Some Names for Robert Lowell

Karl Miller

  • 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.

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[*] 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.