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Robert Lowell and the Sanity of Art

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Robert Lowell and the Sanity of Art

The poet’s bouts with madness cannot account for the greatness of his work. Summer 2017
Arts and Culture

In his “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” W. H. Auden wrote how, once dead, the poet “became his admirers.” I thought of this a few months ago when I came upon a piece by Seamus Heaney on Robert Lowell, of whose work the Irish poet was enamored. “Lowell deliberately took upon himself—sometimes by public apostrophe and rebuke, sometimes by introspective or confessional example—the role of the poet as conscience of his society,” Heaney wrote. This may have been true; for years, Lowell tried to play in America the same public role that Yeats had played in Ireland. Certainly, the support he gave the antiwar movement on campuses around the country in 1968 was public enough, though he never managed to parry Diana Trilling’s objections to what she regarded as his “radical piety.” In a letter to Commentary, she had asked: “What does Mr. Lowell think of the moral spectacle of the Columbia uprising, how does he feel about students kidnapping an officer of the University, rifling the personal files of the President and broadcasting their contents, urinating on floors, spitting at their teachers, destroying the research of one of their professors, shouting obscenities?” Lowell’s response was feeble: “They are only us, younger, and the violence that has betrayed our desires will also betray theirs if they trust to it.”

How much naiveté and how much moral vanity played in this particular public stance is hard to say. In trying to argue that Lowell was the “conscience of his society,” Heaney defined “conscience” as though it were a species of groupthink. “Conscience,” he wrote, “if we press upon its etymology, can mean our capacity to know the same thing together, yet such knowledge also makes us vulnerable to poetry as a reminder of what, together, we may have chosen to forget, and this admonitory function is one which Robert Lowell exercised, more or less deliberately, all his life.” One virtue of Kay Redfield Jamison’s new biography, Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character, which insists on seeing its subject through the lens of his struggles with manic depression, is that it forces us to question anew the poet’s public stances. Yet whether the lens of mental health itself gives us a reliable picture of Lowell and his work is even more questionable. Admirers are not invariably the best stewards of a poet’s reputation.

Certainly, there is merit in knowing how frequently Lowell was not in his right mind; how his periodical madness manifested itself; and how he strove to recover from a disorder that often left him hospitalized, physically shattered, estranged from loved ones, and guilt-ridden. Answering these questions, however, provides no omniscient key to the man or his work. If anything, by giving these matters such prominence, Jamison has proved how elusive her subject is. Madness does not explain Lowell’s complex personality; it does not explain his friendships, his marriages, or his family life; and it most decidedly does not explain his poetry.

Descended on his mother’s side from the Winslows, who came to America on the Mayflower, and on his father’s side from the poets James Russell Lowell and Amy Lowell, Robert Lowell (1917–77) was born in Boston and educated first at St. Mark’s School, where he studied under the poet Richard Eberhart, and then at Harvard, where he stayed only a year before moving on to Kenyon College to study under the poet John Crowe Ransom. There, he met two of his lifelong friends, the short-story writer Peter Taylor and the poet Randall Jarrell, as well as the novelist Jean Stafford, whom he would later marry, though the couple separated in 1946. In “The Old Flame,” Lowell recalled their marriage in Damariscotta Mills, Maine, with wry affection: “how quivering and fierce we were/there snowbound together/simmering like wasps/in our tent of books!”

In 1943, after being turned down twice for naval service in World War II, Lowell wrote to President Roosevelt, declaring his conscientious objection to serving in the war on the fanciful grounds that, while it might have been undertaken in 1941 “to preserve our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor against the lawless aggressions of a totalitarian league,” by 1943, it had led to America “collaborating with the most unscrupulous and powerful of totalitarian dictators to destroy law, freedom, democracy, and above all, our continued national sovereignty.” For Heaney, this was a good example of Lowell acting as “conscience for his society” because the American war effort was guilty, as the poet put it, of “Machiavellian contempt for the laws of justice and charity between nations.” The Machiavellian Department of Justice saw matters differently and incarcerated the grandiose, confused poet for draft evasion.

Following his five-month stint in prison, Lowell emerged with his first collection of poems, The Land of Unlikeness (1944), about which Allen Tate wrote in an introduction: “Christopher Dawson has shown in a long historical perspective that material progress may mask social and spiritual decay. But the spiritual decay is not universal, and to a young man like Lowell, whether we like his Catholicism or not, there is at least a memory of the spiritual dignity of man, now sacrificed to mere secularization and a craving for mechanical order.” Lowell told his mother that the poems in the collection were “cries for us to recover our ancient freedom and dignity, to be Christians and build a Christian society.” Lowell’s second collection, Lord Weary’s Castle (1946), revealed the technical and thematic prowess that was the natural issue of his implacable ambition. As one friend put it, Lowell had set his heart on becoming America’s Milton. The God-haunted sea music of “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” shows that the young poet was not entirely unentitled to his lofty aim.

Lowell converted to Catholicism in 1941 under the influence of the neo-Thomist Étienne Gilson, but by the late 1940s, he had lapsed (though toward the end of his life, he would embrace High Church Episcopalianism). Certainly, he always had a strong affinity for Catholic writers, especially Flannery O’Connor, whom he met at Yaddo, the writer’s colony. O’Connor did not know at first what to make of the distraught poet. As she recounted, he “had the delusion that he had been called on some kind of mission of purification and was canonizing everybody.” After learning of O’Connor’s death at 38 of lupus, Lowell wrote that she reminded him of “a commanding, grim, witty child, who knew she was destined to live painfully and in earnest . . . rather like . . . a Catholic saint with a tough innocence, well able to take on her brief, hardworking, hard, steady, splendid and inconspicuous life.” Before her death, O’Connor would say of Lowell: “I feel almost too much about him to get to the heart of it. He is one of the people I love.” Gentle, gregarious, and witty, Lowell inspired a similar response from others. As Peter Levi, the Oxford don, noted, “He was a man one actually loved.” Of course, he could also be boorish, egomaniacal, lecherous, and violent, but even those closest to him—his wives, for example—chose to see the gentle man as the true Cal. (He was nicknamed “Cal,” after Caligula and Caliban, by his St. Mark’s classmates, for what they saw as his savagery.)

In 1959, Lowell stripped down his elaborate style to produce Life Studies, an incandescent collection that ushered in the confessional vogue in American poetry, of which the suicidal Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton were the most flamboyant devotees. It is ironic that Lowell should have instigated this dubious vogue because his own autobiographical poems are rarely confessional. Where others might be inclined to confess, the artist in Lowell usually opts for rhetorical flourishes. (“Can I be forgiven the life-waste of my lifework/Was the thing worth doing worth doing badly?”) Nevertheless, no poet has ever coaxed more life from autobiography, or made the history of that life more captivating.

Lowell’s next volume, For the Union Dead (1964), took this new style and gave it a supple immediacy. In one piece, Lowell follows the lugubrious musings of a crapulous sot whose wife has bolted.

Her absence hisses like steam,

the pipes sing . . .

even corroded metal somehow functions.

He snores in his iron lung,

and hears the voice of Eve

beseeching freedom from the Garden’s

perfect and ponderous bubble. No voice

outsings the serpent’s flawed, euphoric hiss.

In 1949, Lowell married the writer Elizabeth Hardwick and took up residence in New York, Maine, and Cambridge, Massachusetts. Like Auden, he was always keen to mine his far-ranging reading for subject matter. One can see this especially in such uneven collections as History (1973), though autobiography, often rather licentious autobiography, would continue to animate his work. In The Dolphin (1973), for example, he actually “versified,” as he put it, bits of Hardwick’s correspondence. Betraying confidential letters was the least of Lowell’s sins when it came to Hardwick. As Jamison remarks: “Lowell’s affairs brought him distraction, pleasure, discomfort, and poems. To others, especially Elizabeth Hardwick, they brought pain.” Later, he would express rather facile remorse for these transgressions.

I have sat and listened to too many

words of the collaborating muse,

and plotted perhaps too freely with my life,

not avoiding injury to others

not avoiding injury to myself—

In 1972, Lowell moved to England to take a teaching post at the University of Essex. In London, he fell in love with, and subsequently married, the Anglo-Irish heiress and writer Lady Caroline Blackwood, whose acid sense of humor may have appealed to him but whose mental instability and fondness for strong drink did no favors for his own psychic travails. When Hardwick learned of the folie à deux that would lead to her husband’s betrayal of her and their daughter, she was excoriating: “My utter contempt for both of you for the misery you have brought to two people who had never hurt you knows no bounds.” She and Lowell would divorce.

Lowell’s last volume, Day by Day (1977), ends with “Epilogue,” one of his finest poems, which makes a plea for the candor of his work.

Those blessèd structures, plot and rhyme—

why are they no help to me now

I want to make

something imagined, not recalled?

I hear the noise of my own voice:

The painter’s vision is not a lens,

it trembles to caress the light.


But sometimes everything I write

with the threadbare art of my eye

seems a snapshot,

lurid, rapid, garish, grouped,

heightened from life,

yet paralyzed by fact.

All’s misalliance.

Yet why not say what happened?

On the afternoon of September 12, 1977, Lowell died in a taxicab on his way from the airport to the apartment at West 67th Street that he had shared with his former wife and his daughter, to both of whom he meant to return after his life with Blackwood had come to smash, though he was found in the cab clutching a portrait of Caroline by Lucian Freud (her former husband), which the strapped heiress had asked him to have appraised in New York. No one would have savored the droll circumstances of his death more than Lowell himself. Later, Hardwick would look back on her turbulent life with Lowell and remark: “I didn’t know what I was getting into, but even if I had, I still would have married him. . . . I feel lucky to have had the time—everything I know I learned from him.”

After Lowell’s death, the long delay in the release of his Collected Poems (2003) left his reputation in a limbo from which it has never recovered. By the time that hefty volume appeared, the sort of imposing poetry at which Lowell excelled had gone out of fashion. He may have transformed the way poetry was written after the long shadows of Eliot, Pound, and William Carlos Williams had receded, but his influence could not ward off the ineptitude, imposture, and banality that are now staples of American poetry. What continues to set Lowell’s work apart, at its best, is its consummate art. Even his seemingly most casual poems exude artistry. Apropos the poet’s more unbuttoned work, Richard Ellmann, the great biographer of James Joyce, was perceptive: “As his taste for metaphysical verse flagged, [Lowell] strove to present feelings that would be ‘raw’ rather than ‘cooked,’ to use the now famous distinction. At the same time he worked very hard at his poems, as if aware that even steak tartare requires the utmost finesse in preparation.”

The rave reviews that Jamison’s book has received testify to the persistence of a Romantic conception of the artist as someone whose creativity is based on derangement. Making a proper assessment of Jamison’s book is complicated at every turn by Lowell himself. A part of the mythologizing poet would have agreed with Jamison that his life and work can be seen through the lens of madness—even though this mythologizing was itself the product of mania. Jamison quotes the well-known lines that Lowell wrote about his fellow poets:

Ah the swift vanishing of my older

generation—the deaths, suicide, madness

of Roethke, Berryman, Jarrell and Lowell.

By including himself in this roll call of the ill-fated, the mythologist in Lowell might seem to be sanctioning Jamison’s biographical approach. If Lowell defined himself as mad, why should his biographer not follow suit? Yet wary readers should ask themselves whether the mythologizing Lowell is the true Lowell, or whether that more inscrutable creature lies elsewhere. Certainly, he could be admirably truthful in his work—truthful and sane. And this came out of a kind of irrepressible love. Indeed, throughout his poetry, he treats his subjects, whether his wives, his parents, his fellow poets, his contemporaries, his ancestors, or the illustrious dead, as though they were all part of one great tribe—a tribe of which Lowell himself is always the stage-managing paterfamilias. If his parents had never managed to put together a loving family in real life—his mother never forgave his father for failing to achieve success as a naval officer or a stockbroker—Lowell would create a family of his own in his poetry. The problem was that he often confused the two, imagining that the damage he had done to his family in real life could be somehow mended in his poetry. Nevertheless, in putting the pain of family at the center of his art, he put himself to school to a demanding empathy. Speaking of his cousin Harriet Winslow, for example, in “Soft Wood,” he writes:

This is the season

when our friends may and will die daily.

Surely the lives of the old

are briefer than the young.

Harriet Winslow, who owned this house,

was more to me than my mother.

I think of you far off in Washington,

breathing in the heat wave

and air-conditioning, knowing

each drug that numbs alerts another nerve to pain.

This tendency of seeing the world in terms of family doubtless arose from his Bostonian background. One can hear the same note in Henry Adams, the quintessential Bostonian, whom Lowell considered “the subtlest and least hollow of American minds.” In a letter to Henry James, Adams wrote: “The painful truth is that all of my New England generation, counting the half-century, 1820–1870, were in actual fact only one mind and nature, the individual was a facet of Boston.” Here, the city is the family, but Adams anticipates Lowell’s understanding of the clairvoyance of family. “We knew each other to the last nervous centre, and feared each other’s knowledge,” Adams wrote. “We looked through each other like microscopes. There was absolutely nothing in us that we did not understand merely by looking in the eye.”

In History, Lowell gathers everyone into his tribe, from King David to Bobby Kennedy. Robert Browning, Lowell wrote, “shames other poets with the varied human beings he could scan, the generosity of his ventriloquism,” but he could have said the same of himself. And he exercised this same tribal hospitality while teaching. “This, in the end, seems to me the best thing Lowell did for his students,” recalled the critic Helen Vendler, who studied with him at Harvard. “He gave them the sense, so absent from textbook notes, of a life, a spirit, a mind and a set of occasions from which writing issues—a real life, a real mind, fixed in historical circumstances, and quotidian abrasions.” He may have inadvertently roused the students at Columbia to disgrace themselves and their university, but he was always a good and generous teacher. He summed up his preoccupation with both art and life in For Lizzie and Harriet (1973): “Nothing seems admirable until it fails/but it’s only people we should miss.” Like Hart Crane, Lowell was never at a loss for the memorable phrase.

Of course, in Lowell’s tribe, the poet often figures himself, and toward the end of his life these self-portraits show his undiminished lyric gift. Jamison devotes a stupefying number of pages to describing the epidemiology of manic depression. In many parts of her lengthy book, one has the impression of reading not a biography of Lowell but a textbook on mania, and a very repetitive one at that. Yet there is nothing in Jamison’s pages that can begin to explicate this:

Dull, disagreeable and dying,

the old men—

they were setups for my ridicule,

till time, the healer, made me theirs.

In the old New York, we said,

“If life could write,

it would have written like us.”

Now the lifefluid goes

from the throwaway lighter,

its crimson, cylindrical, translucent

glow grows pale—

O queen of cities, star of morning.

The age burns in me.

The path is cleared and cleared each year,

each year the brush closes;

nature cooperates with us,

then we cooperate no more.

There is no madness in any of that, no mania, no depression. Here is only the sanity of art. And this sanity was what enabled Lowell to produce his finest works, including “For the Union Dead” (1964), with its heartbreaking lines about Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, killed while leading the first black regiment in the North in an assault against Fort Wagner in South Carolina in July 1863.

Two months after marching through Boston,

half the regiment was dead;

at the dedication,

William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe.

Their monument sticks like a fishbone

in the city’s throat.

Its Colonel is as lean

as a compass-needle.

He has an angry wrenlike vigilance,

a greyhound’s gentle tautness;

he seems to wince at pleasure,

and suffocate for privacy.

He is out of bounds now. He rejoices in man’s lovely,

peculiar power to choose life and die—

when he leads his black soldiers to death,

he cannot bend his back.

That Lowell should compare this brave man and his honorable charge with a late-twentieth-century Boston, intent only on building more parking garages for its “giant finned cars,” makes Tate’s point: even in a decadent age, Lowell never lost sight of the “spiritual dignity of man.”

To understand the poet in Lowell, as well as the man, readers should consult Ian Hamilton’s 1982 “warts and all” biography, which still crackles with the recollections of those who knew him. Paul Mariani’s Lost Puritan: The Life of Robert Lowell (1994), in addition to being well researched and well written, has the sense to see that poetry and madness are not one and the same. Mariani is also excellent on Lowell’s religious sensibility, which has not been given the attention it deserves. No one can read Lost Puritan without seeing that its subject was always “jolting between salvation and demolition,” as Lowell himself once said of Israel. Then, again, Sarah Payne Stuart’s funny piece in the New York Times, “ ‘Bobby Was a Difficult Child’: My Cousin Robert Lowell,” captures the patrician comedy in Lowell’s makeup, which his more solemn critics often miss. Lowell’s daughter, Harriet, was one who appreciated this. She said of her father: “Above all he was a poet. . . . He had a terrible disease, but he was charming, mischievous and full of fun.” If Jamison’s study had adhered more to this balanced view, her book would have been less objectionable.

What one needs to know about Robert Lowell is not how he succumbed to mania but how he overcame it to write admirable poetry. The sane, not the mad, laureate is the true laureate in Lowell, for as he said himself, with the sanity that only comes from humility: “imperfection is the language of art./Even the best writer in his best lines/is incurably imperfect, crying for truth, knowledge/honesty, inspiration he cannot have.”

Photo: Robert Lowell (1917–77) (ALFRED EISENSTAEDT/THE LIFE PICTURE COLLECTION/GETTY IMAGES)

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