The Letters of Robert Lowell, edited by Saskia Hamilton. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, June 2005. $40
In the spring of 1936, Ezra Pound received a letter of introduction from a young poet.
I am 19, a freshman at Harvard, and some relation, I don’t know what, to Amy Lowell. All my life I have been eccentric according to normal standards. I had violent passions for various pursuits usually taking the form of collecting: tools; names of birds; marbles; catching butterflies, snakes, turtles etc; buying books on Napoleon. . . . At 14 I went to St. Mark’s and never mixed well or really lived in the usual realities. . . . I was proud, somewhat sullen and violent.
This raw bundle of nerves wanted to sail to Italy and sit at the master’s feet.
I began reading Homer thru the dish-water of Bryant’s 19th century translation. . . . [A] poor translation is an ugly photograph. Last spring I began reading English poetry and writing myself. All my life I had thought of poets as the most contemptible moth.
The young man hoped to throw over college (instead he just threw over Harvard) and claimed, not very convincingly, “I am not theatric, and my life is sober not sensational.” Intimate, blustering, full of cheerful blarney and the roaring bonfire of ambition, this extraordinary letter turned phrases that few nineteen-year-olds could.
A man’s letters have a different claim on privacy than his poems and therefore a different claim on truth. Letters lie in the uneasy realm between writing published (the words, if not anonymous, a writer must stand by) and writing meant for no one else’s eye (the best diaries are often those published from the grave). Letters are usually directed to one person alone, like a whisper, though in some centuries they have been passed around like dime novels (when Nelson captured letters in which Napoleon grumbled over Josephine’s infidelities, he published them). The inky page, the homely sheet of paper itself, becomes the property of the receiver (in this way letters follow a peculiar byway of property law, but the words remain the writer’s, not to be published except where leave is given).
A letter writer may tattle his secrets, only to find, when coat is turned or heart broken, that his words hound him like revenants. (Many a lover has demanded the return of his billets-doux or paid hard cash for the privilege. Better, perhaps, to follow the iron words of the Iron Duke—threatened with exposure by one of his mistresses, he is said to have thundered, “Publish and be damned!”) Since the letter’s words are sounded for private ears, rather than the mobbish ears of the public, how much can we trust them? Rare is the writer who doesn’t play to his audience, seduce by his gossip or gossip of seductions, use discretion to be indiscreet, salt his pages with what must be taken with salt.
Nothing a writer writes can be trusted (there’s no gospel truth even in the Gospels)—facts are altered by will or whim, to make a point or a joke, to comfort a friend or confuse an enemy. Writers are guilty in letters of their share of pettifoggeries and persiflage, of white lies and red herrings, humbling themselves before their elders, bowing when they should be brazen, praising to the skies some book meant for the sties. Yet for all their insecure facts and intransigent fictions, indeed in part because of them, letters draw us closer to the devious imagination behind them.
The letters in The Letters of Robert Lowell are peculiar not least for their antic honesty. A young man trying to wheedle his way into Pound’s household might be inclined to flatter. Although Lowell praised the Cantos (“like lily pads on a lake: a flat surface swaying with vigorous and beautiful images”) in the following letter, he wrapped a nettle of criticism inside a question: “Can the main current of English literature float such a vast quantity of spondées [sic] and compound nouns?” Lowell could be candid to the point of cruelty, especially during his bouts of mania (he learned tact from the Tartars); but the dry, harried scruples and homely truths of some letters were, without being prickly or petty, the sort few writers dare—he even criticized Pound’s definition of poetry. “I don’t flatter,” Lowell wrote Robert Frost some years later, while praising Frost’s poems. However graciously praise falls when it doesn’t fall like fawning, in such rectitudes there’s a thorn waiting.
A poet begins in the threats and responsibilities of language (Auden claimed to be far more interested in a young poet who liked “hanging around words listening to what they say” than one who claimed to have important things to express). In Lowell’s college letters, we hear the earliest scratchings, the casual densities of expression, before he had written a memorable line—Lowell told Pound he felt “choked with cobwebs,” and his parents that he didn’t want work as a “comma-pruner for Atlantic Monthly or head pencil sharpener” for his father’s brokerage firm. Compare this to the adult whose adjectives sometimes strike like snakes—on solitude: “It doesn’t drug me, but I get fantastic and uncivilized.” Florence “is gray and sand-colored, Bostonish, compact, very unvegetable.” Bostonish! Unvegetable! When his third wife suffered nervous depression, she nevertheless remained “quite lively, oxlike and functioning”—oxlike conveys the deadening lethargy of nervous illness better than any diagnosis.
It would be too simple to suggest that Lowell’s talents lay in such virtuoso brushwork, the comic and adjectival touches akin to the finishing strokes by which the master leaves his imprint on an apprentice’s canvas. Lowell’s poems are littered with brilliant phrases, phrases that learned to let syntax not just marshal thought but be twisted into it, like the fibers of a rope. The muscle-bound rhythms of his early verse were never entirely banished—even his free verse is full of metrical angles and wounds—but he learned the appearance of ease, even when the verse was uneasy. In the late poems, there’s still a sense of violence ready to break out—Lowell never found the sweetness and calm grace he admired in Elizabeth Bishop. When he imitated her in “Skunk Hour,” he could manage only rueful, poisoned self-regard.
After a long bout of reading, Lowell complained, “My head rocks, as though it held the lantern-slides of the world.” Such images landscaped an inner realm, the realm from which the poems came. What in poems entertained a certain severity, in a letter could be merely entertainment (in poems, Lowell’s seriousness darkened the glint of humor). Of a pair of his father’s hair brushes: “On my own hair, their action has been perplexed, like clearing a swamp with a toy-lawn mower.” This genial self-mockery Lowell rarely dared in poems, but in letters his character is bulked out by a joking, genuine humility. Lowell’s eye for frailty makes him seem exposed and fragile, perhaps because we are most vulnerable to our own comedies if not armed against those of others. His mother visited Lowell and his second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, in Florence:
She is a very competent, stubborn, uncurious, unBohemian woman with a genius for squeezing luxury out of rocks. That is, she has a long memory for pre-war and pre-first-world war service; and thinks nothing of calling the American ambassador if there’s no toilet-paper on the train.
Robert Traill Spence Lowell IV was born to a minor branch of an important New England family—his mother’s ancestors had come over on the Mayflower, and his relatives included Jonathan Edwards, the astronomer Perceval Lowell, and the Revolutionary War general John Stark. Lowell’s parents, the crippled familiars of his memoir “91 Revere Street,” were a study in mutually corrosive insecurities (they destroyed each other from the inside out). Even as a boy, he found himself at odds with his mother, who was armed like a first-rate with self-indulgent grandeurs and casual cruelties, as well as with his hen-pecked, emasculated father, who left the navy as a commander (that middling rank for time-servers) for a dry-dock career in business. He became, to his wife’s disdain, a minor executive selling soap. This family of long heritage and good connections, which Lowell’s mother was never slow to use (a distant cousin was president of Harvard), was living on borrowed capital. In their ruined and fractious household, during a steamy argument over a girl he wanted to marry at nineteen, Lowell knocked his father flat. His mother wanted him committed to a mental hospital.
Merrill Moore, her psychiatrist, a minor member of the Agrarian movement, tried to heal this breach in the family by channeling Lowell’s literary ambitions. He drove Lowell south to Vanderbilt (a significant distance from home, before the interstate highway system) and introduced him to John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate. Soon Lowell had bulled his way into pitching a tent on Tate’s lawn, the Southern poet too genteel, or too astonished, to turn the young man out. Following Ransom to Kenyon College, Lowell roomed at different times with Randall Jarrell and later Peter Taylor.
Lowell was a peculiar example of a type familiar to teachers: the wayward and insufferable student, harboring the worm of ambition without a thing yet to show for it, convinced of his own genius, but with something cracked or missing in his makeup. He was, however, a young man to whom things happened—eight years after the letter to Pound, Lowell published Land of Unlikeness (1944), the chapbook that first won him attention. His first book, Lord Weary’s Castle (1946), won the Pulitzer Prize; soon after, he was named poetry consultant to the Library of Congress (the position we now know as poet laureate). The peculiarity was that Lowell amounted to something.
Lowell’s search for a father figure forms the underlying drama of these letters. The father’s inadequacy left the son eager to transfer his filial devotion; his relation to the ideal parents of the literary world marks off the limits of his discontent and the measure of his ambition. His letters to the philosopher George Santayana, for example, are full of untroubled and abashed fondness. By then elderly, cared for in a Rome hospital run by nuns, Santayana had been attracted to the Catholic piety in Lord Weary’s Castle. The poet was forced to confess that he had since lost faith and become “something of a mild, secular quietist—usually in trouble though—and an anarchical conservative.” This may have appealed to Santa-yana, the “Catholic atheist.” He was so drawn to the young man, he sent a gift of money on Lowell’s marriage to Elizabeth Hardwick, to the poet’s embarrassed gratitude. Arriving in Rome, after many thwarted plans (Lowell’s conviction as a conscientious objector during the war, a felony, made it difficult to secure a passport), he had a touching meeting with the half-deaf philosopher. Returning a couple of years later, Lowell was crushed to find that Santayana had died only weeks before.
Lowell became a model and attentive son, visiting Pound in his confinement at St. Elizabeths in Washington, corresponding with Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams and T. S. Eliot, confiding but confident, critical but not captious. He was never deceived about the needs of his fathers. It moved Lowell that Williams once kissed him good-bye after a visit, saying, “You’re my son. That’s what I do to them.” (Surrogate fathers sometimes have no sons of their own or troubled relations with those they have—a son searching for a father may find a father searching for a son.) When his own father died, Lowell said, “He was not a suffering or heroic man, but rather . . . always smiling or about to smile—and deep under, half-known to him: apathetic and soured.”
Lowell showed impeccable taste in choosing fathers, and even more impeccable taste in leaving them behind—when his devotion fell away, they were outgrown rather than simply discarded. At nineteen, he wrote Richard Eberhart, only recently his teacher at St. Mark’s, that one of the older man’s poems was “effective enough as a tour-de-force, but only an etymological fanatic armed with a Webster’s dictionary could read through it.” Later, during a manic episode, Lowell gave Tate’s wife the names of her husband’s lovers. Having arranged the publication of Land of Unlikeness and written the preface, then gone to pains to find Lowell a job, Tate remained bewildered by his former disciple. Their earliest breach seems coincident with the moment Lowell had drawn all he could from Tate’s poems. How odd, then, that Lowell so rarely suffered the Oedipal betrayal, writing respectfully to his literary fathers into their great age (the modernist generation was spectacularly long-lived).
Lowell had a gift for friendship the poems scarcely reveal (he needed friends the way some people need food). Wounded, at times self-righteous and hectoring (he was not always a stranger to his mother’s noblesse oblige), Lowell had a personality held together with baling wire. Like many men who are a difficult proposition, he was grateful to those who bore his assaults and forgave his affronts. (It’s easy to suggest that in madness the shackles of behavior are discarded, but often madness steals just the shackles of our affections.) Throughout his life, Lowell stayed close to two friends made at St. Mark’s. It is with hilarity that one reads, in Ian Hamilton’s biography, of the monastic discipline Lowell imposed on them, the summer before he entered Harvard (ideal followers, they proved all too compliant to his will)—their regimen included a course of improving reading bound to an improving diet of eels, as well as some awful cereal laced with honey.
Though blind to his dictatorial bearing, like most dictators, Lowell pricked down the names of friends for jobs, shoved their careers forward, responded with boyish delight when they wrote something remarkable. Friendship is an act of taste as convincing as criticism—his close circle included, apart from Jarrell and Taylor, Elizabeth Bishop, Mary McCarthy, Hannah Arendt, John Berryman, J. F. Powers, Flannery O’Connor, and Theodore Roethke. (Lowell once said that Delmore Schwartz, a man whose friendship it was easy to mislay, was the only literary friend he’d ever lost.) It was not always easy (the letters to Mary McCarthy after Hardwick’s harsh and pseudonymous review of The Group show the strain)—Lowell complained of his friends, perhaps forgetting his earlier boast about flattery, that “it’s like walking on eggs. All of them have to be humored, flattered, drawn out, allowed to say very petulant things to you,” while admitting that he probably behaved no better. Perhaps, like many devotions (especially in a man who has lost faith), Lowell’s went a little too far.
Most of his friends remained indefatigable in return, Peter Taylor rescuing him during a particularly gruesome manic episode. The poet’s relations with Jarrell were cooler, one of many things these letters reveal—Lowell often felt like a spurned suitor for Jarrell’s affections. His lavish reviews of Land of Unlikeness and Lord Weary’s Castle had done much to establish Lowell’s reputation. Even the slightly brutal review of The Mills of the Kavanaughs (1951) contains some of the fondest things one poet has ever written about another: “I cannot think of any objection at all to ‘Mother Marie Therese’ and ‘Falling Asleep over the Aeneid,’ and if I could I would be too over-awed to make it. ‘Mother Marie Therese’ is the best poem Mr. Lowell has ever written, and ‘Falling Asleep over the Aeneid’ is—is better.” Still, Lowell was unsure of his ground:
I’m boiling mad at Randall. . . . He gave a tremendous Philippic at Harvard against our culture that has no time or taste for poetry—something that would have made Jonathan Edwards sound like Montaigne. Then what with his tennis tournaments, swimming and new enthusiasms had no time to read my poem and never apologized. Ah me!
Jarrell’s wife suggested, “You and Elizabeth are the kind of people that make friends.” Randall, she said, just wasn’t. Lowell bore this well, but it rankled—Jarrell was the man whose literary judgment he most respected and whose praise he most desired.
From adolescence, Lowell suffered episodes of nervous distress or elation; his first full-blown manic outbreak occurred when he was thirty-one, and he endured more than a dozen in the three decades remaining to him. There have been arguments enough about the diagnosis. The editor believes the illness was what is now called “mixed mania,” in which mania and depression appear in tandem, the patient “simultaneously elated and lethargic.” (I’m not sure this accords with the evidence of the letters—Lowell seems all too wild at the onset of his attacks.) The editor’s attempt to gauge the precise stage of mania in which Lowell wrote certain letters is comically obtuse. Since many letters written between the hailstorms of his illness sound little different, you’d need a theodolite and his doctor’s charts to distinguish one mania from another.
Lowell’s “enthusiasms,” as he sometimes called them—they were also christened “excitements,” “crack-ups,” “mix-ups”—affected his friendships, his ability to write, and most spectacularly his love life. When the shadows came, the first sign was a talking jag, usually with mention of Hitler or Napoleon. (It was also a bad sign if he began rewriting the classics.) The brilliant talk became too brilliant, a dense and crazed monologue that scared people—those who weren’t aware of his illness sometimes thought it a magisterial performance, just how a Romantic genius was expected to act. Friends who knew the signs could sometimes wrestle him into care; but, if the illness found him among strangers, he could be dangerous—Lowell stood over six feet and could have wrestled a bear. He tried to strangle one lover in an argument over Shakespeare and once ran the streets of Bloomington, Indiana, hollering about the evils of homosexuals and devils, convinced he was the reincarnation of the Holy Ghost. Lowell’s third wife, Caroline Blackwood, grew so nervous around him that any mention of Hitler set her antennae waving.
Over the years, there were attacks of the most Baroque character. The first episode began at Yaddo, where he accused the director of harboring Communist spies; continued in New York, where Lowell held Allen Tate at arm’s length out a second-story window while reciting, in a bear’s voice, Tate’s “Ode to the Confederate Dead”; and ended in the unfortunate events in Bloomington. In 1963, while eating lunch at the presidential palace in Buenos Aires, Lowell insulted the general who was about to be made president. Later, having insisted on touring the city’s equestrian statues, Lowell undressed and clambered up beside the bronze horsemen, a half-naked emperor himself. He sent telegrams to the Pope and President Eisenhower anointing himself Caesar of Argentina. Long stays in mental hospitals were the usual result, accompanied by straitjackets, shock therapy, large doses of Thorazine, then slow recovery and remorse. Or, as Lowell put it, “short weeks of a Messianic rather bestial glow, . . . then dark months of indecision, emptiness etc.”
Often there was a woman involved, the attacks attended by Lowell’s crush on some girl and an impulsive decision to leave his wife. More than once, he set up his new inamorata in an apartment and moved in. Whenever he fell for someone, he was eager to begin housekeeping, a mock marriage with a mock picket fence around it—Lowell was of a domesticating strain that suggests certain comforts in childhood. The only child hated being alone. Lowell’s poems are the residue of the complications of modern love (For Lizzie and Harriet  and The Dolphin  are as close as the 20th century came to the haunted sonnets of George Meredith).
Lowell seems to have been a serial monogamist, though his monogamy was geographic (as for wives, he preferred novelists, three of them). The strains on his marriage with Hardwick, during which many of these attacks occurred, were heartbreaking. She once said, he reported, that the “only advantage of marriage is that you can be as gross, slovenly, mean and brutally verbose as you want.” Lowell apparently did not recall half of what he’d done during his enthusiasms, so his letters are short on incident but long on excuses—he wore the battered piety of a good apologist. This worked longer for him than for most.
There was, however, a lot of human wreckage in the aftermath. Girlfriends had to be dismissed, at least once by a cool letter from his lawyers. Those who know of Lowell’s many amours, of his seduction of young women, often enough his students, will find little more than sidelong references in the letters, usually at the back end of a manic episode. It’s hard to believe Lowell did not write more to his lovers, he wrote so often to his wives when they were apart (long-distance phone calls were once prohibitively expensive); but, whether for diplomatic reasons or because letters were unavailable, this collection has numerous missing presences. We sense too infrequently the overwhelming eros that came with Lowell’s madness, like an ill-mannered guest.
Given what he was capable of writing when lovesick, perhaps the omission isn’t to be regretted:
There’s a scene. White sheets. Salt air from the Mediterranean, far below. Sound of waves. Then you in your bridal dress. Nothing very fancy, for such wouldn’t do for us. Maybe some stiff, close-fitting brocaded dress. And I am undressing you. WE are together, our mouths are together, our hair is together. Ah, there! I speak of mysteries, and I kneel now and throw salt, or whatever one throws, over my shoulder to prevent ill omens. All is humbleness and joy.
We do have, fortunately, Lowell’s letters to Elizabeth Bishop, for whom Lowell felt a deep friendship he at times mistook for another of his passions—during his manias he would bemuse her with mad declarations of love. (His poem “Water” took shape in regret over the affair they never consummated.) Bishop had had flings with men when younger but by the time she met Lowell had transferred her affections to women. His letters to her are otherwise boyish and relaxed; but, even in his saner periods, Lowell’s fondness seems slightly inflamed, decent but suspect—she was perhaps fortunate to live in Brazil. Bishop’s poems were influential in the development of his style, possessing a vulnerability and tenderness beyond the brooding intensities of his—she was the poet of his generation of whom he was most in awe. Only near the end of his life did a little testiness leak out:
The dog must be sent away because of her asthma but will that be enough? . . . Then so many things she can criticize, the disheveled garden, the carefree garden man, our care of Sheridan. Should he be sent away too? So many things down to my not writing meter, making errors in description. Of course no one is more wonderful, but so fussy and hazardous now.
Bishop by then was a raging alcoholic—theirs was a generation whose letters bear the sins of too many martinis.
The Lowell of these letters is not the harassed, hounded wreck of the poems, though he was hounded and harassed enough. The poems bear scars of his long-suffered suffering, the madness that recurred like bouts of malaria; but they seem the recognitions of a man slipping toward the maelstrom, or emerging battered from it. The mania seemed to inspire him; yet the poetry Lowell wrote during his episodes proved almost worthless afterward. Only occasionally could he harry it into form. Though he rejected the term, the poems in Life Studies (1959) soon attracted the word “confessional”—the poet seems to know he’s done wrong, the necessary condition for confession and repentance. Like many during the heyday of Freud’s influence, Lowell put his trust in psychotherapy, and in ever more stringent courses of it, a regimen that seemed to do him no good whatever. The lithium treatment developed in the late sixties stabilized his condition for a good while, folding Freud’s complexes into a salt deficiency. This lets his parents off the hook.
The value of the partial and prejudiced record of a writer’s letters is incommensurate to such a fly-by-night form. Lowell was a chatty, indulgent, fraternal correspondent, turning his eye to domestic mishaps, amusing anecdotes, family matters, more eagerly than to the poems lying on his desk. His comments in passing on a poet’s labors (even when writing fluently, he could make the task sound Sisyphean) rarely give deep or thorough analysis of his intentions. The reader has to work from stray evidence, like a forensic investigator at a crime scene.
This might not be much of a loss, as poets are famously bad at analyzing their work. Lowell, however, could be wittily and painfully insightful about the toils of the workshop. He understood the creepy narcissism poems entailed: “As you overlook the black keyboard of your typewriter, it’s as though you were facing yourself in the mirror and trying to hold the attention of what you see there by what you see there.” When a poet writes letters, he’s not doing the one thing he should be, writing poems—yet a poet can’t spend all day on poems, lest the world be overrun with them. He’s lucky to spend a productive hour or two. Lowell knew too well what could happen; he remarked with approval of a book that “none of the poems are the kind of empty thing one writes to write poetry.”
Lowell was no prose writer. There’s something too arch and crabbed about his formal prose, too “poetic,” and he knew it: “Prose is hell. I want to change every two words, but while I toy with revisions, the subject stinks like a dead whale and lies in the mud of the mind’s bottom.” He often made things worse by revising: “I’ve been . . . trying to write prose—a hell of a job, it starts naked[,] ends as fake velvet.” If his intensities were rarely trained on prose, and rarely repaid there, Lowell’s criticism was nevertheless original, unexpected, mandarin with the touch of a magus. The autobiographical fragments are overrich as French gâteaux but brilliant, full of the “magical detail, that at first you mistake for a misprint.” What kept his prose too calculated made his letters fizz with offhand remarks, sly adjectives, the banter of intelligence. His faults made him a letter writer of no common ability, who might have been forgiven the vanities of craft, had he been aware of them.
Lowell lived by revision and knew his poems sometimes withered because of it—revision was the vice of his virtues. Writing the poems in Notebook (1968), he had a trusted young friend, Frank Bidart, to respond to his endless tinkering—this may not have been an advantage: “I think I’ve spent more futile hours trying to perfect something satisfactory—always pressing and invisible, the unimagined perfect lines or ending, for there it usually falls. Often I’ve given up, and wondered why I ever found fault.” The letters, which were never choked into lifelessness, reveal that teasing, implacable intelligence that so seduced his friends. A reader is grateful merely for his casual, causal opinions, for the flypaper that letters become. Lowell on form:
The intoxicating thing about rhyme and meter is that they have nothing at all to do with truth, just as ballet steps are of no use on a hike. They are puzzles, hurdles, obstacles, expertise—they cry out for invention, and of course in the end for truth, whatever that is.
The loophole glimpses into his workshop are welcome enough; but the letters allow us to eavesdrop on his nervy, indiscreet table talk—it’s for the things unsaid in his poems that we value these letters. A writer may not be expert on the delicate suspensions of his ambiguities, but he’s the only expert on his opinions. They fix him in the constellation of his peers while being, in Lowell’s case, an intensive course in practical criticism of the most personal kind. Lowell never styled himself a critic, but the force and character of his remarks are as cunning as Jarrell’s. He sketches other writers with a breezy deftness that isn’t gossip, not exactly (though gossip is the highest form of criticism many writers will venture).
On Dylan Thomas: “Somehow he was kept on beer most of the time . . . no meals except breakfast. About the best and dirtiest stories I’ve ever heard—dumpy, absurd body, hair combed by a salad spoon, brown-button Welsh eyes always moving suspiciously or fixing on the most modest person in the room . . . a great explosion of life, and hell to handle.”
On Robert Browning: “How he muffed it all! The ingenious, terrific metrics, shaking the heart out of what he was saying; the invented language; the short-cuts; the hurry; and (one must say it) the horrible self-indulgence—the attitudes, the cheapness!”
On an art colony: “No use describing Yaddo—run down rose gardens, rotting cantaloupes, fountains, a bust of Dante with a hole in the head, sets called Gems of Ancient Literature, Masterpieces of the World, cracked dried up sets of Shakespeare, Ruskin, Balzac, . . . pseudo Poussins, pseudo Titians, pseudo Reynolds, pseudo and real English wood, portraits of the patroness, her husband, her lover, her children, lit with tubular lights, like a church, like a museum.”
On T. S. Eliot: “He’s maimed somehow, but not dull, not untrustworthy. . . . There are many layers to be gotten under, when you do there’s something wonderfully warm and human.”
On Amsterdam: “Our apartment is right now full of half-filled half open suit-cases, leaves are beginning to hide the canal, the sun is shining, the radio is playing a sort of Indian summer Mozart minuet, and each [of] us knows that if he can only stall long enough the other will do the packing.”
On Delmore Schwartz: “Delmore in an unpressed mustard gabardine, a little winded, husky voiced, unhealthy, but with a carton of varied vitamin bottles, the color of oil, quickening with Jewish humor, and in-the-knowness, and his own genius, every person, every book—motives for everything, Freud in his blood, great webs of causation, then suspicion, then rushes of rage. . . . [I]t was like living with a sluggish, sometimes angry spider.”
On Virgil: “It’s comforting to think of Vergil, working all the time, casually and steadily—and turning out a line a day! Comforting till you realize what that line was!”
The reader feels at times like that reader of Virgil. Lowell’s portraits betray, like the rapid pencilings in the little albums Rembrandt carried with him on the street, a deft and vital interest with a fondness for foible, the tolerant amusement of a man who knew he had to be tolerated all too often himself. When he says that Pound’s “voice of anti-semitism is like the voice of a drunkard telling people in cars to drive through the pedestrians” or that Jarrell is like a “fencer who has defeated and scarred all his opponents so that the sport has come to be almost abandoned,” you feel you’ve seen through Lowell’s eyes. Then there are the anecdotes: Pound saying, “Cal, God be with you, if you like the company,” or, after listening to Alice Longworth chatter away (“ending with a synopsis of two 1880 novels she’d read as a girl”), “You like reading more than I do.” Or Allen Tate saying sweetly to Lowell’s daughter, “You will be dear to me when you are older.” She looked at him and slowly replied, “If you are still alive.”
Lowell’s art, it is increasingly clear, was all part of one ramshackle enterprise, in some ways forming the most naked and ravaged autobiography, the most artfully artless, the most rational in its embarrassments, since Rousseau’s. It is a life in fractions. There are the memoirs, thumbed into shape, overbaked, then shattered. There are, most consequently, the poems. Even the earliest, read now through the lens of Life Studies, reveal private incidents, coded and forced into the symbolic life of a Noh play (“I’m a fisherman myself,” he wrote, “but all my fish become symbols, alas!”). Lowell’s major contribution to poetry was to open it to the privacies that poets for a millennium or two had smuggled in on poetry’s terms. Lowell made poetry accept his life on its own terms—mortifying, myopic all too often, full of familiar sins and a few unfamiliar ones. Philip Rahv, reading some of the poems that became Life Studies, knew exactly what they were: “Diss is da break-through for Cal and for poetry. The one real advance since Eliot.”
The vagrant events of the day became the certain events of poems, while not sacrificing (as the Beats did) the symbols, metaphors, verbal acuteness, ambiguity, and even meter of poems more traditional. In 1954, Lowell remarked about his students, “They write about letting dinner burn while they dream of writing lousy poems.” Only a few years later he made it possible, even attractive for them to do so (we have been reading about burnt dinners ever since). There was a cost. A roman à clef offers the decent veil of fiction; Lowell’s poems were less discreet. He felt qualms enough about Life Studies, whose poems did not even seem like poems to Allen Tate. Shown a draft of The Dolphin, which incorporated scraps of Hardwick’s angry letters, Bishop felt Lowell had gone beyond the bounds of decency. He continued to revise, fictionalize, but this only made things worse—the poems violate the fiction of privacy husband and wife usually maintain. It’s one thing for a man to show you his diary, another for him to show you his wife’s—or her lingerie. Hardwick was indomitable, and forgiving past the point of sanity or good sense. That after the divorce, after The Dolphin, after Lowell’s further breakdowns, after everything, She was still ready to take him back tells us much about the “original moment that his presence always was.”
These letters remind us that the career was not without pain to others, nor without pain to Lowell himself. He welcomed the rigors necessary to art, the monastic discipline imposed—he had to work for his inspirations. Hardwick said, “Since he was . . . not the sort of poet, if there are any, for whom beautiful things come drifting down in a snowfall of gift, the labor was merciless.” (In the sediment of many poems lay a foreign original—“half my pieces come from something,” he wrote.) No sooner had Lowell mastered a style than he grew bored with its limitations and cold to its virtues. The free verse of Life Studies caused a mass stampede of younger poets away from fifties formal poetry; but soon enough Lowell was writing the octosyllabic couplets of Near the Ocean (1967). Like many of the moderns, he drove himself to ever new impositions, to any change as long as it was change, his work the record of artistic restlessness, a “dread of more of the same.”
After the prose and the poems, each inventing a different Lowell, there is now Lowell’s autobiography in letters—this Lowell is fonder and more amused, a man at the center of complex loyalties, one sometimes broken by the tactical skirmishes of his marriages, the endless string of girlfriends. Saskia Hamilton, the editor, must be congratulated on her painstaking labor and meticulous instincts—she has muscled a large chore into submission. Making a life out of such letters is like trying to rebuild a smashed vase out of half the shards (how much we miss the letters to his first wife, Jean Stafford, which she burned or tore to shreds). A collection of letters gives a skewed view of time, lingering in some years and skimming over others, sometimes at center stage and sometimes—the letters lost or unwritten—missing important events entirely. The editor’s notes are instructive, thorough without being overbearing (having only casual discursive notes, Robert Giroux’s edition of Bishop’s letters is far less useful). In her somewhat unfocused introduction, Hamilton offers impressionistic, amateurish readings of passages of Lowell’s prose (very Eng. Lit. 101); but about his life she is to the point while rarely missing the point. The criticisms I offer are lost among the larger pleasures bestowed.
Though this selection of letters is generous enough, the list of correspondents is top-heavy with famous names. (Beginning with the letter to Pound, however dramatic, means suppressing the prep-school letters quoted by Ian Hamilton.) Lowell was at the center of a brilliant circle, admittedly; but letters to former students or editors (fragments published elsewhere suggest these would have been of value) are too rare. The life recorded here is played out for his literary friends—he was a different person to his Cousin Harriet, and the reader deserves to know better the Lowell outside literature.
An editor who believes Lowell’s letters possess the “very thing he revised away in his poems” doesn’t have much sense of the way writers compose. They don’t revise only on the page—they revise before the words reach the page. Lowell once wrote to Bishop, “You seem to have a loose seemingly careless style . . . ; but of course I know all [the] fierce labors you really go through.” About his own work:
The Life Studies poems were meant to be entirely art, yet they are meant to give a sort of notebook effect, an impression of truth and a fragmentary naturalness, that would lose all its point if too worked up.
It was freshness he revised toward—his most graceful touches seem absent from letters composed off the cuff. What lies charged on the page may have been third or fourth thought. I believe the editor when she says that Lowell rarely revised his letters (though I don’t see how she knows he “typed as fast as he could think”), but she also says they were “glancingly corrected” and “visually messy” and that the “paper often looks like a worksheet.” That sounds like revision to me.
Lowell was a perfectly miserable speller, one of fantastic principles. The editor has left a few misspellings on purpose (the notes provide corrections to, for example, “electricuted”), but others unnoted call into question her editorial eye: “she can bare to contemplate,” “Prince Metterich,” the “whole caste will turn up,” “somesort,” “promess” (for “promise”), “high-fy,” “Dixi” (for “Dixie”), “Havrd” (for “Harvard”), a “good pare” (for “pair”), and “embassadoress.” (Her own spelling is not beyond criticism when she writes of the “British Navel Reserve.”) Further, it seems unlikely that George Santayana wrote “taking the low into its own hands,” or Hannah Arendt, “Your poem . . . was such a consolated,” or that Paul Valéry’s translators rendered his most famous remark as a “work is never complete . . . but abandonded.” (I don’t know where the editor found the translation she uses, but it is radically different from the one cited.)
Some of the editor’s errors betray an insecure knowledge of 20th-century literature. It’s only mildly odd to call George Santayana a “Spanish American” or Edmund Wilson a “critical essayist” (rather than a critic—of course he wore other hats as well), but who would describe Nathanael West as the “author of A Cool Million” rather than The Day of the Locust or Miss Lonelyhearts? Yaddo is an artists’ colony, not merely a writers’ colony; and the proper spellings are the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and St. Elizabeths Hospital. Death dates should have been provided for Alan Dugan, Mona Van Duyn, Charles Tomlinson, James Ross, and Robert Creeley—other writers of note are given no dates at all, which rather maroons them in literary history. Sometimes figures in the letters go unmentioned in the notes—you don’t know whether the editor missed them or simply couldn’t find out a thing about them.
Slips of the eye, like slips of the tongue, are often telling—who wouldn’t want to know that Lowell once referred not to Heathrow, but to Heathcliff Airport? However much I admire the method and resourcefulness of the editor, however, writers want to be saved from their accidentals—Hamilton sinks to pointless trivia in printing “d reams,” then noting that “Lowell’s typewriter skipped.” If that’s the only such typo in seven hundred letters, he was a lucky man. (The editor might have paid more attention to her own occasional slips, like the misnumbering in the notes to letters 439 and 545.) The notes have been left unindexed, which makes it almost impossible to find anything mentioned there; and the index, which suffers some of the usual problems, has a few peculiar to itself. Enough cavils.
Lowell was the most extraordinary poet of his generation, the most brilliant America has had since the moderns, those fathers he chose so eagerly. (How fortunate he was to live at a moment when it was clear whom to choose.) With the publication of his letters, the general reader has most of the private evidence of his life. A complete edition of the Bishop and Lowell correspondence is in the works, and one day someone will embark on an edition of all his letters (the mills haven’t even started to grind out the proposed complete edition of Henry James’s letters, so perhaps we can expect Lowell’s in a century or so). As letters, these fall only a little short of the finest examples— Byron, Keats, Lear, Carroll, and Shaw among literary men (though Lowell is more like Byron than perhaps any poet since), with Coleridge not far behind. They created an entire world in their letters, a world that more than explained the questions posed by the life. Lowell’s world is smaller, bound more closely by its social gravities, philosophical only in the sense of stoic, his remarks sometimes uttered through gritted teeth. The mania kept Lowell’s gaze too much on the mirror, or thumbing the rosary of apology. When you finish the letters, however, you know his world much better; and you know the man without feeling you have exhausted him. It was a life lived in the swagger of language.