- Robert Lowell: Essays on the Poetry edited by Steven Gould Axelrod and Helen Deese
Cambridge, 377 pp, £17.50, June 1987, ISBN 0 571 14979 0
- Collected Prose by Robert Lowell, edited and introduced by Robert Giroux
Faber, 269 pp, £27.50, February 1987, ISBN 0 521 30872 0
If Robert Lowell had not been a Lowell would he ever have had the confidence to write the poems he did? It is impossible to imagine the scion of a distinguished English family using that family now as a basis for poetic composition. But all Lowell’s poems are about being a Lowell, or rather, more specifically, about being this Lowell. Only in the home of democracy, probably, could the personality of the poet as aristocrat be asserted today in this fashion.
It is an irony which strikes deeper with each rereading, and the realisation of it comes each time to seem more important to the status and success of the poems. It is the regal touch. Life Studies are Lowell studies, in the same way that a prince of the blood might become absorbed, without either self-consciousness or false modesty, in compiling an intimate dynastic chronicle. The word ‘Lowell’ occurs and recurs in the same spaciously necessary way. The poet’s father wears his ‘oval Lowell smile’ as naturally as a Hapsburg his lip; and there is a casual, humorous assumption of lèse-majesté, as between poet and reader, in the news that the poet’s mother’s coffin had the misspelled name ‘Lovel’ on it when it was sent home from Italy. Doubtless that was put right before the coffin took its place in the family vaults. In terms of solid pomp Schönbrunn or the Escorial have nothing on the funerary monuments of an American cemetery.
The irony multiplies when the Lowell entourage is considered. Every difficult poet has his devoted following, but even so Lowell’s case is remarkable. Those who were in attendance upon him found it natural to look on egocentric follies or irresponsibilities as acts of heroic virtue, a testament to the wonderful fact that America had produced what was once seen in Europe as civilisation’s diadem: a great poet who was also a patrician. Whereas a noble lord who wrote verse could scarcely be conceived as being more than a figure of fun in contemporary English circles, the rhapsodies which greeted Lowell’s early poems in the American press surely indicated a deep if obscure feeling that the USA had, in the cultural sense, finally arrived. More than one contributor to the new collection of essays on his poetry refers dryly to the headlines in the American press (‘MOST PROMISING POET IN 100 YEARS’) which greeted the publication of Lord Weary’s Castle in 1946, and remarks on the total indifference of the popular publicity machine in America to the achievements of other new American poets.
Lowell himself deepens the ironies. What an extraordinary analogy to take with his poetry, that of Vermeer, and Vermeer’s paintings and interiors! One of the editors, Helen Deese, writes a highly perceptive essay on the relation of Lowell’s poetry to the visual arts, but she seems to take it for granted that the Vermeer analogy invoked, for example, in Lowell’s ‘Epilogue’ is a natural and normal one. It seems to me nonsensical, one of the most blatant indications of Lowell’s kingly habit of assuming he owned the country.
Pray for the grace of accuracy
Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination
stealing like a tide across a map
to his girl solid with yearning.
Those lines seem to me not only bad but remarkably vulgar as well, with the sort of involuntary vulgarity which upper-class assumptions of universal ownership entail. ‘Solid with yearning’ is an almost perfect description of something in Lowell himself, but simply makes a graffiti scribble across the simple mystery of Woman in Blue Reading a Letter. Vermeer is the reverse of a king; his art the very opposite of Lowell’s credo that ‘the artist’s existence becomes his art.’ Vermeer’s pictures are endlessly mysterious and commonplace precisely because the artist is not in them, has been able so completely to exclude himself. And this is the mystery which is wholly lacking in Life Studies. There is a final logic in the fact that Lowell’s success in those wonderful poems is its own nemesis, a perfect verbal score – ‘twenty-twenty’, like his father’s vision. ‘Nothing is real until set down in words,’ and what is set down is the ‘living name’. The grace of accuracy is not that of a Vermeer but of a superb photograph, the split-second reality which sums it all up. Lowell’s eye in art is
Fifty years of snapshots,
The ladder of ripening likeness.
In his introductory essay Steven Gould Axelrod writes that ‘Lowell felt so personally contingent that he dedicated himself to a task of self-creation in an unfinishable discourse, spent his life pushing across the borders of his previous texts, lived only in the ever-shifting frontier of an immanence he variously termed his “style”, his “voice”, his “texts”, his “poems”, his “living name”.’ Could a poet with any other name have done the same? Byron wrote ‘Byron’ on the temple metope, and Byron is the name invoked by everything he wrote, and in the breast of every admirer. Invoking Milton’s Satan, or Napoleon, or George III (in a long and elaborate poem), Lowell does not so much identify with those persons as cause them to appear in a new light as Robert Lowell. Who else could they be? What else could the poets and poems taken over in Imitations be? It is significant that Byron distinguished between himself as Byron and as a writer who, like Pushkin, another aristocrat, wrote for money and reputation. This separation of the social and the scribbling self (‘I hate a fellow that’s all author’) is important to the persona of the European writer as aristocrat. Lowell is the first of the genre to need his status as an aristocrat while identifying wholly with it as a poet.
In his introduction to the Faber Book of Modern American Verse W.H. Auden pointed out that ‘every American poet feels that the whole responsibility ... has fallen upon his shoulders, that he is a literary aristocracy of one, whereas a British poet can take writing more for granted, and so write with a lack of strain and over-earnestness.’ From an aesthetic point of view this second attitude can be an asset to the reader, as it is to the viewer of Vermeer’s pictures: he can feel that the poet or artist has a life of his own outside his art. It makes both for interest and for repose. Neither, in a way, is possible or relevant to Lowell’s ‘living name’, or to the seriousness with which it must be established. Berryman as a poet was not so different, but it is extremely relevant that Berryman, like other self-creating poets, had to invent a persona – that of ‘Anne Bradstreet’, or ‘Henry Pussycat’ – in order to become his real self set down in words. Lowell had no need for that: his self and his persona were both absolute Lowell.
Yet he did share with his peers the general characteristics stated by Auden to be typical of American poets – an unremitting professionalism like that of crack golfers, tennis-players, racing-drivers. It is this which makes their essays and criticism, their letters and public pronouncements, so strangely depressing. The reader eventually becomes fed up with ‘poetry’, with the techniques and reputations of those who practise it, in the way he would if he were listening to the perpetual shop of experts who think and talk of nothing but their ruling passion, and their colleagues in its practice. The thing to them is literally a matter of life and death; but it is also, paradoxically, totally a matter of the trade and the business. The great tycoons who shaped American material prosperity, and built their American fortunes, understood very well how it must be – and can only be – both. Axelrod quotes as high praise, and as something to which Lowell’s censorious biographers pay too little attention, the words of his second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick. She said that ‘texts had been his life.’ A tycoon’s widow might equally say, and in the same spirit, that ‘money had been his life.’ The sharpest point that Marjorie Perloff makes is to quote from Ian Hamilton’s biography of Lowell, recalling his treatment of one of his mistresses, the Lithuanian dancer Vija Vetra, for whom he declared ‘undying love’, and whom he set up in a Manhattan flat, rented in the name of Mr and Mrs Robert Lowell. A few weeks later she was summoned by Lowell’s solicitor and told to quit the premises in two days. ‘Heartless, absolutely heartless’ was Miss Vetra’s not unjustified comment: ‘But that’s the American way. Very ugly.’ Marjorie Perloff cannot resist remarking that the dancer ‘did not know who the Lowells of Boston were, and did not fully appreciate that her lover was a Great Poet’. More to the point, perhaps, Lowell’s behaviour was not only that of a poet-king in disguise but that of a tycoon acting in the normal way.
Axelrod spends much of his introductory essay denouncing Ian Hamilton’s biography of Lowell, while admitting its authority and its sense of what the Lowell legend is all about. I feel a good deal of sympathy for Axelrod’s contention that the biography largely ignores the fact of genius, and its fruits, while cataloguing the bad behaviour of the poet with an air of clinical detachment, and even a slight suggestion of English superiority. There does seem to be a kind of animus in Hamilton’s account, and a tendency to imply that Lowell’s manic periods, when an unbalanced cerebral chemistry drove him certifiably insane, were somehow his fault. George III was not, after all, responsible for his kingly porphyria. Yet madness had nothing to do with some of Lowell’s more repellent traits: his casual bullying, that of the spoiled prince setting about the courtiers, or the bred-in-the-bone snobbishness which seems to have dictated at least one of his sudden matrimonial swoops. Against that, Lowell was surely more aware than most poets (more than Shelley, for instance) of his own failings, and his power of working through them is equally bred in the bone of his best poetry. If there was something rotten in him, his art confronts it, possibly even exploits it, but never merely exhibits it involuntarily.
Marjorie Perloff’s essay, the most combative in the book, would not agree with that. She sees both Lowell and Berryman as unfree, in a way that American poetry should not be: cribbed and confined not so much by wilful violence or compulsive neurosis, as by a fundamentally ‘un-American’ social background. ‘Both Lowell and Berryman were, in a curious way, perfect preppies. They had been to the right schools (St Mark’s for Lowell, South Kent for Berryman); they assiduously avoided Bohemia ... and Lowell’s brief “rebellion” against Harvard, which brought him first to Vanderbilt and then to Kenyon, should not obscure the simple truth that he was, like Berryman, the ultimate Ivy Leaguer, the educated genteel intellectual who would spend a good portion of his life on campuses like Harvard or Princeton. Yet the other side of the preppie portrait is that of the Wild Man ... the aggressively promiscuous macho poet.’ The social detail accumulated here is itself revealing, as if Perloff was giving all the evidence she could to place and pin them down in a way that could not be done with real American poets – Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, John Ashbery. She even places Lowell inside a critical trope. ‘The New Critical doctrine that every poem is a little drama built around a central paradox is ... in the very fabric of their lives ... especially Lowell, whose life is the emblem of New Critical tensions.’ He is the New England Puritan aristocrat who is also a relentless womaniser, the ‘Mayflower screwball’ (a satisfying oxymoron out of Hamilton), the conscientious objector hectoring on about Hitler’s ‘brilliance’.
Now this is a very shrewd way to depreciate Lowell’s achievement. Perloff is surely quite right to see that Lowell’s life studies are also critical exercises; that he uses his complex social and personal status, as Hamlet might have done, to create living and lively metaphysical paradoxes. Newer critics than those of the New Criticism might say that he had no choice; that this is what literature is in any case all about; that Lowell willed his life into making the sort of poetry he had been taught to admire as a student – clever, metaphysical and British. The heart of Perloff’s attack is that Lowell lacks the Continental, Jewish-type cosmopolitanism proper to an American intellectual. He and Berryman were not continually excited by experiment, as American intellectuals ought to be. They show not ‘the slightest indication of interest in the dominant art movement of their time, Abstract Expressionism, or in its successors, Pop Art, Minimalism and Conceptual Art’.
Bully for them, one might all irreverently feel. Those things represent American seriousness of another kind, and one which Lowell and Berryman, obsessed with the techniques of their own sport, had neither time nor inclination to study. In the same way Lowell’s ‘politics’ are really only cosmetic, a question of good manners. Perloff’s reservations here are sound, need to be attended to. There is a strong feeling of the best school traditions in the behaviour of the pair – win or lose, play the game to the limit – with Awful Behaviour, and concentration on the poetic ball, as substitutes for the school code. ‘To have no outlet but the literary life on the campus or in the quarterlies is not as unconnected as it might seem to the endless cycle of broken marriages and mental breakdowns, alcoholism and suicide, that characterised the lives of what we might call the tragic generation of genteel poets.’ ‘Genteel’ because never really involved, and (though Perloff specifically denies this) in much the same situation as earlier poètes maudits like Baudelaire, who had to manufacture their own hells, because life, war, politics had put them, as true participants, to one side. ‘We asked to be obsessed with writing,’ said Lowell, ‘and we were.’ And to Berryman he wrote about their troubles that ‘these knocks are almost a proof of intelligence and valour in us.’ How unimaginable that Wilfred Owen should have written such a thing from the trenches, but then he was pushed into being a poet by circumstances. Like Baudelaire, Berryman and Lowell had to make their circumstances: otherwise they would have decayed like their parents and their parents’ friends into class-ridden depression.
Perloff concludes that the ‘Age of Lowell’ has already vanished, because it marked ‘the end of an era rather than ushering in a new one’, and this view is echoed by some other remarks quoted in the book. Young poets at poetry readings say that almost every other poet is ‘their contemporary’, but not Lowell. Like Colonel Shaw of For the Union Dead he is ‘out of bounds’ now, left behind like a museum exhibit, a period photograph, while Abstract Expressionism, or whatever its equivalent in ongoing American poetry may be, continues its fissiparous course. Is Lowell the victim of what he himself called ‘the bravado of perpetual revolution, breakthrough as the stereotype, with nothing preserved’? That, in a sense, would be a fit end for a king, remaining embalmed in the history books, in anecdotes, stories and tableaux.
But it is not the impression one receives from the essays of the other contributors to this volume. One and all, they seize with old-fashioned avidity upon the facts in the poetry – the skunks and the cars and the localised despairs. George McFadden is particularly good on the diminished intimacies of the last Day by Day collection, and Alex Calder writes about the ‘process poems’ of History and Notebook. All this criticism of the poetry has to centre on its human and biographical aspect. There is a certain comedy in the way in which academics trained in modern methods have to come to terms with this, and do so with a sometimes grudging admission of continued admiration. ‘To enter any one of the poems,’ writes Sandra Gilbert, ‘was like entering a darkened, heavily curtained room where someone has been living a very long time with too many family relics. Dusty, sadly factual, sardonically circumstantial, they were like endless anecdotes told by an ancient mariner. Why did one continue to sit in the darkened parlour?’ And she goes on: ‘That I then did not understand quite why I went on reading and rereading Life Studies even while I continued to pore (and that seems an appropriate word) over the grimiest details of the poems shows just how valuable an exercise continual rereading is. Because I think I know consciously now what I unconsciously intuited then: that Lowell’s poems really were the aesthetic paradigms of the “tranquillised Fifties”, poems of – yes – the mid-century, and this was one source of their almost perverse appeal.’ The critic is severely aware of what she not unjustifiably calls Lowell’s ‘misogyny’ in ‘Skunk Hour’, though it takes a ‘secret, subtextual’ form, but she nonetheless finds the poem ‘not just fearsome but, to be honest, rather wonderful’. Shying away from the need for such an engaging conclusion, Albert Gelpi suggests, in what from the point of view of the higher criticism is a superb essay, that the best Lowell is the early Lowell of Lord Weary’s Castle. There we have a genuine Emersonian metaphysical wrestle instead of the self-indulgence of Life Studies. The critic puts up an admirable case, yet it seems to be one that can only be designed for fellow scholars or advanced students; just as a poem like ‘Skunk Hour’ can seem almost as if designed to be analysed, in such circles, by the techniques of Riffaterre.
It is Sandra Gilbert, surely, who comes closest to what still has to be called the common reader’s response to Lowell. That reader does indeed ‘pore’ over the details, not with the ‘close reading’ of the expert, but with the hooked absorption of, say, the Dickens or the Sherlock Holmes fan. Lowell appears himself to have been an ardent Dickensian, and the best things in what is otherwise a rather stagey unfinished essay he wrote on ‘Art and Evil’ is an inspired commentary on Mrs Gamp as a detailed ‘life study’. There is certainly a Miss Havisham in the background of many of his poems. There is further irony in the fact that by now the common reader probably knows and cares little about the status of the Lowell family, and yet Lowell, with none of the inventive genius of Dickens, could not have become himself in the poems without it. As with Dickens (David Copperfield, Pip, ‘George Silverman’s Explanation’) the detail in the writing has a strong diagnostic slant. Dickens’s heroes, like Lowell, are seeking to explain their present selves: but with the important difference that such explanation for Dickens is itself connected with the romance of fiction and the fictionalised life. There is no such romance in Lowell’s self-discovery. The knowledge of the self hoarded in the poems’ compulsive details is ‘frizzled, stale, and small’ (‘Home After Three Months Away’). It is part of the power and originality of Lowell’s self-presentation that, unlike almost all such presentations in writing, it contains no element of literary excitement. ‘Alas, I can only tell my own story’ (‘Unwanted’) has a tone of parody, the parody of something obsessionally, in a sense boringly, true. Familiarity with Lowell is like the slightly sickening familiarity most people can remember having with someone at school, someone whose dottiness, tiresomeness, overbearingness, were accepted with fatalistic incuriosity. Although, as Sandra Gilbert says, the reader or rereader of middle and late Lowell does indeed continue to ‘pore’ over the information the poems offer, it is not in the spirit of wonder or speculative inquiry.
Lowell has seen to that. The strange element of self-discovery, itself seemingly unfamiliar and unexpected by the poet, which reveals itself in the most characteristic poems of Edward Thomas, is wholly absent from the world of his poetry. So is the sense of easing himself, in the expression of grief or pleasure, which is natural to Hardy. No word could be less suitable for these Lowell effects than ‘confessional’, which suggests outpourings and confidences. The poems are far too structured for that, and far too cunningly set up. Their closest analogue, in fact, seems to me with poems of Larkin like ‘I remember, I remember’ and ‘Dockery and Son’. However different the Larkin atmosphere, there is a similarity in terms of bravado, shared relish, the turned-around humour of the trench. This is why, in the case of both poets, ‘serious’ attention to their social and personal attitudes is beside the point.
In the cases of Edward Thomas and Hardy there is often an embryonic trace of the short story, something much more developed in some of Larkin’s poems. The point of such a story is the degree of uncertainty about it, the poet’s art being to leave in doubt just what some episode in his life meant and how it affected him. (‘Well, it just shows how much, how little ...’ the poet in ‘Dockery and Son’ reflects in a railway carriage before dozing off.) The story technique, with its build-up and dissolution into unresolved possibilities of meaning, is quite alien to Lowell’s snapshots, which represent an advanced poetic technique for turning subject into object. The special interest here is the relationship of this technique nonetheless to the wry Larkin persona, and its distance from the ‘warm’ simple recollective writing – on mothers and fathers, uncles and aunts – of Seamus Heaney and some of the other Irish poets. Affection and recollection are too facile in them, making a too easy basis for a poem that may be beautifully crafted and expressed.
Lowell’s later poems have by contrast the ghastly matter-of-factness of a psychiatric report. Possibility is swallowed up in unavoidable knowledge. And there is no difference between what that knowledge means and what the poem says. Lowell as unwanted child, and the mother who told him that when she carried him she wished she were dead, have ceased to be the kind of discovery that poems can make. But even this is an achievement which links with the rather different Lowell who used poetic rhetoric in an earlier poem as Byron, or as Larkin, might have done.
Always inside me is the child who died,
Always inside me is his will to die.
That makes a slight mockery of self-absorption, as so many of Larkin’s poems more obviously do, bringing to mind the way Byron’s lines at their most moving proclaim that grief is itself a form of rhetoric, like self-reproach or self-advertisement.
The final virtue of Lowell, like that of other poets who write about and reveal themselves, is that the reader’s bosom returns an echo to what is ‘human, all too human’. In spite of distaste for some of his ways of being himself in poetry, and boredom with his frenzies, the final effect – like that of Baudelaire’s ‘Spleen’, or the boredom of Larkin’s non-existent childhood holidays – is vivid and exact and compelling, alive as only good art can make things alive. His poetry can love, and learns to love, his parents, his relations, everything in his life. And these essays on him celebrate that fact. The big technical question still sticks out, however. The situation of Lowell’s mother and father, and its effect on their son, are so boringly over-familiar that if one were to meet it in Hampstead or Hackney or the New York slums, treated in whatever genre by a writer from those backgrounds, it would almost certainly be even more boring. Can it be that Robert Traill Spence Lowell intuited that in his royal dynasty nothing was boring, and founded his poetic art on that equivocal fact? Can it be that he was right, and that art still endorses Aristotle’s dictum that tragedy can only occur in a few good families? The marriage of a Lowell and a Winslow, like that of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, may still be the right matrix for a rare kind of art?
The earliest piece printed in the Collected Prose is an essay on the Iliad, written when Lowell was 18, a senior at St Mark’s school. It is remarkable for its conciseness, good sense, and grasp of the issues: but even more for the effortlessness with which Lowell identifies with the hero, Achilles, and for the way in which he emphasises the healing role of Thetis, the mother of Achilles. He concludes that after he has restored Hector’s body ‘the strongest and most violent character in literature is once more at harmony with the world.’ Twenty years later, in the unfinished lecture on ‘Art and Evil’, he is identifying in the same way with Rimbaud, with Grandcourt, the villain of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, and with Milton’s Satan. Grandcourt, the bored aristocrat, has ‘an inner life like a dentist’s drill hitting a nerve 24 hours a day’. More subtly, Lowell perceives that C.S. Lewis’s new ‘brilliant scolding little book’ on Paradise Lost, with its emphasis on a Satan who ‘really is diabolic ... a creature sleeplessly thinking about himself, and one whose speeches are interminable autobiography’, is actually describing an even more sympathetic hero to the modern reader than the old defiant hero of Blake and Shelley.
These intuitions are based on identity, and are the critical cousins of Lowell’s autobiographical pieces, ‘91 Revere Street’ and ‘Near the Unbalanced Aquarium’. These are superb: the first cherishes Lowell’s parents as a literate Achilles might have cherished Patroclus and Thetis. His own comments on ‘Skunk Hour’ are less satisfactory, a bit of a show-off, a relaxed tale the king tells his ministers, although the boasting way of revealing a debt to a verse of Hölderlin, or of Annette von Droste-Hulshoff, is a revealing kind of kidding on the level. No doubt such moments in arcane foreign poems, or random unused images like the famous ‘blue china door-knob’, are where ‘real poetry came from’, rather than from ‘fierce confessions’. Like other great poets, Lowell can absorb literature invisibly and make it look like more than life. What he steals invisibly in this way is infinitely more precious than what he took over openly in Imitations. In terms of literary reference ‘Skunk Hour’, that fabulous poem, is the ‘Xanadu’ of our day. Yet the Lowell family itself was a more potent inspiration than any literature.
This in itself disables Lowell as a critic. He treats other writers with wary courtesy; he pretends to be someone else, much more judicious; he forfeits the manic precision with which he pursued family anecdotes and humiliations. In a sense, he becomes almost like Byron despising a fellow that’s all author. And yet not so, for no one could have flung himself more determinedly into the milieu, and identified more with that almost gay, charmed, doomed circle – Berryman, Jarrell, Delmore Schwartz, Peter Taylor. They are written about not as authors but as friends, or, like Eliot and John Crowe Ransom, avuncular elders to be lovingly gossiped about. Eliot, on their second meeting, asked him if he didn’t hate being compared with his relatives? ‘I do.’ There followed a reference to a review in which Poe had ‘wiped the floor’ with two Eliot forebears. ‘I was delighted.’
When he gets outside the circle Lowell can be very shrewd. The best criticism, also one of the earliest, is a short piece on Wallace Stevens written in 1948. A master with a very different method, and Lowell diagnoses it instantly, in relation to the way he feels he must come to write himself. He saw that the emperor of ice-cream often had no clothes, and that delight in the way his poetry after Harmonium ‘juggles its terminology with such lightness and subtlety’ does not conceal its appearance on re-reading as ‘muddled, thin and repetitious’. Few poets of Stevens’s stature ‘have tossed off so many half-finished improvisations ... there seems to be something in the poet that protects itself by asserting that it is not making too much of an effort.’
Lowell’s poetry always seeks to make that effort, to score absolutely, to be solid, old-fashioned stuff that would, so to speak, have rebounded from Dr Johnson’s toe had he kicked it. The fashion in American poetry that Stevens represents, that Marjorie Perloff praises by implication, evades the personal as it evades the fact. ‘Cloudy, cloudy are the stuff of stones,’ wrote Richard Wilbur about Johnson’s kick. If Lowell’s factuality, like his status, is un-American, then the American poets of today are those who, like John Ashbery, are without this kind of substance, living syntactically among shadows, anonymous and generalised feelings and beings, subway sensations. Such a poetry is as original as Lowell’s and expresses the common lot as effectively as his can, though from a different premise and by a different method. Lowell, like Larkin, is unique and his very uniqueness makes him unfashionable today: it means that his lines have to be studied not like seminar poetry but like a royal family tree.