One day, discussing the reviews of his late work [with the poetry critic Helen Vendler], Lowell lamented, "Why don't they ever say what I'd like them to say?"
"What's that?" Vendler asked.
"That I'm heartbreaking," he said.
—Peter Davison, "The Poetry of Heartbreak" (July/August Atlantic)
Robert Lowell was one of the twentieth century's most esteemed American poets. As a manic depressive who experienced alternating bouts of depression and mania, he was also one of its most tormented.
Ambition, religious passion, poetic genius, and dementia throbbed together in verses that gave off a powerful music, enthralling to some readers but puzzling to others.His early poems tended to employ elevated diction to address grand themes, frequently tied in with references to his own aristocratic family and its Boston Brahmin milieu. But at midlife, Lowell grew tired of the elaborate, archaic style he was known for, and abandoned it in favor of a more raw and personal approach—using colloquial language, he described the trauma of his inner experience. His 1959 collection, Life Studies, dealt intimately with his madness, his difficult relationships with his family, and his time spent in mental hospitals.
A decade later, Lowell left his second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, moved to England with his third wife, Caroline Blackwood, and began churning out countless poems in yet a new style—the unrhymed sonnett. Before long, however, his third marriage faltered, and his spiral of mania and depression, along with a pattern of excessive drinking, started taking a physical toll. In 1977 Lowell died in the backseat of a New York taxicab on his way from the airport to his second wife's apartment. Davison quotes Blair Clark, a longtime friend of Lowell's:
I thought there were two dynamos within him, spinning in opposite directions and tearing him apart, and that these forces would kill him at last. No one, strong as he was, could stand that for long.To young poets who considered Lowell a revered mentor, his madness seemed an integral component of the example he was setting for them. In "The Mad Poets Society" (July/August 2001), Alex Beam described how Lowell's periodic hospitalizations at the renowned McLean mental hospital in suburban Massachusetts helped lend cachet to the hospital as an aristocratic, literary place, and influenced two of his talented but unstable students, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, to exploit their own psychological turmoil for literary material.
Lowell's own psychosis was at times extreme:
He would shower his closest friends with bitter, mocking curses, or proclaim undying love to an airline stewardess and insist on leaving the plane with her to start a new life. He once delivered a gibbering lecture lauding Adolf Hitler. Some stereotypes are true: there are people in mental institutions who want to assume the power of Napoleon, or of Jesus Christ, and at times Robert Lowell was one of them.But while institutionalized he also continued to write poetry and correspond with colleagues, including several fellow poets such as Theodore Roethke and Ezra Pound, who also suffered from mental illness. Inspired by Lowell's evocative poetry about his experiences at McLean, Plath went on to write the best-selling novel The Bell Jar, based on her own experiences there, and Sexton went on to teach a writing seminar at McLean for its patients, and eventually became a patient there herself. "I must admire your skill," Sexton wrote in a 1959 poem addressing Lowell. "You are so gracefully insane."
In "Madness in the New Poetry," written in the mid-sixties, Peter Davison commented on the appeal that madness was then coming to have among the poetic set. "Madness," he wrote, "can be construed—and is by some poets—as the regular and inescapable concomitant of the reach beyond reality; and sanity is construed as the dullness of those who refrain from reaching." He assessed the efforts of a number of then-current poets—including Lowell, John Berryman, Alan Dugan, William Meredith, and Theodore Roethke—whose work was in some way touched by madness. He was less than enthusiastic about Lowell's recent efforts; the despairing form that Lowell's madness had lately taken, he argued, seemed to be sapping the vitality of his work.
Over and over the agonizing tunes are played: helplessness, desperation, impotence, the lapse of the present from the promise of the past, flawed vision, the malign dissociation of the self from the senses. They are played so brilliantly that the reader finds himself forgetting that life and poetry have major keys as well as minor, victories as well as defeats. But Lowell's keys are minor only. The note of triumph is never struck.Despite such criticism, Davison asserted two years later, in "The Difficulties of Being Major" (October 1967), that Lowell, along with James Dickey, might be one of only two contemporary poets worthy of the title "major poet." He cited a set of qualifications for such an honor that had recently been proposed by the poet W. H. Auden:
1. He must write a lot.He then surveyed Lowell's work up to that time, emphasizing the superiority and distinctiveness of his prolific output and his evolution through a series of different approaches and styles. He reiterated his earlier criticism, however, that Lowell's recent work was lackluster compared with the main body of his writing. Of Lowell's 1967 collection, Near the Ocean, Davison wrote,
2. His poems must show a wide range in subject matter and treatment.
3. He must exhibit an unmistakable originality of vision and style.
4. He must be a master of verse technique.
5. In the case of all poets we distinguish between their juvenilia and their mature work, but [the major poet's] process of maturing continues until he dies....
The new poems reveal more clearly than his past work the tug-of-war between the impulse to personal poetry on the one hand, and the Imperial Style on the other. Alas, the Emperor has won out .But Lowell had by no means exhausted his resources. Following Near the Ocean he went on to write five more books of poems—one of which, The Dolphin, won him a second Pulitzer prize (he had been awarded the first in 1946 at the age of twenty-nine for Lord Weary's Castle). In "The Difficult Grandeur of Robert Lowell" (January 1975), the eminent poetry critic Helen Vendler reviewed History, For Lizzie and Harriet, and The Dolphin—three poetry collections that Lowell had published simultaneously in 1973. Vendler suggested that what was perhaps most notable about the poems in these new collections was their expansiveness, in that they included everything from historical events (both famous and obscure) to wide-ranging literary allusions to the most intimate details of his family life. Given the "comprehension of its atlas, historical and geographical," she suggested, this new poetry represented "the whole litter and debris and detritus of a mind absorptive for fifty years." In her view, he had tapped a rich new vein:
Lowell has written better.
The subjects of these poems will eventually become extinct but the indelible mark of their impression on a single sensibility will remain, in Lowell's votive sculpture, bronzed to imperishability.Finally, in "Lord Weary" (July 1982), James Atlas recalled his own brush with Lowell as an awestruck Harvard student in the late sixties. By then Lowell had become a legendary figure, and to Atlas, a young Midwestern boy craving culture and exposure to literary greatness, Lowell had assumed an almost godlike status. Atlas described his initial impression of Lowell, at the beginning of a poetry seminar with him:
Our first glimpse of the famous is often disappointing; they seem diminished, ordinary. Lowell seemed, if anything, larger; he was taller than I had expected, and his corolla of whitening curls trailed back from his broad, marbled forehead.Atlas and his classmates hung eagerly on every word Lowell uttered, despite the fact that, having been in and out of mental hospitals for years, dosed with lithium, and ravaged by alcohol, he often seemed somewhat addled. He made peculiar associations, became lost in thought, or spoke familiarly about long-dead literary figures "the way other people gossip about their friends as if they were colleagues and contemporaries." Atlas and other literarily inclined students competed desperately for Lowell's attention, seeking him out during his office hours and tallying up the minutes Lowell devoted to their poems during class. It even became a mark of distinction to be present during one of Lowell's infamous breakdowns:
I had never witnessed one of these breakdowns, but I had heard about them in grim detail: Lowell showing up at William Alfred's house and declaring that he was the Virgin Mary; Lowell talking for two hours straight in class, revising a student's poem in the style of Milton, Tennyson, or Frost; Lowell wandering around Harvard Square without a coat in the middle of January, shivering, wild-eyed, incoherent. In the seminar room on the top floor of Holyoke Center, we waited nervously—perhaps even expectantly, given the status accorded anyone who had been present at one of these celebrated episodes—for it to happen before our eyes.Why, Atlas asked himself in a more reflective moment, were he and his classmates so eager for attention from this troubled poet? The answer, he decided, was that, to them, Lowell represented literary history incarnate. "The one question that tormented everyone else had been decided for him: he had made it into the pantheon of great American poets. His work would last."
Twenty-five years after his death, Farrar, Straus & Giroux has issued a comprehensive collection of Lowell's poetry (selected by the poets Frank Bidart and David Gewanter), inspiring a renewal of interest in both his life and his work. In "The Poetry of Heartbreak" (July/August Atlantic), Peter Davison reviews this collection and situates his extensive body of work within the context of his chaotic life.
By the time Lowell died at age sixty, he had been married and separated three times, had renounced his Protestant roots for what turned out to be a temporary obsession with Catholicism, and had spent much of his adult life in and out of mental hospitals. During his manic spells, he was overtaken by surges of larger-than-life emotion that ended up reflected in his poetry. As Davison describes it,