Why read 1,200 pages of Robert Lowell?

Reading between the lines.
June 20 2003 3:32 PM

A Life's Study

Why Robert Lowell is America's most important career poet.

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No longer haunted by God, these poems are haunted by history, shaped (and perhaps misshapen) by the impulse to implant individual destinies and memories within a grand and comprehensive scheme. The failure of this project is the subject of Life Studies, which begins with the poet coming down to earth— "Much against my will/ I left the city of God where it belongs"—and entering the mundane world of family, career, and prose. The poem is about Lowell's abandonment of Catholicism, but it also foretells the transformation of his identity as a poet, a transformation that gives Life Studies its pathos and its shape. As the lofty vistas of history give way to the details of domestic life, the charged, hurtling meters and furious rhymes give way to a looser, softer prosody. In an interview, Lowell described the book as "a breakthrough back into life." Certainly, it helped open the door for a literature of introspection and personal disclosure—known as the "confessional" tradition—that has since come to dominate both poetry and prose.

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The poetry of Lowell's Southern/Catholic phase had been at once patricidal and patriarchal, obsessed with the demonic and heroic personalities of his aristocratic, warrior ancestors. But in the dry irony of "91 Revere Street," a prose fragment that constitutes the second section of the book, these are revealed to be figures of Henry James, not Faulkner. In some sense, the decline of Robert Lowell's father from naval officer to middling, buffoonish executive at the Lever Brothers' soap company completes Lowell's heroic phase. Whomever his ancestors might have been—murderers, conquerors, apostates—his immediate background was banal and bourgeois, and his calling was to be neither scourge nor prophet, but rather a middle-class man of letters.

And, as such, he flourished, gathering more and more laurels and composing mordant, memorable lyrics on his own affairs and affairs of state. Which is not to say that he was happy. But the political anxieties expressed in "For the Union Dead" and "Near The Ocean," the marital collapse wrenchingly recorded in "The Dolphin," and the melancholy intimations of mortality in "Day by Day" are addressed with a weary equanimity that seems, today, remarkably candid about both the limits and the capabilities of poetry.

And yet the question that continues to trouble Lowell—what keeps him writing against paralyzing forces of distress, in the long half of his career following Life Studies—is still how the individual human destiny is linked to a larger history and how poetry, in illuminating the link, can protect the human image from oblivion.

Whether poetry can do so at all, of course, will always be in doubt. ("I'm learning to live in history," Lowell wrote. "What is history? What you cannot touch.") Lowell's story, of heretical, Promethean ambition dragged to earth and chastened, has struck a number of critics over the years as overly melodramatic, and Lowell, since his death, has been somewhat overshadowed by less self-aggrandizing contemporaries like Elizabeth Bishop or Frank O'Hara, who neither made inordinate claims for the authority of poetry nor a big fuss when those claims proved to be untenable.

They left behind bodies of work, whereas Lowell, like Yeats and Milton and very few others, left behind the monumental narrative of a career, which may well, curiously enough, be remembered longer than any single poem he wrote. It is the entirety of that story—the saga of an audacious maker struggling with the raw materials of history, personality, and language—that gives so many of the poems their aura of courage and pathos.

A.O. Scott is a film critic at the New York Times.

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