The selected letters of Elizabeth Bishop (edited by Robert Giroux) and of Robert Lowell (edited by Saskia Hamilton) have been warmly praised and much quoted by biographers and critics. Thomas Travisano, one of Bishop’s most incisive commentators, has now joined with Saskia Hamilton to issue in a single book the moving thirty-year correspondence between Bishop and Lowell, revealing how this long literary and personal friendship developed and evolved, underwent painful strains, and always recovered. The poets were often geographically very distant from each other (Lowell in America, Bishop in Brazil; Lowell in England, Bishop in America); and even when they were on the same continent, they were rarely in the same state (Lowell in New York, Bishop in Oregon or Massachusetts). If they were to continue to be friends, it would have to be chiefly on the page; but each was so essential to the other that the correspondence—sometimes delayed, but always resumed—was never allowed to die.
To read through the eight hundred pages of this edition is of course unnatural; it exists to be looked into, to be browsed in, to be leafed through. (In absorbing this long relationship, the reader is greatly helped by the detailed annotation of the letters: Travisano and Hamilton have minutely identified every poem, every article, every person, every event mentioned by the poets.) Since many of the most significant literary letters had already been singled out by biographers and critics, even before the publication of the individual letter-editions, what remains to be gleaned from this new overview? It is the often delicate negotiation back and forth between two difficult and distressed poets, determined to keep the current of their writing truthful, yet equally determined to encourage and praise.
What was it that made “Cal” and “Elizabeth”—as they called each other—so necessary to each other’s happiness? Certainly, they both had other literary friends and acquaintances. Lowell had three literary wives—Jean Stafford, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Caroline Blackwood—but they were all novelists; it is probably no accident (in spite of his delight in intelligent and literary women) that he never married a poet. Before she ever met Lowell, Bishop had known—in a great stroke of luck—the long-lived Marianne Moore, who became a warmly interested mentor and friend. Lowell had as his closest Kenyon friends the novelist Peter Taylor and, more uneasily, the poet and critic (and novelist) Randall Jarrell. Yet Lowell and Bishop came together from their first meeting with an almost magnetic force, and clung to each other from then on. In fact, Lowell long cherished a fantasy (not shared by Bishop) that they might have married—and the fact that they did not was, he said, the one great might-have-been in his life.
As we see the letters against the background of the lives, we find the likenesses that brought the poets into close sympathy with each other. Poetry was the first and foremost: they were each other’s admiring readers. But there were many other resemblances. They both had trust funds, shared a mild upper-class snobbery, and did not have to work (an anomalous condition among poets, by and large). They both endured unsatisfactory childhoods: Bishop (an only child) had a father who died in her infancy and a mother who went permanently insane; Lowell (an only child) had a father who failed at everything he did and a mother who had not wanted him (see the poem “Unwanted”).
Both poets were tormented, throughout their adult lives, by ill health, mental and physical (Lowell by manic-depressive illness, which after the Sixties was partially but never completely controlled by lithium; Bishop by life-long depression, as well as by appalling allergies, dangerous asthma, and arthritis). Both damaged their health further through alcoholism, and were entirely aware of each other’s struggles with drink and its consequences (in Bishop’s case, shaming falls, crying jags, broken promises, and inability to work for long periods of time).
Each had a succession of erotic partners; each needed terribly to be taken care of. Both were utterly impractical; both for a while found partners who accepted their dependency (Bishop in her long relation with the dominating Lota de Macedo Soares in Brazil, Lowell in his long marriage to the remarkably patient and loving Elizabeth Hardwick). Yet each saw the apparently permanent arrangement crack: Lota committed suicide in Bishop’s New York apartment; Lowell fell in love with Caroline Blackwood while in England and married her. The letters between the poets follow all the griefs and soothe the wounds; there is a profound kindness in each toward the other during the catastrophes that attended them, and a real attempt to understand each other’s erotic decisions. They wish each other happiness even in the most improbable circumstances for attaining it.
But the relation between Bishop and Lowell could remain unbroken chiefly, one feels, because they never had to live together. There were brief visits back and forth, here and there, and a never-interrupted conversation that slid easily from utterance to writing. Writing letters was for Bishop—especially when she was living in a wholly Portuguese-speaking environment in Brazil—a way of talking in English. “Oh dear—now I don’t want to stop talking,” she says once she has started a letter. “Well, I didn’t mean to end on this note—“ she apologizes, after writing about the pain of Lota’s death, “so I’ll write two—or 200—more sentences on this page.” She quotes with amusement, but also with endorsement, Virgil Thomson’s remark that “one of the strange things about poets is the way they keep warm by writing to one another all over the world” (and one feels that Lowell and Moore were kept warm by Bishop as she was by them).
Bishop was too shy to talk comfortably on the phone, and in letters she found her best way of “talking”—one that left her free from the imaginative strain of composing poetry or stories or (worst of all) writing prose on command. Her fluency and freedom in letters woke a strain of gaiety in her that even in bad times was able to lighten her complaints. Part of the gaiety was the self-irony she had in common with Lowell: “I flatter myself we are both awfully well-preserved, don’t you think?” (she asked when she was nearing sixty). “But then when I see a snapshot of myself I wonder who that pleasant, foolish-looking old lady is….” Lowell matches her in self-irony: on his attempt to regain normalcy after an attack of lunacy, he comments:
Gracelessly, like a standing child trying to sit down, like a cat or a coon coming down a tree, I’m getting down my ladder to the moon.
One could see these letters as a set of self-portraits, set pieces at oblique angles, always with a relish in hyperbole, adjectives, metaphors, similes that illustrate the self.
Bishop’s lifelong enjoyment of letters by others led her to offer a course at Harvard in 1971 on “Personal Correspondence, Famous and Infamous.” She had written to Lowell in 1970 that
a very good course could be given on poets and their letters—starting away back. There are so many good ones—Pope, Byron, Keats of course, Hopkins, Crane, Stevens, Marianne.
Besides the poets, her course included her favorite dryly satiric letter-writer, the Anglican clergyman Sydney Smith (“He’s the person who can always cheer me up,” she told me, impulsively lending me her own copy as a cure for what ailed me at the moment).
Long before her Harvard course was conceived, in her forties, she was writing to Lowell,
I have just finished the Yeats Letters—900 & something pages—although some I’d read before. He is so Olympian always, so calm, so really unrevealing, and yet I was fascinated.
Yeats is nonetheless reproved for including trivia:
Why do so many famous men have to write hundreds of letters about after-lunch-I-lie-down-for-an-hour, and now—I’m eating fruit-&-vegetables…. Well, he has magnificence, even so.
Lowell shared Bishop’s relish for letters, and her taste in authors: when Bishop wrote him a disapproving letter he replied by saying, “I feel like [Robert] Bridges getting one of [Gerard Manley] Hopkins’ letters, as disturbed as I am grateful”—confident that Bishop would know just what he meant.
The poets’ unlimited ability to allude to, and mutually recognize, almost any canonical work gave their letters an emotional subtext always: when Lowell, depressed after an attack of mania, gave Bishop his own two-volume Works of George Herbert (earlier owned by other Lowells), he briefly quoted Herbert in his inscription: “Thy mouth was open, but thou couldst not sing.” They both knew the context—Herbert’s “Death,” in which he addresses the voiceless death’s-head; and Bishop silently understood that Lowell feared he could no longer write. Over and over, this “emotional shorthand” (Moore on Chinese poetry) of allusions unaccompanied by quotation marks is the infrastructure of their letters. A word from Eliot here, from Tennyson there, comes invisibly trailing a whole poem behind it, initiating a wordless sympathy.
These letters are almost always entertaining. The poets not only saw themselves ironically, they contemplated their own language ironically even as they were writing it. Stylists both, they were unable to remain unconscious of their deployment of words: Bishop stops in the middle of a comment on Randall Jarrell’s view of women to reproach herself for her unmonitored style:
And Oh dear! Randall on the subject of women! Why didn’t he think it over a little more! He can’t really think all those clichés or Mackie [his wife] would have left years ago, I should think….
—a lot of thinks here—
And Lowell, summing up his illness, arrantly conceives of a Gothic metaphor in high style, punning on the headless horseman of legend: “My disease, alas, gives one (during its seizures) a headless heart.” But the most diverting elements here, on both sides, are the meant-to-amuse passages, sent because they would be delightedly consumed. Lowell’s are centered on people, because he had an interest in character and society almost matching that of a novelist. He was jealous of Bishop’s lyric transparency: “I feel so envious, old portraitist and dramatic monologist that I am.” (I asked him once why he so admired the poems of Hardy, and he said, “Because they’re about the real relations between men and women”—one of his own chief subjects.) His social set pieces sent to Bishop have a grotesque comedy. I quote the one describing the London household of William Empson, the English literary critic who had taught for some years in China; the dramatis personae include Empson’s wife Hetta and Lowell’s friend the painter Frank Parker:
I saw quite a lot of Empson. 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: Hetta Empson, six feet tall, still quite beautiful, five or six young men, all sort of failures at least financially, Hetta’s lover, a horrible young man, dark, cloddish, thirty-ish, soon drunk, incoherent and offensive, William [Empson], 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, Hetta’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.
The directness of this is matched by its cadences—try removing a phrase and see how soon the cadence goes. The tumble of adjectives is eminently Lowellian; “horrible young…dark, cloddish, thirty-ish, soon drunk, incoherent and offensive.” And Lowell could be as hard on his countrymen, in such set pieces, as on foreigners. He quite liked Jacqueline Kennedy (another intelligent woman), but recoiled from her crowd and its façon de vivre :
I went to a birthday party for Jackie Kennedy—white turrety inn building at Cotuit, rooms rented for the guests by our hostess Mrs. Paul Mellon, through the afternoon glimpses of what must be fellow guests, women with hair a foot high, smiles but no introductions…. [Off for a swim, then] return to assembling and drinking guests…most of them were people like Forrestal’s son, Paley, the CBS president, people with names like big figures in news, business or politics, but often not related, or poor cousins.
[After a boat trip to the party site] swarms of new known-unknowns with lanterns, big tent, air of very expensive rustic simplicity. [Much waiting, finally the arrival of Jackie and talk with Mike Nichols, Lillian Hellman, the Styrons, the only people Lowell knew at the party.] Later, a luxuriously simple dinner, all I can remember are blood-red lamb chops, Mike Nichols next to Jackie, later, middle-aged people dancing the new dances, not very wildly, but too young for me, a slightly tawdry untimely Marie Antoinette feeling of a festival when the age for being whole-hearted about such things had passed, the flash of the jet-set, a little lurid and in bad taste in a world of poverty and blood….
Bishop responded with her usual pleasure in Lowell’s rapid montage of effects: “Your account of Mrs. K’s birthday party is fascinating but kind of awful…. I have a feeling she is probably a Vassar type I used to know.”
Lowell was equally good at describing places—here, the writers’ retreat at Yaddo, once the private estate of Spencer and Katrina Trask:
No use describing Yaddo—rundown rose gardens, rotting cantaloupes, fountains, a bust of Dante with a hole in the head, sets called Gems of Ancient Literature , Masterpieces of the World , cracking dried up sets of Shakespeare, Ruskin, Balzac, Reminiscences of a Happy Life (the title of two different books), pseudo Poussins, pseudo Titians, pseudo Reynolds, pseudo and real English wood, portraits of the patroness, her husband, her lover, her children lit with tubular lights, like a church, like a museum….
Why don’t you come?
And Bishop did come—and lobbed back her own very different impressions of Yaddo (of looks, not books), in the best example in these letters of why these two complementary sensibilities so enjoyed exchanging views:
I must say that nothing you or anyone else ever said about the place prepared me for it in the slightest. I have that huge room with 34 windows—bloody hot—but very grand. I haven’t been able to “work” at all, so spend most of my time very pleasantly sitting on my balcony blowing bubbles. There is something a little sinister about the place though, don’t you think? I keep getting bats in my room and even met one in the woods in broad daylight, and then all those awful scummy ponds. But I think what is really the source of the trouble is the smell—old lunch boxes, I guess.
It is enlivening, in reading these letters, to watch the poets’ running competition in witty description, as they score points one after the other. In the painstaking blurbs they composed for each other’s books, they excelled at characterizing the other’s style. Bishop worked hard at her blurb for Lowell’s unsettling volume called Life Studies ; she said, in part:
This new book begins on Robert Lowell’s now-familiar trumpet notes (see “Inauguration Day”), then with the auto-biographical group called “Life Studies” the tone changes. In these poems, heart-breaking, shocking, grotesque and gentle, the unhesitant attack, the imagery and construction, are as brilliant as ever, but the mood is nostalgic and the meter is refined…. Whenever I read a poem by Robert Lowell I have a chilling sensation of here-and-now, of exact contemporaneity; more aware of those “ironies of American history,” grimmer about them, and yet hopeful…. Somehow or other, by fair means or foul, and in the middle of our worst century so far, we have produced a magnificent poet.
Lowell replied, after thanking her, “Perhaps, now, my relatives will think twice before blowing up.”
And he later wrote, for Bishop’s Questions of Travel, a blurb as accurate as the one she had written for him :
I am sure no living poet is as curious and observant as Miss Bishop. What cuts so deep is that each poem is inspired by her own tone, a tone of large, grave tenderness and sorrowing amusement…. She has a humorous, commanding genius for picking up the unnoticed, now making something sprightly and right, and now a great monument. Once her poems, each shining, were too few. Now they are many. When we read her, we enter the classical serenity of a new country.
Bishop wrote back, “You should have seen me, shedding big tears. I thought, no, this is too good, I’ll have to tone it down.” She (aloof from society) prized the “exact contemporaneity” of his rendition of the American scene, and he (with his desperate myopia and inner vehemence) was moved by her “shining” rendition—leavened with skepticism and humor—of the visible world.
But beyond these descriptive tours de force and compliments, beyond the literary and political gossip, the poets—especially as their lives grew increasingly troubled by estrangements, separations, divorce, illnesses, and the deaths of friends—exhanged tender, serious, disturbed, and grieving messages. Over time, Lowell addressed Bishop in ever more intimate ways—“My Dear,” “Dear,” “Dearest Elizabeth”—never ceasing to tell her how deeply he missed her, always ending his letters with “love.” The letters are fervent with phrases of longing: “My Darling receding Elizabeth”; “As always your absence is an aching gap for me”; “I mourn your farness”; “Ah I miss you, I miss you!” In 1971 he utters an almost marital vow: “I’d say with my whole heart, we (you & I) are together till life’s end.”
Bishop does not speak so extravagantly (nor did her relation to Lowell have the erotic tinge that his retained for her). But it is clear that she could write to him in ways that she could not to anyone else—as poet to poet, equals in age. Writing to Marianne Moore, she was always the younger to the older; but Lowell was her brother in art, aspiration, and style. Her lesbianism created no distance between them; to him, love affairs were human and understandable, no matter the gender of the lovers. She, for her part, was a feminist but impatient of a feminism that demanded a form of ideological submission to a party line. She wanted, as she told Lowell, to be considered a poet tout court , not a “woman poet.”
Biographers have investigated in detail the rocky episodes in the relationship of the two poets, chiefly the deep difficulty that occurred over Lowell’s use, in his volume The Dolphin , of Elizabeth Hardwick’s letters to him during his absence in England with Caroline Blackwood. Bishop had moral objections to the mixture of fact and fiction in The Dolphin , and brought up her heaviest guns to persuade Lowell that he was wrong on all counts. After praising the book as “magnificent poetry,” she says (with uncharacteristic capitalization), “I have one tremendous and awful BUT.” Against Lowell, she quotes a 1911 letter by “dear little Hardy,” in which he said:
What should certainly be protested against…is the mixing of fact and fiction in unknown proportions. Infinite mischief would lie in that. If any statements in the dress of fiction are covertly hinted to be fact, all must be fact, and nothing else but fact, for obvious reasons.
“You have changed [Lizzie’s] letters,” Bishop adds. “That is ‘infinite mischief,’ I think.” She then brings up Hopkins on the idea of a “gentleman,” commenting, “It is not being ‘gentle’ to use personal, tragic, anguished letters that way—it’s cruel.” She concludes by adducing a letter by Henry James objecting to a roman à clef: “His feelings on the subject were much stronger than mine, even.”
Lowell was naturally inclined to defend, on both literary and moral grounds, his own decision. Some friends had suggested he keep the poems unpublished till after his death—but, as he wrote to Bishop, “There’s something creepy about deliberately writing something posthumous.” He argued—not without reason—that Lizzie came off very well in the partly fabricated letters, that he had left out unbecoming tirades and hysteria.
Bishop was not the only person unconvinced by Lowell’s protestations—Elizabeth Hardwick herself, in the heat of anger, said she never wanted to see him again. (Not only did she go on, after a pause, seeing him, she also, with heroic kindness, continued to write to him and phone him. After the wreck of his third marriage, she not only invited him to spend the summer in Castine, Maine, but also—when he was subsequently living desolately alone in Dunster House—called him daily, and offered him refuge in her New York apartment. He died of cardiac arrest in the taxi taking him to her house on his return from a last wretched visit to Caroline and his son in Ireland.)
Bishop and Lowell never resolved the difficulty about the altered letters. They quietly let the subject die, after Lowell’s final self-defense:
Your old letter of warning—I never solved the problem of the letters, and there and elsewhere of fact and fiction. I worked hard to change the letters you named and much else…. And the letters, as reviewers have written, make Lizzie brilliant and lovable more than anyone in the book. Not enough, I know….
My immorality, as far as intent and skill could go, is nothing in my book. No one, not even I, is perversely torn and twisted, nothing’s made dishonestly worse or better than it was. My sin (mistake?) was publishing. I couldn’t bear to have my book (my life) wait hidden inside me like a dead child.
Bishop replied with her own concession:
We all have irreparable and awful actions on our consciences. That’s really all I can say now. I do, I know. I just try to live without blaming myself for them every day, at least—every day , I should say—the nights take care of guilt sufficiently.
The old fondness and the old playfulness were restored.
Yet both of the poets were failing in health. Bishop’s asthma worsened; she suffered from anemia because of internal bleeding; she had to return from a European trip (after getting injections for her asthma at a plane-stop in the Azores) in a wheelchair, and was hospitalized for twelve days. Lowell had heart disease, and increased shortness of breath; he was hospitalized for congestive heart failure several months before he died. They both had the enviable luck of sustained care in their latter days from those who loved them—Bishop from Alice Methfessel and Frank Bidart, Lowell from Frank Bidart and Elizabeth Hardwick. Their appetite for life did not fail them, but the strength to satisfy it was insufficient. It causes a pang to see that Bishop’s last letter to Lowell, on August 2, 1977, begs him not to come to visit her on the Maine island of North Haven, where she was spending the summer. A succession of houseguests had worn her out:
I’m writing to you & Mary [McCarthy] this morning to say that I hope you’ll understand if I say I’d rather you don’t come to North Haven on the 10th or whenever…. Day before yesterday, and the day before that, seven, in all, guests left & although I love them all and we’d had a very nice time—it was just a bit too much. I’ve been feeling so sick I really haven’t been able to do anything except read and—with the seven guests—cook, all of July.
She then—after taking care to write him appreciatively about his new volume, Day by Day—bade farewell, hoping to see him “maybe in North Haven next summer if I can get back here again. With much love, Elizabeth.”
Lowell died suddenly on September 12, 1977, and it was perhaps the guilt of her last refusal that compelled Bishop to set her elegy for Lowell, “North Haven” (composed in North Haven the following summer), in the landscape of that future visit that death made impossible. In the poem (beneath its epigraph ” In memoriam: Robert Lowell “) she at first suppresses the fact of change, including Lowell’s death, which goes unmentioned until line 24 of the 26-line poem. But partway through, she is forced to concede that nature’s consoling repetitions may in fact conceal alteration: this year’s Goldfinches may not be the same as last year’s, although they are indistinguishable from them:
The Goldfinches are back, or others like them,
and the White-throated Sparrow’s five-note song,
pleading and pleading, brings tears to the eyes.
Nature repeats herself, or almost does:
repeat, repeat, repeat; revise, revise, revise.
Finally admitting Lowell’s death, Bishop asks herself what she will miss most about him, and finds that it is his character as a poet of tireless composition and revision. Unlike natural phenomena, a poet is unique and irreplaceable:
You left North Haven, anchored in its rock,
afloat in mystic blue…And now—you’ve left
for good. You can’t derange, or re-arrange,
your poems again. (But the Sparrows can their song.)
The words won’t change again. Sad friend, you cannot change.
In the closing line, the mutable poems take on their final fixity, and Robert Lowell, the “sad friend,” becomes an inalterable object in the poetic universe. “North Haven,” addressed to Lowell, is Bishop’s last letter to her dearest friend. With Bishop’s own death, two years after Lowell’s, the story of their intertwined lives and reciprocal letters, maintained against all vicissitudes, comes to an end.
November 20, 2008
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