All one wants to ascertain oneself as a fantastic poet is to write down three or 4 nice poems, poems that ring, sing, keep endlessly within the reminiscence of their readers. But within the fashionable age how few poets have been ready to take action. T.S. Eliot did. So did Wallace Stevens and Robert Frost. Marianne Moore, I have no idea; Elizabeth Bishop, alas, doesn’t make the reduce. Philip Larkin does. In a poem known as “Studying Myself” Robert Lowell writes that he has “earned my grass on the minor slopes of Parnassus.” However did Lowell ever get anyplace close to the highest of that mountain sacred to Apollo and to the Muses?
“We poets in our youth start in gladness; / “However thereof come ultimately despondency and insanity,” wrote Wordsworth in his poem “Decision and Independence.” No technology of poets, absolutely, was madder than Lowell’s. John Berryman, after a lifetime of verse and heavy boozing, took his life by leaping off a bridge. Sylvia Plath took hers by inserting her head in an oven. Randall Jarrell checked out by stepping in entrance of a transferring automotive. Theodore Roethke was bipolar as was Anne Sexton, who dedicated suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning by locking herself in her operating automotive in her storage. Delmore Schwartz was a licensed paranoid, whose most well-known phrases are usually not in any of his poems or prose however in his despairing remark that “even paranoids have actual enemies.”
Of all of them, Lowell probably spent probably the most time in psychiatric clinics, psychological asylums, nursing houses, and different loony bins, each right here and in England. Bipolar, he would with a good regularity spin off on manic flights—”pathological enthusiasms,” he known as them—throughout which he would prattle on concerning the glories of Alexander the Nice, Napoleon, Hitler, insult mates, suggest marriage to girls he had just lately met although he was married, ramble on with relentlessly boring monologues. “I endure from periodic wild manic explosions which are adopted by lengthy hangovers of self-pity,” he wrote in certainly one of his autobiographical fragments.
One of many nice mysteries of Lowell’s life is that Elizabeth Hardwick, his second spouse, agreed to marry him. (He had earlier damaged the nostril of Jean Stafford, his first spouse, who not lengthy after correctly departed the scene.) Some girls are mentioned to be stimulated by worthlessness, however uncommon is the girl stimulated by madness. At this time after I consider the identify Elizabeth Hardwick, who stayed with Lowell for many years, I consider the adjective long-suffering. Of his assaults of mania, Caroline Blackwood, Lowell’s third and closing spouse, mentioned: “I’m no use to him in these assaults. They destroy me. … It’s like somebody changing into an animal, or somebody possessed by the satan. And that’s what tears you aside. You suppose, I really like this individual, however I hate him.”
Madness, like poetry, ran in Lowell’s household. His great-great grandmother, Harriet Brackett Spence Lowell, was bipolar, his great-grand-uncle James Russell Lowell (1819-1891) was mentally unstable, and his cousin Amy Lowell (1874-1925) suffered melancholy. “Darkish moods handed down by his blood,” wrote the psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison in her Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Hearth, “darkish moods, we all know, carry a robust debt to inheritance—however so did a flip for language.”
Nonetheless, to be Robert Lowell carried many advantages, for he was of those self same Lowells who spoke solely to the Cabots, who themselves, as is well-known, spoke solely to God. When making use of to Harvard, which Lowell did in 1934, it can not have harm to have had A. Lowell Lawrence, one other cousin, president of the college. Robert Lowell’s department of the Lowell household was not probably the most profitable one however to be a Lowell remained a splendid calling card, and one which served Lowell all through his life. The identify carried weight with figures as disparate as T.S. Eliot and George Santayana, Allen Tate and Ezra Pound, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.
Lowell received his first Pulitzer Prize at 30, after which the prizes and awards by no means ceased arriving. Quickly thereafter he was appointed Poetry Advisor on the Library of Congress, or poet laureate. “Extra invites to be on boring committees, extra books within the mail for blurbs, extra tiresome physician’s levels,” Lowell wrote to Elizabeth Bishop. “Thank god, it could possibly’t go very far for a poet.”
In 1943, Lowell, just lately transformed to Catholicism and appalled by the bombing of civilian populations in Hamburg throughout World Battle II, declared himself, in a private letter to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a conscientious objector. The story made the New York Occasions and different papers. Twenty-five years later he refused to attend a Pageant of the Arts on the Lyndon Johnson White Home due to Johnson’s continued involvement of the US within the Vietnam Battle, which once more was front-page information. So, too, did his popping out for Eugene McCarthy for president entice nationwide consideration. The WASP-ocracy was nonetheless using excessive in America, and far of this publicity was owing to Lowell’s being a scion of a well-known household. The poets Elizabeth Bishop or Stanley Kunitz would by no means have attracted the identical consideration.
Lowell got here to really feel that “the thread that strings it [his poetry] collectively is my autobiography, it’s a small-scale Prelude, written in many various types and with digressions, but a seamless story—nonetheless wayfaring.” So a lot of his poems are autobiographical: “Father’s Bed room,” “My Final Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Wilson,” “Grandparents,” “The Cadet Image of My Father,” “Self-Portrait,” “Center Age,” and on and on. Considered one of his biographers, the English poet Ian Hamilton, famous that “it appears by no means to have occurred to him that his private historical past may not be of appreciable public curiosity.”
Many felt that Lowell stretched this autobiographical thread too far out in Dolphin, certainly one of his final collections of poems. In lots of the poems on this guide Lowell used bits of Elizabeth Hardwick’s letters, cellphone conversations, telegrams, displaying her as a vengeful and pathetic spouse betrayed by a husband who left her for an additional girl. The guide was revealed to extremely combined critiques, however maybe none extra vituperative than Adrienne Wealthy’s, who known as it “a merciless and shallow guide,” including that “the inclusion of the letter poems stands as some of the vindictive and mean-spirited acts within the historical past of poetry, one for which I can consider no precedent.”
The current publication of Lowell’s Memoirs are helpful in offering a information to a lot of the autobiographical content material in Lowell’s poetry. Steven Gould Axelrod and Grzegorz Kosc, the editors of the Memoirs, be aware that Lowell composed what he known as “My Autobiography” as a result of he “supposed the story of his start and progress to foster a rebirth and new progress as he entered center age. … A motion backward into his painful previous would possibly regenerate his barely existent current, like an electroshock [of which he had undergone many sessions], and would possibly regenerate his motion into the longer term.” Lowell himself wrote: “I’m writing my autobiography actually to ‘move the time.’ … I additionally hope the outcome will provide me with my swaddling garments, with a kind of immense bandage of gauze and ambergris for my harm nerves.”
Lowell’s autobiography was by no means accomplished; it by no means actually superior a lot past his troubled boyhood, as a result of, or so he claimed, he discovered it tedious “understanding the transitions and placing in issues that didn’t appear very mandatory however had been essential to prose continuity.” He nonetheless saved what he had written, and at his loss of life his accomplished autobiographical chapters and fragments had been despatched off along with his different papers to the archive at Harvard, the place they had been rescued by Axelrod and Kosc, who corrected factual errors within the manuscript of their footnotes and have now made a clear model public.
What one mainly learns from the Memoirs is Lowell’s perennially tough relationship along with his mother and father, his termagant mom and fewer than commanding father, a naval officer whom he describes as “deep—not with profundity, however with the dumb depth of 1 who trusted in statistics and was doubtful of private expertise.”An solely little one, Lowell famous that “I bored my mother and father they usually bored me.” He saved his admiration for his maternal grandfather, Arthur Winslow III. The chapters from the Memoirs are unhappy, revealing a misplaced little one who grows as much as turn out to be a younger man who, unanchored in household assist, flounders and is introduced down by severe psychological sickness.
Studying Lowell’s Memoirs, joyless and jestless as they’re, is a little bit of a slog. Lowell’s at all times unhappy mom convinces her disappointing husband to desert the Navy to work for Lever Brothers, the cleaning soap producer, the place, in his son’s phrases, “he survived to float from job to job, to be displaced, to be grimly and actually that previous cliché, a fish out of water.” His mom, haughty and chilly, by no means finds happiness outdoors of Boston, and never a lot there, and ultimately dies overseas, alone, in Paris. In the meantime Bobby, as they known as him, grew up “a churlish, disloyal, romantic boy,” who turns thuggish and unappreciative at the perfect New England faculties. “[F]or probably the most half each my mother and father and everybody else appeared towards me. If I may I ran off; if I couldn’t I slept in a cowed silence—passionate paralysis, paralyzed ardour.”
Surcease from this gloom got here when Lowell found writing. “Writing,” he notes, “felt to me like a life preserver. Finally I may dominate, despise, say nothing mattered besides nice artistic endeavors. I feel I actually cared for these, however I loved utilizing them as a battering ram towards all the things and everyone that puzzled me or appeared detached or vital.” In his faculty years Lowell discovered mentors within the poet-critics Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom. The editors of the Memoirs embody tributary memoirs of each males together with different of Lowell’s later writings on Ezra Pound, Ford Madox Ford, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Randall Jarrell, John Berryman, and others. Right here the writing takes on an influence unavailable to the Robert Lowell of the autobiography. Because the editors be aware: “In these literary memoirs … we uncover a succesful Lowell. He’s a poet interacting with different notable writers of his time, who acknowledge him as a worthy skilled.” They add: “These literary memoirs symbolize the achievement of his promise, the vindication of his wrestle. … They supply a picture of the facility and humanity a marginal individual can typically obtain.”
However what was the true extent of Lowell’s achievement? He was quickly taken as a significant poet, his poetry broadly praised and certainly overpraised. The critic Richard Poirier referred to him as “the best poet of the mid-century, in all probability the best poet writing in English.” Stanley Kunitz known as him “doubtless probably the most celebrated poet in English of his technology.” Irvin Ehrenpreis thought he would quickly be acknowledged as “‘the’ American poet.”
But why accomplish that few of his huge variety of poems—his Collected Poems runs to just about 1,000 pages—keep in thoughts? Maybe the perfect clarification got here from F.W. Dupee, the critic who for a few years taught at Columbia, who regretted Lowell’s abandoning his earlier structured—by meter and rime—poems for extra loosely fashioned verse, influenced by William Carlos Williams, that he appeared to have the ability to prove by the bushel. In his earlier poems, Dupee declared, Lowell “wrote as if poetry had been nonetheless a significant artwork and never merely a venerable pastime which must be perpetuated.” Dupee discovered, as do I, one thing “inconclusive” about Lowell’s poetry, of which he asks: “The place, as Henry James would inquire, is your denouement?” In a lot of Lowell’s poetry one encounters the fascinating picture (he known as Ford Madox Ford’s novel The Good Soldier the perfect French novel within the English language), the arresting phrase (his poem “For Santayana” ends, “There is no such thing as a God and Mary is his mom”) however by no means at a poem’s conclusion that marvelous click on that indicators perfection.
That Lowell managed a literary profession whereas beneath the repeated lash of his bipolarity is in itself a substantial achievement. (In his later years he discovered aid from his psychological sickness in lithium carbonate.) However literature, which is cruel, awards no factors for effort, irrespective of how valiant. Learn at the moment, Lowell’s poems appear skilled, polished, however lacking the depth that’s important to nice poetry. On the grassy slopes of Parnassus Robert Lowell the poet stays.
by Robert Lowell, edited by Steven Gould Axelrod and Grzegorz Kosc
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 400 pp., $40
Joseph Epstein is the creator, most just lately, of Gallimaufry: A Assortment of Essays, Critiques, Bits.