Lowellship

John Bayley

If Robert Lowell had not been a Lowell would he ever have had the confidence to write the poems he did? It is impossible to imagine the scion of a distinguished English family using that family now as a basis for poetic composition. But all Lowell’s poems are about being a Lowell, or rather, more specifically, about being this Lowell. Only in the home of democracy, probably, could the personality of the poet as aristocrat be asserted today in this fashion.

It is an irony which strikes deeper with each rereading, and the realisation of it comes each time to seem more important to the status and success of the poems. It is the regal touch. Life Studies are Lowell studies, in the same way that a prince of the blood might become absorbed, without either self-consciousness or false modesty, in compiling an intimate dynastic chronicle. The word ‘Lowell’ occurs and recurs in the same spaciously necessary way. The poet’s father wears his ‘oval Lowell smile’ as naturally as a Hapsburg his lip; and there is a casual, humorous assumption of lèse-majesté, as between poet and reader, in the news that the poet’s mother’s coffin had the misspelled name ‘Lovel’ on it when it was sent home from Italy. Doubtless that was put right before the coffin took its place in the family vaults. In terms of solid pomp Schönbrunn or the Escorial have nothing on the funerary monuments of an American cemetery.

The irony multiplies when the Lowell entourage is considered. Every difficult poet has his devoted following, but even so Lowell’s case is remarkable. Those who were in attendance upon him found it natural to look on egocentric follies or irresponsibilities as acts of heroic virtue, a testament to the wonderful fact that America had produced what was once seen in Europe as civilisation’s diadem: a great poet who was also a patrician. Whereas a noble lord who wrote verse could scarcely be conceived as being more than a figure of fun in contemporary English circles, the rhapsodies which greeted Lowell’s early poems in the American press surely indicated a deep if obscure feeling that the USA had, in the cultural sense, finally arrived. More than one contributor to the new collection of essays on his poetry refers dryly to the headlines in the American press (‘MOST PROMISING POET IN 100 YEARS’) which greeted the publication of Lord Weary’s Castle in 1946, and remarks on the total indifference of the popular publicity machine in America to the achievements of other new American poets.

Lowell himself deepens the ironies. What an extraordinary analogy to take with his poetry, that of Vermeer, and Vermeer’s paintings and interiors! One of the editors, Helen Deese, writes a highly perceptive essay on the relation of Lowell’s poetry to the visual arts, but she seems to take it for granted that the Vermeer analogy invoked, for example, in Lowell’s ‘Epilogue’ is a natural and normal one. It seems to me nonsensical, one of the most blatant indications of Lowell’s kingly habit of assuming he owned the country.

Pray for the grace of accuracy
Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination
stealing like a tide across a map
to his girl solid with yearning.

Those lines seem to me not only bad but remarkably vulgar as well, with the sort of involuntary vulgarity which upper-class assumptions of universal ownership entail. ‘Solid with yearning’ is an almost perfect description of something in Lowell himself, but simply makes a graffiti scribble across the simple mystery of Woman in Blue Reading a Letter. Vermeer is the reverse of a king; his art the very opposite of Lowell’s credo that ‘the artist’s existence becomes his art.’ Vermeer’s pictures are endlessly mysterious and commonplace precisely because the artist is not in them, has been able so completely to exclude himself. And this is the mystery which is wholly lacking in Life Studies. There is a final logic in the fact that Lowell’s success in those wonderful poems is its own nemesis, a perfect verbal score – ‘twenty-twenty’, like his father’s vision. ‘Nothing is real until set down in words,’ and what is set down is the ‘living name’. The grace of accuracy is not that of a Vermeer but of a superb photograph, the split-second reality which sums it all up. Lowell’s eye in art is

Fifty years of snapshots,
The ladder of ripening likeness.

In his introductory essay Steven Gould Axelrod writes that ‘Lowell felt so personally contingent that he dedicated himself to a task of self-creation in an unfinishable discourse, spent his life pushing across the borders of his previous texts, lived only in the ever-shifting frontier of an immanence he variously termed his “style”, his “voice”, his “texts”, his “poems”, his “living name”.’ Could a poet with any other name have done the same? Byron wrote ‘Byron’ on the temple metope, and Byron is the name invoked by everything he wrote, and in the breast of every admirer. Invoking Milton’s Satan, or Napoleon, or George III (in a long and elaborate poem), Lowell does not so much identify with those persons as cause them to appear in a new light as Robert Lowell. Who else could they be? What else could the poets and poems taken over in Imitations be? It is significant that Byron distinguished between himself as Byron and as a writer who, like Pushkin, another aristocrat, wrote for money and reputation. This separation of the social and the scribbling self (‘I hate a fellow that’s all author’) is important to the persona of the European writer as aristocrat. Lowell is the first of the genre to need his status as an aristocrat while identifying wholly with it as a poet.

In his introduction to the Faber Book of Modern American Verse W.H. Auden pointed out that ‘every American poet feels that the whole responsibility ... has fallen upon his shoulders, that he is a literary aristocracy of one, whereas a British poet can take writing more for granted, and so write with a lack of strain and over-earnestness.’ From an aesthetic point of view this second attitude can be an asset to the reader, as it is to the viewer of Vermeer’s pictures: he can feel that the poet or artist has a life of his own outside his art. It makes both for interest and for repose. Neither, in a way, is possible or relevant to Lowell’s ‘living name’, or to the seriousness with which it must be established. Berryman as a poet was not so different, but it is extremely relevant that Berryman, like other self-creating poets, had to invent a persona – that of ‘Anne Bradstreet’, or ‘Henry Pussycat’ – in order to become his real self set down in words. Lowell had no need for that: his self and his persona were both absolute Lowell.

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