In 1944, Robert Lowell published his first collection of poems, Land of Unlikeness. Later he refused to have it reprinted, and it is relegated to an appendix in the new Collected Poems, along with the introduction Allen Tate wrote for it. This is the kind of bibliographical rarity that circulates in the academic world in the form of old Xeroxes. An original edition, with a personal inscription to F.W. Dupee, is currently on sale at little short of $9,000. A book worth having, then, but also a book well worth reading, not because it contains any of the works on which Lowell’s reputation is likely to rest, but because it shows us the sense of elevated purpose and the intense literary ambition which was with the young poet from the outset.

He wanted to occupy the high spiritual ground—like many English-language poets on either side of the Atlantic, he felt that the important response to the war was a spiritual one. He wanted also, in literary terms, to move matters forward after the triumph of modernism by returning to traditional poetics. Tate, in his introduction, saw this clearly:

There is no poetry today quite like this. T.S. Eliot’s recent prediction that we should soon see a return to formal and even intricate metres and stanzas was coming true, before he made it, in the verse of Robert Lowell.

What we were being offered, in this view, was what in the context of other arts was called a rappel à l’ordre, a call to order.

Lowell’s mind was buzzing with poetry. Eliot featured importantly, but the kind of line in Eliot that Lowell was drawn to was clotted and consonantal: “The garboard strake leaks and the seams need caulking”—a line of Eliot’s—sounds like a line of Lowell’s. “How dry Time screaks in its fat axle-grease”—a line of Lowell’s—puts us in mind of Eliot’s

Garlic and sapphires in the mud
Clot the bedded axle-tree.

Hopkins was another important part of the mix—in those days Hopkins, though a Victorian, was treated as a modernist (much as Emily Dickinson was). Lowell addressed the Virgin Mary:

Oh, if soldiers mind you well
They shall find you are their belle
And belly too;
Christ’s bread and beauty came by you,
Celestial Hoyden, when our Lord
Gave up the weary Ghost and died,
You shook a sword
From his torn side.

The title of Lowell’s “Cisterciansin Germany” could easily have been a Hopkins title. The poem is about Hitler’s Germany, in which the essential point, to the young Catholic convert Lowell, is the role or fate of the Christian pastors:

Rank upon rank the cast-out Christians file
Under den Linden to the Wilhelmsplatz,
Where Caesar paws the gladiator’s breast;
His martial bumblings and hypnotic yawp
Drum out the pastors of these aimless pastures;
And what a muster of scarred hirelings and scared sheep
To cheapen and popularize the price of blood!
But who will pipe of pastors, herds and hirelings
Where a strait-laced mechanic calls the tune?

All this imagery of sheep and shepherds and piping comes from a tradition, otherwise presumed dead, of pastoral poetry. Lowell has probably been drawn to one of the difficult passages in “Lycidas” (lines 103–131), in which Milton attacks the religious abuses of his day, using the traditional poetic language of shepherding. But the tradition stretches back to Spenser and to the New Testament. What is surprising is to find this zealous young Catholic poet assuming the mantle of a Protestant Milton in order to speak out against Nazi Germany.

Lowell did not find this ambitious early work successful, and suppressed it. The poem ends with an image of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux:

We lift our bloody hands to wizened Bernard,
To Bernard gathering his canticle of flowers,
His soul a bridal chamber fresh with flowers,
And all his body one extatic [sic
] womb,
And through the trellis peers the sudden Bridegroom.

This takes baroque poetics rather too far, imagining the male saint as a womb for the bridegroom Christ to impregnate. But Lowell liked it better than the rest of the poem. As he told Frederick Seidel later: “The ‘Cistercians’ wasn’t very close to me, but the last lines seemed felt; I dropped the Cistercians and put a Boston graveyard in.”1 And so the passage finds itself at the end of “At the Indian Killer’s Grave,” with the sex of the saint changed:

John, Matthew, Luke and Mark,
Gospel me to the Garden, let me come
Where Mary twists the warlock with her flowers—
Her soul a bridal chamber fresh with flowers
And her whole body an ecstatic womb,
As through the trellis peers the sudden Bridegroom.

The revision gets over the potential difficulty of imagining Christ having sex with Saint Bernard, and preserves the object of pride, the Eliotic last line. Lowell said, when asked by Seidel about this habit of recycling passages from old poems:


All your poems are in a sense one poem; and there’s always the struggle of getting something that balances and comes out right, in which all parts are good, and which has the experience that you value. And so, if you have a few lines that shine in a poem or are beginning to shine, and they fail and get covered over and drowned, maybe their real form is in another poem. Maybe you’ve mistaken the real inspiration in the original poem and they belong to something else entirely. I don’t think that violates experience.2

It is a good point, well put. But later in his career Lowell took to revising and recasting his work so much, so fast, that he began to try the patience of his by then large readership. In the process he also created problems for any future editor. The Collected Prose appeared in 1987, ten years after his death. But the Collected Poems has only just appeared, and in the meantime, by common consent, the work of the most famous poet of his day has undergone a partial eclipse.

In a way, the problem was never the absence of a properly edited collection. You can read Lowell in selections and in anthologies: either the major poems there retain their power, or they do not. You could also, without too much difficulty, have acquired any of the individual volumes except Land of Unlikeness, and given it a try. In a sense this is still the best, certainly the least daunting, way to read Lowell. Lord Weary’s Castle (1946) is the first of the key books. My advice is to skip the second, The Mills of the Kavanaughs (1951). The kernel of the great work is to be found in Life Studies (1959), For the Union Dead (1964), and Near the Ocean (1967), and if the reader finds nothing in these then it is very unlikely that the later volumes will have any great interest. If you do admire these four collections, as I do greatly and with great reservations, then you will want to acquire the sequels.

Notebook 1967–68 was the first of them, in 1969. It was written in a fourteen-line unrhymed form which gets called a sonnet, and which suited the poet rather too well. He revised the volume in the next year and then, in 1973, to the exasperation of many, rerevised and reorganized these so-called sonnets in three volumes: History (whose material tends to focus on public affairs), For Lizzie and Harriet (which is about his second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, and their daughter, Harriet), and The Dolphin (which is about life with his third wife, Caroline Blackwood). Apart from a Selected Poems of 1976, there was only one more volume to come, Day by Day, published in the year of Lowell’s death, 1977.

If you count the two versions of Notebook, there are a dozen volumes of poetry here. In addition, there is a body of free translations, including Imitations (1961), and there are dramas, both translations and adaptations. Beyond the collections of poetry published in his lifetime, however, there does not appear to be very much new to discover. The Collected Poems does not present a new Lowell, in the way that for instance the forthcoming collected Marianne Moore, which I have seen in proof, presents a very different picture from the Complete Poems—bringing together a large number of uncollected poems and reorganizing the whole presentation and sequence, and inviting the reader to consider the whole story of this writer’s life afresh.

The new Lowell has no comparable range of surprises, and the overall picture of his development, though the highlights may alter, remains much the same. Lowell’s Early High Rhetorical style, on display in Lord Weary’s Castle, had an anti-style. The style at its most famous was on display in “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” but a much better poem is “Mr. Edwards and the Spider,” which has the merits Allen Tate associated with the return to intricate form. It imitates Donne’s “A Nocturnal on St. Lucy’s Day”:

I saw the spiders marching through the air,
Swimming from tree to tree that mildewed day
In latter August when the hay
Came creaking to the barn. But where
The wind is westerly,
Where gnarled November makes the spiders fly
into the apparitions of the sky,
They purpose nothing but their ease and die
Urgently beating east to sunrise and the sea….

The subject matter, fanatical New England in the person of Jonathan Edwards, is Lowell’s by birthright. The language is his version of the religious language of the day, and the form suits it perfectly.


The anti-style was on view in the same volume in the poem “In the Cage,” a vision of prison which was drawn from the poet’s own experiences as a conscientious objector during World War II. It is written in iambic tetrameters, which were good for Lowell’s muse (see the volume Near the Ocean); it is tight and vivid, and has that valuable quality of having no designs upon the reader. It was first written in 1944. Here it is:

The lifers file into the hall,
According to their houses—twos
Of laundered denim. On the wall
A colored fairy tinkles blues
And titters by the balustrade;
Canaries beat their bars and scream.
We come from tunnels where the spade
Pick-axe and hod for plaster steam
In mud and insulation. Here
The Bible-twisting Israelite
Fasts for his Harlem. It is night,
And it is vanity, and age
Blackens the heart of Adam. Fear,
The yellow chirper, beaks its cage.

Not a poem that gives itself immediately, it is one that nevertheless stays with you. The image of the canaries, as in the birds taken underground by miners to detect poisonous gases, is not hard to grasp. “The Bible-twisting Israelite,” on the other hand, needs a note: he is a black member of a sect that believes the Jews to be impostors. (Lowell later ruined this poem in History.)

Life Studies, which initially shocked Lowell’s admirers and friends, saw the anti-style in the ascendant. Although the collection kicks off in Early High Rhetorical, it is the sequence of free-verse personal poems, giving the volume its title and including “Waking in the Blue,” based on the poet’s experiences in a private psychiatric hospital, that stands out. The first stanza runs:

The night attendant, a B.U. sophomore,
rouses from the mare’s-nest of his drowsy head
propped on
The Meaning of Meaning.
He catwalks down our corridor.
Azure day
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.”)

Obviously this kind of free-verse paragraph, with its unobtrusive rhymes, was the opposite of what Tate had expected from Lowell’s rappel à l’ordre. But form is not the heart of the issue here between Early High Rhetorical and whatever we call its antithesis. “In the Cage,” with its tight metrics, is very close in spirit to “Waking in the Blue,” with its free verse. In the first, the poet comes before us in his prison clothes, in the second, as a hospital inmate. Both circumstances imply a degree of humiliation. Each poem has its own rhetoric, its passing moment of elevated effect, but both are very far from the vatic grandeur of “Cistercians in Germany.” It turned out that the source of Lowell’s authentic inspiration lay very close to home. In Auden’s formulation, Lowell’s was one of those “private faces in public places.” This was a key source of his distinction.

And then the fact was, in the broadest terms, that modernism was not yet finished by any means. The clash in Lowell between style and anti-style, at its productive best, was seen in the next two volumes, with their exploration of public and private life. But that does not mean that these volumes are full of work of even quality. Lowell is not helped—his reputation is not helped—by being admired for his faults. He is a fallible poet. He is often obscure, sometimes impenetrable, sometimes flat. The fact that he was a compulsive reviser does not make him a successful perfectionist, any more than one would say that a compulsive hand washer had a model hygienic regime.

Considered as an animal that makes a home, Lowell is not like a wasp, chewing his material into a homogeneous pulp in order to make an entirely original structure. He is much more like certain marine creatures that collect bits and pieces here and there, which retain, or seem to retain, something of their original shape. Things other people have said, private letters, stories written by other people, other people’s poems—all manner of material could be used. Lowell is not a perfect poet. Go to him in search of a perfect poet and you are guaranteed disappointment. He could be careless, perhaps more careless in his poetry than in his prose. But you have to look for the pieces that “shine in a poem or are beginning to shine.” There’s always some choosing to do, but, as Lowell said, “I don’t think that violates experience.”


Ideally for the editing of such work as this, we want the impossible. We want the poet back, alive and in a calm frame of mind, and we want to sit him down and say: Look, in the last line of “Sailing Home from Rapallo” you tell us that your mother’s corpse was “wrapped like panettone in Italian tinfoil.” But in Italy panettone does not come wrapped in tinfoil. You once agreed with an Italian questioner that panforte, the dark Sienese fruit slab, was what you had in mind. Should we change this? It has already caused confusion, leading one writer to suggest that your mother’s body was wrapped in cellophane (like a gift-wrapped Motta panettone in an autostrada restaurant). But we know from a prose account of yours that tinfoil—“She shone in her bridal tinfoil and hurried homeward with open arms to her husband lying under the White Mountains”—was the precise, shocking image you wanted.

But the poet cannot answer us, and we may not take his permission for granted, since the two Italian words are different in rhythm and sound, since there is room for doubt, and since anyway the author might choose to answer with Pontius Pilate: What I have written I have written, preferring to leave the text with its historic fallibility, as first set down. So the editors have let panettone stand, glossing it as “a tall, sweet Italian holiday [they mean Christmas] bread,” before alerting the reader to a source who confirms that Lowell did indeed mean panforte. A justifiable textual decision is made, but that leads to the incorrect word being printed and glossed.

By contrast, take this from the prose memoir “91 Revere Street”—a work very much admired by English poets of my generation, at least two of whom have imitated Lowell’s mixing of prose and poetry in Life Studies. Here the poet remembers the bookplate of his Mason-Myers ancestors: “Their motto, malo frangere quam flectere, reads ‘I prefer to bend than to break.'” But Lowell has got this wrong as well. Either his memory of the motto is wrong, or his translation, which should read: “I prefer to break [things] than to bend [them].” Many mottos are written in crude Latin, and this one may well have been intended to mean what Lowell clearly thinks it means: I prefer death (to be broken) than to be bent from my purpose. Here the editors seem not to have noticed the mistranslation.

It is a matter of some consequence, as the editors, Frank Bidart and David Gewanter, indeed seem to believe, since they make a cross-reference to the description of Colonel Shaw in “For the Union Dead”:

He is out of bounds now. He rejoices in man’s lovely,
peculiar power to choose life and die—
when he leads his black soldiers to death,
he cannot bend his back.

But if Colonel Shaw in his unbendingness is an embodiment of the Mason-Myers motto (that is, of Bostonian values), it would be better to give the right translation of that motto, to correct Lowell’s error for him. At all events the editors ought to let us in on the problem.

These editors are very keen to tell us things we might well know or easily look up: the meanings of vino rosso, Dummkopf, hors de combat, bête noire, in ovo, coup de théâtre. They inform us that Boulder is in Colorado. In the notes to “A Mad Negro Soldier Confined in Munich” they tell us that Fraülein means a young woman. So they clearly do not expect us to have been out and about very much. In which case it follows that, in the same poem, they ought to let us know that the English Garden is, rather surprisingly, the main park in central Munich.

The poem was written after Lowell, traveling in Austria in 1952, was seized by a manic attack so powerful that he had to be hospitalized. He was taken with some difficulty across the border into Germany, to be treated in an American military hospital (on the grounds that he would understand the language of the doctors). Lowell made sad attempts to talk to his fellow patients who were, according to a contemporary letter by his wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, “of very low mentality; they don’t like Cal [Lowell’s nickname] at all and he’s trying to talk to them, tell them what’s what, etc.”3

No doubt he was also listening to what they said, since it would appear that he had hardly any opportunity to observe Munich himself. What are we to make, then, of stanza two of the resultant poem?

In Munich the zoo’s rubble fumes with cats;
hoydens with airguns prowl the Koenigsplatz,
and pink the pigeons on the mustard spire.
Who but my girl-friend set the town on fire?

The note glosses “Koenigsplatz” as “King’s square.” The spelling is an improvement on “Keonigsplatz,” which used to grace English editions, but the normal German rendition is Königsplatz, and there is no pressing reason for not adopting it, especially when you have Fraülein on the same page. The mad Negro, who is speaking, describes a city in rubble, after a fire. There is an answer to what looks like a rhetorical question in line four: it was the Allied bombing raids, most notably in 1942, which set the town on fire. And there is an answer to the question why Lowell should wish to describe the Königsplatz: it had been, after all, the ceremonial center of Nazi Munich, with its Honor Temples and its “Führerbau” and the Brown House in adjacent Briennerstrasse.

That Munich, like the other major German cities, had been bombed half to pieces was a most important fact to Lowell. Having accepted such atrocities at first in 1942, as being part of the unavoidable savagery “in our nation’s struggle for its life against diabolic adversaries,” and having twice volunteered for the armed forces, Lowell came to believe in 1943 that the war was now being prosecuted “without quarter or principles” in pursuit of “the permanent destruction of Germany and Japan.” This was the basis of his refusal to serve, when eventually called up, and the reason for his imprisonment.4

Now in Munich he finds himself locked up again. His mad Negro soldier peoples the old Nazi parade ground with hoydens (“boisterous unruly women,” says the dictionary) armed with airguns, shooting pigeons. If you read the phrase “set the town on fire” in its literal sense, rather than as common slang, the soldier seems to blame the effects of the bombing on his German girlfriend. The vision becomes a parody—strictly, a travesty—of history. Women are seen as doing what men historically did.

One gets hardly any sense of any of this from the notes. Neither the circumstances of the poem’s composition, nor the references to the past war, are considered worth elucidating. In this case, then, one feels that neither the text nor its annotation is satisfactory. One turns for an expression of general editorial principles to the “Note on the Text” to find that “only obvious spelling errors have been corrected” and that “no attempt has been made to regularize punctuation or spelling.” For, as Frank Bidart puts it,

“After-dinner” and “after dinner” and “afterdinner” are each different rhythmically (as are “blood-red” and “blood red” or “girl-friend” and “girlfriend” or “goldfinch-nest” and “goldfinchnest”). Subtleties of rhythm are the life of a poem; to make Lowell’s lines conform to present-day practice would be to rub away some of his music.

This, in my opinion, is nonsense. There is no rhythmic difference between “girl-friend” and “girlfriend,” or between “afterdinner” and “after-dinner.” The kind of subtleties of delivery which Bidart is imagining (if they exist) are by no means distinguished by the different orthographic conventions employed. There may be better grounds for not regularizing the text than Bidart gives.

The fact is that, in the case of Lowell, all sorts of adjectives spring to mind—inspired, thrilling, brilliant, haunting, impressive, exasperating, hyperventilating—but not careful, and particularly not careful in editorial matters. If he had been careful he would have written “homo homini lupus,”5 not “homo lupus homini.” He would have written “Sturm und Drang” rather than “sturm und drang“—but then, would he ever have described an acquaintance as comical “in the manner of the crusading sturm und drang liberal scholars in second year German novels”? What precisely does this description connote? If the editors know, why don’t they tell us? If Lowell is both misusing and misspelling the German term, they should quietly inform us, and we can then move on.

In the opening poem of Life Studies, “Beyond the Alps,” Lowell describes traveling from Rome to Paris by train in 1950, “the year Pius XII defined the dogma of Mary’s bodily assumption.” The second stanza begins:

When the Vatican made Mary’s Assumption dogma,
the crowds at San Pietro screamed
The Holy Father dropped his shaving glass,
and listened. His electric razor purred,
his pet canary chirped on his left hand.

It is a strange passage, and seems at first a surrealist invention (coming from the same period as Francis Bacon’s screaming popes). Astonishingly, to me at least, this vision of the Pope’s toilet is based on fact. Pius XII did have a pet bird, a goldfinch rather than a canary, which he had rescued in the Vatican garden. And he did use, or he had used, an electric razor. In 1936, as Cardinal Pacelli, he visited the United States and earned a reputation as a “great guy” while on an airplane tour:

Aboard the plane, this papal statesman often dispense[d] with the services of his secretary and typed his own speeches on a portable typewriter. He shaved himself with an electric razor and drew the pilot into conversation on the relative speed of American and Italian automobiles.6

Whether Lowell used this kind of source or something in the papers he was reading on the train, I do not know. The editors do not help us on this matter or, more importantly, on the meaning of the title of the poem. “Beyond the mountains, or Alps” is the common translation of the term “ultramontane”; ultramontanism is the belief in the supremacy of the pope, especially in pre-revolutionary France. In Lowell’s poem we go beyond the Alps in the opposite direction, leaving the Holy Father’s sphere of influence, at a time when he has, from the poet’s point of view, pushed credulity to the limit, and heading for Paris, crossing some kind of symbolic Alps.

The first line quoted is in a kind of awkward free verse. The second has this perhaps slightly unnatural use of San Pietro instead of St. Peter’s, and the reason for this is scansion: the line will read as a regular iambic pentameter, as long as the last syllable is accented. The notes tell us that “Papa” refers to the Pope and that in the Selected Poems (revised) Lowell indeed had an erroneous “papá,” which means, they tell us, “father.” Actually there is no such thing in Italian as this acute-accented “a”—the word for dad, not father, is papà—and until I read this edition of Lowell I thought there was no such thing in English either, but the acute accent crops up again in “91 Revere Street,” used to indicate upper-class Boston affectation: papá, mamá.

The upshot is that we have a combination of unreliable poet with unreliable editors. For this particular poem (I am very far from saying the same for every poem in the book) the combination is peculiarly undermining, since the work is full of high rhetorical flourishes that demand assent, but that begin to flounder in the face of a quibble. The whole of “Beyond the Alps” consists of three irregular sonnets, the last of which gets detached from its final couplet—a couplet that contains a phrase I remember friends puzzling over at length. Here are the full fourteen lines:

Our mountain-climbing train had come to earth.
Tired of the querulous hush-hush of the wheels,
the blear-eyed ego kicking in my berth
lay still, and saw Apollo plant his heels
on terra firma through the morning’s thigh…
each backward, wasted Alp, a Parthenon,
fire-branded socket of the Cyclops’ eye.
There were no tickets for that altitude
once held by Hellas, when that Goddess stood,
prince, pope, philosopher and golden bough,
pure mind and murder at the scything prow—
Minerva, the miscarriage of the brain.
Now Paris, our black classic, breaking up
like killer kings on an Etruscan cup.

The poet looks out of the train window. “Apollo plant his heels,” the notes tell us, refers to “Phoebus Apollo, the sun god, at dawn.” Why dawn plants his heels through the morning’s thigh I don’t know. It is the kind of overwriting that, at this point in the Collected Poems, one hopes to find Lowell leaving behind.

And now the poet has a vision of the Alps, in which each peak seems a Parthenon. The notes gloss Parthenon as “a temple honoring Minerva (in Greek, Athena)….” Minerva “helped Odysseus blind the Cyclops (Odyssey IX).” “Minerva was born, clothed in full armor, directly from the head of Zeus.” And, quoting Jonathan Raban, “Minerva was the goddess of both arts and war.”

The last point is right, but to say that the Parthenon honors Minerva (the Roman goddess) seems utterly obtuse. From any but a late Roman point of view it honors Athena, as you’d expect in Athens. The words Minerva and Athena should not be considered interchangeable. Minerva springs from the head of Jove, not Zeus. Athena does indeed help Odysseus at several points in the story, but not, as it happens, in the episode of the Cyclops, except by very indirect implication. (Odysseus asks himself how he will get his revenge on the Cyclops: “Would Athena give me glory?”7 But it is to Zeus that he makes a sacrifice at the end of the book.)

We are hardly going to be able to form any judgment of Lowell’s poem with the help of such haphazard scholarship. Do you suppose, for a moment, that when Lowell thought of the passing Alp as a Parthenon (however that came about), he was bearing in mind the temple’s connection to Athena, and therefore to Minerva? Do you think that Ulysses’ brief remark, as he plots revenge on the Cyclops, was what prompted the line about the fire-branded socket (whatever else it means)?

We pause at such length over these lines and their notes because we would dearly like to know what the last couplet of the poem means:

Now Paris, our black classic, breaking up
like killer kings on an Etruscan cup.

The phrase that always puzzled readers is “our black classic.” It holds us up in the delivery, with its back-to-back consonants, and it holds up our appreciation of the memorable last line. The train and its passengers arrive in Paris, and Paris is somehow breaking up—crumbling would be the easiest explanation, falling to bits—like potsherds perhaps, fragments of an antique cup on which are scenes of “killer kings” (characters indeed like Odysseus and the other great figures from the legends of the Trojan War). The note on this line is very full. Part comes from Jonathan Raban again: he wants us to think of “the black-figure paintings on the vases which the Etruscans buried with their dead in ceremonial tombs.”

Here is the note on the previous line, “Now Paris, our black classic, breaking up”:

The train’s destination. Rome was the symbolic home of Lowell’s early Roman Catholicism, as well as of the universalist politics underlying the city’s ecclesiastical and imperialist past; now Lowell arrives at a new city, “our black classic”—no less violent, but secular, the home of radical, fragmenting political and artistic revolution. (Cf. “exiled here/in Paris, its Black Sea” in “The Swan”…)

It seems to me the technique of this note is to keep us talking in the hope that we won’t notice the editors ducking the interpretation. Nothing actually tells us what “black classic” means. However, the reference given to “in Paris, its Black Sea” sounds promising, and we turn to “The Swan,” one of Lowell’s “imitations” of Baudelaire:

I see this bird like Ovid exiled here
in Paris, its Black Sea—it spears and prods
its snake-head at our blue, ironic air,
as if it wanted to reproach the gods.

Maybe behind “Paris, our black classic” is a phrase of Baudelaire. We turn to the original stanza:

Vers le ciel quelquefois, comme l’homme d’Ovide,
Vers le ciel ironique et cruellement bleu,
Sur son cou convulsif tendant sa tête avide,
Comme s’il adressait des reproches à Dieu!

(The swan is seen as “reaching its eager head on its convulsive neck towards the sky, sometimes, like Ovid’s Man, towards the ironic and cruelly blue sky, as if it were addressing its reproaches to God!”) Ovid is here, but the idea of exile, the Black Sea is not. The trail has gone cold. Baudelaire invokes Ovid not as a figure in exile, but as the author of the lines in the first book of Metamorphoses: “Whereas other animals hang their heads and look at the ground, [God] made man stand erect, bidding him look up to heaven, and lift his head to the stars.”8 The swan behaves like a man in looking to the heavens to reproach God. Lowell has either misunderstood or made free with the original, referring to Ovid’s reproach at being exiled.

So our investigation runs into the sand. Certainly the journey was worth making, since we have learned from the editors that Lowell associated Paris with a black something on more than one occasion. One point might be worth clearing up: Did Lowell write “Crossing the Alps” or “The Swan” first? Unfortunately, the new Collected Poems does not give either place or date of first publication of individual poems.

Why ever not? The acknowledgments page tells us that “DeSales Harrison did the initial research collecting magazine and book versions of each Lowell poem, constructing a labyrinthine archive of Lowell’s publication history. David Gewanter prepared the final texts for publication and did the initial draft of the Notes. Frank Bidart oversaw the whole.” In other words, Harrison did the work that would have enabled them to give full information about date and place of first publication, but his senior partners couldn’t find space for it. I hope he did not afterward throw his “labyrinthine archive” away.


Nobody ever said that editing Lowell was going to be easy. On the contrary, everyone thought that it would be difficult, if not impossible. But the difficulty would arise, one had supposed, from the revisions and reorganizations of whole poems and whole collections during the latter part of the poet’s life, the manically productive years of Notebook, History, For Lizzie and Harriet, The Dolphin, and Day by Day. However, Frank Bidart cut that Gordian knot by deciding to omit Notebook both in its (1969) original and its (1970) expanded revised form. This decision has been regretted (by Neil Corcoran in a letter to the TLS).

There are arguments on both sides. Essentially, Bidart’s policy favors the author’s latest wishes. That must be at least a defensible position. The new Collected Robert Lowell contains roughly a thousand pages of text to 170 of apparatus, so it is at the outer limits of feasibility as a normal-sized volume of literature. After all, what everyone involved wants is for Lowell’s work to be bought and read again, by a new audience as well as by those who knew the work as it came out.

And then there was the question of the notes, on which, we are told, Helen Vendler was the first to insist. She was right to insist on them. The editors thank her and six other authorities for reading “all the Notes” and making “innumerable valuable corrections and suggestions.” Many other names are mentioned as having been consulted, and one expects the usual formal phrase to the effect that the faults of the edition are those of the editors alone. But that phrase, for once sorely required, is missing.

I find it hard to believe that the consultation was as thorough as implied. For instance, surely someone in the whole team would have picked up the fact that the poem from The Dolphin called “In Harriet’s Yearbook” borrows a whole line from a poem by William Empson—“A girl can’t go on laughing all the time”—who in turn had it, or thought he had it, from Anita Loos, the author of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.9

In the same collection, “Walter Raleigh,” one of two poems on this historic subject, ends on the lines:

Our omen is Raleigh kneeling for the axe—
he isn’t going to die, it’s not been painted.
Our Raleigh is a small boy in his velvet
and courting dress hearing an old buffer
lie about the toothless Spanish Main.

One point to watch, in both of the poems featuring Raleigh or Ralegh, must surely be the fact that the courtier was a notable poet, and therefore a possible stand-in for the author. In all the information given, this does not appear. Notable too is the absence of the key to the last three lines: Sir John Millais’s famous painting The Boyhood of Ra-leigh, which Lowell is definitely alluding to. Since this work belongs to the Tate Gallery in London, it is quite possible that Lowell saw it there, or bought a postcard of it (postcards are mentioned earlier in the poem), or both.

In Imitations, the “Three Letters to Anaktoria” are prefaced by Lowell with a headnote: “The man or hero loves Anaktoria, later Sappho; in the end, he withdraws or dies.” At the end of the three-section poem, the word “Sappho” is placed, implying that she is the author of the originals. This is puzzling—Sappho seems to have written from a man’s point of view about someone who later becomes Sappho. (Lowell says in his introduction: “My first two Sappho poems are really new poems based on hers.” But he doesn’t explain his headnote.) One turns to the notes to find that “the speaker throughout is Sappho.” So, without explanation, Lowell’s view that the speaker is a man and the addressee Sappho is overruled. It does not occur to the editors that the reader might wish to know the source of the poems.

Part one is one of Sappho’s most famous works, quoted by Longinus in On the Sublime and translated by Catullus. It is number 31 in the 1982 Loeb edition. The speaker is indubitably a woman. Part two is a very loose version of number 16 in the same edition, believed by the ancients to be by Sappho and to be spoken by the poet, who is therefore in love with Anaktoria, another woman. Conceivably, the speaker could be a man, but this implies a Sappho who writes from a fictional male point of view: surely an improbability. Part three derives from a very short poem, much admired and usually, but not invariably, attributed to Sappho. The speaker is, by indisputable grammatical implication, a woman. It is number 168B in the Loeb edition, which provides this translation: “The moon has set and the Pleiades; it is midnight, and time goes by, but I lie alone.” Lowell’s version reduces it further:

The moon slides west,
it is midnight,
the time is gone—
I lie alone!

Modern readers and poets have often seen that little phrase, translated by David A. Campbell as “and time goes by,” as meaning “the hour of the appointed tryst has passed,” and read it therefore as a poem of disappointed love. A.E. Housman made two attempts at it, leaving it non-gender-specific (“The rainy Pleiads wester…”). In his day, Lesbians who knew no other Greek were said to have this poem by heart. Lowell himself puts it in another poem, “Sappho to a Girl,” in History, joining it up with number 31. None of this important, well-known information—and remember these notes are addressed to the reader who does not know that Boulder is in Colorado—is provided.

But of course it is of great interest that Lowell should have felt at liberty, within the tradition of free translation, of poetic “versions” as pioneered by Ezra Pound, to travesty his source material in this way. It seems crazy, but it must have been by conscious choice. On the other hand, the manuscript version of “El Desdichado (After Gérard de Nerval),” presumably printed here for the first time, translates

Dans la nuit du tombeau, toi qui m’as consolé,
Rends-moi le Pausilippe et la mer d’Italie,
fleur qui plaisait tant à mon coeur désolé,
Et la treille où le pampre à la rose s’allie.


You who have cheered me in the tomb’s dark night
give me the flower that used to cool my brows,
Pausilippo, and the Aegean’s light,
the arbor where the vine supports the rose.

Posilipo, near Naples, is the place Nerval is talking about (it was famous for its grotto), and the sea he specifies is Italian, not Greek. In this case, one guesses that someone, somewhere, would have picked up these mistakes, had Lowell chosen to publish his version. But, as we have seen, that is a dangerous assumption.

In the end, one falls back, defeated. It is too depressing to go on. Better to think of the best way forward for the Lowell estate. The old Collected Prose of 1987 has served well, but is due for revision and expansion. The collected letters are in preparation, and we shall need a collected plays and, in my opinion, a volume of Lowell’s translations and/or imitations. If that last volume were well done, one could make a case for omitting Imitations from the Collected Poems, thereby reducing its bulk, and even perhaps enabling one version of Notebooks to be included. The “labyrinthine archive” that DeSales Harrison put together, wherever it is, should be carefully preserved, because the texts and notes of the poems are in need of comprehensive review and correction. It is a great shame, for the work in all its strengths, in all its fallibility, deserves better than this.

This Issue

August 14, 2003