The Two Robert Lowells

New Selected Poems

by Robert Lowell, edited by Katie Peterson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 243 pp., $18.00 (paper)
Judith Aronson
Robert Lowell, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1977

Although Robert Lowell was born in 1917, Kay Redfield Jamison opens her new biography of the poet seventy-two years before his birth, in 1845, with a Lowell being committed to the “McLean Asylum for the Insane.” This was Harriet Brackett Spence Lowell, Lowell’s great-great-grandmother, who had been cared for at home until her manic behavior made hospitalization necessary. (Her doctor’s notes suggest mania: “She began to be more excited, which was shown in paroxysms of screaming…. [She] has had scarce any sleep.”) After three years at McLean, Harriet Lowell returned home, but she remained permanently depressed and inaccessible to all. Her son, the poet James Russell Lowell, evoked in “The Darkened Mind” his mother’s terrible isolation even when surrounded by her husband and children:

We can touch thee, still we are no nearer;
Gather round thee, still thou art alone;
The wide chasm of reason is between us;
Thou confutest kindness with a moan;
We can speak to thee, and thou canst answer,
Like two prisoners through a wall of stone.

Jamison tracks several generations of Lowells suffering from mental instability; contemporary descriptions of their illnesses (often euphemized as “nervous prostration” or as “paralysis of the mind”) establish the threat of Robert Lowell’s genetic inheritance. Very little of this family history was mentioned in Ian Hamilton’s 1982 biography of Lowell, which many felt relayed lurid anecdotes of successive manic episodes in the life at the expense of a grounded sense of the character of the poet.

Jamison’s remarkable book deals steadily with an intransigent problem: How is one to write a psychologically accurate biography of a manifestly original poet suffering severely from recurrent manic-depressive illness? In the life, which features are aspects of the sane man and which should be ascribed to the deranged one? Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine (and an honorary professor of English at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland), approaches Lowell’s vexed life not only with scholarly authority but also with literary talent and confidence; her eloquent memoir An Unquiet Mind (1995), on her own experience of manic-depressive illness, affords her additional warrant to interpret the affliction.

There is a hunger among unaffected persons—often because they have bipolar relatives or friends—to hear what it is like to exist in such unbalance, but medically accurate and emotionally convincing descriptions from patients themselves are relatively rare. Lowell’s own testimony, in both poems and prose (letters, essays, diaries), is ample and harrowing, an autobiographical continuo within Jamison’s own writing. Jamison is the first writer on Lowell to have been given access by his literary executors to all his medical records (and those of his ancestors as well).1 Her comparisons between an external account—a physician’s taciturn notes on an episode—and Lowell’s own dramatic, comic, and…

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