Lowell’s Limits

REVIEW: ‘Memoirs’ by Robert Lowell

Robert Lowell at the Grolier Bookshop in Harvard Square in the 1960s. / Elsa Dorfman
September 18, 2022

All one needs to establish oneself as a great poet is to write three or four great poems, poems that ring, sing, stay forever in the memory of their readers. Yet in the modern age how few poets have been able to do so. T.S. Eliot did. So did Wallace Stevens and Robert Frost. Marianne Moore, I do not know; Elizabeth Bishop, alas, does not make the cut. Philip Larkin does. In a poem called "Reading Myself" Robert Lowell writes that he has "earned my grass on the minor slopes of Parnassus." But did Lowell ever get anywhere near the top of that mountain sacred to Apollo and to the Muses?

"We poets in our youth begin in gladness; / "But thereof come in the end despondency and madness," wrote Wordsworth in his poem "Resolution and Independence." No generation of poets, surely, was madder than Lowell’s. John Berryman, after a life of verse and heavy boozing, took his life by jumping off a bridge. Sylvia Plath took hers by inserting her head in an oven. Randall Jarrell checked out by stepping in front of a moving car. Theodore Roethke was bipolar as was Anne Sexton, who committed suicide through carbon monoxide poisoning by locking herself in her running car in her garage. Delmore Schwartz was a certified paranoid, whose most famous words are not in any of his poems or prose but in his despairing comment that "even paranoids have real enemies."

Of them all, Lowell doubtless spent the most time in psychiatric clinics, mental asylums, nursing homes, and other loony bins, both here and in England. Bipolar, he would with a fair regularity spin off on manic flights—"pathological enthusiasms," he called them—during which he would prattle on about the glories of Alexander the Great, Napoleon, Hitler, insult friends, propose marriage to women he had recently met though he was married, ramble on with relentlessly boring monologues. "I suffer from periodic wild manic explosions that are followed by long hangovers of self-pity," he wrote in one of his autobiographical fragments.

One of the great mysteries of Lowell’s life is that Elizabeth Hardwick, his second wife, agreed to marry him. (He had earlier broken the nose of Jean Stafford, his first wife, who not long after wisely departed the scene.) Some women are said to be stimulated by worthlessness, but rare is the woman stimulated by insanity. Today when I think of the name Elizabeth Hardwick, who stayed with Lowell for decades, I think of the adjective long-suffering. Of his attacks of mania, Caroline Blackwood, Lowell’s third and final wife, said: "I’m no use to him in these attacks. They destroy me. … It’s like someone becoming an animal, or someone possessed by the devil. And that’s what tears you apart. You think, I love this person, but I hate him."

Insanity, like poetry, ran in Lowell’s family. 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 depression. "Dark moods passed down through his blood," wrote the psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison in her Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire, "dark moods, we know, carry a strong debt to inheritance—but so did a turn for language."

Still, to be Robert Lowell carried many benefits, for he was of those same Lowells who spoke only to the Cabots, who themselves, as is well known, spoke only to God. When applying to Harvard, which Lowell did in 1934, it cannot have hurt to have had A. Lowell Lawrence, another cousin, president of the school. Robert Lowell’s branch of the Lowell family was not the most successful one but to be a Lowell remained a splendid calling card, and one that served Lowell throughout his life. The name 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 won his first Pulitzer Prize at 30, after which the prizes and awards never ceased arriving. Soon thereafter he was appointed Poetry Consultant at the Library of Congress, or poet laureate. "More invitations to be on dull committees, more books in the mail for blurbs, more tiresome doctor’s degrees," Lowell wrote to Elizabeth Bishop. "Thank god, it can’t go very far for a poet."

In 1943, Lowell, recently converted to Catholicism and appalled by the bombing of civilian populations in Hamburg during World War II, declared himself, in a personal letter to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a conscientious objector. The story made the New York Times and other papers. Twenty-five years later he refused to attend a Festival of the Arts at the Lyndon Johnson White House because of Johnson’s continued involvement of the United States in the Vietnam War, which again was front-page news. So, too, did his coming out for Eugene McCarthy for president attract national attention. The WASP-ocracy was still riding high in America, and much of this publicity was owing to Lowell’s being a scion of a famous family. The poets Elizabeth Bishop or Stanley Kunitz would never have attracted the same attention.

Lowell came to feel that "the thread that strings it [his poetry] together is my autobiography, it is a small-scale Prelude, written in many different styles and with digressions, yet a continuing story—still wayfaring." So many of his poems are autobiographical: "Father’s Bedroom," "My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Wilson," "Grandparents," "The Cadet Picture of My Father," "Self-Portrait," "Middle Age," and on and on. One of his biographers, the English poet Ian Hamilton, noted that "it seems never to have occurred to him that his personal history might not be of considerable public interest."

Many felt that Lowell stretched this autobiographical thread too far out in Dolphin, one of his last collections of poems. In many of the poems in this book Lowell used bits of Elizabeth Hardwick’s letters, phone conversations, telegrams, showing her as a vengeful and pathetic wife betrayed by a husband who left her for another woman. The book was published to highly mixed reviews, but perhaps none more vituperative than Adrienne Rich’s, who called it "a cruel and shallow book," adding that "the inclusion of the letter poems stands as one of the most vindictive and mean-spirited acts in the history of poetry, one for which I can think of no precedent."

The recent publication of Lowell’s Memoirs are useful in providing a guide to much of the autobiographical content in Lowell’s poetry. Steven Gould Axelrod and Grzegorz Kosc, the editors of the Memoirs, note that Lowell composed what he called "My Autobiography" because he "intended the story of his birth and growth to foster a rebirth and new growth as he entered middle age. … A movement backward into his painful past might regenerate his barely existent present, like an electroshock [of which he had undergone many sessions], and might regenerate his movement into the future." Lowell himself wrote: "I am writing my autobiography literally to ‘pass the time.’ … I also hope the result will supply me with my swaddling clothes, with a sort of immense bandage of gauze and ambergris for my hurt nerves."

Lowell’s autobiography was never completed; it never really advanced much beyond his troubled boyhood, because, or so he claimed, he found it tedious "working out the transitions and putting in things that didn’t seem very necessary but were necessary to prose continuity." He nonetheless kept what he had written, and at his death his completed autobiographical chapters and fragments were sent off with his other papers to the archive at Harvard, where they were rescued by Axelrod and Kosc, who corrected factual errors in the manuscript in their footnotes and have now made a clean version public.

What one chiefly learns from the Memoirs is Lowell’s perennially difficult relationship with his parents, his termagant mother and less than commanding father, a naval officer whom he describes as "deep—not with profundity, but with the dumb depth of one who trusted in statistics and was dubious of personal experience."An only child, Lowell noted that "I bored my parents and they bored me." He saved his admiration for his maternal grandfather, Arthur Winslow III. The chapters from the Memoirs are sad, revealing a lost child who grows up to become a young man who, unanchored in family support, flounders and is brought down by serious mental illness.

Reading Lowell’s Memoirs, joyless and jestless as they are, is a bit of a slog. Lowell’s always unsatisfied mother convinces her disappointing husband to abandon the Navy to work for Lever Brothers, the soap manufacturer, where, in his son’s words, "he survived to drift from job to job, to be displaced, to be grimly and literally that old cliché, a fish out of water." His mother, haughty and cold, never finds happiness outside of Boston, and not much there, and eventually dies abroad, alone, in Paris. Meanwhile Bobby, as they called him, grew up "a churlish, disloyal, romantic boy," who turns thuggish and unappreciative at the best New England schools. "[F]or the most part both my parents and everyone else seemed against me. If I could I ran off; if I couldn’t I slept in a cowed silence—passionate paralysis, paralyzed passion."

Surcease from this gloom came when Lowell discovered writing. "Writing," he notes, "felt to me like a life preserver. At last I could dominate, despise, say nothing mattered except great works of art. I think I really cared for these, but I enjoyed using them as a battering ram against everything and everybody that puzzled me or seemed indifferent or critical." In his college years Lowell found mentors in the poet-critics Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom. The editors of the Memoirs include tributary memoirs of both men along with other of Lowell’s later writings on Ezra Pound, Ford Madox Ford, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Randall Jarrell, John Berryman, and others. Here the writing takes on a power unavailable to the Robert Lowell of the autobiography. As the editors note: "In these literary memoirs … we discover a capable Lowell. He is a poet interacting with other notable writers of his time, who recognize him as a worthy professional." They add: "These literary memoirs represent the fulfillment of his promise, the vindication of his struggle. … They provide an image of the power and humanity a marginal person can sometimes achieve."

But what was the true extent of Lowell’s achievement? He was soon taken as a major poet, his poetry widely praised and indeed overpraised. The critic Richard Poirier referred to him as "the greatest poet of the mid-century, probably the greatest poet writing in English." Stanley Kunitz called him "without doubt the most celebrated poet in English of his generation." Irvin Ehrenpreis thought he would soon be recognized as "‘the’ American poet."

Yet why do so few of his vast number of poems—his Collected Poems runs to nearly 1,000 pages—stay in mind? Perhaps the best explanation came from F.W. Dupee, the critic who for many years taught at Columbia, who regretted Lowell’s abandoning his earlier structured—by meter and rime—poems for more loosely formed verse, influenced by William Carlos Williams, that he seemed to be able to turn out by the bushel. In his earlier poems, Dupee declared, Lowell "wrote as if poetry were still a major art and not merely a venerable pastime which ought to be perpetuated." Dupee found, as do I, something "inconclusive" about Lowell’s poetry, of which he asks: "Where, as Henry James would inquire, is your denouement?" In much of Lowell’s poetry one encounters the interesting image (he called Ford Madox Ford's novel The Good Soldier the best French novel in the English language), the arresting phrase (his poem "For Santayana" ends, "There is no God and Mary is his mother") but never at a poem’s conclusion that marvelous click that signals perfection.

That Lowell managed a literary career while under the repeated lash of his bipolarity is in itself a considerable achievement. (In his later years he found relief from his mental illness in lithium carbonate.) But literature, which is merciless, awards no points for effort, no matter how valiant. Read today, Lowell’s poems seem professional, polished, but missing the depth that is essential to great poetry. On the grassy slopes of Parnassus Robert Lowell the poet remains.

by Robert Lowell, edited by Steven Gould Axelrod and Grzegorz Kosc
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 400 pp., $40

Joseph Epstein is the author, most recently, of Gallimaufry: A Collection of Essays, Reviews, Bits.

Published under: Book reviews , Feature