Some Names for Robert Lowell
- Robert Lowell: A Biography by Ian Hamilton
Faber, 527 pp, £12.50, May 1983, ISBN 0 571 13045 3
Robert Lowell is not difficult to represent as the mad poet and justified sinner of the Romantic heritage. He is the dual personality who breaks the rules, kicks over the traces: he did this in the course of a series of manic highs which came and went from maturity, if not before, until the end of his life in 1977 at the age of 60. He goes up and he comes down. He was a man, as he said himself, of ‘tumbles and leaps’, a man of extremes, of moods and moments, and of the moment, of nerves, fresh starts and escapes, whose illness and convulsive life gained access to, if they were not inseparable from, an art nerved to resist them. He was a bear, a bull, a threat to those who knew him. ‘A born joiner,’ said his second wife, but more of a born leaver, a disjoiner and divorcer. He was a maker of poems but also their unmaker and negator, falling into a habit of revision which became a compulsion: so that the scholarship of his verse bears an element of anguish, which sends its shadow before it into the 21st century.
There is something Scottish, and something Russian, about this undoubtedly American poet. He is the justified sinner whom we meet in the fiction of James Hogg. And he is the superman, the Stavrogin, whom we meet in the fiction of Dostoevsky: the antinomian hero bent both on power and mischief and on the blessedness of the meek, so that he’s Prince Myshkin too, and it’s hardly surprising that he should have been a rereader of The Idiot. It is a mark of his poetry that it frets in all childishness, praising and blaming, over the actions and reputations of the great, while managing to make people feel that it is itself the work of a great man, however bashful, stumbling and dishevelled. It is the work of a tyrannicide subject, in Ian Hamilton’s words, to ‘tyrant delusions’. Lowell was a pacifist who was able, at moments, to praise the ideology of the master race. Mischievously mad or mischievously sane, it was hard to tell which, he once urged companions to exercise a sortes Hitlerianae by opening at random a copy of Mein Kampf: ‘There isn’t a page that isn’t well-written.’ As chance would have it, the copy fell open at a shriek against the Jews. At other times he laid claim to Jewish blood – tempering the true-blue Boston Brahmin birthright which conferred, as he sometimes felt, the first-class soul of the patrician. There isn’t a line that isn’t well-born.
Lowell’s writings do not broadcast the conception I am describing, and it is one he would have been ready to mock. Such a rejection lay well within the compass of his ambivalence. He was modest and gentle, while also a terror, just as he was the best man in the world and the worst, the weakest and most marginal of creatures and yet a member of an élite who could serve as a leader in the crusade against the Vietnam War. A capacity for irony equipped him to suspect the worship of problematic (or ironic) heroes. He can be seen in other ways, moreover, besides the ambivalent, or antinomian. England has seen him as a High Catholic successor to Eliot on the Faber list, as another saintly poet; or as the New Englander who succeeded Robert Frost in the art of plain speaking in verse; or as a metropolitan radical, a Partisan Reviewer. No such construction as the one I am describing is entertained by Ian Hamilton in the kampf which he has now produced. There is no discussion of a dual personality, though the Lowell personality comes through very clearly. The poet is not seen as the orphan prince of the romantic novel. Nevertheless, in treating the seasons of his madness, the book provides testimony which brings out its susceptibility to romantic and dualistic interpretation.
Donald Davie has written lately in this journal: ‘Great poetry is greatly sane, greatly lucid; and insanity is as much a calamity for poets and for poetry as for other human beings and other sorts of human business.’ These are impressive words. But of course many of the poets of the modern world, and of former worlds, and not the worst poets either, have ‘speeded up’ like Lowell, lighted out, taken off, fallen into despondency, and from bridges: and the primordial romantic tradition is unthinkable without reference to the subject, and to the proposition that this calamity may be favourable to the making of poetry. Davie’s statement turns us towards Lowell with the thought that he may have been both mad and sane – a dual personality in this sense at least – and that his poetry may have been unaffected by his breakdowns. Advanced writers can appear to go further, and to suggest that his poetry, when it succeeds, is necessarily unaffected by his life. Such writers are latterday romantics, who believe in their own way in splitting, in psychic variance and difference, and divide into two the poet and his poems. This poet, however, believed in a poetry which ‘took the whole man’, so that it is possible to propose that his poetry may have ‘taken’ the calamity of his breakdowns.
‘My mind’s not right,’ Lowell says in ‘Skunk Hour’. And the doctors could not put it right. Lowell distrusted psychoanalysis, and psychoanalysts distrusted Lowell – as too severely ill to benefit from their services: he had therefore to rely on the trial and error of biochemical medication – on lithium salts and other drugs. Ian Hamilton does not attempt a diagnosis; he does not say what was wrong. What happened, however, is made vivid, and we have the sense of a hereditary disorder aggravated by a troubled childhood – as the unwanted son of a domineering mother caught in an unwanted marriage to a weak husband. The book is compassionate and sardonic in tracing the rises and falls, the grimness and the painful comedies, of Lowell’s career. Lowell saw the joke himself, and was helped by seeing it: Hamilton sees it, but does not overdo it. He avoids speculation, and is terse, occasionally too terse, in judgment: but the judgments on personal and on literary matters strike me as sound. He is a very skilful narrator.
If we speculate about the cultural interpretations to which the life and work can be subjected, we might say that the idea of a destructive and suffering pre-eminence – accompanied by ordeal and delirium, and impugnable as megalomania – was joined to the idea of psychic division: Lowell appears to have been conscious of this connection. The idea was also joined to that of a licence to offend: an antinomian connection about which the Lowell of the writings was largely but not entirely silent. Such speculations put together the life and the work. They would not get far with those whose stress fell on a severance between the poet and his sufferings.
Against this can be set a number of claims, which include the claim, challenged by experts but widely credited, that Lowell found himself as a poet when he found it possible to write poems about his life. They cannot include the claim that, on the evidence of this biography, and of the affinity which has been observed between books and breakdown in the life of the manic depressive author, it is easy to establish a correlation between the direction taken by his poetry and the incidence of his attacks. The relationship may be there, but it will have to be searched for, and it is unlikely to reveal some triumph of literature over illness, any more than it will enable readers to infer without difficulty, from the pathology of the life, a pathology of the art. Meanwhile the features of his literary career are very strongly marked.
The first phase consists of the harvest of poems assembled under the dates 1938 to 1949 and published in this country in the following year. ‘Mr Edwards and the Spider’ takes the words of the famous Puritan divine and uses them to imitate a hellfire eloquence from the believing past. The eloquence of the collection which surrounds this poem is dark, strained and intimidating, with a high rate of incoherence and collapse. Lowell was by now himself a believer, intent on election, salvation and seclusion. ‘The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket’ could be called Lowell’s ‘Lycidas’: both this poem and Milton’s are about the drowning of a man not especially close to the ambitious young mourner, whose grief is learned and elaborate. The Lowell elegy has almost as much, if a more rebarbative, music. It pursues a meditation on the ocean, and on Captain Ahab’s mad encounter with his whale – a matter in which the poet did not lose interest and which was to colour his view of America’s, and of his own, encounter with the world.
Hamilton prints a retrospective statement by Lowell which explains how poetry looked to him when he came to write it as a young man. There were three choices.
One, which was hardly a choice, was the kind of poetry the public wanted, which was a rather watered-down imitation of 19th century poetry, that really had gone completely dead. The other was an engagé poetry, and the only kind that really seemed to inspire that kind of conviction was the Marxist, usually quite pro-Russian. And the third group, which I more or less belonged to, I think it derives somewhat from Yeats and from Eliot, and in this country friends of mine, Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom. And a rather strange position was built up. There were great arguments that poetry was a form of knowledge, at least as valid as scientific knowledge, and in certain ways more so, because it didn’t abstract from experience. We claimed any – the whole man would be represented in the poem. I think that was a sort of aggressive stance, that we felt at a disadvantage, and my friend and teacher John Crowe Ransom wrote a book of critical essays which might illustrate this, which he called, the book, The World’s Body, that poetry was the world’s body, it took the whole man. I don’t think one would say that now exactly. And we believed in form, that was very important, and for some reason we were very much against the Romantics. We would say that the ideal poet is Shakespeare, who is not a poet of ideology but a poet of experience, and tragedy, and the sort of villains to us were people like Shelley – that he used too much ideology – and Whitman, the prophet, who also seemed formless.
This careful statement does not compel one to doubt that Lowell was a romantic artist; and it is not inimical to the middle period of his development, when his conception of what it was for poetry to be, in this sense, human was nevertheless to undergo a change. Ian Hamilton reckons that ‘The Mills of the Kavanaughs’ (1951), fairly unfamiliar to Lowell’s English readership, should be awarded a significant place in the transition to a more personal and more mobile verse. It is a long poem which owes more to Frost’s long poems of country life and family torment than Hamilton indicates. (‘Grin all to-whichways through your lower lip’ – it even has the master’s voice.) It jumbles childhood and marriage, just as Lowell was sometimes to jumble them in life. It is no less overcharged and ostentatious than some of the poems which precede it, but it is still a wonderful, and wonderfully liberating, piece of work.
There followed the collections Life Studies, For the Union Dead and Near the Ocean, in which he shortens his line and strikes his best vein. Here are poems which take the occasions of the writer’s life, but which it would be philistine to call occasional, or confessional – though ‘confessional’ was to be a name for the new Lowell, and his school. They come from a time when his country had entered a crisis, circa 1968, and Lowell, agonistes, had become a public man. The public poems among them are private as well as public – to a degree which is not incompatible with the, for instance, Marvellian practice of the public poem, but which may not be compatible with the modes of ideology and prophecy mentioned in the retrospective statement and tried for, intermittently, here.
The third and last of these phases embodies collapse and recovery – I am speaking pathologically, of his art. The fourteen-liners of the Notebook sequence were recycled for later volumes, rather in the way in which he started to recycle the poems of others in a series of translations and imitations. The sequence has in it the schoolboy who had seen, as Wordsworth himself saw, in Wordsworth’s Prelude, ambition, genius, and the growth of the poet’s mind: Notebook is to that slight degree Prelude-like, and it shares with Wordsworth’s work a revolutionary crisis. But Wordsworth’s crisis is summoned to the page, whereas Lowell’s is not, and ‘growth’ is not the word for what is recorded in the modern poem, which must be accounted – though it has its remissions – a nightmare. For some, it is true, it is a sortes Americanae, which succeeds in being miscellaneous and random – by furnishing, in the vernacular, a native serendipity and rawness.
The last volumes of all, Dolphin and Day by Day, show signs of exhaustion, but also a return of his prodigious embattled energy and the regaining of his touch. The momentariness – as opposed to ‘growth’? – which had emerged in his verse is carried over into these collections. ‘We are designed for the moment,’ he says. ‘Fish break water with the wings of a bird to escape’ – such moments catch the light of lifelong preoccupations. He also laments, or affects to lament, that ‘Alas, I can only tell my own story,’ while ‘Epilogue’ regrets and explores the display of souvenirs, ‘snapshots’, that his art had allegedly become.
If the ‘progress of his powers’ as an artist – Wordsworth’s words for what is recorded in The Prelude – may be thought to have taken these turns, the progress of Lowell’s life brought hard work, fame, and an alternation of domesticity and escape. The breakdowns were for long intervals subdued and dispersed by drugs, but the escapes that accompanied them brought havoc, and farce. Having knocked his father down in adolescence, he smashed in a car accident, and then smashed all over again, the face of his first wife. Always the reviser. Such works were due for collection, not in any volume of poems, but in the biographies where the havoc and the farce are to be retailed: there is a threshold of admittance to his art at which life can be found to pause. Perhaps the wildest of these works was his descent, on a government-sponsored trip, to Buenos Aires, where he ran amok, insulting generals and riding the equestrian statues. His second marriage, to Elizabeth Hardwick, was essentially an enduring one, and her devotion and intelligence illuminate and support this biography. Other women promised a new leaf, and eventually there was the romance of a departure for England: ‘a new alliance’, as he put it, ‘and a new country’. This was not, he said, another of his ‘manic crushes’. What connections can be made between the two progresses in question, between the grand cycle of his writings and the epicycles of his manic onsets, and how do these connections relate to the difference between the times when he was crazy and the times when he was well? ‘On my great days of sickness, I was God.’ Once a god, always a god? And yet always a reviser. On other days he can sound like Philip Larkin. Were there two Lowells, or only one?
Lowell employed the term ‘dual personality’, a term which belongs to literature, and which also belongs to 19th-century medicine. The meaning of the term has remained uncertain: but it is certain that generations of writers have been moved by it, in their treatment of the subject of psychic division and of the phantasmagoric double, and it has also been used to treat the sick. It can be said that Robert Lowell addressed the subject of duality, and that the subject addressed him. He bore the two first names that might be deemed appropriate to a divided self: Robert and Cal (for Caligula, and perhaps Caliban). According to Elizabeth Hardwick, ‘his fate was like a strange, almost mythical two-engined machine, one running to doom and the other to salvation.’ This is the language of the romantic tradition, and of a romantic religiosity: that it is employed by a shrewd wife may seem to authenticate its description of her husband. Lowell remarked of his generation of American poets, who were considered (as other poets have been considered) to be under a curse: Berryman ‘in his mad way keeps talking about something evil stalking us poets. That’s a bad way to talk, but there’s truth in it.’ It’s a diabolic and a dualistic way to talk. And it’s a conventional way, as the poem ‘To John Berryman’ points out in passing. In one of his last poems, ‘Home’, he invokes the Devil in exhibiting a nostalgia for his former faith:
The Queen of Heaven, I miss her,
we were divorced. She never doubted
the divided, stricken soul
could call her Maria,
and rob the devil with a word.
In ‘Skunk Hour’ he is in a state of possession, which includes possession by the Devil of Paradise Lost:
my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,
as if my hand were at its throat ...
I myself am hell,
nobody’s here –
And yet this poem is the more self-possessed of the two.
Frost wrote of a road not taken and of another that made all the difference. Hesitating in England between his second and third wives, before flying back to an appointment in Samarra and New York, Lowell appeared to himself to have taken both of the roads before him: ‘I feel like a man walking on two ever more splitting roads at once, as if I were pulled apart and thinning into mist, or rather being torn apart and still preferring that state to making a decision.’
The prose memoir of his childhood, in Life Studies, has this: ‘Miss Manice, in her administration of the lower school, showed the inconsistency and euphoria of the dual personality.’ ‘Inconsistency’ dates, as does his image of the flying fish, from the dualistic literature of the first Romantic period, and euphoric inconsistency can be taken to refer to the dual personality popularly associated with Lowell’s illness of ‘manic depression’. ‘Dual personality’ does not, to be sure, diagnose that illness, and appears indeed to be clinically dissociated from it: it is best to say that it designates the cultural heritage to which he turned for guidance, and for metaphors, as he moved in and out of his mania’s ‘old perverse dark maze’, with ‘its hackneyed speech, its homicidal eye’, its delusions of grandeur and infallibility.
The serious duality in his work is mostly an affair of tight corners, cleft sticks, double binds, the ‘choice of evils’ alluded to (along with Berryman’s ‘something evil’) in his letters – of the inconsistency which responds successively or simultaneously to rival courses of action, which mists over on occasion and is torn in two. He is interested in the impossible escape, the disastrous rescue, the lighting-out which puts out its own light. This is the subject of his funniest and grimmest joke, which scores by sounding like a limerick:
if we see a light at the end of the tunnel,
it’s the light of an oncoming train.
‘Waking Early Sunday Morning’ is a poem, at once public and personal, which bends and breaks a Marvell metre in order to write about a variety of escapes, possible and impossible, and about President Johnson and war. It has the refrain: ‘Anywhere, but somewhere else.’ Edward Hopper’s superb American painting Early Sunday Morning – shop fronts, drawn blinds, heavy sleepers to be imagined behind them – is a there and nowhere else: Lowell wakes to a vista of elsewheres. ‘O to break loose’: the poem opens with a salmon making its leaps, nosing upstream to an ‘impossible’ destination, ‘alive enough to spawn and die’. The middle of the poem has Lowell longing to be pure, unstained, to fly up to heaven on the wings of the soul.
O that the spirit could remain
tinged but untarnished by its strain!
Spirit flight is present in Marvell’s poem about privacy, ‘The Garden’, which supplied Lowell’s stanza form. And it is present in Tom Moore’s ode ‘To the Flying-Fish’, which longs to ‘cast every lingering stain away’ and to climb to a ‘purer air’. ‘Let not my spirit’s flight be weak,’ pants Moore, known to the world as the poet of an amorous love. We discover that Lowell has tied himself to the four-stress line of the pious past. Whereupon the poem cuts amorously to
O to break loose. All life’s grandeur
Is something with a girl in summer ...
This grandeur immediately becomes the elation of the President, ‘girdled’ by his cronies, and also both ‘unbuttoned’ and ‘nude’. Lyndon Johnson plays the bear that Lowell would sometimes pretend to be: this potentate is the poet who is telling him off.
Pity the planet, all joy gone
From this sweet volcanic cone;
peace to our children when they fall
in small war on the heels of small
war – until the end of time
to police the earth, a ghost
orbiting forever lost
in our monotonous sublime.
These words were, and perhaps still are, politically effective. But they refer to another world as well as to the world we have, with its small wars. It takes a god to pity a planet (in certain of the poems, it is a god who goes with girls), and Lowell has turned into one. He has leapt up into the sky, and is looking down on the poor little policed earth, and on the Pax Americana. This apotheosis may count for some people as an impossible escape, but it does not do so for the poem in which it occurs. The poem does seem to be describing a departure. Which way he flies is Heaven. There’s a vertigo in getting as high as this, and there are qualms for the reader throughout the poem. It is as if it were being written by its words and by the resemblances between them, by its rhymes, by its ‘stains’ and ‘strains’: as if the writer’s attention were at once fixed, intense – and wandering. But it is Lowell to the life, in all the majesty, and authority, of his distraction.
In the framing of these impossibilities, and in the hope of overcoming them, Lowell’s tragic life received expression. It is expressed in a predicament which appears in one of the Dolphin sonnets, ‘Fall Weekend at Milgate’:
The warm day brings out wasps to share our luck,
Suckers for sweets, pilots of evolution;
dozens drop in the beercans, clamber, buzz,
debating like us whether to stay and drown,
or, by losing legs and wings, take flight.
The writer is by now in Kent, after his romantic flight to a new country. He is soon to return to his second wife in New York. And he is soon to die of a heart attack, carrying, for valuation, a painting of his third wife. The poem foresees this – but would be a fine poem even if it didn’t. This Wasp is one of his own wasps. The tight corners of the natural world appealed to Lowell, and spoke for him. He is the spawning salmon who leaps to his death, executing his negative escape. He is also a pilot of evolution.
There is a type of paradox, and predicament, which is, as it happens, peculiarly expressive of Lowell, and which is identified, for readers of Plato, and again in modern times for readers of Derrida, with the ancient Greek word pharmakon, a drug. The word could mean both a poison and a cure. And this is what drugs were for Lowell. They braked his euphorias, but demeaned him, tamed him with Miltown, poured their balm, but embalmed him there: Lowell must have felt with regret, though also with relief, that they had stopped him functioning as a god, and he must have feared that they might stop him functioning as a poet. Ian Hamilton explains that the effect of lithium was ‘to balance the sufferer between the two poles, as it were, of his affliction – between the extremes of elation and depression’. Lithium-users were not ‘dazed’ or ‘sluggish’, but appeared ‘suspended’, ‘above the battle’: nevertheless, for this sufferer, there was safety in lithium. Drugs are indeed, for everyone, equivocal. ‘Each drug that numbs alerts another nerve to pain’: Lowell was well-versed in the equivocal, and in the incurable.
His conversance with duality ranged beyond what has been said – to owning a double, for instance, in the bear-like poet Roethke, who proved, as doubles often must, an embarrassment. Nor was this the only such embarrassment. The joke attributed to Auden about Berryman’s leap, from a bridge – a parting note is supposed to have read, ‘Your move, Cal’ – is about a further rivalry of the kind that prevailed with Roethke. As in the case of the Russian poet, Akhmatova, there was a choice of clones available to him among the maudits of his lost generation. In the poem which has his flying fish he hails a ‘double’ in a soiled white horse, and it may be that ‘Miss Manice’ doubled for him too. Here and there, the language of the subject is used incidentally or ornamentally, as in the sonnet ‘Lunch Date’, where ‘double life’ may refer to a friendship between black and white.
What duality meant to Lowell is one thing. What the language and outlook meant to those confronted with his behaviour is something else again – though not invariably. They assisted friends, as they assisted him, to deal with the contrasts brought about by a vertiginous mutability, with occasions when the Old Lowell or ‘real Cal’ was felt to have been superseded, or to have become concealed – though capable, for some, of peering out from amid the mischief. He could seem like a man possessed by the devil, and a socialite girlfriend once came abruptly to grips with a vacancy: ‘The person inside was not there. And I have marvellous guardian angels. I think that if I had struggled at that time I wouldn’t be here.’ The person inside never seems to have liked her all that much, however, and it may be right to impute a change of mood, rather than of personality. It may also be right to reflect that everyone suffers such changes, and that drink and drugs may cause them.
Most of his friends were sufficiently scientific in outlook to have thought it theatrical to talk of two Lowells, let alone of demonic possession. They would have been fairly sure that there was only the one. Those who stole with him to the pub down the street from Greenways nursing-home in St John’s Wood, to be told on the way, in the weary, humble voice he was apt to use, of his descent from ‘You know, Robert the Bruce and James Boswell,’ would have had no trouble in identifying this man with the man they knew at other times, when he was well. The two ancestors were an inspired choice, or chance – for all that accidents of language may have played a part in determining it. The reference to Boswell has the effect of seeming to gather together the various Lowells, on and off the page, into the one repertoire or register – a totality which ranges from James Boswell to ‘Skunk Hour’, and which is susceptible, as human beings tend to be, of dualistic interpretation. ‘There’s no disclaiming these outbursts – they are part of my character – me at moments.’
‘Designed for the moment’: in the Confessions of Robert Lowell character and mood converge. Do we ever feel that the man inside is not there? The idea of the divided mind has been attended, since the Romantic period, by the idea of an openness to the world. Both conditions can be encountered in his writings. This openness has been a species of isolation, has communicated both presence and absence, an individual and a vacancy, and has not always excluded romantic egotism and delusions of grandeur. In Lowell, it communicates a mingling of innocence and experience, indifference and exposure, in relation to the planet’s events, ideas and people. Randall Jarrell – valued by Lowell for his ability to see the man in the poem – spoke early on of Lowell’s lack of interest in people, and we need not think that the good poems about his parents, wives and children, and about historical personages, dismiss this suggestion. But we do need to think that much of the poetry we have been accustomed to over the last two hundred years has lacked an interest in people. The paradox of innocence and experience is no copyright of Lowell’s. This is what poetry has been like.
To history and to the great, to the ‘great’ Kennedy clan, for instance, he was both indifferent and acutely exposed. When he calls on the powerful to repent, while delighting in their power, it is of his own power, and of his Canossas, that we can be conscious: in the same way, the poems about his family, and the obituary pieces about other writers, can be poems about – as Elizabeth Hardwick put it in another connection – ‘himself’. This is a poetry in which public is private, and the immunity to people an anagram of an immunity to the politics to which he eagerly responds. And this can be seen as the immunity of mutability. The conscientious objector who entered the tensions and uproars of the late Sixties, and marched on the Pentagon, has his dark double in the connoisseur of greatness and war. The left-wing Lowell of the admiration that accrued to a people’s poet was no more left than right. In the late Forties he was caught up, miserably and madly, in what can only be termed an anti-Communist witch-hunt directed against the woman who ran the Yaddo retreat for writers. This was at a time when he was still a proclaimed and inflamed Catholic and ascetic, a visitor to Trappist as well as writers’ retreats, half-inclined to the noviciate that was in mind for the great sinner Stavrogin, a pious poet even more tormented than Eliot – indeed, like the young Eliot, something of a Saint Narcissus. Christianity was on the march among the intelligentsia of the time. In his vulnerability and excitement, with religion locked into the recurrences of the manic cycle, he responded for several years: thereafter, not without misgivings, he stood divorced from the Queen of Heaven. To the move towards religion in the Forties, and to the move towards politics in the Sixties, he was in turn perceptively alive: and we may reflect that dual personality is liable to invasion by the environment.[*]
This is not to deny that his swivelling made sense, for those interested in his opinions or in the times to which they bore witness. The same pendulum was on the move in the work of Norman Mailer, another diabolical dualist, another man of the Left whose sense of a stalking evil drew him to the right. Duality has done its bit to distract American socialism, and to instruct it. To a charge of complicity with the student protesters of the Sixties Lowell replied: ‘they are only us younger, and the violence that has betrayed our desires will also betray theirs if they trust to it.’
In the records of literary duality the great man and his terrible mistakes are inscribed. Dream, delirium and the paranoid sublime plead on his behalf. The hypothesis of the divided mind and the double life is made over to fit the facts of idiosyncrasy and exaltation and error: such facts are thereby excused and disowned. The great man is made over into two men. Lowell cannot be said to pursue this defence in his writings: and I think that even if he had been a novelist, with a novelist’s opportunities to ‘disown’, he would have refused it. But it may have been a reason why he became a historian and went into the past, where the tolerance of this defence, and of the great, is imagined to have been greater. He knew himself to be a strange case, knew what it was to have his own hands at his throat, and we have his word for it that he had functioned as a god and that he aspired to be saved, despite himself: who, he asked, ‘can hope to enter heaven with clean hands’? The ironies that can be assigned to such statements do not appear to be signalling a retraction. And the defence which he did not pursue may be thought to have helped to fashion his fame.
‘My eyes have seen what my hand did’: he took the blame for his mistakes, and he suffered for them, courageously. The ‘monster’ can therefore, in his own words once more, be ‘pitied’. But it is also the case that the literary culture, while fearing and disliking them, has admired such monsters. They are sacred. His double life is attested by the fact of his having been liked and loved by those familiar with his offences – some of whom may have divided him into sick and sane. Those less exposed could see him – single or double – as privileged to offend. Drunkenness, assault – no sin can be committed by someone in a state of grace, said the 17th-century Antinomian in his religious sect, and the same permission has been granted to poets. In a forthcoming issue of this paper, the poet Tom Paulin will suggest that Lowell’s exploits in Argentina were a repudiation of the CIA, and that ‘his madness’ of this time was ‘a form of extreme integrity’. Not all of his antinomian exploits can as plausibly be defended in these terms: but attempts will be made.
Lowell can be placed with the authors and characters of a literature in which such justifications are offered, and in which art and life may appear to be indistinguishable. Boundless confidence and vanity, impossible escapes – these had been foresuffered by more than one of the writers to whom he is close. Frost and Mailer belong to the tradition. Hogg and Dostoevsky are novelists who tell their own story, in a manner to which we are more accustomed in poets, while telling the story of great deeds, and of monsters to be pitied: in both cases, an authorial duality is responsible for texts whose uncertainties are a matter of intent, and of doctrine, but can give glimpses of a void. ‘Ahab’s void’ – such glimpses can be named by raiding the Lowell lexicon.
The tradition is one in which the great man may be a great writer. He may be the writer of the work in which the great man is excused and disowned. And he may seize power by conquering some literary world. This is difficult to do – as Marvell wrote of Cromwell’s return from Ireland,
The same arts that did gain
A power, must it maintain.
If the Irish joke about ‘Famous Heaney’ implies a practice of the necessary arts, the joke is misplaced: but Lowell was cannier in this respect than might have been looked for. He was willing to command and recruit audiences and disciples: the latter, their hour come, have assisted Ian Hamilton in his inquiries, and their thoughtful accounts are enclosed in his book. The literary persona, and the solitary’s embrace and rejection of a literary world, were as important to Lowell as they were to the writers he resembles: not the least of their works is the impersonation of a writer who sets the world on fire. We may decide that this endeavour is integral to what they wrote – while complaining, if we wish, that Lowell was famous for being famous, and that the poet Elizabeth Bishop – whose excellence he unstintingly respected – has so far failed to be as famous, through failing to be famous. The autobiographical Hogg was a strangely boastful Hogg: and his celebrity, which was that of his duality, and an aspect of his subject-matter, was commensurate with his self-importance. Both were very great. Think of him, in his capacity as Ettrick Shepherd, as the people’s poet from the mountains of the North, shining at a Holborn banquet, amid a cloud of English witnesses and worshippers.[†] Ian Hamilton is engrossing on Lowell’s persona and professional career, on his role as President of the Poets and King of the Cats – and has been rewarded with American discussions of his book which concentrated on that side of the story, to the neglect of the poems. The great man was stripped of his work, and put to the test, among others, of feminism – a test which no male solipsist can hope to pass.
For all Lowell’s ‘Lycidas’, and for all his involvement in the dynamics and ‘last infirmity’ of a literary potentate’s subsequent career, it is of Donne, with his feeling for opposites, rather than Milton, that we may think when we turn to link him with the remoter past. Donne was not only a dualist but a convert. And, according to some, a conformist: over his change of faith there hangs, according to Eliot, the ‘shadow of the impure motive’. We do not know whether he had ceased to be the Catholic that we do not know whether Lowell became. We do know that he was forced into a contention with his God, and with himself. ‘Lowell is distraught about religion,’ wrote R.P. Blackmur: Rome and Boston quarrel in the early verse, and the conflict is not ‘accepted’, but ‘hated’, by the poet.
Another partner in duality is Frost, to whom Lowell went in his youth with the air of a disciple – only to be patronised as such by a narcissist at the height of his fame and with long and bitter experience of the paranoid sublime. And yet megalomania obliged by helping to form Lowell, by helping him to find a movement for his verse once the Hopkins and Dylan Thomas influences had subsided. Frost’s dualistic prosody – with its tension between metrical regularity and the emphases of the speaking voice – was meant to impart to poems ‘the sound of sense’. This sound is heard again in Lowell: the iamb was preserved through thick and thin, long lines and short. The double bind of speech and scansion dictates the controversial deformations of Marvell’s movement which take place in the middle period of Lowell’s verse (it is quite uncontroversially apparent, of course, in most poetry). In other poems of that period it is vestigially faint. But it was to reassert itself.
The tradition of the bad self, of antinomian duality, with its fevers and remorses, great days and dumps, can be understood stylistically, but it has never been narrowly prescriptive in that respect, and it has left its imprint on other poetries besides Lowell’s. There are features of his poetry, therefore, which appear to depend on the tradition, but which are no different from what was expected of poetry – of poetry, at any rate, which took the whole man – at the time when he undertook to be a great writer, in the Thirties. Some of these features, and some others, we may think we understand in relation to the history of his illness, in terms of its exhaustions and depletions. We do not suppose that the factor of rise and fall in his artistic development can be seen as a strategic counterpart of the manic cycle: can we suppose that many of the fourteen-liners fail as a mind might fail?
His first work is a poetry of the self which has yet to learn to tell his own story: a poetry of churning energies, of turmoil and anathema, and of arrest. As Jarrell was to warn him, it piles up its best effects, its strong lines (the ‘strong line’ relished in Donne by his contemporaries, incidentally, had to do, among other aspects of his verse, with ‘the sound of sense’, with what Ben Jonson called not keeping the accent – Jonson who predicted that Donne would die out through not being understood). We should not assume that poets must take an interest in other people, or that egotism prevents this: it does seem that the early faults were corrected when Lowell was able to express a new interest in himself, that this opened his poetry to the world in a way that was fruitful, and unequivocal. Then came a poetry of imitation and imperfection. A dementia of sources and sayings, excerpts and extracts and occasions. An automatism of constant repair. So many of the sonnets an aggregation of strong lines, with a sententious or bombastic last line of all. Leaps and ellipses that can’t be tracked. A conflation of this person with that. Arguments that start only to be dropped. A testimony in Ian Hamilton’s book tells of Lowell’s habit by now of inserting ‘not’s’ into his lines in order to improve them – so that there wouldn’t be a line that wasn’t well-written. Here, perhaps, is a new form of negative capability – a new form, in other words, of duality. But this is no more duality than it is derangement.
Did anyone ever sleep with anyone
Without thinking a split second he was God?
This ‘he’ is presumably the chauvinistic third person singular, and is the lover rather than the partner: but it stirs a doubt that halts the poem, and the statement might well have stirred second thoughts, and a high rate of ‘not’s’, in the compulsive reviser.
In an elegy for Lowell, ‘North Haven’, Elizabeth Bishop refers, in a somewhat different spirit, to what he did with, and to, his poems, refers to his ‘derangements’ and ‘rearrangements’, linking them with a power of nature, of the planet. ‘Nature repeats herself, or almost does.’ Nature insists: ‘repeat, repeat, repeat; revise, revise, revise.’ This is as much as to suggest that the courage shown in other areas of his life was also shown in his revisions, for all the harm they did (look at the harm nature does), and we can agree that there was a power there, as well as a pathos.
Many of the peculiarities of his poetry are the peculiarities of modern poetry at large (we may think of Pound, as well as nature, and of many other very different writers besides). Modern poetry owes more than a little of what Lowell owes to a tradition which is itself in some sense mad, or half-mad. There are writings which do what they can with a series of elations, desolations and depletions. There is a romance whose past masters have gone mad and which takes madness as its method and main region. Whole chapters, whole works, by Dostoevsky are spent in delirium, in fits and onsets. Myshkin ‘wanted to be alone, so as to give himself up entirely and passively to this agonising feeling of insufferable strain, without seeking to escape it. He loathed the idea of trying to solve the problems that filled his mind and heart to overflowing. “Am I to blame for everything?” he muttered to himself, hardly realising what he was saying ... He knew that at the time when he was expecting such an attack, he was extraordinarily absent-minded and often mixed up things and people, if he did not look at them with special, concentrated attention.’ These are works where a version of the world is offered which is as strange as El Greco’s paintings are allegedly astigmatic, but which can be ‘read’ by others. Lowell’s poems are like this, and they are not like this. They do not contribute to the romantic diary of a madman which is still being compiled by writers, for a public confident that it can read it, but far from confident that it can distinguish between some of the insanities and some of its own states. There are times when his poems participate in the state described by Dostoevsky, or something like it, when they appear notably self-confined, when they commemorate, and may need to commemorate, the excitements from which, in life, he was glad to recover. But they can also be said to oppose the state. Opposing the state meant opposing himself, and expressing himself. It took heroism, as well as narcissism, to steer his talent into the storm, towards his own story.
The solitude of the modern poet is nothing new, nor are the violence and indifference which it may contain. But there is a reverence for hostility which may be peculiar to the modern world, and Lowell’s writings, once he had found himself, rarely add to it.
[*] In an American study by Vereen Bell, Robert Lowell: Nihilist as Hero (Harvard University Press, 251 pp., £14, March, 0 674 77585 6), the poet’s inner life is pictured at one point in quasi-religious terms, in terms of a spiritual purity which lies open to contamination. ‘In Lowell’s poetry, as a rule, the inner life cannot displace the external, and the external in fact introjects so deeply that it infects the very language that might be used to displace it. The effect of the pressure of history is to narrow the gap for Lowell between art and life and therefore to foreclose any chance of redemption through mere sensibility.’ Vereen Bell acknowledges that ‘Helen Vendler’s contribution to this work and to my spirits has been immeasurable’: the work is hard to read, and it delivers a series of adverse judgments which must indeed have been experienced as bleak. It speaks of the ‘chronic and eventually systematic pessimism’ of the poetry. ‘The nihilistic fatigue of “Waking Early Sunday Morning” is unmitigated.’ The nihilistic hero is clearly not one to be envied or emulated. But it seems that Lowell has the merit of having disbelieved himself: his poetry is redeemed by a residual ‘idealism’.
[†] James Hogg: Selected Stories and Sketches, edited by Douglas Mack, Scottish Academic Press, 211 pp., £8.50, 12 January, 0 7073 0322 2. These pieces come from around the second decade of the 19th century, and the edition is based on the texts of their first publication in magazines. They include a minor work which commends itself to the historian of duality – the ‘Strange Letter of a Lunatic’, in which Hogg went back, some six years later, to the burning ground occupied by the Confessions of a Justified Sinner.