A Tragic Grandeur


Robert Lowell’s star has waned very considerably since his death in 1977, when his obituarists treated him, along with Yeats, Eliot, Auden, and Wallace Stevens, as one of the handful of unquestionably great twentieth-century poets. The publication two years ago of Frank Bidart and David Gewanter’s massive edition of the Collected Poems did much to restore his work to public and critical view, but even now Lowell’s poems are, I would guess, less widely read, taught, and anthologized than those of his two friends and contemporaries Elizabeth Bishop and John Berryman—a judgment, if that is what it is, that would have astonished serious readers of poetry between the 1950s and the 1970s.

The death of a writer considered great when he or she was alive is quite frequently the occasion for a drastic revaluation: Tennyson shares began their long—temporary—slump shortly after 1892; Trollope’s critical reputation went into near-total eclipse after the posthumous publication of his Autobiography in 1883. In Lowell’s case, poetry itself appears to have shrunk from the high ground he commandeered: his grand conception of the poet as public figure and public conscience, half classical Roman and half seventeenth-century English, has gained little traction in the present era of notably small and private poems. In a climate of shy minimalism, Lowell’s finest work has tended to strike some younger readers as immodest, messianic, out of date.

Ian Hamilton’s critical biography of Lowell, published in 1983,* has not helped. Hamilton, an astute, sometimes lethal English critic, and a spare and private poet who always preferred the laconic to the lavish, unintentionally supplied many of the grounds for Lowell’s revaluation. His book remains indispensable—not least for the way in which he tracked down and elicited candid interviews from almost everyone who knew Lowell, from his first fiancée, Anne Dick, to a conscientious objector who’d been a fellow prisoner at the jail in Danbury, Connecticut, where Lowell served his felony sentence for refusing the draft. But where most of the people closest to Lowell saw him as a sane man cruelly afflicted by intermittent bouts of mania, Hamilton was inclined to see his life as one of overwhelming madness punctuated by spells of sanity. Lowell’s manic “antics,” and the emotional damage he inflicted when he was sick on those he loved, so dominated the book that John Carey, reviewing it for the London Sunday Times, reported that his first thought on closing its pages was, “What a skunk!”—a verdict that shocked Hamilton but has lingered insidiously in the air for the last twenty years or so. Caroline Blackwood, to whom Lowell was married at the time of his death, said that, reading the book, nobody would understand why people loved him.

Writing about the poems, Hamilton judiciously hedged his bets. There are many fine close readings, unusual in a biography, like his intent analysis of the emergence of the brilliant “Waking in the Blue” from a confused love poem, written in mania to Anne Adden, a young “psychiatric fieldworker”…

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