Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell

‘This Suffering Business’

The Lives of Robert Lowell & Elizabeth Bishop

Even to themselves, the poets of the mid-twentieth century seemed cursed. “I’m cross with god who has wrecked / this generation,” wrote John Berryman in “Dream Song 153.” “First he seized Ted, then Richard, Randall, and now Delmore.” Some years after he joined this list himself, his long-suffering first wife Eileen Simpson would write: “Many—I, too, at moments—blamed the suicide on John’s having been a poet. The litany of suicides among poets is long. After a while I began to feel that I’d missed the obvious. It was the poetry that had kept him alive.”

For the host of critics, biographers, and memoirists who have approached these poets since, the question Simpson seeks to answer here has not always been easy to settle or even to pose. One stance, which at least has the virtue of consistency, is to say: the art goes in one box, and everything else—the alcoholism, the mental illness, the broken marriages, the violence, the suicide—goes in a different box. If you won’t do the hard work required to discuss what’s in box number one intelligently, you can open box number two. However, your interest in doing so is voyeurism and you should, probably, feel bad about it.

As with most “big” questions, “What is the relationship between Life and Art?” is answered by a fat and unsatisfying “it depends.” Most of us wobble, looking at things one way, then another. Two new books, Kay Redfield Jamison’s Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire, (Knopf, $29.95, 560 pp.) and Megan Marshall’s Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast, (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30, 354 pp.), take aim at this separation of life from work and poet from reader. In so doing, they illustrate the best and the worst case scenarios for their approach.

Like Lowell, Jamison suffers from what is now called bipolar disorder, about which she has written extensively both personally and professionally (she is also a psychologist [*] who teaches at Johns Hopkins University). Marshall, who has written two other biographies of American women of letters, identifies with Bishop strongly enough to alternate chapters of biography with chapters of memoir. Her grounds for doing so are shaky. What she does have is, in its way, worse than nothing at all.

Elizabeth Bishop’s life contains enough material to make at least seven confessional poets, but she refused to give herself away so easily. Her careful poetry, neither personal nor impersonal, spoke and saw through an “I” that strove to dissolve itself into its own observation. Though she sometimes tried to write poems directly from life, these attempts did not often result in publication.

She certainly had, if she had wanted to use it, the material. In 1967, Bishop woke in the night to find that her partner of more than twenty-five years, Lota de Macedo Soares, had swallowed most of a bottle of Valium. She slipped into a coma and died a few days later. Yet Lota was not even the first person in Bishop’s life to commit suicide as an act of revenge. Bob Seaver, a college boyfriend, shot himself and sent her a postcard that said only “go to hell, Elizabeth” when she refused to marry him.

Indeed, Bishop entered the world losing things. Her father died when she was eight months old. Her mother, Gertrude, apparently unhinged by grief, would become unstable, at one point sleeping with her young daughter while holding a knife. After a suicide attempt when Bishop was five years old, Gertrude would be institutionalized and disappear completely from her daughter’s life. Bishop spent her childhood bouncing from relative to relative—among them her Uncle George, who sexually abused her and once held her by the hair off a second-story balcony. The only security that her family would provide was financial—the inheritance that funded her life as a poet.

One way of understanding Elizabeth Bishop is that walling herself in was the price she had to pay to come out of her childhood alive. Some of the people who knew her say as much. “Elizabeth had a place she could go in which she was all alone as a kind of frigid little girl,” recalled the critic Helen Vendler in an interview. “She could be enticed out of it, but then she would go back into it, back into her own aloneness.” How can a biographer scale that wall and understand the person beyond it? One trick is to begin mapping Bishop’s interior by heading into your own, hoping, as Bishop wrote in “Maps,” you can provide the color that “suits the character or the native waters best.” This is Marshall’s approach. She has some secret weapons. First, hitherto unknown letters from Bishop to her therapist, Dr. Ruth Foster. Second, the archive from which she retrieved these letters, unsealed only in 2009. Third, she took Bishop’s poetry class at Harvard.

The letters to Ruth Foster contain shocking information about Elizabeth Bishop’s childhood, but though the details of her abuse are nauseating to read, they disappear almost as soon as they are mentioned and Marshall never really ties them to other aspects of Bishop’s work or life. As for the other letters, Marshall claims in her last chapter they contain new information “never revealed…even to close friends”—namely that Alice Methfessel, the companion of Bishop’s final years, the woman with whom she lived and traveled, was not merely a very good friend.

Though Marshall’s willingness to write frankly about Elizabeth Bishop’s romantic relationships is both refreshing and commendable, the relationships themselves are not news. Methfessel and Bishop’s relationship was clearly known to some of their friends: they are referred to explicitly in Remembering Elizabeth Bishop, an oral biography from 1994, as lovers. If Bishop thought she had kept the relationship a secret, she was mistaken.

The poetry class takes up most of the space, even shaping the structure of the book. Yet Marshall did not really know Bishop, was not mentored by her, and does not seem to have had any serious conversations with her. Because the personal connection with Bishop is not strong, Marshall’s decision to publish her own life story as a biography within a biography is not always easy to understand. When she writes that “newly divorced, I found myself looking for a teaching job in my mid-fifties, as Elizabeth Bishop had after her marriage ended”—thus analogizing her divorce to Lota’s suicide—it is, frankly, offensive.

In dealing with Bishop herself, however, this treatment produces an image of the poet that is indistinct and far away; the writing about her is overawed and overfamiliar—which is how we often relate to teachers who have meant much to us. Bishop’s flaws, missteps, and unfashionable qualities are airbrushed or replaced by wishful thinking. Much is made of a car trip with Adrienne Rich, but one car trip cannot replace Bishop’s general indifference to politics and frequent hostility toward feminism.

To relate the facts of Bishop’s life, Marshall leans heavily on speculative questions. Sometimes these questions are simply confusing:

Was it imagining that distance, the land and the water to be crossed by carriage or automobile from Great Village to Dartmouth, N.S., that made Elizabeth love the two glossy maps—one of Canada and one of the whole world—that hung on her classroom wall, though she was too young to learn geography?

Cumulatively, however, these questions undermine her authority: If Marshall doesn’t know, who does? Similarly, to provide interior detail in a moment when archives cannot, Marshall sometimes will pull from the poetry as if it were a direct transcription of events—quoting “In the Waiting Room,” written toward the end of Bishop’s life, as a simple description of an experience Bishop had when she was five. Treating women writers as stenographers rather than artists is a common trap, and Marshall, who should know better, falls into it frequently.


If any poet can be fairly called a stenographer, it’s Robert Lowell, Bishop’s “sad friend” and faithful correspondent. Particularly in his later poems, Lowell put life directly onto the page, even publishing one of Bishop’s letters as a poem in his 1973 collection History:

Finally after hours of stumbling along,
you see daylight ahead, a faint blue glimmer;
air never looked so beautiful before.
That is what I feel I’m waiting for:
a faintest glimmer I am going to get out
somehow alive from this.

“Cal,” as he was known to his friends (it was short for both “Caligula” and “Caliban”), did know what it was like to hope for deliverance from darkness. But in his life, as he wearily wrote in “Since 1939,” “if we see a light at the end of the tunnel / it’s the light of an oncoming train.” If Bishop’s life was marked by early disaster, the unknown future could bring hope and healing. Lowell, suffering from severe manic-depression, already knew his future. It was the same as his past.

Like Bishop, Lowell was born into money, and, like Bishop, this would allow him to pursue poetry single-mindedly. He came from a Boston family that already included in its ranks two poets, one, incredibly, also named Robert Lowell. (The other, Amy Lowell, is a minor American poet in her own right.) But, as Jamison points out, the family legacy and name that brought him money, fame, and talent also brought with it what she calls the “dark cards” of “madness and depression.” Mental illness ran in the family, too.

Lowell would get sick and upend his life, causing great pain, again and again. He would turn violent, leave his wife, and succumb to delusions. During his first marriage, these often took the form of bouts of religious enthusiasm, which caused a different kind of pain to friends like Flannery O’Connor. For most of his life, his manic spells could not be avoided, warded off, or treated except through hospitalization. They also could not be kept secret, and early in his life, when his condition was not well understood, his delusions would play out publicly, with painful and humiliating consequences.

Despite this, the list of people in Lowell’s life who could neither forgive nor like him was short. They included his first wife, Jean Stafford; fellow poets Delmore Schwartz and W. H. Auden; and, unfortunately for Lowell, his first biographer, Ian Hamilton, who depicted Lowell as a cruel and selfish man whose poetic gift was killed when he began to take lithium. This portrait is certainly not false: Lowell really could be both cruel and selfish even when perfectly sane. It is, however, incomplete.

Offering a fuller portrait is Jamison’s first goal in writing Setting the River on Fire. The mystery of Robert Lowell is that he was both loved and forgiven. That Lowell would reach the end of his life, as he did, on good terms with most of the people in it, was by no means guaranteed for a man as sick as he was and as destructive as he could be. People loved him. Why?

Jamison’s Lowell is a gentle figure, considerate to his friends and deeply remorseful for the pain caused when manic. She provides details of his kindness and generosity toward his friends, often contrasting the lovable figure they knew with the frightening stranger he could become. They recall, for instance, how Lowell would seek out people who were depressed or isolated at parties and draw them out. Much of the book is heartbreaking to read.

Is this whitewashed? A little. Though none of Lowell’s bad behavior when manic is glossed over, the nastier details of his conduct even when lucid sometimes are. And when confronted with a difficult situation, Jamison occasionally takes refuge in statements that are true, but evasive; for instance, she writes that “the truth of any marriage is not fully given” when considering Lowell’s ugly marriage to Jean Stafford. That’s a dubious formulation, given that (as Jamison admits) Lowell once tried to strangle Stafford and twice broke her nose.

Similarly, when writing about the scandal of The Dolphin, in which Lowell published recriminatory letters from his second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, Jamison says only this: “Art lasts or it doesn’t.” Which side of this The Dolphin falls on is yours to guess.

Jamison’s other goal is to examine how mania relates to art, but here, she keeps things frustratingly vague. With the same evasiveness that characterizes her approach to sticky points of behavior, Jamison avoids directly stating what it is she wants to say. Though she amasses quite a lot of suggestive material, and includes studies on mental illness in artists and on creative achievement and bipolar disorder, she never comes to a concrete suggestion.

She does, however, make a strong case that Lowell’s mental illness and his creativity are directly related to each other, and that his spells of mania, however destructive, should also be given credit as generative. Contra the high school teacher who warned you not to mix Virginia Woolf’s madness with her work—insisting that the work was produced in spite of, not because of, mental illness—Jamison wants to say that Lowell was the great poet he was because he was the sick man he was.


“Sometime,” wrote Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell in the summer of 1948, “I wish we could have a more sensible conversation about this suffering business, anyway. I imagine we actually agree fairly well. It is just that I guess I think it is so irresistible & unavoidable there’s no use talking about it, & that in itself it has no value…”

Was their suffering of no value? It was surely capricious. “It’s terrible,” said Lowell as he improved under the influence of lithium, “to think that all I’ve suffered, and all the suffering I’ve caused, might have arisen from the lack of a little salt in my brain.” A living father, a healthier mother, and Elizabeth Bishop’s entire life changes. Would they have written poetry anyway? Perhaps, but not this poetry. Was it worth it?

Bishop and Lowell lived and worked, sometimes heroically (sometimes not), despite debilitating loss and illness. They aimed for excellence, and they achieved it; they looked for love, and they received it. They drank too much, hurt the people they loved, succumbed to despair. Out of this, if not only this, came the poetry. One wishes them happier lives, but it’s hard to wish for other poems.

It’s also true that they were happy, even for long stretches, if not for always. “I believe,” wrote Elizabeth Bishop, on the boat that would bring her to Brazil, where she would bite into a bad nut, be cared for by Lota de Macedo Soares, and fall in love

that eventually I shall see things in a “better light,”
that I shall continue to read and continue to write....
that love will unexpectedly appear over & over again
that people will continue to do kind deeds that astound me.

And if those were not the only things to come true—what of it?


[*] A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Kay Jamison as a psychiatrist. 

Published in the May 5, 2017 issue: 

B. D. McClay is a contributing writer to Commonweal. She lives in New York.

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