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In a climate of shy minimalism, Lowell’s finest work has tended to strike some younger readers as immodest, messianic, out of date.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” from Bennington College, whom Lowell met during one of his periodic incarcerations in McLean’s Hospital near Boston. But Hamilton’s Englishness hindered him from responding fully to the most powerful, and powerfully “American,” of Lowell’s poems. Reading him on “For the Union Dead” or “Waking Early Sunday Morning,” one sees him repeatedly trying to offer two queasy judgments, one positive and one negative, often in the same sentence, like this:
If, in itself, [“For the Union Dead”] seems overdeliberate and without the energy and rhythmic grace of the best of the Life Studies poems …it is nonetheless his first step towards extending the possibilities of his self-centeredness: towards treating his own torments as metaphors of public, even global, ills.
Such damning with faint praise was characteristic of Hamilton’s treatment of all but a few of Lowell’s poems, and it set the tone for the tacit revisionism that has greatly shortened the long shadow cast by Lowell over the poetry of the age a quarter of a century ago.
The Letters of Robert Lowell is sufficiently plump to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Collected Poems. Saskia Hamilton, no relation to Ian, has selected 711 letters from an undisclosed total. She writes that the “many wonderful letters” she has had to exclude from the book may sometime be published in a multivolume edition; it would have been helpful for the reader, to say the least, had she indicated just how many of Lowell’s letters now survive—are we looking at one in three? in five? in ten? Without that knowledge, and with no clue to her principles of selection, one can only say that this enthralling compilation feels broadly representative, even though it omits several important letters that are quoted or alluded to in the Hamilton biography. At any rate, I’ve spent a long time trying to sniff out some covert thematic bias and have found none worth reporting: so far as I can judge, the selection seems excellent, if a little wanting in the niceties of scholarly presentation.
Here, at last, is Lowell in vivid and complex chiaroscuro, living his “wayward but always rebounding life,” as he described it in a letter to his cousin, Harriet Winslow—more often well than ill, supremely dedicated to his vocation, blazingly intelligent, funny, a warm and generous friend. The “manic” letters arrive in irregular clusters, registering a total of fourteen major crack-ups for which he had tobe hospitalized in the twenty-eight years between 1949 and his death. Each cluster violently disrupts the prevailing current of sanity, in which Lowell gossips, tells stories, fights depression, argues, commiserates, talks shop, makes love, rehearses images for poems, all with such candor and impromptu eloquence that he makes a clear place for himself as one of the finest letter writers in modern literature.
Although there are earlier extant letters, Saskia Hamilton has chosen to begin with two letters that Lowell wrote to Ezra Pound in the spring of 1936, when he was slogging through his unsatisfactory freshman year at Harvard. Like an aspiring fifteenth-century painter seeking a place in Leonardo’s workshop, Lowell proposed that Pound should take him on as his apprentice: “I want to come to Italy and work under you and forge my way into reality.” The freshman explained that after going through a series of schoolboy crazes, including collecting marbles and turtles, birdwatching, and an obsession with Napoleon, he had come to poetry as a result of reading Homer “thru the dish-water of Bryant’s 19th century translation.” Homer’s world “contained a God higher than anything I had ever known, and yet his world blinked at no realities.” “All my life I had thought of poets as the most contemptible moth so you can see how violently I was molded and bent.” At Harvard, Lowell lamented, “I have yearned after iron and have been choked with cobwebs.” Having flattered Pound for recreating (in The Cantos) “what I have imagined to be the blood of Homer,” Lowell promised him, “You shan’t be sorry. I will bring the steel and fire, I am not theatric, and my life is sober not sensational.”
Heaven knows what Pound made of this. The letter’s swaggering pastiche of the Poundian manner, its mixture of boldness, humility, and awkwardness, its blurted confidences (about collecting more marbles and agates than any other boy at school, about having “never mixed well or really lived in the usual realities”), its more than faint smack of patrician entitlement, its precocious oddity, must have raised an eyebrow at the breakfast table. Pound had had his fill of Lowells since the days when Amy Lowell hijacked the Imagist movement and turned it into “Amygism.” But he evidently made some kind of prevaricatory reply, for Lowell was soon back, complaining that “your tone is hard to catch,” then launching into a critique of The Cantos that was designed to show Pound how the apprentice could improve on and outdo the master. For all its “quantity, music, directness, and realism,” Pound’s work was full of too many “spondées and compound nouns,” and essentially “static,” while Lowell meant to “bring back momentum and movement in poetry on a grand scale, to master your tremendous machinery and to carry your standard further into the century.”
At nineteen, Lowell knew exactly what he had to do and who he had to be—the standard-bearer of literary modernism in the second half of the twentieth century. One sees why his friends at the time, Blair Clark and Frank Parker—his first disciples—lived in awe of him, and also why Ford Madox Ford would remark a few months later that Lowell was the most intelligent person he’d met in Boston. There’s something both impressive and a little scary in the teenage Lowell’s inflexible resolve and certainty of ambition. Everything was in place except the poetry. While the letters to Pound are unmistakably “Lowellian,” the few poems that survive from his school and college days give no real hint of the style that would first become apparent in Land of Unlikeness, published in 1944 when Lowell was twenty-seven, with the furious “momentum and movement” of such poems as “The Drunken Fisherman.”
After his grim experience of family life in the tense and unhappy household of 91 Revere Street, it was inevitable that Lowell would try to build for himself an alternative, loving family of friends, if only to ensure that he would never again have to endure the “fogbound solitudes” of his boyhood. Pitching a tent on the lawn of Allen Tate’s house in Clarksville, Tennessee, in the summer of 1937, Lowell asserted his membership of the literary tribe where he found his truest parents and siblings, ancestors and cousins—a great multigenerational, affectionate, quarrelsome family of the kind that he must have dreamed of belonging to as a child.
By his mid-thirties, he was friends with, among others, Eliot, Pound, Williams, Frost, Santayana, Tate, Ransom, Warren, Jarrell, Bishop, Berryman, Mary McCarthy, J.F. Powers, Peter Taylor, Theodore Roethke, Delmore Schwartz, and Flannery O’Connor. He was married to Elizabeth Hardwick, and had earlier been married to Jean Stafford. Letters, most often signed “Love, Cal” to men as to women, were his means of sustaining this web of intimate relationships with an ever-growing circle (though it now looks more like a literary tradition) of writer friends. He was a tireless correspondent: the mail kept friendship alive, and nearly all Lowell’s friendships were ended only by death. A sonnet in Notebook quotes a grateful letter from Elizabeth Bishop: “Your last letter helped,/like being mailed a lantern or a spiked stick.” Reading Lowell here, one sees what she meant.
Bishop, introduced to him by Randall Jarrell in 1947, was like the sister he’d never had. Their work was almost uncannily complementary, and it’s hard to imagine how Lowell would have made the transition from the rhetorical verve and fervor of Lord Weary’s Castle and The Mills of the Kavanaughs to the restrained delicacy and precision of Life Studies without Bishop’s encouragement and example. Except in the throes of mania, when all such distinctions ceased to exist, there was safety and comfort for him in the fact that Bishop was lesbian and therefore out of bounds. Her far-flung addresses, in Florida and Brazil, made her the ideal recipient of news and gossip from inside the literary and political swim.
For him, at least, there was a childlike coziness in their relationship. He could chatter comfortably to her about music (about which he was enthusiastic but inexpert), gripe about trifles, rattle on at leisure about his writing and hers, conjure a book, a scene, another friend, in a marvelously economical freehand sketch, in which his speaking voice leaps from the page. On La Fontaine, for instance:
You should like him, in French, at least—so solid, shrewd, tender, unromantic, worldly wise, full of people—hard and soft where he should be—a perfect craftsman. He might be much larger than the other extreme Rimbaud. Enough talk about verse!
Or the unusual domestic arrangements of William and Hetta Empson’s London house:
They live in a hideous 18 room house on the edge of Hampstead Heath. Each room is as dirty and messy as Auden’s New York apartment. Strange household: Hedda [sic] Empson, six feet tall still quite beautiful, five or six young men, all sort of failures at least financially, Hedda’s lover, a horrible young man, dark, cloddish, thirty-ish, soon drunk, incoherent and offensive, William Frank Parker red-faced, drinking gallons, but somehow quite uncorrupted, always soaring off from the conversation with a chortle. And what else? A very sweet son of 18, another, Hedda’s, not William’s, Harriet’s age. Chinese dinners, Mongol dinners. The household had a weird, sordid nobility that made other Englishmen seem like a veneer.
It’s a novel in a conversational nutshell, the details gathering steadily to its unexpectedly elegant climax. Or Jacqueline Kennedy’s birthday party on Cape Cod in 1966:
…a slightly tawdry untimely Marie Antoinette feeling of a festival when the age for being whole-hearted about such things has passed, the flash of the jet-set, a little lurid and in bad taste in a world of poverty and blood, a certain real ease—meeting with McNamara, Jackie putting her hand over my mouth and telling me to be polite and I saying something awkward about liking him, but not his policy, then Jackie saying “how impossibly banal, you should say you adore his policy, but find him dull.”
It was, predictably, when writing to Bishop, in 1956, that Lowell hit on the vernacular of text-messaging many years before its time: “U R 2 good 2 B 4 got 10. What a grand line!” His playfulness, an essential streak in his character, was conspicuously missing from his biography: it is here in abundance.
The longest single letter to Bishop (it runs to nearly 3,500 words), was written from his summer house in Castine, Maine, in August 1957, when he was coming down from a manic spell at which Bishop and her companion, Lota de Macedo Soares, had been present when they visited Lowell and Hardwick a few weeks earlier. It begins in rue (“Your letter, besides bringing its cheerful tempering of the spirit, has brought me terrific relief. I feared that I was forever in exile, along with those other clinging, clutching, fevered souls…”) but moves swiftly into an extended divertissement, a ship-of-fools story about a cruise through the Maine islands aboard a forty-foot ketch under the hazardous captaincy of Richard Eberhart, with the poet Philip Booth; Eberhart’s wife, Betty; “the second ex-Mrs. Rexroth”; Hardwick and an old school friend of hers; and various others. It’s entertaining enough, but the humor seems more self-consciously baroque than usual:
There was a difficulty, Dick is color-blind and at this supreme moment [they were trying to thread their way down a narrow channel in Casco Strait] with the eyes of the ex-Mrs Rexroth on him he reverted to his old heresy that colors have no functional difference and spars are painted now red, now black, merely to vary their monotony….
So it goes, though a multitude of comic mishaps, human and marine, until finally Lowell confesses that it’s another, larger, and more personal folly that is on his mind:
After so much buffoonery…I want to make a little speech…. I want you to know that you need never again fear my overstepping myself and stirring up confusion with you. My frenzied behavior during your visit has a history and there is one fact that I want to disengage from all its harsh frenzy. There’s one bit of the past that I would like to get off my chest and then I think all will be easy with us.
What follows is an exquisite passage of intimate plain-speaking in a voice that is sane, low, and loving, as Lowell explains that in the summer of 1948, after Bishop had said “rather humorously” that she was the loneliest person who ever lived, he had haltingly tried to propose to her. “For so callous (I fear) a man, I was fearfully shy and scared of spoiling things and distrustful of being steady enough to do you [the two words were deleted] be the least good.” Free will, he writes, “is sewn into everything we do…. Yet the possible alternatives that life allows us are very few.”
Asking you is the might have been for me, the one towering change, the other life that might have been had. It was that way for these nine years or so that intervened. It was deeply buried, and this spring and summer (really before your arrival) it boiled to the surface. Now it won’t happen again, though of course I always feel a great blitheness and easiness with you. It won’t happen, I’m really in love and sold on my Elizabeth and it’s a great solace to me that you are with Lota, and I am sure that it is the will of the heavens that all is as it is.
Perhaps in the very repetition of “it won’t happen” there was a lurking acknowledgment that it might, and in March the next year, toward the end of another incarceration in McLean’s, he had to write, “Let’s not let my late [erased] slip into the monstrous cloud our love.”
His first bout of full-blown mania happened in the spring of 1949, when, after several wild weeks, first at Yaddo, then Chicago, then Bloomington, Indiana, he was committed to a padded cell at Baldpate Hospital in Georgetown, Massachusetts, from where he wrote to Bishop, “I’m in grand shape…. The world is full of wonders.” To Santayana: “I’ve been having rather tremendous experiences.” To William Carlos Williams: “I think the doctors are learning about as much as I am.” To Berryman: “I’m flourishing in an odd way.” To Taylor: “I’m in mysteriously wonderful and rugged shape.” To the Tates: “I’m in wonderful shape in all ways.” And to Jarrell: “When I get out I’m going to do everything in my power to get the Sacco case re-opened, so that those responsible are imprisoned and electricuted [sic].”
Four months later, he described his mania to Gertrude Buckman: “I was a prophet and everything was a symbol.” In these states of exalted revelation, Lowell, whose mental temper was normally finely balanced, ironic, paradoxical, would brim with dangerous and wholly uncharacteristic certitude. To Bishop, he explained that in mania he had “a headless heart,” and it was in this condition of decapitation that he became a man of decisive action, reopening the Sacco-Vanzetti case (his cousin, A. Lawrence Lowell, the Harvard president, had been in effect responsible for their execution, though he was long past “electricuting,” having died in 1943), leading a campaign to expose Elizabeth Ames, the chatelaine of Yaddo, as a Communist agent, or running for office as a Massachusetts state senator. He enlisted Pound (in January 1958) as his political consultant:
Do you think a man who has been off his rocker as often as I have been could run for elective office and win? I have in mind the State senatorship from my district—the South End, Back Bay Boston, and your son’s Roxbury etc. The incumbent is an inconspicuous Republican. His rival is a standard loosing party democrat. I’d run as a democrat, and if I could edge out in the very difficult primaries, then I’d cream the Republican…. What’s your advice.
During such episodes, the world became miraculously simplified, and Lowell had plans and solutions for everything. When he took up with Giovanna Madonia, a young Italian woman whom he barely knew, in the manic weeks that followed his mother’s death in 1954, he mailed his friends breezy notices of the end of his marriage to Hardwick (“we are quite chatty and cozy about it, and there is no bitterness,”) while to Hardwick herself, he wrote:
When you come back from the Virgins, I’ll pick a steady. For you. I think we have the same one in mind. Guess who mine is?
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, his attacks fell into something of a routine, a “groove of repetition” as he told Bishop. For the reader of the Letters, they supply much of the compulsive narrative tension that makes this long book seem short, as one learns to anticipate the signs—the too-boisterous high spirits, the compulsive reaching-out to friends, the joke-too-far, the use of telegrams as the only means of communication sufficiently urgent to answer to Lowell’s mounting impatience, the hospital address, the new girl in his life, the announcement of his and Hardwick’s separation… and then the chastened descent into sanity. In a 1961 letter to Bishop, he summarized one such crack-up in the weary tone of the repeat offender:
I was in hospital for five weeks or so, less high and in an allegorical world than usual and not so broken down afterwards. Once more there was a girl, a rather foolish girl but full of a kind of life and earth force, and once more a great grayness and debris left behind me at home. Now we are back together, wobbly but reknit almost….
Hearing that Theodore Roethke, similarly afflicted, had separated from his wife during one of “our dizzy explosions,” Lowell counseled him:
I hope this won’t be final. She seems such a beautiful person and wise wife. To my grief, I too tried to break away from Elizabeth. It was all part of my mania and nonsense. For two months, I was striding and posturing, writing letters, making wild plans. Then it all passed—again I was home. You mustn’t feel that you have done anything irreparable. All that was lost is returned. We even bring back certain treasure from our visits to the bottom.
That letter is in itself an example of the kind of treasure that Lowell found on his visits to the bottom. Along with the tangled pages of rough drafts that he would return with from the hospital, more the raw materials of poems than poems in their own right, there was an empathic understanding of other people’s suffering, a brave and modest humor, an imagination enlarged by his repeated confrontations with his demons. Each spell in hospital was a leveling experience in which he became just another drugged mental patient in the enforced democracy of others—a taste of life in a society as remote from his usual circle as an island in New Guinea. From the grimly named Institute of Living in Hartford, Connecticut, he wrote to Hardwick in 1965:
The patients are senility cases, no cuckoo like Judge Rohrabach (now dead alas) but dim slow and talkative. During most of the day I transfer to a unit called Butler II, where the patients are adolescents, some wear long hair and almost none have finished high school. I won’t go into the boredom of “leather appreciation” and ceramics appreciation, of watching basketball games for an hour without smoking, or of trying to converse with the oldster reading Francis Bacon sentence by sentence and complaining but never specifying about the difficulties of the Elizabethan vocabulary, then turning to the boy, three months a freshman at some unknown university, [who] carry[s] around the Modern Library giant collected Keats and Shelley, but who has never heard of the “Ode to a Nightingale.”
The ever-increasing range of dramatic voices in his work—in plays like Benito Cereno, as in the poems from Life Studies through Notebook—surely owes something to these humbling incarcerations. More than any poet I can think of—excluding Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and, to a much lesser extent, Browning—Lowell came close to giving speaking life to a whole society, from its hapless underclass to its political aristocracy. One of the pleasures of reading Lowell, and one rather neglected by his critics, is the sense of entering a vast, bustling, marvelously articulate world, where presidents and prisoners, intellectuals, soldiers, artists, policemen, characters out of legend, men and women, the living and the dead, consort on equal terms as in some enormous anarchic hospital.
Lowell lived to write, and wrote to be alive. When he wrote to I.A. Richards in the spring of 1973, after a long winter of correcting the final proofs of History, For Lizzie and Harriet, and The Dolphin, “I feel almost the hollowness of having finished a life’s work,” the words carry the somber weight of a death notice. He had just turned fifty-six, his and Caroline Blackwood’s son, Sheridan, was eighteen months old, but Lowell was already a valetudinarian, beginning to say his goodbyes to the world. He always told people that his father had died “at sixty,” though his father’s dates (1887–1950) contradict that, and Lowell seems to have fixed on 1977 as the year most likely fated to appear on his own tombstone.
In 1970, he flew alone to England, to take up a visiting professorship at All Soul’s in Oxford, and to scout out an offered job at the University of Essex in Colchester. At a party thrown for him by Faber & Faber, his London publisher, he met Blackwood, whom he had known glancingly in New York, began an affair with her, and settled in England, half in Blackwood’s London house in Earl’s Court and half in her country house, Milgate, near Maidstone in Kent.
The letters from this last period are a wrench to read. He and Blackwood were often extravagantly happy in their first four years together, but it was a happiness always rimmed with danger: as he wrote to his old friend Robie Macauley in 1974, “Much of the last years has been so happy, it is not real.” Lowell well knew that such unreality was fraught and precarious. The letter he wrote to John Berryman during a brief visit to New York in 1970 could as well have been addressed to himself:
You write close to death—I mean in your imagination. Don’t take it from your heart into life. Don’t say we won’t meet again. I am writing at home with Lizzie and Harriet, but I give my London address. A new life. One to be envied, but today it fills me with uncertainties that mount up terror.
The phrase “at home”—on West 67th Street, where he’d lived with Hardwick—is poignant: England was not home, and the pains of expatriation show through even the most blithe of his letters to America. “Lonely” is a word that crops up again and again. In the late spring of 1971, he wrote to Peter Taylor, begging the Taylors to visit him in Kent. “We would love to have you…. Or we could find you a house…. I miss America….” He signed off: “My love and loneliness to you both.”
A vein of oracular sad gravity runs through the later letters, in which Lowell’s most casual asides, about the weather (“It’s so much colder here,” to Allen Tate) or his ailing typewriter ribbon (“My type is dimming,” to Frank Bidart) invite the possibility of a darker secondary meaning. Illness (Blackwood’s as much as his own) and domestic troubles—with taxes, the help, the houses—weigh heavily. In the fall of 1974 he wrote to Jean Stafford, his first wife:
Do you realize all of us are the older, not yet senile, generation, the long-on-view whose shadow falls on all who are younger? What can we do about it? I write about being 57.
“Long-on-view” is a fair description of the poems he was writing then, which were collected in Day by Day (1977): loose-limbed free-verse poems, full of intimations of approaching death, that revisit his childhood, his parents, his friends, his manic attacks, his courtship of Blackwood, and his writing, as if exile in England were an afterlife, from which he could look down on his own mortality.
In both poems and letters, Lowell harped on the theme that his writing had come within sight of the end of the road. In 1974, to Bishop:
I think a lot about getting things right, when I haven’t enough to make it matter—and often there is a scrawl that cannot be arranged. We seem to be near our finish, so near that the final, the perfect etc. is forbidden us, not even in the game.
In 1976, to Peter Taylor:
Have you ever tried to stop writing? It’s harder than alcohol, which I also foreswear as the very early sun crashes at about four through the faults in the blinds. The trouble is I’ve become a sort of orange-squeezer expected to produce new and better juices. My method is formidable enough to turn out new poems, but not new subjects.
A haunting poem in Day by Day, “Shifting Colors,” explores this theme quite beautifully: it begins as a crisp, lyrical recreation of a day spent fishing in a stocked trout pond in Kent:
I fish until the clouds turn blue,
weary of self-torture, ready to paint
lilacs or confuse a thousand leaves,
as landscapists must.
The landscapist’s eye moves to a nearby horse, to a fleet of ducks, a hissing goose, a cuckoo, all conjured with graceful precision. Then Lowell turns on the poem he is writing, seeing in it only “universal consolatory/description without significance,/transcribed verbatim by my eye”:
This is not the directness that catches
everything on the run and then expires—
I would write only in response to the gods,
like Mallarmé who had the good fortune
to find a style that made writing impossible.
It is a poem that aches for its own non-existence, without apology or flourish.
The intensely painful unraveling of his marriage to Caroline Blackwood (they separated in early 1977) lends a terrible poignancy to the final letters. Those to Blackwood herself exist only in fragments transcribed by Ian Hamilton when he was researching his biography: the originals have since disappeared. Let one fragment speak for the many: from his old berth in Castine, Maine, where he was staying with Hardwick, in July 1977, Lowell wrote,
I feel broken by all conversation, and a voice inside me says all might be well if I could be with you. And another voice says all would be ruin, and that I would be drowned in the confusion I made worse. If I were to get sick in Ireland? But here it all can be handled. But it’s the effect my troubles have on you. It’s like a nightmare we all have in which each motion of foot or hand troubles the torment it tries to calm….
Yet even as one eavesdrops on Lowell’s private despair, one can’t help admiring the careful eloquence in which it’s phrased. He’d always managed to give anguish a voice of memorable grandeur—
Pity the planet, all joy gone
from this sweet volcanic cone…
—and there was a kind of tragic grandeur, tempered with irony, in the way he wrote and rewrote his last days, in both letters and poems. Terminal heart attacks are generally supposed to curtail a life in medias res: Lowell’s didn’t. His death in a taxi, en route from Kennedy Airport to West 67th Street, was the necessary last line of a work otherwise set up in final type. He had written the end of his own story: every word was in place, except the hour and date.
June 23, 2005