A Hammer in His Hands

Frank Kermode

  • The Letters of Robert Lowell edited by Saskia Hamilton
    Faber, 852 pp, £30.00, July 2005, ISBN 0 571 20204 7

Writing letters was not the work Robert Lowell thought himself born to do, but what with one thing and another – good friends, a lively mind, deep troubles – he wrote a great many of them, demonstrating at considerable length ‘the excitement of his intelligence and the liveliness of his prose’. These are the words of Saskia Hamilton, the poet who has undertaken the arduous and complicated task of editing this selection. She remarks in her introduction that the letters differ from the poetry in that they ‘are not reshaped, dismantled and made again in the daylight of his attention’: they ‘have the immediacy of the first rhythm and the first thought that occurred to him – the very thing he revised away in his poems’. Lowell has a claim to be the most hectically persistent and repetitive reviser in the history of anglophone poetry; and the older he got the more compulsively he revised; but his letters he neither drafted nor amended. His more formal autobiographical writings show that he took prose seriously, and for all their unpremeditated air the letters are often excellent examples of vivid informal prose. A master of language, he was, whether or not he sought to be, expert in what Dryden called ‘the other harmony’.

In addition to the routine work of editing – the labour of correction, description, identification – Hamilton inevitably had to deal with some intimate details of a famous, tormented and tormenting life. She passes on basic information about Lowell’s medical history, crowded as it is with all manner of emergencies: hospitals around the world, the quest for drugs that bring or keep you down like Thorazine, or the more effective though not infallible lithium. From her commentary a reader can get some idea of the exhausting rhythms of Lowell’s life: his depression on coming down from a manic episode, his shame at the memory of the follies committed when high, of the pain he had caused others; and he must have been aware that he would almost certainly ‘speed up’ and do it all again.

But few poets are more obstinately autobiographical than Lowell, and occasionally one feels like asking for more. There are lots of notes but they are very economical. No doubt any thought of enlarging them would have been snuffed out by the prospect of an even vaster book than the one we have, which itself contains only a fraction of the material available to the editor. Readers may find it useful to have at hand Ian Hamilton’s masterly biography, first published in 1983, if only to provide more continuity, close some of the gaps in the story. He is thorough, lucid and just (admiring and condemning), and it is a bonus that his comments on the poetry – after all, our main reason for being interested in the poet – are so acute and sensitive. Of course Saskia Hamilton must have an eye to the life rather than the work, in so far as they can, in this case, be kept apart.

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