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.

Book cover

In his introduction to Robert Lowell's Collected Poems, just published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Frank Bidart writes that Lowell, his friend and sometime mentor, was "above all an audacious maker—in poetry, one of the greatest makers of the twentieth century." This is, of course, what the editor of a book like this—nearly 1,200 pages, with textual variants, explanatory notes, and no fewer than seven appendices—is supposed to say, but there is something implicitly revisionist (and even slightly defensive) about Bidart's claim. When Robert Lowell died at 60 in 1977, he was a literary celebrity with the kind of renown granted few poets. The two biographies that have subsequently appeared—the first by Ian Hamilton and the second by Paul Mariani—are both, accordingly, high-minded exercises in celebrity dish, full of gossipy detail about Lowell's marital troubles, mental illness, and illustrious friendships.

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For more than 20 years, Lowell seemed to be more read about than read. Bidart's goal of restoring Lowell to his rightful place as a great poet may therefore require rescuing the poet from his biographers. But this, in turn, may entail rescuing his poems from their content. In her back-cover blurb, Helen Vendler argues that "The subject 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." (Or, as Lowell himself might have put it, rather less humidly, "The immortal is scraped unconsenting from the mortal.") All the strange, shocking, fascinating detail in the biographies—the Brahmin childhood, the religious crises, the imprisonment for refusing military service in World War II, the three scorched marriages, the breakdowns and hospitalizations—was in the poetry first.

So, can Lowell be appreciated, as Vendler and Bidart propose, on primarily formal grounds when his poems rely so formidably on acquaintance with the staggering range of his worldly and personal references—from Aeneas to Jonathan Edwards to Lowell's beloved cousin Harriett Winslow? And will the poems survive the passing of the culture that spawned them? 

This volume is imposing, and, like any such collection, it poses a challenge to the most determined reader. Even the greatest poets, nowadays, survive mainly through the study of a small number of essential, widely anthologized texts. In Lowell's case, these probably include "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket," "Skunk Hour," "For the Union Dead," "Waking Early Sunday Morning," "The Dolphin," and "Epilog," a selection that gives some sense of his stylistic range. The Collected may expand that canon somewhat, inviting renewed appreciation for previously underrated work, like the elegant Marvell-esque epistles from Near the Ocean or the dramatic monologues, some of the best in the language since Browning, that make up most of The Mills of the Kavanaughs. More likely, though, the handsomely printed book will reward browsing, and only scholars will read it through.

Which is a shame because the best way to read Lowell's Collected Poems is straight through, from beginning to end. I'm exaggerating slightly, of course. The three sonnet sequences Lowell published in 1973—History, For Lizzie and Harriett, and The Dolphin—occupy nearly 300 pages, and reading them, one damn sonnet after the other, induces more stupor than rapture. But every great novel has its longueurs to compensate for the moments of high drama and vivid description. To read Lowell in sequence is to discover that he was indeed a supreme maker—not just of individual lyrics, but of sequences, of books (which he ordered and reordered with the same fanatical care he brought to lines and stanzas), and, above all, of his own biography. This is not to say that the book is an accidental memoir. It is, instead, a big, sprawling novel, the narrative of a career, an epic story of poetic ambition. Which means, given the poet and the times, that it is a story about both the eclipse and the apotheosis of such ambition.

The story starts with Lowell's first major book, Lord Weary's Castle. (His first published book, Land of Unlikeness, which includes earlier versions of many of the poems in Lord Weary, is exiled to an appendix.) "A talent whose ceiling is invisible," Randall Jarrell exclaimed in The Nation, and Lowell's youthful command of the machinery of English verse is indeed impressive. His harshly enjambed iambic lines have extraordinary momentum, propelling you though dense thickets of metaphor and allusion, which resolve into moments of gorgeous clarity and calm. The language is heightened, formal, thunderous, and it articulates a severe, uncompromising religious vision, calling down the judgment of God on an errant civilization.

The poems are populated by figures from New England's past, including some of Lowell's own ancestors. But Lowell, descended on both sides from prominent Yankee families, had undertaken a twofold rebellion against his inheritance, rejecting Harvard for Kenyon College and the bleached-out Puritanism of the Congregational Church for a notably sanguinary, "fire-breathing" Catholicism. Kenyon, where Lowell went to study with John Crowe Ransome and Allen Tate, was the northern outpost of the Southern Agrarians, a group of writers who saw the traditional values of the South as an antidote to modern technological capitalism. Lowell's newfound literary and religious allegiances were, in his mind, complementary because they shared a common historical enemy: northern, Protestant, industrial American civilization. Opposition to it, and the ransacking of the past for alternatives, had been, throughout the first half of the 20th century, a central impulse of literary modernism, linking such otherwise disparate figures as Van Wyck Brooks, William Carlos Williams, and T.S. Eliot.

Lowell's beliefs were sincere, but they were also, given the nature of his ambitions, quite useful. To write from the perspective of eternity—to be able to say, at the end of "The Quaker Graveyard," that "The Lord survives the rainbow of his will" and to know whereof you speak—is to have access to an authoritative language that very few modern, secular poets can claim. And not many have cared to. At least in America, those who attempt visionary rhetoric do so in the Whitmanian, democratic vein while others, following William Carlos Williams, prefer a language that is practical, skeptical, and conversational.

Perhaps for that reason, the confident, militant faith of Lowell's first poems came, almost immediately, to crisis. Lord Weary ends with an ecstatic perception of divine presence, in the form of the "dove of Jesus" descending over the golden dome of the Massachusetts statehouse. Its sequel, The Mills of the Kavanaughs, begins and ends with God's silence. In the final poem, "Thanksgiving's Over," the speaker, a Catholic New Yorker, prays feverishly to soothe the memory of his wife's death: "I counted to ten thousand, found/ My cowhorn beads from Dublin and ground/ them, Miserere? Not a sound."

The Mills of the Kavanaughs, a strange, often obscure book, is Lowell's most neglected—Lowell's pal Randall Jarrell disparaged him for "grinding away at all the things he does best" in it. But it is the crucial chapter in the poet's saga. The theological argument that animated Lord Weary is refracted here, in a series of historical narratives, which attempt to rewrite the dynastic history of New England in a Faulknerian key. The title poem, prefaced like several others by a convoluted plot summary, is a harrowing, semiopaque story of murder, jealousy, and quasi-incestuous love set in a decaying aristocratic mansion—a plantation Gothic whose ruined textile mill is in Maine instead of Mississippi.

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.

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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