‘If there’s an afterlife,’ Robert Lowell wrote in 1975 (within two years of finding out), ‘I think I’d spend it living and rereading everything written to me.’ The claim is sincere, and it is in keeping with the doggedly retentive attitude to friendship everywhere evident in his own correspondence. Even so, a reader of this large volume of Lowell’s letters might well see a telling inaccuracy in the phrase ‘everything written to me’: ‘about me’ comes much closer to Lowell’s true passion. If there is an afterlife for poets, and it is somehow continuous with this one, then we can be sure that Lowell is spending a good deal of it keeping up with his reviews.
Lowell’s critical fortunes have fluctuated in the years since his death; in fact, the fluctuation was in evidence while Lowell was alive, and the splurge of his later poetry in the 1970s marked the beginning of an especially unstable period for his reputation. When Lowell revised and expanded his already