entire poetic career with an epigrammatic sentence: “Tennyson is an intense, moody, clumsy young man with enormous metrical skill. Pound, who loathed him, has a Tennysonian splendor.” Of Blake: “His whole conflict is that man isn’t free but when he doesn’t write in fetters he isn’t good. I find his long poems very tiresome. In a way they’re about sex. They’re not professional.” Of Browning: “His life had no plot, no romantic flair, even though he married Elizabeth Barrett. But he invented the mystery novel in verse and wrote more good lines than any nineteenth-century poet.”
It is the breathtaking audacity, as of that final assertion, that stuns again and again in this book. How would one go about challenging this claim for Browning? In praising Jarrell, Lowell writes, “he seems to know everything,” and much the same could be said of Lowell, so that when he tells us that Cotton Mather wrote 450 books, we are inclined to believe that Lowell has read them all. He also said of Jarrell that “eulogy was the glory of Randall’s criticism,” and that spirit largely and magnanimously pervades this book, so that even if it were objected that Lowell is often writing about his friends, it must immediately be pointed out that nearly all writers, whether he knew them or not, were his friends.
In the well-known Paris Review interview with Frederick Seidel, in response to the observation that he had written very little criticism, Lowell replied, “I’m very anxious in criticism not to do the standard analytical essay. I’d like my essay to be much sloppier and more intuitive.” Elsewhere he writes, “Analysis doesn’t make for interesting reading…. Once it was far otherwise. I can remember when the early essays on The Waste Land, the first editions of the Brooks and Warren Understanding Poetry, and Blackmur’s pieces on Stevens and Marianne Moore came as a revelation.” And for all his scruples about “analysis,” he is able generously to observe, “The king of the critics is William Empson…even his shortest notes change the mind.” I find myself in happy accord with Lowell here, and observe that Lowell’s sort of criticism does not in fact “change the mind,” though it can often make one see works and writers freshly.
Lowell’s “portraiture” derives from a number of sources, including photography and painting, but it strikes me that its literary origins may be traced to Ford Madox Ford, who wrote a distinguished book of “profiles” called Portraits from Life, from which Lowell may even have interpolated his title for Life Studies. Greater still, I suspect, may have been the influence both in style and in technique of the quick and brilliant “pencil sketches” of Ford’s memoirs of the Twenties, It Was the Nightingale. A fine instance of this verbal draftsmanship presents itself in Lowell’s review of a book of poems by I.A. Richards.
On the back cover of his new poems, Goodbye Earth, there is a startling photograph of Richards—heavy socks, climber’s knickerbockers, sleeves rolled up, shirt open at the throat. He is at some halfway point in the Swiss Alps, leaning on his up-ended pick, which is, like a prisoner’s ball-and-chain, penitentially attached to his belt. Even now, taking his breather, and resting before his Byronic scenery as if it were a landscape he had painted, he knows he should be moving on. The next lap, the middle foreground’s attractively gullied and evergreen rise, is not in the picture—it is a problem. Beyond and above, and really, as in the photograph, just an arm’s swing away, the absolute malignly beckons…. Malign, too, and seepingly present, though unrepresented here, is the other busy, lower world of routine, duties, books, interviews, and chairs. In this “sporting” photograph, the narrowed eyes and cheek shadows of the climber’s face have a down-dragging gravity. The obstinate chin, the toughness, the knowledge, the muscle—goodbye earth at last! Nearly a lifetime it took. Richards’s first book of poetry is also the first of its kind.
There is a lot to admire here, not least the smooth and ingenious way Lowell begins with the precisions of photography and proceeds to enlarge the borders of the picture, taking off from literal fact in imaginative sympathy. But the reader familiar with Lowell’s poems in History will recognize here the source, the raw materials, of one of his poems:
I.A. Richards I. Goodbye Earth
Sky-high on the cover of Goodbye
you flash and zigzag like a large hummingbird—
heavy socks and climber’s knicker- bockers,
sleeves rolled, shirt open at the throat;
an upended pick, your prisoner’s ball and chain,
penitentially attached to your wrist.
Here while you take your breath, en- thused, I see
the imperishable Byronics of the Swiss Alps
change to a landscape for your por- trait, like you
casual, unconventional, innocent… earned
by gratuitous rashness and serpen- tine hesitation.
It is not a picture but a problem—
you know you will move on; the absolute,
bald peaks, glare-ice, malignly beckons …goodbye earth.
Readers of this collection will find the prose origins and ingredients of a number of Lowell poems, including portraits of Frost and Eliot.
He is not alone, of course, in turning prose into poetry: Yeats, Jonson, and, according to Lowell, Racine followed the same procedure. And Lowell characterizes Emerson thus: “An innovator in his lectures by inventing a prose-haiku of bright, unforgettable phrases. This he did by sifting gold from his daily journals.” As is widely known, Lowell turned more than his own prose into poems, causing much anguish thereby, but I will return to the topic of that pain at a later point. For the present, let me note that the piece on Richards goes on to observe:
Poetry is almost more encumbered than furthered by the critical mind filled with sustained, subtle reasoning, high, hampering criteria, fierce crochets, and the sublime whir of favorite quotations.
Lowell immediately proceeds to exonerate Richards from the least suspicion of being thus “handicapped,” but if Lowell seriously meant what he says here he would be pointing at supposedly crippling effects in the works of Eliot and Yvor Winters, to name only two. Of course when Lowell addresses the works of these particular poets he sets all these scruples aside or forgets them entirely. He twice (and ten years apart) refers to Winters as “our Malherbes,” and this is meant to align him, admiringly, with a kind of poetry diametrically opposed to that of Williams, with its fierce insistence on particularity and “things.” By way of contrast, abstraction, avoidance of particularized language, and classical poise characterize the French poet’s work, along with a devotion to, and abundant production of, critical theory. Winters’s infuriated “demonstrations” of irrationality on the part of poets whose works he disliked, his embattled defense of the likes of Philip Pain and Jones Very indicate the aptness of Lowell’s characterization. But the chief point is that while Winters may be doctrinaire, Lowell is keen enough to see his strong and singular merits, whether or not he conforms to the dictum about the hampered critical mind.
Lowell’s portraiture at times rises to Chekhovian levels of comic insight:
Ransom and Jarrell had each separately spent the preceding summer studying Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and had emerged with unorthodox and widely differing theories. Roughly, Ransom thought that Shakespeare was continually going off the rails into illogical incoherence. Jarrell believed that no one, not even William Empson, had done justice to the rich, significant ambiguity of Shakespeare’s intelligence and images. I can see and hear Ransom and Jarrell now, seated on one sofa, as though on one love seat, the sacred texts open on their laps, one fifty, the other just out of college, and each expounding to the other’s deaf ears his own inspired and irreconcilable interpretation.
There is another Chekhov scene, longer, more detailed, even more comic in its bounty of misunderstandings, in which Lowell brings together his two admired friends Jarrell and Berryman. And there are times when, casting about for a way to describe someone (for example, Williams’s intellectual monism, “no ideas but in things”), he abandons all normal procedures and resorts to a wonderful and inspired indirection, thus:
When I think about writing on Dr. Williams, I feel a chaos of thoughts and images, images cracking open to admit a thought, thoughts dragging their roots for the soil of an image. When I woke up this morning, something unusual for this summer was going on!—pinpricks of rain were falling in a reliable, comforting simmer. Our town was blanketed in the rain of rot and the rain of renewal. New life was muscling in, everything growing moved on its one-way trip to the ground. I could feel this, yet believe our universal misfortune was bearable and even welcome. An image held my mind during these moments and kept returning—an old-fashioned New England cottage freshly painted white. I saw a shaggy, triangular shade on the house, trees, a hedge, or their shadows, the blotch of decay. The house might have been the house I was now living in, but it wasn’t; it came from the time when I was a child, still unable to read, and living in the small town of Barnstable on Cape Cod. Inside the house was a bird book with an old stiff and steely engraving of a sharp-shinned hawk. The hawk’s legs had a reddish-brown buffalo fuzz on them; behind was the blue sky, bare and abstracted from the world. In the present, pinpricks of rain were falling on everything I could see, and even on the white house in my mind, but the hawk’s picture, being indoors I suppose, was more or less spared. Since I saw the picture of the hawk, the pinpricks of the rain have gone on, half the people I once knew are dead, half the people I now know were then unborn, and I have learned to read.
On Williams, and those associated with Williams, Lowell, though never, I think, as apt and revealing as Jarrell, has some very astute things to say along the way. “His style is almost a common style and even what he claims for it—the American style. Somehow, written without his speed and genius, the results are usually dull, a poem at best well-made but without breath.” “Williams is more certain of image and idiom than Pound, less magnificent.”
Of Eliot he writes with persuasive shrewdness:
Probably the contemplative’s life, as distinguished from his separate acts, can only be dramatized by a circular and thematic structure. His actions, unlike the tragic hero’s, have no beginning, middle, or end: their external unity is a pawn to their unity of intention. His discipline is repetitive and his moments of ecstasy disconnected. Eliot has this one theme in all his writings and its nature in part explains the excellence of the longer poems and the relative failure of the plays.
This seems very pertinent to such poems as “Ash Wednesday” and Four Quartets (“the longer poems”). We must be struck by the fact that Lowell is attempting to define and justify a poetry that is expressly undramatic. Frost believed that all poetry is dramatic. “It has denouement,” he famously declared. And even “meditative” poetry, as Louis Martz defines it, “brings together the senses, the emotions, and the intellectual faculties of man; brings them together in a moment of dramatic, creative experience.” Yet somehow Lowell’s formulation seems a just one, and throws light on Eliot’s practice.
Discussing Robert Penn Warren’s Brother to Dragons, Lowell asserts that
it is superior to any of the larger works of Browning. And yet Warren almost is Browning. What this may mean is suggested by an observation by Gide: “Browning and Dostoevsky seem to me to bring the monologue straightaway to perfection, in all the diversity and subtlety to which this literary form lends itself…!”
One cannot fail to be dazzled by these linked and associated names and virtues: Warren to Browning to Gide to Browning and Dostoevsky. Of these the name of Gide is perhaps at first the most unexpected. But further consideration suggests that as the keeper of a celebrated Journal, and as the author of a novel about a novelist who keeps a journal, Gide would have been particularly relevant to a poet whose chief concern had been the transmutation of raw data and of himself into art.
There are a few judgments in this first section that catch the reader up short in ways that are not quite persuasive. In an essay on Ransom, he declares flatly at one point: “Unlike the poets, he could write of women, the fresh things of the world.” A little later in the same essay there is an indication that Lowell may have felt this comment a little rash and hasty, because he adds: “Ransom is able to write of women, the young, find them delightful, irritating, not quite human, though mortal. His women cannot be spoiled by abstraction, or impressed into careers. The women are supporting figures, his man stands at the center….” That addition seems nearly a recantation, and if it is, I think it is deserved. Ransom’s attitude toward women, in both his poetry and his prose, can most generously be called “old-fashioned.” It is an attitude of gallantry and approval strongly mixed with condescension. Women are delightful and incomprehensible luxury items, and when Lowell says that they “cannot be spoiled by abstraction or impressed into careers” he is employing Ransomian euphemisms that mean they are incapable of abstract thought and, being essentially decorative, have no practical skills worth mentioning. “Prelude to an Evening” is one of the most outrageously sexist poems I can think of. As for poets, and Lowell’s suggestion that they can’t write about women as a rule, it seems to me that both Frost and Williams, for starters, make nonsense of this claim.
Part Two of this tripartite volume is more heterogeneous and wide-ranging, and raises greater problems. It consists of a planned lecture, never delivered and conjecturally taped together by Mr. Giroux, called “Art and Evil.” This is followed by essays on the Iliad, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Hawthorne’s retelling for children of Greek myth, the Gettysburg address, G.M. Hopkins, a book called The Founding of English Meter by John Thompson, today’s theater, an extraordinary survey of writers assembled under the heading “New England and Further,” and epics. Each of these is splendid in its own way, the piece on Homer being not least impressive for having been written by Lowell as a schoolboy.
The essay called “Poets and the Theater” is especially illuminating, since it was written by a poet who wrote for the stage, and who worked with Jonathan Miller, among others. Clearly writing plays requires that a poet descend into the arena of collaboration with actors and directors and of brutal practical and financial considerations, and poets have, in consequence, taken a very haughty line about such matters. Lowell cites the opinion of Coleridge that “Shakespeare was too great for any stage. He preferred reading Shakespeare to seeing him acted.” And more emphatically still the essay continues:
For a hundred and fifty years poets have looked on the theater with fascination and fury. Often only with fury, as in this statement of Yvor Winters: “In general I think the world would be well enough off without actors. They appear capable of any of three feats—of making the grossly vulgar appear acceptably mediocre; of making the acceptably mediocre appear what it is; and of making the distinguished appear acceptably mediocre.”
We are entitled, I think, to wonder if this is an act of ventriloquism in which Lowell voices his own frustrations through the borrowed mouth of another. For it is clear that Lowell sees what may be called a “class distinction” between the arts of poetry and theater, and that the second is a species of “pop culture” in his view. He writes:
In comparison with poetry, theater, even Off-Broadway and even in its losses, is a highly popular medium. Even though the playwright faces much greater difficulties in making the grade than other writers, and even though he is nothing if he fails, yet if he succeeds, the uproar of praise is unbelievable. His hits are almost national events. Yet the literary prestige of our plays is wobbly. Even the great, even O’Neill, even Williams, seem more on the fringe of our high culture than part of it. They are seen rather than read, and are very grudgingly allowed to be writers.
At the other extreme are our poets. They are little read, cause no sensations, and live on grants. Yet, if publication is achieved, though sales are nonexistent, the prizes are many, and poets enjoy a quiet, unquestioned, firm renown. Our poetry may not even be considered American, or even involved with the human race, but at least what poets write is literature.
One cannot read these comments without reflecting that the National Book Awards committee, in its zest for ballyhoo and public notice, has decided not to make any award for poetry, and to concentrate on the genres that command the largest general audience.
The catchall piece entitled “New England and Further” contains, after a brilliant and beautiful description of the history of the region, pithy and wonderful comments on Cotton Mather, Franklin, Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, Lincoln, James Russell Lowell, American historians (with particular reference to Motley and his The Rise of the Dutch Republic), Longfellow, Melville, Henry James, Henry Adams, Emily Dickinson, Santayana, Frost, Stevens, and Eliot. There are wonderful passages here, including fine examples of Lowell’s comedy, which flashes now and again throughout the book. Writing, for example, of Emily Dickinson, and the depredations of editors who take it upon themselves to emend, correct, and (usually) conventionalize the text of a departed author, Lowell muses:
Has anyone the right to retouch an author? (For myself, I have felt that Wordsworth’s “Intimations Ode” could be made into his saddest, most finished poem if only forty of the most frivolous and ode-manufactured lines were left out. Having many times shown my cut version to friends, I haven’t made even a momentary convert.) Hate to think what three professors from three different American universities might do revising Gray’s “Elegy.”
On his great-granduncle, James Russell Lowell, he remarks,
His Fable for Critics, a landmark of precosity, written in four-foot anapestic couplets, is amiably student-Byronesque…. Most of its literary judgments are local and overstated.
On Emerson: “His prose is grand verse, while his verse, the Lord knows, Is some of it pr——No, ’tis not even prose.”
The doggerel meter of that poem is at least as vexing as its judgments, but what the commentator might have pointed out in this case is that the description of Emerson is an adaptation, surely intended to be recognized, of some famous lines of Pope in The Dunciad. Of the powerful divinity Dulness, Pope declares:
Here to her Chosen all her works she shows;
Prose swell’d to verse, Verse loitring Into prose.
Surely J.R.L. gets a little mileage out of this echo, giving “classical” authority to his jest and summoning a severe metrist to his side of a battle against what he must have regarded as the flaccidities of Emerson’s meters.
The most unsettling and, in my view, the least satisfactory essay in the book is the one titled “Art and Evil.” In his introduction. Mr. Giroux declares that
apparently prepared as a lecture, though I’ve not been able to find a record of its public delivery—[it] was fortuitously rescued from oblivion. The first two-thirds of this essay, which Elizabeth Hardwick located, were so fascinating that I thought of including it even though incomplete. Happily, the last third was then discovered in the Houghton Library at Harvard—minus a line or two, but the last paragraph starts with the word “Finally,” which clearly indicates he was almost at the end.
Lowell’s title might initially suggest that his subject was the poète maudit, Baudelaire, Gustave Moreau, or Nightwood, but this is not the case. More broadly, the title suggests a philosophical inquiry into the nature of tragedy itself. But neither is this what Lowell is after.
He begins, curiously, by saying, “I admit that I come before this immense audience with fear and trembling,” and though we’ve been told that the lecture was never given, we can’t help wondering what “immense audience” Lowell so vividly imagined. He also announces that he intends “to run far and at breakneck speed from my title,” toward which he seems to feel, in the words of Max Beerbohm, “especially irresponsible.” When he comes to defining his topic, it is by way of reference to some comments of Eliot “on the subject of arbitrary evil in the stories of Thomas Hardy.” Lowell’s tone toward Eliot is slightly bantering, almost jocular, in regard to the older poet’s religious and moral scruples, remarking on “the somewhat tearful, somewhat rising note of the true preacher.”
The fact is that Eliot did have a somewhat doctrinaire and not entirely fair-minded attitude toward Hardy, whom he regarded simply and dismissively as a “village atheist.” His essay on Hardy is embarrassing in its almost willful blindness, and he never reprinted it. What troubled Eliot so much was that he could see that Hardy was trying to write tragedy set in the modern world, and therefore without the tragic framework and facilities that made the genre possible to the Greeks and Elizabethans: an acceptance of the idea of Fate or Fortune; a respect for the sanctity of the social fabric, which, if violated, would repair itself at great human cost; the relationship of a community to its leader; and a sure, if unspecified, sense of cosmic order. It was Eliot’s feeling that in the absence of these preconceptions, which audience and author had to share, Hardy’s attempts at tragic art were trivialized to what Eliot called “the intrusion of the diabolic in modern literature as a result of the limiting and crippling effect of a separation from orthodoxy and tradition.”
Quite apart from whether or not Eliot is right about Hardy’s weaknesses as a tragic artist, it is essential to notice that he is concerned with what he regards as a malaise of modern literature, and with its need to explain suffering as a consequence of deep human wickedness. After a digression on murder mysteries, Lowell finally turns to what he calls “the real subject of my paper,” and to talk about his representative villains. He says, “I have chosen eight examples: two criminals, Rimbaud and Milton’s Satan; two cold men, George Eliot’s Grandcourt and Vergil’s Aeneas; two comics, Dickens’s Sarah Gamp and Faulkner’s Popeye; and two manipulators, Goethe’s Mephistopheles and Shakespeare’s Iago.”
All by itself the list, like some other things in this book, astonishes by its audacity. Lowell has some brilliant things to say about some of the figures on his list, though his comments on Dickens strike me as elementary and without point. But I should like first of all to address the anomalous position on the list of Rimbaud, its only flesh-and-blood figure. All the rest are, in their various ways, imaginatively invented. It can be argued, of course, that in A Season in Hell Rimbaud precisely reinvents himself, and transforms himself, much as Gide and Lowell do, into a literary creation. But Lowell characterizes Rimbaud as “boy, poet, magician, tramp, tough, explorer of the Orient,” embracing a part of his career that lay beyond the limits of his poem. Secondly, it is evident how far Lowell has strayed from the diabolism in modern literature that troubled Eliot and that was Lowell’s point of departure.
Finally, I find myself in total disagreement with Mr. Giroux in regard to Lowell’s “finally,” which, the editor claims, demonstrates that the essay “was almost at the end.” Lowell’s “finally” means no more than that he has at last arrived at his final pair of villains, Mephistopheles and Iago. He would still have had before him the task of drawing some general and embracing conclusion about a list of figures so ill-assorted that I, for one, fail to see how it could be done. In any case, there is to this essay no summation, no conclusion, and perhaps no conclusion is possible.
The essay on epics is almost, though not quite, as eccentric, and certainly has its share of statements that make you sit up and take notice. “I am suggesting that the Commedia, like Paradise Lost, is in part hermetic, and means at times the opposite of what it asserts.” This sentence concludes a paragraph that putatively gave it its justification, but I cite it here to juxtapose it with a sentence that comes only a page later: “Unlike other epics, Moby Dick, though an allegory, is also an exact whaling voyage. It is not hermetic; things are what they are, and do not opaquely suggest the opposite.” I find this claim about Melville’s great work bewildering, and while granting it to be epic in scale, and even in majesty, would assert that it is insistently based upon paradoxes and contradictions that riddle the text at every point: Queequeg’s tomahawk becomes a peace pipe; the coffin becomes a life raft; Quakers are aggressive killers of whales; harpoons become goblets; and shore, which ought to be security for humans from the chaos of the seas, is in fact the greatest threat to a ship in a storm.
But it is in the course of writing about Dante that Lowell, nearly parenthetically astonishes us most. “Dante,” he writes, “was virtually a Ghibelline, a fanatical one. His Commedia is a Ghibelline epic. The Ghibellines…loathed popes as principals of disharmony and internecine murder. They had leanings towards heresy. They led lives, as did the Pope’s adherents, the Guelphs, that sinned in a hundred common ways: adultery, sodomy, murder, treason, intrigue. In the Commedia, they are tortured for these misdeeds—but who is ever hurt in a poem?” I find myself nearly dumbfounded by that rhetorical question. Certainly poetic literature offers an almost unending parade of suffering victims, and the anguish we share with Job or with Lear cannot be dismissed as easily as Lowell seems to do by implying that these people are “just words,” as if only sticks and stones can break our bones. What does Lord Hervey suffer at the hands of Pope through the intermediary of Sporus?
But Lowell himself was something of an inflicter of pain through his poems, and it may be that his airy question was an excuse and an evasion. For in some ways, I suppose, all artists are exploitative and cannibalistic in their assimilation of people and events which they transmute for artistic purposes, and romans à clefs are only the most obvious and crudest versions of this practice. Robert de Montesquiou is no longer of any use to Proust, or to his readers, and those who read Woolf, Huxley, and Lawrence for the gossip factors in their fiction diminish and trivialize their works. Auden asserted that “Time” forgives these appropriations, for life is short but art is long, as Malraux also knew when writing, in Museum Without Walls, “What do we care who the Man with the Helmet or the Man with a Glove may have been in real life? For us, their names are Rembrandt and Titian.” Still, there is something chilling about this kind of aestheticism, and it makes the more bewildering Lowell’s final comment on Eliot: “Eliot was abused as no other man, either American or British.” If, now and again, Lowell offers cryptic and inexplicable pronouncements of this kind, and if, as I suspect, “Art and Evil” was written when he was off his rocker, nevertheless the book as a whole is piercingly intelligent and original, and often supremely well written. What seems to me its triumph appears in the final section.
The final section of this book concludes with an appendix containing two letters: one to FDR, ceremoniously refusing to serve in the armed forces during World War II after Allied saturation bombings of population centers in Germany, and one to Lyndon Johnson, politely declining to attend a White House reception during the Vietnam War. It is an appendix to that section of the book that is given over in large part to personal self-examination and evaluation. There are pieces “On ‘Skunk Hour,’ ” “On Translating Phèdre,” and “On Imitations.” In addition, there are two interviews, one with Frederick Seidel and another with Ian Hamilton. And (appendix apart) the collection concludes with three prose pieces of history and memoir: “91 Revere Street,” which appeared as a prose interlude and commentary in Life Studies; “Near the Unbalanced Aquarium,” which appeared in The New York Review; and a piece called “Antebellum Boston,” first in historical sequence of these three studies of Lowell and his family, which appears here for the first time.
It is this piece that seems to me the most triumphantly successful in the book and, more than that, perhaps the best prose memoir written by an American. It ranks, certainly, with the very best pages of Henry Adams; it is eloquent, imaginative, and deeply moving. The “antebellum” Lowell refers to is pre–World War I, and the account begins two years before his birth, giving a grim and unpromising picture of the world the poet would (regretfully, from his authorial point of view) be born into. At the present moment I think it the finest thing in the book, though there is so much here to be admired that I am annoyed at what I have had to let pass unremarked.
But I will close with a mention of Lowell’s comment to Hamilton:
I hoped in Life Studies—it was a limitation—that each poem might seem as open and single surfaced as a photograph. Notebook is more jagged and imagined than was desirable in Life Studies. It’s severe to be confined to rendering appearances. That seems the perfect way, what War and Peace is, but it flattens poetry’s briefer genius.
That interview is dated 1971. In 1974, paying his final tribute to John Crowe Ransom, Lowell wrote,
In his art, too, Ransom found pain, or a harmony of disequilibrium. He knows why we do not come back to a photograph for aesthetic pleasure, no matter how colorful and dramatic, not even if it is of a person loved. We cannot feel, as in paintings, the artist’s mothering work of hand and mind. I once asked the master photographer Walker Evans how Vermeer’s View of Delft (that perhaps first trompe l’oeil of landscape verisimilitude) differed from a photograph. He paused, staring, as if his eye could not give the answer. His answer was Ransom’s—art demands the intelligent pain or care behind each speck of brick, each spot of paint.
No reader of Lowell’s poetry can fail to recognize in these passages a pre-occupation that would emerge in his final poem:
Those blessèd structures, plot and rhyme—
why are they no help to me now
I want to make
something imagined, not recalled?
I hear the noise of my own voice:
The painter’s vision is not a lens,
it trembles to caress the light.
But sometimes everything I write
with the threadbare art of my eye
seems a snapshot,
lurid, rapid, garish, grouped,
heightened from life,
yet paralyzed by fact.
Yet why not say what happened?
Pray for the grace of accuracy
Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination
stealing like the tide across a map
to his girl solid with yearning.
We are poor passing facts,
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name.
March 3, 1988