Lowell’s life (1917—77), in essence, was a long series of severe mental breakdowns astonishingly combined with the creation of the greatest American poetry since the Second World War. His illustrious New England pedigree led Randall Jarrell to remark: “I’m sure the Lowells have all sorts of Egyptian connections, and were, in the old days, Egyptians.” Another friend, Elizabeth Bishop, admired Lowell’s poetic use of personal history in Life Studies (1959): “All you have to do is put down the names! The fact that it seems significant, illustrative, American gives you the confidence you display about tackling any idea or theme, seriously, in both writing and conversation. In some ways you are the luckiest poet I know!”
Lowell’s immediate forebears were less impressive. His father, an aunt observed, hadn’t “a mean bone, an original bone, a funny bone in his body!” Lowell’s mother forced her husband to abandon his undistinguished career in the Navy; and in his forties, his soul went underground. Lowell’s mother—who had a disturbing affair with his sonneteering psychiatrist, Merrill Moore—later observed of her marriage: “having to live in constant companionship with this comparative stranger, whom I found neither agreeable, interesting, nor admirable, was a terrible nervous strain.” Her son felt that her very presence made all the joy go out of existence.
Lowell had the same profound dedication and commitment to a poetic vocation as the young Milton and, like his predecessor, studied with the finest teachers of his time. He was taught at St. Mark’s by Richard Eberhart, a disciple of Richards and Empson; had a cool but salutary confrontation with Frost at Harvard; learned classics, history, philosophy, and poetic technique from Ransom at Vanderbilt and Kenyon, The brilliant pupil pitched a tent on the lawn of Allen Tate; became Ford’s secretary at Olivet; studied at Louisiana State with Brooks and Warren. He roomed with Randall Jarrell; and all three of his wives were talented writers.
Lowell’s poetry is always learned and allusive, filled with suggestive reverberations. To cite but two examples, not mentioned by Hamilton: Swift’s
in “On His Own Deafness” is echoed in
Deaf, giddy, helpless, left alone,
To all my Friends a Burthen grown
just as Auden’s
swimming nude, unbuttoned, sick
of his ghost-written rhetoric!;
in “A Summer’s Night” is echoed in
Out on the lawn I lie in bed,
Vega conspicuous overhead
in “Man and Wife.”
Tamed by Miltown, we lie on Mother’s bed,
the rising sun in warpaint dyes us red
At school Lowell acquired the appropriate, lifelong nick-name of Cal: part Caligula, part Caliban. Fascinated by the world of tyrants and the moral stench of power, he soon showed the boorish, berserk, and brutal side of his character. He instructed his first fiancee, during their initial sexual encounter: “I can tell you what the whores do. I can tell you and you can try and do it.” He struck his father to the ground. While courting Jean Stafford, he drunkenly crashed his parents’ car into a wall and smashed up her nose and head; after their marriage in 1940, he deliberately hit her in the face and broke the much-repaired nose for the second time. He was a mental case in his teens; in 1939 Jung decisively told Lowell’s mother: “If your son is as you have described him, he is an incurable schizophrenic.”
The marriage to Stafford, a lapsed Catholic convert, coincided with his first period of religious mania and his own conversion to the Church of Rome. From that moment, according to Stafford, their life declined and sexual relations ceased. When Lowell announced in 1946 that his affair with Gertrude Buchman, the former wife of Delmore Schwartz, marked the end of their marriage, Stafford went on a mad drinking binge and entered the Payne Whitney Clinic for a “psycho-alcoholic cure.” He demanded a divorce and left the church, which had “served its purpose.” He rejoined the Catholic Church in 1949 after (he said) “receiving an incredible outpouring of grace”; and reentered the Episcopal Church, with less flourish, in 1955. His religion, like his mania, went in cycles and inspired his poetry.
Stafford, who had the tongue of an adder and a heart black with rage, poured out vitriolic reproach: “I know this, Cal, and the knowledge eats me like an inward animal; there is nothing worse for a woman than to be deprived of her womanliness. . . . I am sick now, I see no end and I wish, I wish, I wish, I wish to die.” Hamilton reads “The Mills of the Kavanaughs” as a parable on this marriage.
Lowell’s first book, Land of Unlikeness (1944), which exuberantly expressed the themes of Boston, Catholicism, and war, was a considerable critical success. Hamilton observes that Lord Weary’s Castle (1946), which inspired Jarrell’s much-valued praise, expressed Lowell’s characteristically “hectic, crunchingly enjambed iambic line, the welter of grabbed myths and pseudosymbols, the impudent and hortatory prayers, the barely controlled retributive gusto and the linguistic flagellation.”
His first political act was a letter of Sept. 7, 1943 to President Roosevelt (“the Lowells speak only to God”) which stated his refusal to participate in an unjust war whose goal (he believed) was the permanent destruction of Germany and Japan, Though Lowell was eventually rejected by the Army for defective eyesight, his quixotic but defiant gesture earned a light sentence of one year in prison and a parole after four months. In West Street Jail, the gangster Lepke said, “I’m in for killing, What are you in for?” and was told: “Oh, I’m in for refusing to kill.”
Lowell was consoled by the Pulitzer Prize and a Guggenheim fellowship, and by an affair with Carley Dawson, which she found baffling and singularly joyless. He spent a good deal of time talking about bears (a private fantasy) and, during a discussion of Shakespeare, suddenly began to strangle her.
In December 1948 Lowell met Elizabeth Hardwick at the writers’ colony, Yaddo. Three months later, after providing Tate’s wife with a list of his mistresses and suspending the poet outside an apartment window while he recited the “Ode to the Confederate Dead” in a bear’s voice, he had his first major breakdown and exposed his friends to the daunting impact of actual madness. He talked “like a machine gun with blazing eyes,” became violent and homicidally hallucinated, suspected he was a reincarnation of the Holy Ghost, and was bound with leather straps in a padded cell. Tate shrewdly observed that Lowell had abandoned Stafford, the church, and poetry: his three defenses against disintegration.
He was given electric shock treatment—”like a trolley-pole sparking at contact.” Artaud, Hemingway, and Sylvia Plath (who described her experience in The Bell Jar) also endured this ghastly process, which produces convulsions and coma. These shocks, Artaud explained, “make me despair, take my memory away, numb my thinking and my heart, make me absent and aware of myself as absent. I see myself pursuing my own existence for weeks, like a dead man at the side of a living man who is no longer himself.” But they seemed (at least temporarily) to help Lowell. He married Hardwick in July and spent his honeymoon in Stafford’s alma mater, the Payne Whitney Clinic. Despite his horror of babies, their daughter Harriet was born in 1957; and Lowell predicted her first words would be “Partisan Review.”
Lowell’s mental breakdowns occurred with terrible regularity nearly every spring—in Salzburg, Cincinnati, Boston, and Buenos Aires—and he had suffered 14 or 15 attacks by 1968. This acute mania was accompanied by love affairs with young girls that sparked the jerky graph of his heart, by fantasies of rejuvenation and rebirth, and by a desperate need to have his wife and mistresses competing for his favor. Hardwick’s surpassing love, frenetic fidelity, devotion merging into martyrdom, humiliating masochism, unlimited capacity for suffering and endurance make her the tragic heroine of Lowell’s life.
Despite Hamilton’s vivid and moving account of their marriage, it is not clear why she was always willing to take him back after he had left her, for she had expressed her “utter contempt for you for the misery you have brought to two people who had never hurt you.” Nor is it clear if she contained or contributed to his illness. His therapist, Dr. Viola Bernard (a minor villain), provided very little insight about his illness and, when her patient became obstreperous or violent, actually said to him, with a self-pity notably absent in Hardwick: “Gal, how can you do this to me?” Though his disease was incurable, lithium finally held off his attacks for as long as four years.
Yet Hardwick—who could say with Lear, “The worst is not So long as we can say, “This is the worst”“—had even more to endure. In the spring of 1970, while on a visiting professorship at All Souls, Oxford, Lowell met the beautiful Guinness heiress, Lady Caroline Blackwood. She had been previously married to a painter and a composer and had three children. She became pregnant early in 1971; had a son, Sheridan, in September; and married Lowell, in a ludicrous ceremony in Santo Domingo, in October 1972. Lowell’s painful disengagement from Hardwick, the manic periods that frightened and exhausted his new wife, and Caroline’s acute nervous depression, are the subject of the poems in The Dolphin. He wrote these sonnets while living through this emotional chaos. Just as Fitzgerald had used Zelda’s correspondence in Tender is the Night, so Lowell used Hardwick’s intensely private letters in his work—though he well knew it would tear her apart. The voice of his poetry had to have “the authority of the extreme.” He spared her the final anguish only by arriving dead at her door after a heart attack on the way from the plane that took him from Caroline.
Unlike Hemingway, whose artistry was eventually submerged and destroyed by its public image, Lowell had a fine ability to project and manipulate himself as an authoritative public figure. He emerged as a political personage in a highly publicized letter to President Johnson on June 3, 1965 (which recalled his earlier open letter to President Roosevelt) refusing, because of the Vietnam War, to attend the White House Festival of the Arts. He marched on the Justice Department in 1967 and on the Pentagon in February 1968 and was immortalized in Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night. He formed a close friendship with Senator Eugene McCarthy and distracted him from serious political responsibilities during his ill-fated presidential campaign.
The English poet-critic lan Hamilton has written an illuminating and dramatic account of this fascinating life. He provides a great deal of valuable information from interviews and unpublished material; a vigorous narrative sweep; a convincing portrayal of all the breakdowns, though he was— unfortunately—not allowed to consult the medical records; a masterful portrayal of Johnson’s wrath when Lowell torpedoed his festival; and sound readings of the poetry, with emphasis on its relation to Lowell’s life.
What emerges from this biography—though Hamilton does not stress it—is the twinned power of Lowell’s creative and destructive force. He even transformed his mother’s death into a poetic episode: the Napoleonic casket, the symbolic sea crossing, the ancestral burial at Dunbarton, New Hampshire. His poetry was undoubtedly inspired by the tragic events of his life, but he left a trail of desolation behind him: a dozen infatuated and victimized girls, two wives driven to alcoholism and mental asylums, and a whole generation of talented poets defeated by his oppressive personality and his compulsive domination of the literary arena. (Lowell earned $20,000 a year in royalties and lecture fees by 1970. )
Hamilton notes that Lowell “wanted to arrive, to be “major, ” to be “the poet, ” and he was always to keep a shrewd eye on the fluctuations of rank in the poetry world.” After the closely packed deaths of Frost, Eliot, and Roethke, Lowell seemed destined, by talent and fate, to be king of the cats. He appropriated Schwartz’ ex-wife when that ex-poet was spiraling toward his doom. He seemed to encourage the manic impulses which fed the confessional verse of his students, Sexton and Plath, and led directly to their suicides. Even his “choice in neckties wounded” the sensitive Jarrell, whom Lowell had once loved and held in awe. After a year of sterility and depression, Jarrell killed himself in 1965. When Berryman jumped to his death in 1972, Auden claimed he left a suicide note that read: “Your move, Cal.”
Like his monstrous and much-admired imperial namesake, Lowell felt no remorse. If he ever shed tears, he wept like a spider who watches his trapped and struggling victims. Like his aesthetic hero Flaubert, his “mania for phrases dried his heart.” His poems were a grisly retribution for his life.