Books July 2003

The Poetry of Heartbreak

The new collection of Robert Lowell's poems will doubtless stand from now on as The Work
More
  • Collected Poems

    By Robert Lowell
    Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 800 pages, $45.00

When Robert Lowell's Lord Weary's Castle appeared, in 1946, it was as welcome as a bumper crop. The sheer gorgeousness and encrusted bookishness of this poetry startled readers used to the plain talk of Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams. The book—the first of his to find a general publisher—won Lowell a Pulitzer Prize at twenty-nine. From there his fame accelerated, owing to his hoary New England heritage (his great-granduncle was, among other things, a founding editor of this magazine), the passionate intensity of his writing, and the streak of madness in his life. By the early 1950s Lowell and his contemporary Richard Wilbur were ranked by oddsmakers as the two young poets to watch. (We are still happily watching Wilbur at eighty-two.)

Twenty-five years after his death, selected Lowell poems have been gathered into a single volume by his friend and executor, Frank Bidart, on whom Lowell relied toward the end of his life. Long awaited, richly documented, and, yes, definitive, this volume must have been daunting to assemble. Bidart and his co-editor, David Gewanter, have faced frankly the uneasy but intimate relations between Lowell's harrowing life and his poetry, both in their choices of what to print and in their commentary and documentation. Collected Poems will doubtless stand as The Work.

Lowell did not attract notice beyond his native Beacon Hill until he reached adolescence, when his oddities became apparent. His boarding-school classmates nicknamed him Cal, perhaps after President Coolidge, but more likely—owing to his physical strength, his habit of command, and his unwashed charisma—after the mad Roman emperor Caligula or the zealot John Calvin. The nickname stuck. Within a few years young Cal had knocked his father down, attended and prematurely departed Harvard, moved on to Kenyon College (where his fellow students included Randall Jarrell, Peter Taylor, and Robie Macauley), graduated summa cum laude in classics, married the novelist Jean Stafford (but not before smashing her up in an auto accident while driving drunk), studied at Louisiana State University with Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, and converted to Roman Catholicism. In one of his early poems, "The Boston Nativity," he staged Christmas on Beacon Hill but sneered at his home turf: "Child, the Mayflower rots / In your poor bred-out stock ... / Here Concord's shot that rang / Becomes a boomerang."

A naval officer's son, Lowell twice attempted wartime service and was rejected for myopia; when, in 1943, soon after the fire-bombing of Hamburg, he was drafted, he wrote a manic "Declaration of Personal Responsibility" and declined to serve. As a matter of course, he addressed his conscientious objection to President Roosevelt, man to man. (He later confessed, "I thought that civilization was going to break down, and instead I did.") He was convicted and sentenced, for conscientious objection, to a year and a day in prison, of which he spent part at the Federal Correction Center in Danbury, Connecticut, and part mopping floors on parole.

In Lord Weary's Castle, Lowell rounded up, rewrote, and enriched poems written before 1944, and also included fresh work. The new lines were crammed with allusions to haughty Boston brahmins as well as with the traffic of his reading and his personal experience. They resulted in a poetry that combined richness of diction and the dislocation of sense that had been pioneered by the high modernist poets. Both Lowell and Wilbur, however, had disregarded T. S. Eliot's notorious advice not to seek a model in the magniloquence of John Milton. Lowell's favorite poem was "Lycidas"; during his periodic mental breakdowns he would sometimes adopt Milton's poem as his own and rewrite it. On happier occasions he transmuted Milton's Latinate rhythms into an original, plainspoken New England rumble.

What are we in the hands of the great God?
It was in vain you set up thorn and briar
    In battle array against the fire
    And treason crackling in your blood;
        For the wild thorns grow tame
And will do nothing to oppose the flame ...
    ("Mr. Edwards and the Spider")

However, other poems in Lord Weary's Castle adopted a resonant, overworked, and often obscure manner, which Seamus Heaney has called a "monotone of majesty," and they adverted to Lowell's private life and family as though these were public property. His emotional life when out of control colored history and personal fact alike. (As his friend Flannery O'Connor told a friend after Lowell, in 1949, called out the FBI to rid the artists' colony Yaddo of the pack of communists he thought were undermining the place, "I was too inexperienced to know he was mad, I just thought that was the way poets acted.") The past—all the dramatis personae of written history—would not leave him alone. 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.

Atlantic, you are fouled with the blue sailors,
Sea-monsters, upward angel, downward fish:
Unmarried and corroding, spare of flesh
Mart once of supercilious, wing'd clippers,
Atlantic, where your bell-trap guts its spoil
You could cut the brackish winds with a knife ...
    ("The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket")

After four more lines of threnody apostrophizing the Atlantic Ocean, the poem concludes with a booming Lowell fanfare.

The Lord survives the rainbow of His will.

The vowels balance one another, and the sound is glorious, but how can an ocean cut winds with a knife? And whatever does that last line signify? Now, as I read the nearly 1,200 pages of Collected Poems, it becomes apparent that Lowell's poetry is burdened with hundreds of conclusions like this one—conclusions that, whatever else they do, don't conclude.

Lowell insisted that "a poem needs to include a man's contradictions." He himself contained multitudes of contradictions, and he struggled to include them in nearly every poem. Toward the end of his life he observed, "What I write always comes out of the pressure of some inner concern, temptation or obsessive puzzle ... All my poems are written for catharsis; none can heal melancholia or arthritis." Indeed, the poems healed no more than they concluded. In one poem he wrote, sadly, "Is getting well ever an art, / or art a way to get well?"

At forty Lowell found himself impatient with the "clotted" poetry (his own epithet) of Lord Weary's Castle and its successor, The Mills of the Kavanaughs (1951). He threw back an autobiographical curtain to make explicit the horrors of his emotional life and to admit, along with the pain, the radiance of his natural wit and humor. His religious faith faded, and he began to emulate the vigor of William Carlos Williams and to enable his poems to speak to his neighbors in the world, not only to his caste in Boston and the universities. Life Studies, which he published in 1959, after much agony, ventured to speak openly about his madness.

One dark night,
my Tudor Ford climbed the hill's skull;
I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down,
they lay together, hull to hull,
where the graveyard shelves on the town ...
My mind's not right.
    ("Skunk Hour")

Lowell wrote about his imprisonment, his marriage, his relatives, himself. His most publicly accessible and poetically integrated poem, "For the Union Dead" (1960), was stirred by memories of his childhood, yet it handled without pomposity or evasion one of the largest of American themes, the heritage of slavery, dwelling on the black Massachusetts 54th Infantry Regiment, led in the Civil War by Robert Gould Shaw (a distant kinsman of Lowell's). Vying with James Russell Lowell, who put the same subject to verse a century earlier, Robert Lowell wrote,

Two months after marching through Boston,
half the regiment was dead ...
Their monument sticks like a fishbone
in the city's throat.

It is characteristic of his apocalyptic outlook that, in the poem's inconclusive conclusion, he looked forward, with nearly sensual European relish, only to decadence, corruption, and peril.

The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.

Even these famous lines escape finality. Lowell's poems seldom find stability, whether or not they are seeking it; nearly every one of a thousand poems ends by making us surer of instability, personal and social. "Cured, I am frizzled, stale and small" ("Home After Three Months Away"). "The disturbed eyes rise, / furtive, foiled, dissatisfied / from meditation on the true / and insignificant" ("Hawthorne"). "I am tired. Everyone's tired of my turmoil" ("Eye and Tooth").

Lowell's psychic fragility excited those who somehow fortify themselves by tracking the spoor of celebrities' private lives: "The news of his periodic breakdowns spread with amazing speed, penetrating without difficulty to even the most remote recesses of the world," the poet Anthony Hecht once wrote. Lowell participated in anti-Vietnam protests (marching on the Pentagon with Norman Mailer, campaigning with Eugene McCarthy). At the height of this middle period he touched the national conscience with passages like this one:

Only man thinning out his kind
sounds through the Sabbath noon, the blind
swipe of the pruner and his knife
busy about the tree of life ...
    ("Waking Early Sunday Morning")

His public activities heaped fuel on the fire, even though he spent most of his time laboring inconspicuously on his writing, producing an immense, sprawling body of work: poems, plays, translations, and essays. For years he also commuted from New York to Boston to teach at Harvard, the university he had declined to graduate from.

After Near the Ocean (1967), Robert Lowell at fifty changed his voice, and his life, another time. He left his devoted second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, and decamped for a third marriage, in England, to Caroline Blackwood. The move was appropriate: Lowell had always looked eastward across the Atlantic, to our European heritage and its history, at a time when many American poets thought to nourish themselves on the literatures of the Orient. He lived in England for much of the rest of his life, and today he may be more read there than in his native country.

Lowell's work accumulated, piling up in more than a thousand unrhymed sonnets known as the notebook poems. Was the stagnation evident in these poems provoked by his bipolar illness, by the lithium prescribed to control it, by his drinking, or by some other cause? Two books of these short poems were published under the title Notebook in 1969 and 1970. Three additional sequences, containing many poems revised and republished, emerged. History (366 poems) dealt principally with Lowell's reading and thinking and literary relations. For Lizzie and Harriet (sixty-six poems) detailed in melancholy fashion the dismantling of his marriage to Hardwick. Dolphin (104 poems) chronicled the advent of his new love and his Drang nach Osten. The three volumes came out simultaneously in 1973, causing a rueful reappraisal even by Lowell's friends, some of whom could not forgive him for incorporating in his poems, nearly verbatim, parts of personal letters from Hardwick and their daughter. The English critic Michael Schmidt has written moralistically of the "confessional" qualities that make some readers uneasy with these poems: "The focus on self, the confidence that self is of sufficient interest to readers that its unraveling is a sufficient subject, and the—call it—solipsism which appropriates the literal language of others' suffering to lend veracity to his own account: this is a radical approach to subject-matter, a setting of poetry not within but above life."

But Lowell, embarking on fatherhood once more in England, and his mind somewhat clarified by his new life, arrived at yet another renewal of style. He wrote scalding, blistering poems, as he had done on each rising tide in the past, though some of the poems now were slightly Oriental in tone. Their conclusions were still weak, but their fragments had more edge than ever.

The struck oak that lost
a limb that weighed a ton
still shakes green leaves
and takes the daylight,
as if alive.

    ("We Took Our Paradise")

The humpback brick sidewalks of Harvard
kick me briskly,
as if allowed the license of age;
persons who could hardly walk or swallow,
when I was a student,
angrily grate like old squirrels
with bandages of white hair about their ears.

    ("To Mother")

The night dark before its hour—
heavily, steadily,
the rain lashes and sprinkles
to complete its task—

    ("Seesaw")

Lowell's health gradually declined (by the end of his life he had been treated in dozens of psychiatric hospitals) and his third marriage gradually crumbled, but his dedication to writing and teaching poetry never flagged. He died in 1977 in a New York taxicab, on his way from Kennedy Airport to his second wife's apartment, carrying a portrait of his third wife painted by her first husband.

Poems do not, of course, write themselves, and Lowell's poems and translations always underwent a heroic but particularly bewildering degree of concentrated literary attention, scribbled in dozens of versions, displayed to friends and colleagues, rewritten, kibitzed over, altered, recast, published, revised, rewritten, and published again. The sheer bulk of Lowell's work—he produced a total of nineteen volumes, including plays and prose—makes one especially grateful for the appearance of a discriminatingly selected volume. Collected Poems includes not only 838 pages of the corpus, a glossary, notes, a chronology, and appendices with notes and insights of their own, but also variants on a number of poems and a few fragments of Lowell's excellent prose. This apparatus condenses twenty-five years of biography, criticism, and gossip. In certain respects it hints at the conclusions that Lowell's poems themselves never quite attained. By its tender editorial attention to Lowell's contradictions it may present the best case for his poetry.

Blair Clark, a lifelong friend of Lowell's, once wrote,

I remember ... a dozen years before he died, bringing him back to my house in New York in one of his crazed escapes from home. Watching him breathe in heavy gasps, asleep in the taxi, the tranquillizing drugs fighting the mania, I thought that there were then 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.

But the most desperate insight, as might be expected, comes from Lowell himself. The critic Helen Vendler has described how one day, discussing the reviews of his late work, 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 is the poetry editor of The Atlantic and the author of Breathing Room (2000) and The Fading Smile: Poets in Boston 1955-1960 (1994), among other books.
Jump to comments
Presented by

Peter Davison was The Atlantic's longtime poetry editor.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

The Time JFK Called the Air Force to Complain About a 'Silly Bastard'

51 years ago, President John F. Kennedy made a very angry phone call.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In