The Letters of Robert Lowell, edited by Saskia Hamilton. FSG, 852 pages. $40
By: Anthony Moore
Robert Traill Spence Lowell IV (1917-1977) came into the world high on the social ladder. As the jingle first heard in the year he was born has it, there were only two rungs higher in Boston “where the Lowells speak only to Cabots/ And the Cabots speak only to God.” The word was that you needed a trust fund and an uncle in McLean (the Boston Brahmin’s psychiatric sanatorium) to be counted a proper Bostonian. Lowell had both, and spent periods in McLean himself. Though he, and others, suffered repeatedly from his bipolar disorder, Lowell was well off materially, and lived as a person of privilege among people of privilege.
Early on, he determined to turn his family’s eminence into poetic capital. In 1935, prior to leaving boarding school and before he’d published a single poem, he wrote Arthur Winslow, his maternal grandfather, “I have at last found myself and now feel confident that I can and shall accomplish what I set out to do [as a poet].” Is this just youthful bravado? Evidently not. His boast has substance when we open Saskia Hamilton’s The Letters of Robert Lowell. She begins later, in the spring of 1936, with the Harvard freshman’s irrepressibly opinionated letters to Ezra Pound, forcing his claims to be an unpaid apprentice. “I want to come to Italy and work under you and forge my way into reality. [. . . ] I am 19 [. . . ] and some relation, I don’t know what, to Amy Lowell.” Three days after he reads Pound’s rebuff, he is again bent on his goal. He reminds Pound that the literary tradition can only be kept alive by redefining it, and of his responsibilities as innovator. Then, with breathtaking audacity, he chides him for falling down on the job (“Your Cantos practically ignore hard narrative and motion. [ . . . ] Cantos XIV, XV, are completely static”). And he goes on to show what should be done, pausing to dismiss Eliot’s “Ariel” poems as “carefully and skillfully expressed but [they] lack vitality.” “I am only trying to show you more clearly why I wish to become your disciple.”[private]
Pound was not impressed. Lowell soon left Harvard, moved to the South, attached himself to Allen Tate (“very topnotch”), served briefly as secretary to Ford Madox Ford (“a very great master of English prose”), then lived with John Crowe Ransom as his student at Kenyon College. “Many of the people I have met are above average but the Tates and Ford and Ransom are in a class by themselves.” A collector of names to be dropped? Again, evidently not. As Pound found, once you were befriended by Lowell you had an indefatigable correspondent for life.
He grew up inclined to present strong views in a defiant and argumentative format. In his personal and cultural elitism, naked ambition, intense single-mindedness, concise and apt judgments, the candid patrician teenager is father to the man of letters in this absorbing and abundantly revealing selection. He holds little back. In 1940, for instance, he briskly sets his mother straight: “I am heading exactly where I have been heading for six years. One can hardly be ostracized for taking the intellect and aristocracy and family tradition seriously.” But, moving through his late twenties and early thirties, the oppositional tendencies of his temperament aligned themselves more evenly with the rest. Robert Giroux in New York and T. S. Eliot in London became his publishers, and he found growing acceptance in a growing circle of mutually supportive writers. The group included (as well as Tate and Ransom) Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, Peter Taylor, Jarrell, Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop. Whether it was the circle’s artistic nourishment, or his 1947 Pulitzer for Lord Weary’s Castle, or simply that the rest of him grew into his enormous intellect, his letters become discernibly less hurt and prickly, and more relaxed and outgoing. Lowell’s warm humanity, mordant gaiety, and playful comic digressions appear often.
Bishop, in particular, brings out exuberant bursts of his energy.* One letter to her opens with a fire. “Absent-mindedly I feel in my pocket: There, lighted cigarette on holder consuming a damp piece of Kleenex. The pocket was also stuffed with kitchen matches. Oh my!” It moves swiftly from his “reading jag” (Shakespeare, Molière, Thucydides), onto an enthusiastic endorsement of a draft poem Bishop sent, before the disarming aside, “You & Peter Taylor always make me feel something of a fake—so I love you both dearly.” Then it bounces from approving a Randall Jarrell poem, to “a secret: [about George] Santayana,” to a two-paragraph Washington cocktail party anecdote. He recreates the scene in a vivid playlet.
I told Eliot the story: but after seeing him kissed by Djuna Barnes, the devil in me made me write the rest: Cousin Mary’s way of describing Léger: “This greasy little Frenchman, who dyes his hair, that Bobby says is a good poet.” Then E.’s reply: “I’m inclined to agree with both you and Cousin Mary on Alexis Léger.” So I could hug him. This is sheer malice and don’t repeat it.
Lowell goes to sign off—“It’s fun not writing one’s poems, I find”—but two postscripts delay him. Meanwhile the devil in us—our insatiable thirst for the inside scoops on other people, particularly those that provide sensational copy, and especially those that are forbidden us—revels in the fun he’s having. We enjoy his wicked indiscretion and the naivety that binds the reader not to tell. Finally, in Yogi Berra’s phrase, we get déja vu all over again. We‘ve been caught up in the free wheeling shifts of subject and perspective and the dramatic shorthand style that, more than twenty years later, Lowell worked so hard to write into his unrhymed sonnets.
Hamilton has selected 711 letters and gives 129 pages of notes, mostly factual and reticent, which provide enough context for general readers to find their way around Lowell’s complex, densely populated world. Tactfully, she suggests that this letter to Bishop, dated January 1949, was “probably written while mildly manic.” Lowell learned that he was manic depressive that year after his first breakdown, an acute episode followed by major depression. There would be many more; the illness turned out to be cyclical and relentless. Hamilton’s chronology records eighteen manic episodes, and her introduction shows great compassion for the man. She comments on his attacks, and their social and emotional consequences, with authority and gentle objectivity. In this she rebuts the view that has prevailed since the hostile witness of Ian Hamilton’s 1982 critical biography, which has Lowell as morally deficient and lacking the resolve needed to change. Today’s medical opinion would not fault him for his mania: the illness cannot be controlled by the sufferer’s will. Yet he lived in dread of being swept into the symptoms. He was shamed by his attacks and mortified once able to reflect on what he’d said and done in the manic state. In a 1954 letter to Blair Clark, a friend since 1930, he writes, “I’ve been out of my excitement for over a month, I think.” Instead of deflecting Clark’s gaze, as might the Lowell the biographers characterize, he takes the worst of his condition head on.
It’s like recovering from some physical injury, such as a broken leg or jaundice, yet there’s no disclaiming these outbursts—they are part of my character—me at moments, hence the protracted stay [in the Payne Whitney clinic in New York City], hence the continued therapy.
The rueful, burdened end to his 1964 poem “Eye and Tooth”—“I am tired. Everyone’s tired of my turmoil”—is art speaking truly. Many hearts, I’m sure, felt the wounds left by his horrendous affliction.
Haven’t we had our fill, though, of Lowell’s life and hard times? The Hamilton and Mariani biographies lift much of this material. Assorted short and long memoirs use some of it; William Doreski’s book, for example, on the Lowell-Tate friendship clings to letters as life support. The 150 pages of small print notes to Collected Poems raid letters wholesale in attempts to control our readings of the poems. Last December, The New Yorker printed a selection of Lowell’s letters to Bishop. The unique value, however, of this primary source is that at last Lowell appears before us as he was, without the intervention of sundry editors (including Lowell) intent on manipulating our views of him and his work. Of course, some words and pictures are calculated. Among several photographs new to me is a shrewd piece of marketing. Lowell, 31, sits at his poetry consultant’s desk in the Library of Congress, his handsome profile and the Capitol’s dome beyond the window both in perfect focus. (“America has need of the greatest poets!” Whitman cried.)
Letters might see off the folk-myth about Lowell’s verse being naked autobiography. No amount of closely reasoned critical print seems to bury it. Several worthy commentators (Harold Bloom and Mark Strand come to mind) disparage him for bathetic poems that plead for unearned interest in Lowell and his family. But if too many still insist on direct and easy connections between his art and life, the poet is partly to blame. He encouraged the illusion in the first place. In a much-quoted 1962 interview, he asserts, questionably, that Life Studies reaches “that standard of truth which you wouldn’t ordinarily have in poetry—” then, “the reader was to believe he was getting the real Robert Lowell.” And one of the last poems he saw through the press refers to “my simple autobiography.” Now with this captivating volume we can put more flesh on the real Lowell, and get a clearer sense of differences between the man and the poet.
There’s poignancy, incidentally, in the close family’s code of unreal for him when manic. Far from “taking the intellect and aristocracy and family tradition seriously,” he reconstructs the family in poetry with careful artistry. The gains of birth and privileges of the life are turned into losses: “In grandiloquent lettering on Mother’s coffin, / Lowell had been misspelled LOVEL.” The defective coffin plate, possibly invented, in “Sailing Home From Rapallo” is an emblem of his imagination and consummate craft. Although there are some notable exceptions, he excludes the Lowell aristocracy from his “verse autobiography.” Acknowledgment of the potent public achievements of his Lowell ancestors would fatally fracture the fictive order and meaning of the persona he writes into his mature poetry. In art, he convinces as the accursed, beleaguered poet.
The man in Letters is attentive, affectionate, and unshakably loyal. He continues to embrace those he loved—such as his first wife Jean Stafford, and Tate—after they turn against him. Tate, for example, in his morose last years took his umbrage everywhere. Yet here is Lowell in 1971:
A last thing. Please Allen don’t quarrel with me again. You and I have held on to each other for almost thirty-five years. I have always, or almost always, been charmed by you and thought of you with reverence and gratitude. // Love to you and Helen and your family.
Celebrity watchers will smile at the towering, public Lowell of the 1960s acting the bedazzled gossip (“Jackie [Kennedy] suddenly present and talking to Mike Nicholls, Hellman group there, both senator Kennedys, McNamara”). Literature buffs will respond to his intellectual promiscuity and strong bonds of sympathy with twentieth-century writers of different generations and sensibilities (among dozens not mentioned yet: Frost, Williams, Roethke, Larkin, Ginsberg, Ted Hughes, Heaney, Rich). He is ever eager to stimulate the pulse of his literary community and exchange views on poetic practice. He proffers generous encouragement in zesty miniature judgments: in gratitude for his presentation copy of High Windows, he writes Larkin in 1974, “I think you resemble Graves and maybe Auden, but the poet I most think of is still Herbert—elegance and homeliness.” Readers who admire Lowell’s work will gain insights into his writing life with tantalizing glimpses of the mysteries of his creative process (“the opening poems in Dolphin were written on a very bad typewriter and under heavy thorozine [sic]. Of course, they were doggedly rewritten later, but retain the confusion of their circumstance”).
It takes another “master of English prose” to convey even his raw, despairing intimacies with grace. Hamilton makes an instructive analysis of the features of Lowell’s style. Her riveting selection (we could mutter, I suppose, about her misleading title) has often sent me back to the poetry. Hours of joy and wonder can be had pursuing rhythmic phrases, images, motifs that are reworked in revised form into poems and often applied to different subjects. He writes to Bishop in 1963, “I have lived through the unintelligible, have written against collapse and come out more or less healed.” Lowell’s prose is often heart wrenching, perpetually alive, and usually of literary quality. Given his circumstances, how did he find the time and energy to write so much? The volume is another of his services to American poetry.
* Next to the enduring relationship with his second wife Elizabeth Hardwick (her contribution to Lowell’s art is yet to be honored in full), no literary partnership was more important to him, more open, for longer, than his thirty-year exchanges with Bishop. The complete Lowell-Bishop correspondence is in the hands of another editor.[/private]