The Letters of Robert Lowell

Although he was honored from the start as the leading American poet of his generation, Robert Lowell lived what was, in important respects, a terrible life. From 1949 (his thirty-second year) until his death in 1977 he suffered nearly annual attacks of acute mania followed by bleak depression, requiring hospitalization and often physical restraint. The mania usually involved behaviors of a kind to embarrass and alienate those most dear to him, but he never lost their affection. His funeral was attended by six hundred, a measure of the attractive force of his personality on an expanding circle of admirers. The letters collected in this volume, well edited by Saskia Hamilton, are a sufficient explanation of that force.

This is only a selection of Lowell’s letters. I wish Hamilton had told us the relative volume-a rough percentage of the whole-that they present; she does, though, speculate in her introduction that a “multivolume” complete edition will eventually be published. It seems safe, then, to estimate the 711 letters in this volume are 30 percent or less of the total. So Lowell was startlingly prolific, yet he begins almost every note with an almost formulaic apology for being such a neglectful and tardy correspondent. I suspect (or do I hope?) that I am not the only letter writer who feels rebuked by this.

There are important gaps in this collection, as there would be in a larger one. Lowell’s letters to his first wife, Jean Stafford, were destroyed by her. Most of those to his last wife, Caroline Blackwood, were lost when a trunk containing them and other possessions was stolen. Lowell’s two children have been unwilling to release his letters to them. What we do have here are wonderfully rich sequences of poetic shop talk, gossip, encouragement, commiseration, remorse, compliment, and sometimes breathtakingly direct expressions of love.

Most impressive, perhaps, are the letters to the poet Elizabeth Bishop and the relationship that they reveal. Although the relationship was never sexual-she was gay, in fact-one could say that she was the love of Lowell’s life. In one letter in the summer of 1957, he turns from a long and somewhat tedious account of a drunken sail along the Maine coast with the poet Richard Eberhart and others to a startling evocation of a time, nine years earlier, when he almost proposed to Bishop: “And nothing was said, and like a loon that needs sixty feet, I believe, to take off from the water, I wanted time and space....Let me say this though and then leave the matter forever: I do think free will is sewn into everything we do....Yet the possible alternatives that life allows us are very few, often there must be none....But asking you is the might have been for me, the one towering change, the other life that might have been had. It was that way for these nine years or so that intervened....It won’t happen, I’m really underneath utterly in love and sold on my Elizabeth [Hardwick, his wife from 1949 to 1972] and it’s a great solace to me that you are with Lota [de Macedo Soares, Bishop’s lover], and I am sure it is the will of the heavens that all is as it is.”

One gathers from these letters that Bishop also embodied might-have-beens or might-bes in Lowell’s poetic career, a beckoning other that pulled him toward fundamental experiments in poetic form and theme. She seems to have been the model-more than William Carlos Williams, the other contender-for Lowell’s change from the somewhat obstructed brilliance of his earlier metrical and rimed verse to the free verse with a loose affiliation to iambics that first appeared in Life Studies (1959). She also had a quality that he had “always known with envy,” a power of invention, the discovery of her themes in-the projection of her sensibility into-what was not her, in contrast to his drawing on autobiography: “I’ve always thought using oneself was fine because I could test the feeling by memory in revision, or better still draw on and correct the details of description. But of course anything so close allows too little for the imagination, the pleasure of pure invention, the control of plot and form.” Bishop’s invented personae, on the other hand, become her “in some transformation or dream they seem so well lived.”

There is some malicious fun in Lowell’s encounter with the Beat poets in 1959. One night, he writes Bishop, “[Allen] Ginsberg, [Gregory] Corso, and [Peter] Orlovsky came to call” on him in his Boston house, whose opulence was “planned to stun such people. When they came in, they took off their wet shoes and tiptoed upstairs. They are phony in a way because they have made a lot of publicity out of very little talent. But in another way, they are pathetic and doomed. How can you make a go for long by reciting so-so verse to half-jeering swarms of college students?” A few days later, having read Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish, he constructs a compliment to the poet that politely deconstructs itself: “It’s really melodious, nostalgic, moving, liturgical. Maybe it ought to be shorter-the manner sometimes almost writes itself-probably there’s too much Whitman. And I do find it a bit too conventional, eloquent, and liturgical. Well, it’s well done, felt, and a good poem.”

But the more typical note is one of sympathy, encouragement, and commiseration, particularly in the closings of his letters when he touches on the sources of pain in those he loves, in a way that most of us would not dare because we fear that we will only make things worse. Such things are not better left unsaid, but they require the right words. Lowell always had the right words at his disposal. There are probably more than a hundred examples of this in the collection. I will choose one, to his beloved first cousin once removed, Harriet Winslow, a woman of artistic leanings and lively intelligence, immobilized in her last years by a stroke:

I seem to have no language to reply to your love for us. These yearly moments with you enter our hearts. I have to rub my eyes and shut my ears to realize how much ache and weight lies under your appearance of calm strength and fullness....You seem to carry all you touch, your friends, your house, your life, in your arms. We live in light and shadow, as much light as God and nature allow us to offer. You offer so much.

Published in the 2005-09-09 issue: 

Daniel M. Murtaugh is associate professor of English at Florida Atlantic University.

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