Robert Lowell: A Biography - review by Grey Gowrie

Grey Gowrie

Poor Passing Facts

Robert Lowell: A Biography

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Asked to name the greatest American poet, Robert Lowell once replied ‘Milton’. The joke had a point to it. Contemporary English poets in the mainstream admire poets like Marvell or Robert Graves who set themselves limits and succeed within them. Ambition and scale are the American dream, the American hang-up. Added to the intensity of all good poetry, they take their toll in the lives of the makers. Ian Hamilton’s biography is best at considering the cost of Lowell’s achievement and a life, as the poet himself put it, ‘not avoiding injury to others,/not avoiding injury to myself’ – especially the wear and tear of Lowell’s second and longest marriage to the writer Elizabeth Hardwick. It is less good as an account of the poetic achievement itself (the point of the joke about America and Milton). Art’s attempt to colonise all experience and offer the justifications that philosophy has had to retire from; the Emersonian insistence that history is the lengthened shadow of a man; the hot line between politics and sex; the astonishing (to the English) assumption that if you write about yourself you are really writing about America: all this was taken on by Lowell. It is too early to judge how far he brought it off. The important thing for him was that the ascent beckoned. Nor was this anything very much to do with Lowell’s notorious mania or the aristocratic recklessness sometimes attributed to him; the assumptions are, after all, very much in the American grain and are common currency to writers as different as Melville, Whitman, Pound, Faulkner, Williams, or Lowell’s own contemporaries like Charles Olson, Saul Bellow or John Berryman. Mr Hamilton’s clear schoolmasterly prose, his very English refusal to risk Pseud’s Corner or poke his nose into the attic of ideas, ensure that the story moves briskly along. But in a curious way this life drags its subject behind it instead of being itself propelled by the life. Lowell knew that all heroes are failures and felt that it should not deter one from heroism. Mr Hamilton is more interested in the failure.

The story is nonetheless fascinating and Mr Hamilton tells it well. Robert Lowell was born to minor members of two great New England families, the Winslows and the Lowells. He was an only child, very close to the strong undirected personality of his mother, conspiratorial with her about the downward drift of his amiable fainéant father’s career: naval officer seldom at sea, fringe jobs in Boston’s financial establishment, trust fund comfort but no splendour. Childhood swung between fiercely aggressive and competitive behaviour at boarding school and a solitary existence at home mugging up military history and daydreaming about power. Post-puberty there was, in Mr Hamilton’s phrase, an awesome deliberateness in Lowell’s metamorphosis from lout to man of sensibility. A schoolmate is quoted as saying: ‘he created himself as an intellect, as a creative spirit. It was astonishing to see such focus.’ (This comment is interestingly echoed in Elizabeth Hardwick’s observation to Mr Hamilton that ‘Cal was not the sort of poet, if there are any, for whom beautiful things come drifting down in a snowball of gift, the labour was merciless. The discipline, the dedication, the endless adding to his store, by reading and studying – all this had, in my view, much that was heroic about it.’

The poet Richard Eberhart taught at St Mark’s School at this time and Lowell at last had an older person against whom to bounce the ferocity of his reading. It was always the big stuff: Homer, the Bible, Shakespeare, the great Romantics. A letter to Eberhart when Lowell was eighteen was revealing and convinces that Lowell’s mind, and career, was already made up. Talking of Wordsworth’s Prelude and his relative Amy Lowell’s life of Keats, he says

what has impressed me most is the picture both give of the young poet forming into a genius, their energy, their rapid growth and above all their never-ending determination to succeed.

He goes on:

During the short time that has elapsed since school ended, I have come to realize more and more the spiritual side of being a poet…what I mean is the acutallity [sic; Lowell misspelt to the grave] of living the life, of breathing the same air as Shakespeare, and of coordinating all this with the actualities of the world. My beliefs haven’t changed at all only now I am beginning to feel what I merely thought in a more or less impassioned academic sense.

The interest of this letter is not in what it says. A passionate encounter with art in late adolescence is common enough; it might be found in smaller scale meticulous writers of the kind Lowell admired, such as Elizabeth Bishop or Philip Larkin. The extraordinary thing about Lowell is that he did not change; he really did go on trying, continuously from eighteen until his death at sixty, to coordinate ‘all this’ with the actualities of the world. A review, not cited by Mr Hamilton, by the American critic Edmund Wilson, makes the point well. Lowell, Wilson wrote, is

the only recent American poet – if you don’t count Eliot – who writes successfully in the resounding British tradition. In some way that I find it rather hard to define, he and W H Auden stand distinctively apart from the other contemporary poets. It is a matter of stature, I suppose. They are not playing a game or amusing themselves or trying to make an impression or occasionally giving expression to some more or less poignant emotion. They have higher and more serious ambitions and they also have big enough talents to achieve poetic careers on the old nineteenth-century scale.

The difficulty for Lowell’s present standing in Britain is that we have moved away from, or fallen behind, our own resounding tradition. Mainstream poetry, like mainstream philosophy, has narrower purposes now. The tone of Mr Hamilton’s book gives this away time and again; he appears both puzzled and disapproving at the lack of limits Lowell set both for his life and his art.

And indeed if the career never wavered, the life was a fever chart of highs and lows. At Harvard Lowell went his own unsuccessful way, got engaged, attacked his father physically over the engagement – a trauma that never left him and helped create the mania as well as some of the best father and son writing in literature. He broke his engagement and moved to Kenyon College in Ohio to study with the Southern poet teachers, John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate. Here he was taken seriously and made lifelong friends, among them another aspiring poet, Randall Jarrell, who became his best critic and advocate. Here too he grew into the physical beauty which, allied with his ability to concentrate on other people with great intensity, led so many to fall in love with him right until the end of his life. He graduated top of his class with highest honours in classics, married the novelist Jean Stafford and took a teaching job in the South. All through his life he overlaid his Englishy Bostonian accent with the long vowels of the Southerner, a fact which helps one to ‘read’ the music in his poetry. He remained, also, a dedicated if unusual teacher, accepting his latter fame as due but touchingly pleased at being able to hold down normal salaried academic jobs, whether at Harvard or the University of Essex.

Lowell thus discovered young his ambition and also his subject: the place of New England in the idea of America and the connection of both to himself. He was a Roman Catholic convert at this time. Mr Hamilton is both funny and properly sardonic at the effects of Lowell’s furious proselytizing on those close to him, notably his wife: no sex, for instance. an astonishment to all who knew him later on. He misses the full impact this unsurprising conversion had on the poetry. Long after Lowell lapsed, Catholic universalism, the concept of a universe where everything is related because everything has been thought of and given a proper name, allowed Lowell to make his leaps and connections even as he pitted them ironically against the vanishing emblems of New England’s spiritual life. ‘I must keep spiritually alive and brilliantly alive,’ he wrote to his cousin Lawrence Lowell, ‘for poetry is, as the moral Milton conceded in practice and precept, a sensuous, passionate, brutal thing. I put in the last adjective because I am modem and angry and puritanical.’ And to his mother, baselessly anxious that he might follow his father in failure, thwarted in life herself, he wrote crossly: ‘One can hardly be ostracised for taking the intellect and aristocracy and family tradition seriously.’Bearing a famous name, he became briefly notorious for rejecting the wartime draft by writing in person and public to President Roosevelt. He had volunteered for and been rejected by both army and navy, following Pearl Harbour; now, the time of the bombing of civilians in Germany, he did time in a New York City jail for conscientious objection.

This was the first of a set of encounters throughout his life with the body politic. Mr Hamilton appears to find these mildly irritating or to share the views of friends or contemporaries of Lowell who did so. They were, however, essential to the Lowell subject matter and bore fruit not just in the continuous autobiography of his work after 1951 but in the writing which made him America’s laureate during Vietnam. He found parallels to his own condition in this first breakdown of twentieth-century American hegemony – a power phenomenon which dates, oddly enough, from America’s entry into the First World War in the year of Lowell’s birth. Consider the astonishing and, by all accounts, accurate snapshot of Lyndon Johnson juxtaposed with a moment of sexual reverie in ‘Waking Early Sunday Morning’:

O to break loose. All life’s grandeur
is something with a girl in summer…
elated as the President
girdled by his establishment
this Sunday morning, free to chaff
his own thoughts with his bear-cuffed staff,
swimming nude, unbuttoned, sick
of his ghost-written rhetoric!

Lowell dealt with Presidents as equals from youth. He envied Dante his spell of office in Florence and throughout his own nervous breakdowns or manic attacks his mind would grip like a dormant bat to Hitler and fascism’s pornography of power. But this was only the other side, forged by stress, of a coin of sanity and worth in respect of politics. In his fifties he wrote of his childhood hero, Napoleon:

the price was paltry… three million soldiers dead
grand opera fixed like morphine in their veins.
Dare we say, he had no moral center?
All gone like the smoke of his own artillery?

If Auden remains the profoundest political thinker in modem poetry in English, no one since Yeats can touch Lowell for a sense of politics’ cardboard and tinsel, the dangerous excitements of its showbusiness side. Lowell’s own drive to fame made him exceptionally attentive to its effects on others, both the climbers and those they climb over. Few men so ambitious can ever have been so gentle in their personal dealings.

Perhaps there is a clue here to one source of Lowell’s bouts of manic depression or, more accurately, bouts of mania followed by depression. It may be that Lowell had to black out the needed cruelties of his progress with a cloak of breakdowns. Mr Hamilton’s English empirical aversion to speculation does not allow him to dig very deeply here. This would be defensible if he did not also devote so much time to the manic attacks. So much of this biography (and this seems to me a central weakness) deals with the battles and not the war.

Fame came early to Lowell. By his late twenties, in the mid Forties, he was recognised as the most distinctive new voice in poetry since Auden. He won the Pulitzer prize with his second collection and was awarded a photo-puff in Life magazine; the good looks rather than the poetry drew offers from Hollywood which mercifully he did not take up. It was not friendship that led Jarrell to write of ‘Lord Weary’s Castle’, in The Nation, that ‘A few of these poems, I believe, will be read as long as men remember English.’Forty years on it is indeed difficult to imagine our poetry without ‘The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket’, ‘Mr Edwards and the Spider’ or the flawless short poem about the end of the Second World War in Europe, ‘The Exile’s Retum’. Certainly from now on, whatever the marriages and divorces and affairs, the manias, the hospitalisations and depressed productive recoveries, each successive book involved the fate of Lowell’s reputation with the fate of American poetry in his time. That allows him his greatness. Although the books differed stylistically in the main, (reinforcing Auden’s dictum that the test of a major poet is that you can tell at what point in his career almost any poem was written), and although there were verse plays and ‘imitations’, from the mid Fifties they constitute an autobiography. ‘Life Studies’, which includes a long prose piece of direct childhood reminiscence, portrays family background, the marriage to Elizabeth Hardwick, breakdowns and spells in a mental home; ‘For the Union Dead’, the associations of middle age with a floundering and failing America; ‘Near the Ocean’, the same story but here told from the rostrum in Lowell’s high public style – as he wrote in a variation on Rilke: ‘only by suffering the rat-race in the arena / can the heart learn to beat.’

Then came a series of books, amended in successive editions, in loose unrhymed sonnet-stanzas. These cluster most effectively in The Dolphin, which is not yet acknowledged as one of the greatest works of modern literature, and certainly not by Mr Hamilton, but which I, coloured no doubt by close acquaintance with the circumstances of its composition, believe will be – in time. It tells the story of the breakdown of Lowell’s second marriage and the consummation of his third, to the Irish writer Caroline Blackwood. It is ‘one man, two women, the common novel plot’ and became a matter of furious controversy in newly feminist America as Lowell wrote whole stanzas in direct quotation from Elizabeth Hardwick’s beautiful grieving letters. (He returned to her for most of the last year of his life and died on a visit between her and Caroline.) As so often, and one wishes Mr Hamilton and others would acknowledge this more, both the moral and the literary criticisms are anticipated and answered by Lowell in the work itself given what elsewhere he called his ‘dull invulnerability to failure’, they are part of the story. His last book, published in 1977, the year he died, was Day by Day. Here the style breaks back into a wonderfully low-key, meditative, elegiac free verse, ending the saga with perception and deliberation:

All’s misalliance.
Yet why not say what happened?
Pray for the grace of accuracy
Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination
stealing like the tide across a map
to his girl solid with yearning.
We are poor passing facts,
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name.

It is apparent that a career of this kind gives special difficulties to a biographer. Does he tell the story of the poems or the story the poems tell? Mr Hamilton opts for the latter. ‘What the public wants,’ said Valkry, ‘is the sensation without the boredom of its conveyance. ‘This book, no doubt with a shrewd idea of its market, keeps its distance from Lowell’s work. Because Mr Hamilton is a very good critic of the minimalist, line-by-line, exegetical kind he makes interesting kingfisher raids on the rather few things he likes. But the tone of the work is ambivalent about Lowell’s quixotic attempts at what he called ‘our monotonous sublime’, the scale of Lowell’s appetite and ambition for poetry itself and the kind of full-tilt living which informs such an old-fashioned, even bardic, idea of the art. Such ambivalence may be perfectly respectable and is in line with contemporary tastes and attitudes; grand opera is not fixed like morphine in Mr Hamilton’s veins. It is nevertheless an intensely English view, even a partial and provincial one. Lowell’s anglophile background, his humour and ironies, his lifelong absorption with English poetry and history, his last marriage, all go to make him as much a poet of the ‘special relationship’ as Eliot or Auden. This inclines to obscure a central truth of his life and work. He was himself intensely American in largesse of ambition. His fate was to apply a grand celebratory talent to what he felt was a time of historical, of both public and private, failure. If such identification of the time with the man was hubristic, or even purely egotistic, it was shared by other American writers; it generated the poetry; it generated, in the last resort, what is likely to be a widely read biography. To catalogue Lowell’s private failings with so much purring expertise and so little reference to his own un-self-sparing analysis of their nature and relevance is in the end to offer a kind of Harold Robbins’ view of a famous poet. For all the fascination of the raw material, for all the skill with which it is assembled, the Hamilton life is unsatisfying: compelling at first reading, voyeuristic, and sour-in-the-mouth after that. Better for the meantime to go back to its subject’s own refusal to be got down, or put down.

The line must terminate.
Yet my heart rises, I know I have gladdened a lifetime
knotting, undoing a fishnet of tarred rope;
the net will hang on the wall when the fish are eaten,
nailed like illegible bronze on the futureless future

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