In the summer of 1935, when he was 18, Robert Lowell and two friends from St Mark’s School – Blair Clark and Frank Parker – rented a house in Nantucket. Under Lowell’s direction, they studied the Bible (with special attention to the Book of Job) and ate cereal with raw honey and ‘badly’ cooked eels. Lowell decided that Clark should quit smoking and, when Clark resisted, chased him around and knocked him down. He also decided that they should get drunk, and so they mixed rum and cocoa and drank it ‘as if we were mainlining heroin’. ‘Why did we go along with it?’ Clark later wondered. The next summer they returned to Nantucket. By then Lowell had completed his first year at Harvard and was engaged to Parker’s cousin Anne Dick. That year’s programme included studying 75 Elizabethan plays; Anne, who didn’t set foot on this Mount Athos, was told to read Troilus and Cressida and post her comments. Lowell returned them with tart annotations. ‘I loved being mocked so wittily,’ she reported.
Why did they go along with it? ‘My picture of our friendship is of Aesop’s bronze vessel and clay vessel crossing the stream,’ Parker explained. ‘The bronze vessel says: “Come and help me, give me company.” And the clay vessel foolishly does it and is jostled and of course the clay breaks and the bronze goes on.’ What was true of those monastic summers was even more true of Lowell’s relationship with women. In love as in friendship Lowell was controlling and vulnerable, caring and neglectful, destructive and helpless to fix the damage. He was married three times: to Jean Stafford from 1940 to 1948, to Elizabeth Hardwick from 1949 to 1972 and to Caroline Blackwood from 1972 to his death in 1977. With Hardwick he had a daughter, Harriet, and with Blackwood a son, Sheridan; he was also stepfather to Blackwood’s three daughters. Towards the end of his marriage to Stafford and throughout his years with Hardwick, Lowell often also had a ‘girl’, as he put it, for whom he imagined leaving his wife.
In 1954, Lowell persuaded Giovanna Madonia, an Italian musician he had met in Salzburg two years earlier, to leave her husband. He promised he would leave Hardwick and assured his ‘silly Sicilian’ they would be ‘together, together forever’. Madonia prepared to join him in America; Hardwick waited for the episode to pass. Lowell was conducting the affair from the Payne Whitney Clinic, to which he had been committed after his third breakdown. ‘The whole business was sincere enough,’ he told a friend after his release from hospital and return to Hardwick, ‘but a stupid pathological mirage, a magical orange grove in a nightmare. I feel like a son of a bitch.’ The pattern would be repeated throughout his marriage to Hardwick, which ended when in 1970 Lowell left her for Blackwood, who was, he stressed, not ‘one of my many manic crushes’.
Robert Lowell in Love examines Lowell’s three marriages and nine of his affairs. Jeffrey Meyers criticises Lowell’s selfishness and cruelty towards these women, but maintains that they suffered for a noble cause – poetry! His wives, all writers, were, Meyers also claims, ‘driven by the snobbish appeal of his great name’ and ‘the formidable connections that would advance their careers’. Meyers is especially critical of Hardwick, whom he portrays as a less pretty, less talented, more status-obsessed Mary McCarthy, but sympathetic to the girlfriends and mistresses, whose encounters with Lowell make good material for easy sermonising. ‘His women,’ Meyers argues, ‘were drawn to his genius and madness … and became the sacrificial muses who inspired his poetry.’
Lowell grew up revering T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens and Ezra Pound (‘I ask you to have me,’ he wrote to Pound as a college freshman), but in the 1950s, famous after the publication of the technically masterful Lord Weary’s Castle in 1946, he started to feel stultified by the modernism of his heroes: ‘I began to have a certain disrespect for the tight forms,’ he said in a 1961 interview. Poetry had ‘become a craft, purely a craft, and there must be some breakthrough back into life’. In a quest for immediacy, he started to write poems about his childhood, his parents and relatives, his marriages and his mental breakdowns. In 1957 he sent the manuscript of Life Studies to Allen Tate, who responded that the poems about his family and Hardwick were ‘bad’, like ‘messages to yourself’, with ‘no public or literary interest’. Tate had been Lowell’s mentor, and remained attached to the New Critical separation of poetry from life.
Life Studies is an assault both on the literary forms of Lowell’s poetic fathers and on the social forms upheld by his parents. Lowell savours the degradation of his decorous Protestant family and the defilement of their sterile Boston world. Everyone is grotesque. His mother, Charlotte (née Winslow), is ferocious, Neronian, histrionic; having married beneath her, she expresses a ‘horrified giddiness’ at moving into a house near the slums of Boston’s North End. His father, Robert Traill Spence Lowell III, a naval officer until his wife forced him to retire, is bland, impotent, empty, an ‘“unhistoric” soul’ whose death is ‘abrupt and unprotesting’. Lowell himself is a ‘churlish’ brat with an aristocratic, martial spirit, a tiny Napoleon playing with toy soldiers in the attic while his parents quarrel downstairs. Away from home, the young Caligula (one source of his nickname, Cal, along with Caliban, whom he once played at school) throws wet fertiliser at his classmates, bloodies their noses, picks his own, sits in a girl’s urine, fingers piles of quicklime. His mother is ‘bored and bewildered’ by him.
Meyers’s first book on Lowell, Manic Power: Robert Lowell and His Circle (1987), examined Lowell’s friendships with Roethke, Berryman and Randall Jarrell, with an epilogue on Sylvia Plath. He observed that these four male poets ‘suffered from unmanly or absent fathers and from strong, seductive mothers’ and claimed that their unhappy childhoods ‘contributed to their emotional instability’ and ‘led them to mistreat their wives in order to vindicate their fathers and punish their mothers’. In Robert Lowell in Love, Meyers recycles swathes of material from Manic Power and advances an even bolder thesis: ‘The mental illness that plagued him throughout his life did not come from his bland and boring father, but from his volatile and unstable mother.’ What does ‘come from’ mean? Even Meyers seems embarrassed by this sort of analysis, as when he claims ‘a Freudian would say’ that the large amount of milk Lowell drank as an adult ‘compensated for the nursing he never had from his mother’.
Lowell’s parents were much involved in his early romantic life. First there was his schoolfriend’s cousin Anne Dick, a 24-year-old ‘girl of the social whirl’ whom Lowell met when he was a freshman at Harvard. For him their first kiss meant they were ‘almost married’ and he gave her his grandfather’s watch to mark their engagement. Mr Lowell, worried that Anne might seduce his son and become pregnant, wrote to her father requesting that chaperones should accompany the couple; when Lowell learned of the request, he hit his father. In 1937 Lowell dropped out of Harvard and followed Ford Madox Ford to Allen Tate’s farm in Tennessee. At a writers’ conference in Colorado that summer, he met Stafford, a pretty graduate student from California, and soon broke up with Dick (there was an overlap of a few months – not for the last time). Early in their courtship Lowell called her ‘Miss Stafford’; she thought him an ‘uncouth, neurotic, psychopathic murderer-poet’, though she liked his ‘raving beauty’. Over Christmas 1938, Lowell, home from Kenyon College where he’d enrolled to study under Tate and John Crowe Ransom, crashed his father’s car. Stafford’s skull and jaw were fractured and her nose crushed. The Lowells were more concerned with their car and their son’s mental instability than with Stafford’s injuries. There was a rumour that the Lowells tried to persuade her to give Robert up to prevent him from ‘going insane’.
Lowell and Stafford married in 1940, and he went insane pretty quickly. After Lowell graduated from Kenyon, he and Stafford moved to Baton Rouge, where he studied under Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren and became a fanatical Catholic. One night he tried to strangle Stafford and punched her in the face, breaking her nose a second time. When she spoke a former lover’s name in her sleep, he ‘reached at midnight/for your wind-pipe’ (this is from a manuscript version of ‘The Mills of the Kavanaughs’). In 1949 Lowell went on a rampage in Bloomington, Indiana, and between then and his death in 1977 was hospitalised 16 times. His violent behaviour was usually a sign of an impending or already acute manic episode. ‘That man is like a bull,’ remarked a psychiatrist who had given him a large amount of Valium, to little effect. (Lowell preferred to think of himself as a bear.) When Carley Dawson, a post-Stafford girlfriend, said something about Shakespeare that Lowell didn’t like, he throttled her and swung her to the floor, his face ‘completely white, completely blank’. In 1961 Lowell met a writer called Sandra Hochman, and immediately announced he was leaving Hardwick and marrying her. At their engagement party, Lowell clicked his heels and goose-stepped towards her. ‘I’m Hitler and you’re a Jew and I’m going to kill you,’ he said, lunging at her throat and throwing her to the ground. Hitler-talk was known to Lowell’s friends as another sign of incipient madness.
When he was mad he fell in love. Auden noted the warning signals: ‘a) he announces that he is the only living poet b) a romantic and usually platonic attraction to a young girl and c) he gives a huge party.’ While a patient at the Massachusetts Psychopathic Hospital in 1958, Lowell met Ann Adden, a college student who was working there as an attendant and who was ‘thoroughly beguiled’ by him. Soon after he was released, he informed Hardwick he’d dropped Adden and picked up a new girl. ‘This will make everything so much better with us,’ he told his wife. ‘It’s a wonderful thing for both of us.’ Hardwick wrote to a friend that she ‘couldn’t have cared less about the girl, but I did care about the deep derangement which such a conversation with me shows’. She understood that the affairs were symptoms, though she didn’t assume they were meaningless: ‘I can’t say: “Cal wants to leave me, therefore he’s crazy.”’ But she could have said: ‘Cal’s crazy, therefore he wants to leave me.’
The ‘girls’ – ‘a truly diverse rainbow coalition’, Meyers says – were loved by Lowell in the same fashion: intensely, briefly and with little regard for their individual qualities. ‘Cal had to be “in love”,’ a friend said. ‘Poets were always in love. He adored the metaphor of these situations – him in hospital and some girl waiting for him in a ski-lodge in Vermont. But he’d quickly get bored – they wouldn’t understand what he was talking about.’ Meyers gives the lovers more room to breathe than Ian Hamilton did in his insightful 1982 biography, but in treating them as a group (six of the nine are huddled in a single chapter, subdivided by Roman numerals) he reinforces the impression of sameness.
Just as the quartet of male poets in Manic Power were forced into a crude psychoanalytic framework, the women in Robert Lowell in Love are subjected to tiresome clichés. They were would-be saviours: they ‘wanted to help him’; they ‘wanted to take care of him, believed they could save him’; they ‘wanted to rescue, protect, nurse, cure and inspire him’. They were also masochists: ‘Well aware of what they would suffer if they married him, they were fatally attracted.’ Some were victims: Stafford was ‘a physical and psychological victim’ who ‘loved him despite everything’; Blackwood was ‘another casualty’. The writers among them were opportunists. Hochman slept with Saul Bellow to get ahead, and pursued the ‘pattern’ with Lowell. Hardwick, who had previously ‘advanced her literary career by sleeping with’ Philip Rahv and Tate, ‘climbed higher than she had ever dreamed’ by marrying Lowell, who ‘could do a great deal to advance the careers of adoring and aspiring writers’, and was so intent on remaining Mrs Lowell that she tolerated his philandering much longer than ‘most women’ would. But then ‘few women wanted to leave,’ Meyers writes, ‘even when he damaged them.’
Lowell’s willingness to risk damage was never clearer than when in 1970 he started writing the sonnets that would be published as For Lizzie and Harriet and The Dolphin. The latter included excerpts from letters written by Hardwick ‘under the stress and pain of desertion’, as Adrienne Rich put it in a damning review. ‘Aren’t you violating a trust?’ Elizabeth Bishop wrote to Lowell, urging him to reconsider his use, and particularly his alteration, of the letters. ‘Art just isn’t worth that much.’ (A year and a half earlier, Lowell had apologised to Bishop for ‘versing one of your letters into my poems on you in Notebook’, which was ‘too intimate maybe’.) Lowell decided to ‘blunt and angle’ Hardwick’s letters but didn’t remove them. ‘The book must still be painful to Lizzie, and won’t satisfy Elizabeth,’ he wrote to Frank Bidart. ‘As Caroline says, it can’t be otherwise with the book’s donnée.’ He told another friend that it was now ‘written much better – both for art and kindness’. After the book came out, Lowell half-heartedly defended himself to Bishop: ‘The letters, as the reviewers have written, make Lizzie brilliant and more loveable than anyone in the book. Not enough, I know.’
Bishop compared Lowell’s violation to something Thomas Hardy had described in a letter, some ‘abuse’ in which ‘details of a lately deceased man’s life’ were published ‘under the guise of a novel’. She acknowledged that ‘Lizzie is not dead etc’ but worried about the ‘infinite mischief’ of ‘mixing of fact and fiction in unknown proportions’. When Lowell was writing Life Studies, no one had stood up for his parents, who were dead. Tate had objected to the poems on aesthetic rather than moral grounds. Anyway, the dead can’t do a thing, whereas the living can write angry letters, as Hardwick did to Lowell – ‘I never want to hear from you again’ – and to his British and American publishers, whom she called ‘contemptible’. ‘I regret the letters in Dolphin,’ Lowell wrote to Hardwick three years later.
Over the years he’d had a lot of practice at expressing remorse and asking forgiveness. When he left, he tried to leave on good terms. He even wanted the women he was involved with to get along, and they sometimes obliged. In 1946, towards the end of his marriage to Stafford, Lowell started an affair with Gertrude Buckman, recently divorced from Delmore Schwartz. In 1947, Stafford arranged for Lowell, Buckman and herself to go to the Bronx zoo. The visit wasn’t a success. In 1948, Lowell started seeing Carley Dawson and hoped she would ‘become close friends’ with Buckman, whom he had just dumped; ‘perhaps this is a mad notion,’ he added. The two women never met. Hamilton reports that in 1952 when Lowell took up with Giovanna Madonia in Salzburg, he expected Hardwick ‘to sympathise with his intense new friendship’. She didn’t. In 1969, Lowell shacked up with Martha Ritter, an undergraduate in his Harvard poetry class; the next year, she followed him to England, expecting to ‘pick up where we’d left off’, only to find herself acting as a confidante to a man torn between two women, Hardwick and Blackwood. Ritter soon left the country. In 1976, he wrote to Lizzie: ‘It was so strange seeing you and Caroline easily (?) together, that I almost feel I shouldn’t refer to it.’ He took comfort in the continuity represented by having two wives in the same room.
By then in his late fifties and suffering heart problems, Lowell also took comfort in his and Hardwick’s ‘light intimacy of reference’. His marriage to Blackwood, a great beauty and a great drunk, was collapsing under the strain of his illness and hers – she was having ‘an old-fashioned nervous breakdown’ and couldn’t handle him during his manic attacks. Still ‘affectionate and old-shoe’ with Hardwick, Lowell decided to spend the summer of 1977 with her in Maine. ‘He did not talk as if he were formally “going back to her”,’ Blair Clark recalled, ‘it was some other kind of arrangement, looser, vaguer.’ After one of his affairs, Hardwick declared: ‘I have not taken him back – awful phrase,’ a disdain less for the act than for the words. After desertion and The Dolphin, why did Hardwick go along with it? Meyers is often prurient (he mentions Stafford’s gonorrhoea twice and tells an embarrassing story about Lowell masturbating out of a window), but he isn’t very curious about this most curious development, the reunion of Cal and Lizzie. He describes Lowell as ‘a phoenix who repeatedly rose from the flames that consumed all those around him’. Yet here was Hardwick, unconsumed. Meyers compares them to Antigone and Oedipus, rather than Penelope and Odysseus. But Hardwick wasn’t the tragic figure of Meyers’s conception. She had made a choice to stay with Lowell: ‘He was the most extraordinary person I have ever known, like no one else – unplaceable, unaccountable.’
In September 1977, Lowell had a fatal heart attack in a taxi on the way from JFK Airport to the building in Manhattan where Hardwick lived and he had rented an apartment. The driver thought he had passed out drunk. The doorman called Hardwick and when she opened the car door Lowell fell over onto the seat. They rushed to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.When Hardwick went home, she opened the parcel Lowell had with him: it was Girl in Bed (1952), a portrait of the 21-year-old Blackwood by Lucian Freud, her first husband. Although, according to Hamilton, Lowell had brought the portrait to New York to be valued, Meyers sees things symbolically: Lowell was ‘unable to decide which woman he wanted to live with and unwilling to let go of Blackwood’. This story is a bit like the one about Plath biting Ted Hughes’s cheek: dramatic yet somehow rather silly.
Hamilton observed that in writing about his relationships Lowell was ‘trying to fathom how he seemed to his women – to know this, and to judge it. And – being Lowell – to judge it without mercy.’ In seeing himself through his women, Lowell also saw himself seeing them. In ‘Dear Sorrow 2’, a sonnet from For Lizzie and Harriet, the speaker acknowledges the damage, asking ‘Can I be forgiven the life-waste of my lifework?’