Thomas Jones: Hello and welcome to the London Review of Books podcast. My name is Thomas Jones. Today I'm talking to Colm Tóibín, who's written a piece in the current issue of the LRB on one of the great – or terrible – literary love triangles of the twentieth century. The piece is a review of two books, the new edition of Robert Lowell’s 1972 collection, The Dolphin, edited by Saskia Hamilton, and The Dolphin Letters, 1970-79: Elizabeth Hardwick, Robert Lowell and Their Circle also edited by Saskia Hamilton.
Hello, Colm. Thank you for joining us. Lowell once described his poetry as ‘my autobiography in verse’. Before we get to the writing, we really need to talk about the writers’ lives. The breakdown of Hardwick and Lowell's marriage seems to have happened very suddenly, fifty years ago today in fact, I think, on the 30th of April, 1970 at a party in London.
Do you want to take us through that story with which you begin your piece.
Colm Tóibín: Lowell, I suppose, comes to us as a poet of various guises, but he was very famous very young, and he was married to Elizabeth Hardwick, who was one of those fierce literary critics working for various magazines in New York. So when they met and married, they really were a very powerful and serious literary couple in New York. And I suppose part of their power arose from the fact that they were both involved with the founding of the New York Review of Books, and they lived on the Upper West Side. And there really was a sense of them as living the life of the mind in New York, and associating with very interesting literary people. And Lowell had a trust fund, and that made a difference. It meant they had a nice house in Maine, in Castine, plus a property in New York, and they had a daughter called Harriet. Obviously the marriage was punctuated by Lowell’s mental breakdowns, which would appear in a very strange way. In other words, he would become hyper, he would become fascinated by Napoleon or by Hitler. He might eventually think he was Hitler. There often would be a young woman involved.
It would take a long time to get him down from the state he was in, the manic state. He would often have to be incarcerated. And Elizabeth Hardwick took him through all this and she wrote very beautifully about it. And no matter what he was doing, he was interested in finding out one more thing, in reading Latin poetry, in translating from the Greek or just finding a whole new style as he did when he moved, for example, from those very overwrought early poems, ‘The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket’ and poems like that which are overwrought, highly wrought, you know, fiddled, with coiled phrases and then big clanging rhyme schemes and big risks taken with lines like ‘I am cold. I asked for bread, my father gives me mould.’ Or ‘Hookers heels, kicking at nothing in the shifting snow, the cannon and a cairn of cannonballs ...,’ or ‘The cannon on the common cannot stun the blundering butcher as he rides on time’. He gave all that up for a much more relaxed style in books like For the Union Dead and Life Studies, so that he became a poet whose style changed. Some of his style became confessional, meaning that he wrote about his own breakdowns. He wrote about his own family, and this became very fashionable. And he was at the very centre of things, and also as the Vietnam war began to rage, from very early on he took enormous exception to the bombings and did anything he could to protest against that. He appears as a very interesting figure in Norman Mailer's The Armies of the Night. But he was the one who, when Lyndon Johnson wanted to have a nice dinner for artists that he thought would please the ladies, Lowell accepted, which left him in a very powerful position because he could then very soon afterwards withdraw. Which he did on the advice of Robert Silvers who did it on the advice of Philip Roth. They couldn't believe he was going to go to this dinner. But his withdrawal was very public. It was very well done. There was a beautiful letter written explaining why he couldn't do this. And so he became a sort of public figure, and obviously then he was beginning to work on these sonnets, arising I think partly from the fact that he was using lithium, which was really doing him a lot of good and so the attacks were coming less. And he decided he would go to All Souls at Oxford with the idea that he would go to the university of Essex for two years after that, in other words they would move to England for a while. Their daughter was 13 or 14, and they were both in their early fifties. And they had been on holidays in Italy, and then Elizabeth Hardwick and her daughter went back to New York, Lowell went on to England. We can trace the days, we can see the letters from them. Hardwick of course would have loved a literary party, she shone at such events, she knew who to talk to, what to say to them. She was a very engaging individual. But she couldn't go to the Faber party. Lowell was going to come down four days after arriving in Oxford to London. Faber was giving a party for him. And at that party arrived Lady Caroline Blackwood. I have to say, this is 1970, I wouldn't have known her until about a decade or more later, but even then – she would have been about fifty – she was a really beautiful and funny, really amazingly interesting person. Every word she said was interesting. She just took a dark view of humanity. Her mother was Maureen Guinness, who was an heiress, and her father was the Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, and she was brought up in a big pile of a house in Northern Ireland. And she'd married Lucian Freud, and then she had three daughters with another guy who she married called Israel Citkowitz, who was a composer. And she was really beautiful, and she was also tremendous company.
TJ: And she was having a relationship with Bob Silvers at the time, isn’t that right, Robert Silvers, the editor of the New York Review?
CT: Lowell had met her before, because when she was living in New York with her daughters, she had gone out with Robert Silvers, come to the Lowells’ house with Silvers and he was warned beforehand, he's only interested in poetry, don't talk to him about anything else. Everything else bores him. So she said, well, there’s no point in me asking him ‘what do you think of Housman?’ So she just sat there all evening, and then eventually she said something about the soup being good, and he said he thought it was ghastly. So they knew one another, and Robert Silvers wrote to Lowell when he was going to England, you should really meet Caroline when you’re there, and, well, he did. He met her at the Faber party. And famously they went home to her place in London that night, and he didn't leave again. He didn’t explain this to Hardwick. She knew quite quickly there was something wrong. He wasn't getting in touch and there was a tense phone call. We have to remember as good historians that phone calls at that time, 1970, were really strange and difficult things, and making a transatlantic phone call was an enormous transaction. And people didn't do it much. And the phone calls between them in any case were unsatisfactory, but the cost of them … anyway, the phone didn't work, luckily, because they had to write letters. And eventually Elizabeth Hardwick found out who it was he was with. And she writes a wonderful letter to Mary McCarthy, just saying, I just laughed out loud. I mean, she just insisted that she found his relationship with Caroline to be comic, in that Caroline, she thought, was not a serious person. And of course she certainly was a serious person. So what happens then is that she begins to write to him in a rage. He will not get in touch. She has this daughter to deal with, and he's basically abandoned the daughter. And she begins to couch her rage in moral terms, meaning you are a serious person. You are a New England figure, brought up with great numbers of moral certitudes, and you're with this louche aristocrat being louche in London, being louche in England. This is not who you are. I know who you are. This is not who you are, this is a sort of straw you.
So the letters went on. Obviously they became practical letters about money, and about houses and about visits back and forth. Of course Lowell, absolutely careless, let her know that having met Caroline Blackwood in April, he was thinking of coming to New York for Christmas, but he was going to bring Caroline with him. So suddenly she's going to have Lowell circling around her world, because it's very much their world in New York. And suddenly he would be bringing Caroline Blackwood. So she said, I’m going to the Caribbean, I’m getting out of here. You bring Caroline, I'm getting out of here and I'm bringing Harriet with me. So he came on his own. And he wrote to her frankly at one point to say, I'm not coming back. But she did think he would because he'd always done it before. And then she learned that Caroline was pregnant and she wrote Caroline a letter, which Saskia Hamilton, in her beautifully edited book ... by the way, the footnoting is amazing, it isn’t just footnoting that gives you information, the footnoting adds often if there's a paragraph of another letter by someone else that's pertinent, it'll be there. And anyway it goes on, in other words, until a rumour begins that Lowell is writing sonnet after sonnet. He writes to Frank Bidart, the poet who he's known from Boston, can you come over, because there are so many sonnets now. As I said in the piece it’s like King Midas, if he had a thought it was a sonnet. If he had a memory, if he read a book, or half a book or a book review, he wrote a sonnet. He wanted to mix them up more, to put them in different orders, to take lines from one to put in another, different titles. So he published a book called Notebook. In 1968 he published a second version, but he was so famous that he could publish a second version of a book a year after the first version. There was no poet in that position in those years. And he wanted to then have three books – these three books came out in 1973, which were a big book called History, which were all the history poems ...
TJ: They were sonnets ...
CT: Sestet, octet, all the way. It was just sonnets. It was madness. Some of the sonnets in History are really great, some of the lines are great, but overall the book’s untidy, some of the poems are terrible. And the book probably should not have been published. And then there's a smaller book called For Lizzie and Harriet. But the third book ... they all came out the same day in hardback. It was really an amazing moment. And the third book – and Lowell's right, the third book wasn't fully noticed on our side of the Atlantic as to what exactly he had done. A rumour began that he was putting out one single book about the breakup of his marriage to Elizabeth Hardwick, and the beginning of his relationship with Caroline Blackwood. Elizabeth Hardwick wrote to him about it, saying she didn't care one way or the other, but his friends started to see the poems, the main one being Elizabeth Bishop. And Elizabeth Bishop realised what he had done – that in the middle of The Dolphin he takes letters that he’d got, these anguished, raging letters from Hardwick, and he simply makes them into sonnets. They’re in inverted commas, they’re clearly letters from her, and they’re sonnets. And she didn't realise he had done this. She knew he’d done something. But she didn't know this. And Elizabeth Hardwick didn't notice, but he’d changed some lines in the letters, he had adapted them. He had edited them. He’d added things to them. And Bishop wrote to him to say, don't let anyone tell you this isn't art. These poems are really very good, but it isn't worth it. Art sometimes isn't worth it. And the anguish you are going to cause, what you've done is just mischief. In other words, changing her letters, and even publishing them. So Bishop wrote to him quite severely on the matter.
TJ: And other people did too, didn’t they, Auden, Adrienne Rich …
CT: Anyone he knew – Christopher Ricks actually was not really interested in the technical side of things – but friends who knew Elizabeth Hardwick who were in that circle, William Alfred, and various other people like that, Stanley Kunitz, wrote to him saying you can’t do this to her! It'll just break her heart if you do this to her, and he didn't let her know and he wrote to her to say, I'm sending just one of the books, meaning the big book History, to Harriet, who at this stage is about 15 or 16, but I'm going to send you the three. And I'm really pleased with it, look, this is my achievement. And she got the three books and she looked at the third and that’s what he’d done. Without her permission or her knowledge, he had taken her letters written in haste, written in anguish. I should say that she was selling his papers at the beginning of all this and she wasn't aware that their correspondence ... what it would look like in the future. She was aware of their fame. But these letters look like they're written in the heat of the moment without any interest in posterity. Just she needs to get something off her chest today into the post. So she wrote to Farrar Straus in New York, Robert Giroux, she wrote to Faber to say, what were you thinking about that you could do this to me? You didn't get my permission. I didn't know this was going to happen, et cetera. And so she becomes the sort of hysterical wife in this triangle, the one that everyone's afraid of ... what’s Lizzie going to do next? Is she going to sue, for example? And I mentioned that between the publishers and Lowell, is she going to sue? And the book wins the Pulitzer Prize. The single volume The Dolphin wins the Pulitzer Prize, which is a sort of slap in the face for her.
TJ: Also for him, possibly. The sense of these three books ...
CT: Yeah. But the other two books were really made up of poems from Notebook that had already appeared twice. Really, this book, the single story of the marriage break-up and the new love relationship, and these poems ... it’s still an uneven book. But there's a sense of, I suppose, the tone is more hushed. The iambic beat is less certain. The sound is of a man who is really even more bewildered now that he has made these decisions in his life. There's no sense of triumph or happiness or any glee, any sort of, look, I needed to do this for my life, for the sake of my happiness. It isn't like that. It's all melancholy. There are two poems about being back in New York, and it's really as though he's living in a sort of aftermath of his own life. So it's a very affecting book, oddly. And when you come to her voice the first time, it's really not good. It reads like a letter. But there are a few moments in the book where a full sonnet is her in a rage. And oddly enough, those poems work as poems, not all the time, but sometimes. As indeed do letters from Caroline Blackwood that are used in the same way. So oddly enough, The Dolphin after all this time, despite the fact it's the very book we would not need at this particular moment, in other words it’s filled with male privilege, with this man deciding what letters he will use or not use, or his own feelings or how they’re important. I think fifty years later people would just tell the man to go away. He would find it difficult to even publish them, let alone win the Pulitzer Prize or have the books praised. So it's just time has moved, but strangely the book, The Dolphin, has a sort of funny hushed sad power to it that stays on.
What happens next is that Lowell can't make up his mind where he wants to go, what he wants to do. He has a child with Caroline Blackwood, but eventually he thinks he might come back to New York. There's an extraordinary moment where he's in Castletown House where they’d moved, Caroline Blackwood and himself had moved from England to Ireland, and they’re in Castletown House in County Kildare, and he’s to go to New York, but he wants to go into Dublin the previous night. But the house is so big that he can't get out of it, can’t find a window that opens or a door that isn't locked. He spends the night trying to bang at things, is there any way out of this house? The house is enormous, it’s one of the biggest houses in Ireland. And then eventually in the morning the maid comes in and lets him out.He goes to the airport and he has with him, which he has bought, Lucian Freud's portrait of Caroline Blackwood, a small portrait he's bringing with him to get valued in New York. It's been a big investment. And he gets on the flight, he gets a taxi and he dies in the taxi, in, I think, September 1977. And afterwards Elizabeth Hardwick wondered, where were her letters. She'd asked him in the year, the time before he died, you know those letters I wrote you, that you made into those sonnets – have you any idea where they are? I’d love to see them. Obviously she didn’t keep copies, they were written in white heat. And he said he couldn't find them. But what happened after his death was that Caroline Blackwood sent them to Frank Bidart. Frank Bidart kept them for a while, and then he put them into the Lowell archive at Harvard, with a note saying these actually belong to the Lowell estate, they don't actually belong to me, and they’re to be kept sealed and closed until the death of Elizabeth Hardwick. So Elizabeth Hardwick didn't get to see them. What she did then, in the years when Lowell was away, was she wrote her two best books. And the book Sleepless Nights, which is a strange mixture of a novel and a memoir, has become a really important book in America. It opened up a lot of space, especially for women who wanted to write about their own lives in a way that was oblique, that was literary, that was confessional, but in a very serious, inward looking way, that would come as images, rather than a, say, straightforward narrative. I think it's been a really important book – for example, perhaps someone like Rachel Cusk, someone like Maggie Nelson, someone like Chris Kraus, I think it's just opened up a lot of space as to how such a book might be written about being alone, about being damaged in some way and about memory, and about ordinary day. Lowell himself, when he saw the early chapters, a wonderful early chapter on her friendship with Billie Holiday, wrote to her saying what fun, I'm going to read this and see how you're going to deal with me in the book. And obviously Mary McCarthy, who was a tremendous gossip, said what's going to happen? Then, of course, what she did was she left him out! He's mentioned twice. She's got other things to consider, more important perhaps than the antics of an estranged husband. Her childhood in Kentucky, just living her life, various memories, books she's reading, and just things she's thinking about. It's an exquisite book. And she was writing that over all those years, and published it after his death in 1979. And she was also writing essays for the New York Review of Books, which could easily be collected into a volume. Which they were, called Seduction and Betrayal, which is her best book of essays. It's a remarkable book. It goes through people like Sylvia Plath or the Brontes, and – what particularly interested her – Ibsen, quite a lot on Ibsen, and quite a lot that really is about her own relationship to Lowell and Blackwood. I mean that triangle business, looking at various Ibsen plays in which one woman is up against two people, a man and a woman, and she writes very beautifully about that. There's a feeling that she got what was really happening to her and found two particular ways of dealing with it. But three…. one, writing those letters which became the sonnets; two, writing this strange, exquisite, chiselled memoir/novel. You know, Norman Mailer in Armies of the Night in 1969 was writing the novel as history, history as a novel. He was trying to do something new to the novel. Well, so was she, but she was moving inwards as he was moving outwards. I think she has had more influence, that book. And the third thing she did was she wrote the essays. And in doing all that, and in the finding of these letters that she wrote, which I review in the London Review of Books for this issue, and the work Saskia Hamilton has been doing with the letters between Lowell and Bishop, with Lowell's letters, and the reissue of Hardwick’s books ... there’s an interesting piece by Lorrie Moore, saying this is the new Bloomsbury! Ladies and gentlemen, we have a new group of people, from Robert Silvers to Mary McCarthy to Lowell, Caroline Blackwood, Lucian Freud, Elizabeth Bishop. So we have a sort of circle of people. And at the centre of the circle, in the same way as we had Virginia Woolf, we have Lowell and Hardwick and Caroline Blackwood. I didn't have space in the piece, because it isn't about Blackwood, but Blackwood became a really interesting stylist, and when she married Lowell she really hadn't written anything. She first wrote a memoir called For All That I Found There, and then began to write these novels, these short novels, I think some of which – Great Granny Webster, The Fate of Mary Rose, Corrigan – are really very good books. Also an extraordinary book called The Last of the Duchess, in which she became absolutely fascinated by the Duchess of Windsor, particularly her decline, her relationship with her maid. These are really gothic, strange. She isn't afraid of any form of physical decay. She loves physical decay. I mean, in the book.
TJ:The Stepdaughter came out in 1976, wasn’t it, when all this was going on, so she was writing ...
CT: Yeah. So she's writing too, but she’s writing in a particular way, her style is really worth attending to. So yeah, we have a new Bloomsbury, unfortunately. I’ve got bad news for you, there are going to be thousands of books on this matter. So we're here at the beginning of, I think, what's going to be a big industry.
TJ: The way that you're talking now, and also in the piece, I get the sense that you think that the books that Hardwick wrote in the seventies are better – that’s such a crude word – had more influence, are better than The Dolphin.
CT: The clever strategic person she was, in other words, she worked out, how am I going to deal with this? And one of the ways was to write a really good book that would be so strange that it would speak to the future. The chances now of a garrulous male poet going on about his life and his loves, and his flitting to New York and back to London and Caroline or Elizabeth, which will I go with, no one will listen to that guy ever again. That's history. That's over. You see it again and again. I saw, just at the weekend even, people just told me Sleepless Nights has become this book that is a bedside book, that is a book you dip into, that is a book you can actually see. There are just sentences and paragraphs in it that are just so exquisite, and also so personal, so filled with nerves. It's almost as though something like the tone Sylvia Plath used in those last poems has been adapted and taken over by a middle-aged woman living alone in New York who happens to be extraordinarily intelligent and sensitive and serious. The essay on Plath, she deplores Plath’s cruelty and Plath’s blaming everybody. It's an interesting essay on Plath, but the style ... that's the path of sentence, that business of no word here is extra. Whereas with Lowell, almost every word in every sonnet is extra! Lowell comes to us now in three or four different guises, but certainly there's no ... I know Michael Hoffman, for example, in the London Review of Books has written to say how much he admires these late sonnets, but I think he’s alone in that. I don't see a new movement arising. It would be very difficult, for example, to put Lowell on a curriculum, and in America that's one of the things that really matters because you don't really have, as you do in Ireland, say, or England, a wide ordinary readership for poetry. So what's happening in the university tends to matter enormously. You couldn't bring Lowell into students. They would just …
TJ: Not even For the Union Dead?
CT: Yeah, perhaps those calm middle poems in the book For the Union Dead. But certainly if you brought in Sleepless Nights, you’d get weeks out of it, people would really respond to it. So if anybody won in this bad business Hardwick did.
TJ: So when Bishop says that art just isn't worth it, maybe the art that won is Hardwick’s, that Hardwick’s art came out of it. And if in some way she was writing in response to Lowell doing this really quite terrible thing with her letters, then ...
CT: Yeah. There's a wonderful moment in Sleepless Nights, you can see in the letters, the letters are really useful because you can see ... she had a big fight with Lowell and Blackwood over this house in Castine. She wanted to sell the house and keep the barn and use the money from the sale of the house to do up the barn. Under a Maine arcane law, because she was still married to Lowell, she needed her husband's signature even though she owned the house. And the house had been willed to her by Lowell's cousin, which made things complicated. Lowell just wouldn’t sign, and Blackwood got involved because she thought maybe that this was doing her son with Lowell out of something, so she went to her solicitors in England. (She's so rich. Why would she do this?) Meantime Hardwick’s going to lose the sale of the house, so she's going ballistic in these letters…..just sign!! And then in Sleepless Nights she's thinking she's in the barn. She's there on the edge of the ocean. She’s thinking about everything except this. She's got so many things on her mind. And you realise as you're reading the letters, oh, this has to be deliberate. This way of leaving out the rage, that the rage was in the letters about how this barn came to be hers. And she instead writes about the sea and being alone, mentions Lowell in passing, not by name, but as someone who once was here and is gone now. Just a flitting reference to him, as though she's got many other more important things to consider.
TJ: So everyone who hasn’t read it must go away and read Sleepless Nights, and forget Lowell!
CT: No, I didn’t say forget Lowell. Look, read ‘Waking Early Sunday Morning’, read ‘The Fourth of July in Maine’, read ‘Water’, the first poem in For the Union Dead, read For the Union Dead, read ‘To Speak of The Woe That is in Marriage’, read ‘Skunk Hour’. I'm not dismissing Lowell. In this moment Lowell’s star has faded for many reasons, but one of them has to do with the sort of display of masculine ease that’s not something that's fashionable at the moment. I think guys are not required to be at ease with their masculinity anymore. And he certainly was, and it was a great sense of privilege about him, but he was a great poet. But Sleepless Nights is what people are reading now.
TJ: Thank you very much.
CT: I also wanted to say that the big book, the book of letters is really readable. In other words, you can start at the beginning and go, Oh my God, what's happening now? And so it's not just one of those dry books that you think, Oh my God, this is probably search people. It's actually good stuff. It's actually very enjoyable, and as I say, it's really beautifully edited. It's a really good book.