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Robert Lowell on Native Ground

ISSUE:  Winter 1995

Antiques and quarrels from “91 Revere Street” mix in memory with Kentucky bluegrass and whitewashed fences from the back seat of my father’s white Buick. My parents were driving me from Memphis to Cambridge in 1962 to begin graduate school. I was reading Life Studies for the first time. The angst, the vulnerability, the exposed nerves of the author of that often harrowing book led me to expect someone other than the man I was about to meet.

Physically Robert Lowell gave an impression of force, with strong shoulders and an unusually large head—not a head that revealed the skull and hinted at the brain as with his mentor Allen Tate: one, rather, that gave a powerful but awkward, elemental impression, making one think simultaneously of a bull and a creature of the sea. Though he had been a footballer both at St. Mark’s and at Kenyon, where he played varsity tackle, fishing was in later life the one sport he found meaning in. He was born under the constellation Pisces.

Water was his element. I can think of no other poet who has evoked the sea so often and so tellingly. Fish, gulls, whales, turtles, seals appear again and again in his work. The dolphin of his later work was both muse and self:

Any clear thing that blinds us with surprise,
your wandering silences and bright trouvailles,
dolphin let loose to catch the flashing fish… .

These lines—with their unlikely rhyme, surprise I trouvailles, which itself surprises—speak to the restlessness, the search for novelty, the need for reinventing himself periodically which characterize Lowell’s entire career. It was this impulse which led him to invent the personal style of Life Studies—”the biggest change in myself [ray italics] perhaps I ever made or will.” The sea for Lowell was an eternal present, an emblem of the life force as he saw it, brutal and destructive: “The ocean, grinding stones,” he wrote in “Near the Ocean,” “can only speak the present tense; / nothing will age, nothing will last… .” The sea was the expressive agent for his Jeremiah-like and frightening zeal as early as his first major work, “The Quaker Graveyard at Nantucket,” with its heavily cadenced patterns of sound:

                     Sea-gulls blink their heavy lids
Seaward. The winds’ wings beat upon the stones,
Cousin, and scream for you and the claws rush
At the sea’s throat and wring it in the slush
Of this old Quaker graveyard where the bones
Cry out in the long night for the hurt beast
Bobbing by Ahab’s whaleboats in the East.

The surface he presented to the world when I met him 17 years after the publication of “The Quaker Graveyard at Nantucket” was more composed. I picture him during the years I knew him at Harvard: in the penthouse seminar room at the top of Jose Luis Sert’s Holyoke Center, where he taught a class. Some Rothkos, with their mauve and rotting-earth colors, brooded on the walls there. Or in his rooms at Quincy House, or in the basement seminar room there, where he held his “office hours,” a free-ranging seminar on poems brought in by the diverse group of writers who came on Wednesday mornings—Jean Valentine, Frank Bidart, Helen Chasin, Heather McHugh, Alan Williamson, Roger Rosenblatt, Sidney Goldfarb, Robert Grenier, Lloyd Schwartz, and others. The office hours consisted of two or three hours of practical criticism interlaced with free-ranging conversation about poetry. After “office hours” one or two of us would accompany him to his favorite restaurant, the Iruna, for vodka martinis and Spanish food.

The French critics Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault have been at some pains to shrink the role of the author in literary discourse. My sense is that their American followers have launched a more extreme attack than what is intended by the French. After all, when Barthes writes that “Vauteur ne produit jamais que des presomptions de sens, des formes, si Von veut, et c’est le monde qui les remplit” (from the 1964 Essais Critiques) few authors would disagree. In any case, to say that the author was dead would have made no more sense to Lowell than to say the person you were playing tennis with was dead. He openly admired and was on intimate terms with his favorite poets from the past. “Tennyson is an intense, moody, clumsy young man with enormous metrical skill,” Judith Baumel reports him remarking. “Pound, who loathed him, has a Tennysonian splendor.” It was in this man’s company that I first understood what Shakespeare was getting at in his sonnets when he wrote that poetry could immortalize—or what Dante meant when he paid tribute in Hell to his master Brunetto Latini (in Lowell’s own translation), “when in the world, from hour to hour you taught / me how a man becomes eternal.”

Helen Vendler’s reminiscence “Lowell in the Classroom” is worth quoting at some length, because she kept notes on his comments on 19th-century poetry:

Lowell began his classes on each successive poet with an apparently indolent, speculative, and altogether selective set of remarks on the poet’s life and writing; the poet appeared as a man with a temperament, a set of difficulties, a way of responding, a vocation, prejudices. The remarks were indistinguishable from those Lowell might have made about a friend of an acquaintance; the poets were friends or acquaintances; he knew them from their writing better than most of us knew others from life. This, in the end, seems to me the best thing Lowell did for his students; he gave them the sense . . . 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 circumstance and quotidian abrasions… . What his privileged students heard was original discourse; what they experienced was the amplitude of response stirred by past poetry—which, in Lowell’s hands, always seemed poetry of the present—by a poet who had earned his place “on the slopes of Parnassus.” It was a response in which familiarity and reverence went hand in hand, in which technique and vision were indissoluble; it made the appearance of poetry in life seem as natural as any other action.

He slouches in a leather chair, a penny loafer dangling from one foot, shoulders scrunched up toward his massive head—his hands framing a point in the air, held up before his face as though to protect it from attack, now and then righting the black-rimmed glasses that kept sliding down the bridge of his thick nose, one of many True cigarettes between his fingers, worrying away a digressive train of thought. With his broad face and “oval Lowell smile,” he bore an uncanny resemblance to the pictures of both Amy Lowell and James Russell Lowell in the American Heritage Dictionary. The jaunty, pastel shirt-and-tie combinations—the opposite of traditional—that he would sometimes wear made one cringe, yet they were typical of one who loathed conventional “good taste” and who delighted in things that were jarring and vivid. When Lowell writes of Randall Jarrell, “You felt that even your choice in neckties wounded him,” it’s easy to see that Jarrell must have been wounded often in Lowell’s company.

His rebelliousness against family tradition and the sedate “good taste” that felt like a stranglehold surfaces disturbingly in this account of his departure from Italy, bringing his mother’s body home, in the Life Studies poem called “Sailing Home from Rapallo”:

When I embarked from Italy with my Mother’s body,
the whole shoreline of the Golfo di Genova
was breaking into fiery flower.

The crazy yellow and azure sea-sleds
blasting like jack-hammers across
the spttmante-bubbling wake of our liner,
recalled the clashing colors of my Ford.
Mother travelled first-class in the hold;
her Risorgimento black and gold casket
was like Napoleon’s at the Invalides… .

What shocks one here is that the exuberance of the flowers on shore and the scene in the harbor mirror the bereaved son’s inner celebration of his mother’s death. The “spumante-bubbling wake” of the ship suggests a glass raised in celebration. “The clashing colors of my Ford” evoke adolescent independence and self-assertion, while at the same time reminding us of the car’s role in the mad poet’s pursuit of his dark obsessions in “Skunk Hour,” where

One dark night,
my Tudor Ford climbed the hill’s skull;
I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down,
they lay together, hull to hull,
where the graveyard shelves on the town… .
My mind’s not right.

The imperial casket had of course been Lowell’s own choice: “I went to Genoa and bought Mother a black-and-gold baroque casket that would have been suitable for burying her hero Napoleon at Les Invalides,” he writes in the prose reminiscence “Near the Unbalanced Aquarium.” The casket was a way of honoring what he perceived as his mother’s own heroic fantasy of herself—a fantasy that in his manic phases had become his own. The preparations he made, the way he responded to her death, show that he was being propelled into another bout of insanity: “When Mother died, I began to feel tireless, madly sanguine, menaced, and menacing. I entered the Payne-Whitney Clinic for ‘all those afflicted in mind.’”

The lines that follow deliver a sobering corrective to the gaudy colors and unnaturally high spirits of the verse paragraphs from “Sailing Home from Rapallo” I quoted above:

While the passengers were tanning
on the Mediterranean in deck-chairs,
our family cemetery in Dunbarton
lay under the White Mountains
in the sub-zero weather.
The graveyard’s soil was changing to stone—
so many of its deaths had been midwinter.
Dour and dark against the blinding snowdrifts,
its black brook and fir trunks were as smooth as masts.
A fence of iron spear-hafts
black-bordered its mostly Colonial grave-slates.

To say that these lines reveal the depressive side of Lowell’s mania demonstrates the inadequacy of psychological terminology in painting the rich complexity of psychological and emotional states. But clearly something like what is crudely defined by those terms is at work here. The preferred contemporary usage, “bipolar disorder,” hits somewhat closer to the mark.

The two passages are a wonderful study in contrast: spring and winter, “crazy yellow and azure” as opposed to black and white—heat and cold, flowers and snow, water and stone, frantic liveliness and the stasis of death. The motor-powered sea-sleds likened to jack-hammers recall Lowell’s use of the same figure in “Colloquy in Black Rock” from Lord Weary’s Castle: “Here the jack-hammer jabs into the ocean; / My heart, you race and stagger and demand / More blood-gangs for your nigger-brass percussions… .” This physically jarring and debilitating rush must have been what Lowell’s manic states felt like. An image like “nigger-brass,” appropriating a racial slur and internalizing it against the self, points forward to the self-denigrating images in another poem based on one of his manic attacks, “A Mad Negro

Soldier Confined at Munich.” The phrase, “each subnormal boot- / black heart is pulsing to its ant-egg dole” gives guilt and self-loathing a social framework. The cemetery, by contrast, has tremendous dignity. Transience turns to permanence there, where “The graveyard’s soil was changing to stone.” The last four lines return to the Miltonic cadences and elevated style of “The Quaker Graveyard at Nantucket,” with the monosyllabic Anglo-Saxon alliteration of “Dour and dark” and “black brook,” which echo the impressive spondees of the early style.


That Lowell’s speech bore subtle but clearly recognizable traces of a Southern accent—much remarked-upon by those who met him—was only one of many paradoxes, but it said something about this complex and often contradictory person. Perhaps the accent had rubbed off in the course of many years of marriage to Elizabeth Hardwick, who was born in Kentucky. I fancy, though, he picked it up from the crowd of Tennesseans and Kentuckians, teachers and friends, whom he had met in his early twenties when he left Harvard after his sophomore year to study at Kenyon and LSU: Allen Tate, John Ransom, Randall Jarrell, Peter Taylor, “Red” Warren. Lowell saw a certain symmetry in the circumstances that had brought me—a Tennessean who as a student of Andrew Lytle’s and a friend of Peter and Eleanor Taylor’s had been imbued in the Agrarian tradition at Sewanee—to New England and Harvard to study with him. In the brief prose piece, “Visiting the Tares,” which Lowell wrote for an issue of the Sewanee Review honoring Allen Tate, he has this to say about his first exposure to the South’s sense of American history chez the poet who had been one of his substitute fathers:

I began to discover what I had never known. I, too, was part of a legend. I was Northern, disembodied, Platonist, a puritan, an abolitionist. Tate handed me a hand-painted, defiantly gingersnap-thin edition of his The Mediterranean and Other Poems. He quoted a stanza from Holmes’s “Chambered Nautilus”—”rather beyond the flight of your renowned Uncle.” I realized that the old deadweight of poor J.R. Lowell was now an asset. Here, like the battered Confederacy, he still lived and was history.

Perhaps, in turn, it was Lowell’s tutelage that brought it to my attention in Cambridge that I was Southern. To me his Tennessee I’s were reassuringly familiar at Harvard in the sixties, where I found that a Southern accent was usually greeted with incredulity or hostility. Probably the accent was a sign of Lowell’s rebellion against a New England heritage which he both rejected and thoroughly embodied—a heritage which for him carried a load of guilt and was inextricable from his feelings toward his family. The connection between his conflicts with his father and the exceptions he took to upper-class New England culture surface most baldly in “Rebellion” from Lord Weary’s Castle. “There was rebellion, father,” the poem begins, “when the mock / French windows slammed and you hove backward, rammed / Into your heirlooms… .”

The poem fails, according to Steven Gould Axelrod, in his book Robert Lowell: Life and Art, because it “seeks to masquerade personal confession as historical and mythic statement, a disguise that serves only to confuse the poem. Lowell’s adolescent assault on his father is inflated into an obscure parable of patricide and damnation, heavy with overtones from Job … and American history… .” Perhaps taken out of the context of Lowell’s complete oeuvre, the poem might be considered a failure. Reading it with the later work in mind, however, it fascinatingly foreshadows the Life Studies material. The heirlooms of this poem are the same houseful of furniture that symbolize the heavy weight of the past in the prose piece “91 Revere Street”—presided over by a portrait of Lowell’s remote ancestor, Major Mordecai Myers:

Great-great-Grandfather Myers had never frowned down in judgment on a Salem witch. There was no allegory in his eyes, no Mayflower. Instead he looked peacefully at his sideboard, his cut-glass decanters, his cellaret—the worldly bosom of the Mason-Myers mermaid engraved on a silver-plated urn. If he could have spoken, Mordecai would have said, “My children, my blood, accept graciously the loot of your inheritance. We are all dealers in used furniture.”

The incident itself, when he knocked his father down, furious over his father’s interference in his engagement at the age of 19 to a girl his parents considered unsuitable, haunted Lowell for the rest of his life, and he wrote about it more than once; but this was his first attempt at it. An account of the aftermath, given by his close friend Frank Parker to Lowell’s biographer Ian Hamilton, gives some indication of what an impossible person Charlotte Lowell must have been:

If you had a German shepherd, taking care of it and getting the best food and care and so on, and then it bit you, wouldn’t you shoot it? Or wouldn’t you have it shut out—that’s what she said to me. Anger, fear, you know. Mr. Lowell was nowhere to be seen. He was nursing his jaw.

Obscure and confused the ending of the poem may very well be. But there is no “disguise,” no “masquerade” here. Myth and history were not, for Lowell, obfuscations. They were deeply felt realities. Nothing is more essential to an appreciation of Lowell’s sensibility than to understand that when he compared Robert Kennedy with Louis XIV, it was because Louis XIV was more real to him than the world of contemporary politics, Plutarch’s Lives more immediate than the front page of The New York Times. Patricide lies just beneath the surface of the poem’s action. When, in the poem, Lowell “broke the chimney flintlock on [his father’s] skull,” that flintlock bears all the burden of the Puritan Indian-killers and the rapacious Yankee merchants of his view of New England history:

Behemoth and Leviathan
Devoured our mighty merchants. None could arm
Or put to sea. O father, on my farm
I added field to field
And I have sealed
An everlasting pact
With Dives to contract
The world that spreads in pain;
But the world spread
When the clubbed flintlock broke my father’s brain.

One gets a better sense of what all of this meant to Lowell from Randall Jarrell’s essay, “From the Kingdom of Necessity”:

The poems understand the world as a sort of conflict of opposites. In this struggle one opposite is that cake of custom, in which all of us lie embedded like lungfish—the stasis or inertia of the stubborn self, the obstinate persistence in evil that is damnation. Into this realm of necessity the poems push everything that is closed, turned inward, incestuous, that blinds or binds: the Old Law, imperialism, militarism, capitalism, Calvinism, Authority, the Father, the “proper Bostonians,” the rich… . But struggling within this like leaven, falling to it like light, is everything that is free or open, that grows or is willing to change… .

The son who connives with the world of materialism, who has “added field to field,” has for a time thrown in his lot with what Jarrell calls “the Kingdom of Necessity.” The accommodation was one of many similar ones Lowell would make throughout his life—an instance of which was his purchase of No. 239 Marlborough Street in 1955. As part of a desire to set himself up as a Boston Brahmin, he rejoined the Episcopal Church and lived the upper-middle-class life his ancestors had enjoyed. “We’re having a good fall,” he jokingly wrote Peter Taylor, “and feel very lordly and pretentious in our new Boston house… . It’s not really little and not at all unpretentious, and we despise everyone whose nerve for cities has failed, all country people, all suburbanites, and all people who live in apartments… .” His uneasiness with this stance comes out in a letter to William Carlos Williams: “We might even become Boston worthies, if it weren’t for the worm of life in us.”

Rebellion, “the worm of life,” the need for change without which life was not worth living. It is instructive and even frightening to realize that to accomplish these things, an assault on his father, a symbolic murder, was called for. This is how Jarrell puts it:

In “Rebellion” the son seals “an everlasting pact / With Dives to contract I The world that spreads in pain”; but at last he rebels against his father and his father’s New England commercial theocracy, and “the world spread I When the clubbed flintlock broke my father’s brain.” The italicized words ought to demonstrate how explicitly, at times, these poems formulate the world in the terms that I have used.

A poem like “Rebellion” shows how dangerously “serious” he could be. For those who knew him in the forties, the surface impression was simply that Lowell was a remarkably humorless young man. Clearly the madness which would later manifest itself in the cycles of manic attacks followed by depressive entrenchments was already gestating. The torture and enervation (a word that recurs in his poetry) of recurrent mental breakdowns, and perhaps worse, the treatment for them, had not left him, in the early sixties, with a sanguine attitude toward life: in For the Union Dead he writes of enervation: “the downward glide / and bias of existing wrings us dry.” Yet in his late forties and early fifties, one could see him unbend and mellow as he came to a slow acceptance of the world and himself. In Day by Day he wrote (of his mother):

Your exaggerating humor,
the opposite of deadpan,
the opposite of funny to a son,
is mine now—

A gifted alien, a stranger to the ordinary, sometimes hardly human at all, he relished broad humor, the ridiculous, the common. In his healthy periods, I think he was often overcome with joy at the feeling of being “normal,” and thus delighted in the obvious. The exaggerating element in his humor, which could be charming or tiresome, was the counterpart of his extravagant poetic style.

Once during the term at Harvard, perhaps during 1967, I got Lowell and James Dickey, who was giving poetry readings at Harvard, Boston College, and elsewhere, together for lunch. Circumstances, and the two men’s temperaments, had cast them as rivals. Peter Davison, in a widely noted article in the Atlantic Monthly, had just coupled them as the nation’s two leading poets. While differing greatly in background and style, they had more in common than is obvious: their genius, the scope of their ambition, their boundless energy, and a radical originality that set them apart from most of their contemporaries. Both were hypersensitive to criticism; both had recently been the subjects of full-scale critical broadsides by Robert Bly in his enormously influential magazine, The Sixties.

We met at Chez Dreyfus on Church Street in Cambridge. Dickey and I had been drinking beer since breakfast, and had just come from my writing class, where he had put in a splendid guest appearance. Lowell was not supposed to be drinking, as alcohol was incompatible with the lithium pills he took for his illness. He made an exception (not unusual) for the occasion; food was soon forgotten, vodka flowed. Sparring between the two poets was in evidence, some of it good-natured, some of it not. Dickey, who at that time hunted with bow and arrow, pulled up his shirt under the disapproving eye of our French waiter and showed us a large bandage on his back. Then he started telling us about a recent trip to the West Virginia wilderness. It was a good story. Having stopped to drink from a mountain stream, he had looked up just in time to see a huge bear reared up on its hind legs, making straight for him. Just as the bear had attacked, raking his back and shoulder with razor-sharp claws, Dickey got off an arrow that killed the bear. “But the bear wasn’t dead, Jim,” Lowell interrupted, himself suddenly bear-like, clearing his way with his gesturing hands, laughing as he always did at the remark he was about to make—”When you got back to your office, the bear was sitting at your desk. It was Robert Bly.”


Lowell was slow to fall for political solutions to complex problems. One irony of his career was his position in the sixties as a poetic spokesman for the Left (not that he didn’t want it and work for it). In this profoundly divided person, radicalism was balanced by a rockribbed, atavistic sense of tradition. It is well known that Lowell was a conscientious objector in World War II, protesting the Allied bombing of civilians at Dresden and elsewhere, and that he went to jail for it; and yet earlier he had tried to enlist in the Navy but had been rejected because of poor eyesight. In all events, the divisions in his own personality afforded him an unusually good opportunity to understand both sides of most political issues.

In 1969 Lowell was offered a visiting professorship for the following spring in the English Department of the University of California at Berkeley. I was on the faculty there at the time, having left Harvard the previous year, and I backed up the offer with a glowing description of the political struggle at Berkeley and of the overall atmosphere of the place. Those were heady times; it really did look as though the walls were about to come down. My enthusiasm was genuine, as was my naivete. Lowell used my letter as the basis of a poem, “The Revolution,” in History. (Anyone who has had occasion to study Lowell’s methods of quotation will know that with him, poetic license was a way of life.) Whatever its relationship to what I wrote in my letter—I can hardly say after 26 years— the quoted part of the poems reads:

We’re in a prerevolutionary situation
at Berkeley, an incredible, refreshing relief
from your rather hot-house, good prep-school Harvard riots.
The main thing is our exposure to politics;
whether this is a priori will determine
the revolutionary’s murder in the streets,
or the death of the haves by the have-nots, I don’t know;
but anyway you should be in on it—
only in imagination can we lose the battle.”

It’s clear that lines five to seven and line nine were Robert Lowell’s work. The following excerpt from his reply to my letter gives the flavor both of his warmth and of his ironic sense of humor:

About Berkeley—the big classes, the two public lectures (described to me by Professor Raleigh) are out of my style. Then the being away from home—I don’t think I can decide this year about 1971. Still I feel drawn by Berkeley. Maybe less now. Your saying that I “should be in on it” is as tho I were to offer you Castine by saying “we seem likely to have a tidal wave and you should see the morale of a village in danger.” I have so little faith in any of the sides, tho some in some things. Or rather, it’s a joy this summer to be back to real life (real rest?) The contentions, the revolution, the counter-revolution, will all come back to me, I cannot doubt it, and perhaps they’ll be welcome.

Well, Lizzie and I miss your old visits, and wish you were back.


Lowell in Castine, Maine, in his studio, a converted barn by the ocean, painted a hideous aluminum color inside. Him barefoot, wearing a crusty old Harvard blazer, cooking lobsters and drinking beer like any Bostonian up for the summer.

Trying to describe the wind-filled shape of a striped jib while watching a sailboat regatta through binoculars, which he then turns on a rabbit crouched in the dry bracken—fascinated by the blood pulsing through magnified veins in the rabbit’s pink, alert ears.

Those of us whom good luck led to study writing with Robert Lowell, he taught almost by indirection, yet managed to touch us with a sense of his own struggle for the absolute in poetry. He transmitted a total dedication to the effort of laying words down on the page like a fresh coat of paint. In the tradition of his own youth—of Ford Madox Ford, John Crowe Ransom, and Allen Tate—he showed that a poem “must be tinkered with and recast until one’s eyes pop out of one’s head.” At the same time he believed that the goal and meaning of writing lay beyond the mere process of writing; he was in his way as much a transcendentalist as Emerson. When the fit took him, he was really and truly mad, genuinely menacing—a maniac, if that word describes someone under the spell of mania. I have heard of his unkindnesses, and I don’t doubt them, but to me he was always kind and, indeed, helped me through a very low period of my life. I feel he was a pure and simple soul trapped by fate in a tragically flawed personality and life.

When I first left Cambridge it was even something of a relief to be away from him. His view of the world was a burden not only to him but to those around him who learned to see things through his eyes. I went for years without seeing him, except for once, in passing, in London. But when he died—too young, at 60—I felt the roof had been ripped off the sky.



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