Robert Lowell was notably unlucky in Ian Hamilton’s major biography written on him in 1983. Hamilton’s biography, while impressively comprehensive, presented a damagingly wrong-headed and skewed picture of Lowell the man. The reading public on the whole has accepted Hamilton’s portrait of Lowell as authentic, as they did in the case of another damaging biography of a poet, Lawrance Thompson’s three-volume book on Robert Frost. As if by compensation, Lowell is posthumously blessed in the new Collected Poems edited by Frank Bidart and David Gewanter.[1] Any “collected works” is a tombstone. (And I say that as someone who likes tombstones.) At almost 1200 pages, this is a big marble slab of a book. Himself a poet of great force and originality, Frank Bidart studied with Lowell as a graduate student at Harvard in the 1960s and became a close friend, literary amanuensis, and collaborator. That he has chosen to devote so many years to this project is a tribute both to Lowell and to Bidart’s own scrupulousness, attention to detail, and love for Lowell as poet and man. Bidart has achieved cult status within the world of poetry—a world that can be seen as both elite and disregarded—as someone who has worked selflessly on his friends’ poems. The list of those whom he has helped bring poems and manuscripts to their potential would be a very distinguished list indeed. He learned this knack from Lowell, who was an indefatigable reviser of poetry—others’ as much as his own. “You didn’t write, you rewrote,” Lowell has Randall Jarrell say to him in a poem where his dead friend appears in a dream. This quality made Lowell a great teacher for those who studied with him, because he taught us, as he said about Allen Tate, that “a poem must be tinkered with and recast until one’s eyes pop out of one’s head.” Lowell in his madness would identify with others—become others in his own mind—particularly great poets from the past. There is an ancient rumor that while staying at McLean’s private mental hospital near Boston, he significantly revised the Norton Anthology of Poetry in the library there.

Because Lowell was mad, by anyone’s standards. Philip Larkin, whom he visited in Hull, is said to have described him to a friend as “barking mad.” Though it’s been familiar for years, I don’t think I had ever looked closely at the early photo Alfred Eisenstadt took of Lowell before seeing it reproduced on the jacket of the Collected Poems. While Eisenstadt captured Lowell looking almost dauntingly respectable, his hair freshly cut, his horn-rimmed glasses, necktie, and sleeveless sweater impeccable, the poet leans at an angle, his off-vertical pose paralleled by toppled books on the shelves behind him, and eyeing the camera contemplatively. I hate to invoke such a familiar old chestnut, but the photograph is a perfect illustration of Emily Dickinson’s injunction “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.” That’s what Lowell did. As someone lacking a purchase on what we have agreed to call the real world, he had an outsider’s respect for fact and for the things that are recorded by our senses. The clash of the agreed-upon world and Lowell’s own subjective, highly-skewed world is one of his major preoccupations. Let’s start, almost at random, with a poem from History (1973):

La Lumière

In the blur of my glasses, you cannot fade—
your ruffle, electricity and your sure tongue …
richer now and much more radical.
The sun lights your windows it will never crash,
this blind snow, this blind light everywhere,
the sad, metallic sunlight of New York
throwing light on something about to die.
This light was familiar in the older cities;
it goes, disclosing less than leaves of artichokes—
a light that blinded kings who fled to London,
where Dickens might have played Napoleon’s Nephew
cloaked in cigar smoke and the moans of girls,
a smell of chestnuts like a humidor …
watching exile chew his face from the mirror.

I have many doubts about the unrhymed fourteen-line poems that make up the bulk of his writing from the late sixties through 1973. The traditional sonnet derives its identity from its complex framework of rhymes, as well as its division into octave and sestet, both of which Lowell on the whole abrogated. Look again, though, at the last six lines. This poem really does have a sestet, and it suggests a radical re-definition of the traditional sonnet’s sestet. To put the matter crudely, line nine is where the poem starts to get strange. Up to this point the language is reminiscent of earlier Lowell, the Lowell of For the Union Dead (1964) specifically. And then the artichokes appear out of context, so different in tone from the high, elegiac feeling of the first eight lines. The artichokes are effective as a breach of poetic decorum, an example in miniature of the kind of shock that was a significant aspect of Lowell’s genius, part and parcel of the enormous contribution he made to the art. Whoever the “you” in the poem is—I would think of her as Lowell’s second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, almost an emblem of New York in his eyes—she is long gone from the poem by now, as the poem invokes history, with the “kings who fled to London.”

By the time he left Hardwick and New York for his third wife, Caroline Blackwood, Lowell was “king” of American poetry; London was a city both of refuge and of exile for him. At the same time he worried, rightly, that by leaving New York, in the eyes of the American literary scene he had stepped offstage. This personal dimension informs the last line: Lowell’s sense that he was disappearing, even from his own examining gaze. “La Lumière” by no means ranks among his more significant political or historical poems; still it illustrates how he uncannily, almost by instinct, brought together the personal and the political. Even the ruffle in line two has an odd little associational flicker to it, hinting at, let’s say, Queen Elizabeth I.

My use of the word “flicker” is deliberate, because much of the pleasure one gets from reading the “sonnets” comes from such subtleties. The three lines beginning “where Dickens might have played Napoleon’s Nephew,” however, are an example of how these poems often run off the rails. Not accidentally, however. This sestet is a place where sight is transformed into imagination. How many readers, however, might wish or even be able to entertain such thoughts as Dickens playing Napoleon III? Or a contemplation of “cigar smoke and the moans of girls”? The third of the three lines also seems a misdirection, at least to me. Advocates of these poems would champion them as vanguardist forays into the area where language and the imagination meet. As such, History and the other volumes associated with it anticipate postmodernism and Language Poetry.

The publication of these collected poems presents the occasion for an evaluation of Lowell’s entire career, which the jacket copy rightly calls “one of the great careers in twentieth-century poetry.” The trajectory is clear enough, within the limits of what for a writer was a relatively short life—and you can get the broad outline of it from a chronology printed in the back of the book along with a glossary and 150 pages of notes, many of them very helpful. Lowell quit Harvard, the logical educational choice for a young man of his Boston Brahmin background, to become a student of John Crowe Ransom at Kenyon College. He began publishing dense, difficult, allusive, muscular poems in the forties. His model for an iambic pentameter line that strained against its limitations and spilled over into powerful enjambments was Milton—a surprising poetic model in the New Critical climate of the time, since T. S. Eliot, whose word was law, had taken pains to exclude the author of Paradise Lost from his pantheon of English-language poets. Lowell’s first major book, Lord Weary’s Castle, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1946. The next year he was awarded a Guggenheim, and the year after that he was made Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress (now called Poet Laureate). On the strength of one book, Lowell came to be widely regarded as the leading poet of his generation.

His readers and critics would have been delighted had he kept on writing poems like those in Lord Weary’s Castle. But on the heels of his early success, he immediately became restless in a way that would characterize his entire life as a writer. Following his friend Randall Jarrell’s suggestion that he should try to bring more people into his poems to counter a certain centripetal focus in his work, he wrote an elaborate and intense family melodrama called The Mills of the Kavanaughs, which was not nearly so well received as Lord Weary’s Castle had been. Jarrell wrote that the poem’s central figure, Anne Kavanaugh, sounded like Robert Lowell would have sounded like if he had been a girl. Though it contains several dramatic monologues, such as “Falling Asleep over the Aeneid” and “Thanksgiving’s Over,” that rank with some of Lowell’s best poems, this book is transitional. Though its elaborate metrical style and use of rhyme are typical of his early work, the interest in madness and extreme states of consciousness, as well as the attempt to include other voices and reach out more to the world around him, can be seen as leading toward his major work, Life Studies (1959).

His mentor and old friend Allen Tate tried to convince Lowell not to publish the book at all—a reaction that is indicative of how radical and innovative a book it turned out to be. Tate, adhering to the doctrine of impersonality advocated by Eliot, recoiled from the personal revelations contained in the book. But Life Studies, Lowell’s favorite among his own books, is the book he will chiefly be remembered for. It maintains a balance between two of his main themes: domestic life and public life. Addressing Life Studies together with W. D. Snodgrass’s Heart’s Needle (also published in 1959), Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish (1960), and Sylvia Plath’s Ariel (1965), the critic M. L. Rosenthal coined the term Confessional Poetry to describe this new trend of personal revelation springing from lives characterized by extreme behavior. “Lowell winced at the term. It implies helpless outpouring, secrets whispered with an artlessness that is their badge of authenticity, the uncontrolled admission of guilt that attempts to wash away guilt,” Bidart remarks in his brief essay, “On ‘Confessional’ Poetry,” convincingly making the point that “Lowell’s candor is an illusion created by art. He always insisted that his so-called confessional poems were in significant ways invented. The power aimed at in Life Studies is the result not of accuracy but the illusion of accuracy, the result of arrangement and invention.”

Life Studies excels in many ways. The first of these is the way the book is organized. Its four parts are a triumph of contextualization. The center of the book is Lowell’s attempt to understand his own madness, what he means when he says in “Skunk Hour,” “My mind’s not right.” For a book about madness, Life Studies is remarkably sane, owing very much to a Freudian analysis of the type of family for which the word “dysfunctional” has been coined. Part One eases the reader in, with “Beyond the Alps,” a poem that touches on Lowell’s apostasy from the Catholicism to which he had converted in the Forties, a short poem invoking America in the Eisenhower era, and finally two dramatic monologues spoken by characters in mental distress. Part Two is a twenty-five-page prose piece, “91 Revere Street,” which provides background and many details that could not easily be conveyed in verse. This piece has its comic and satirical moments—a side of Lowell not previously revealed in his writing—and has one purely fictional character, Billy Harkness, supposedly an Annapolis classmate of Lowell’s father. Part Three contains tragi-comic portraits of four writers—Ford Madox Ford, George Santayana, Delmore Schwartz, and Hart Crane—for whom Lowell felt affinities. Part Four gets to the heart of the matter, with painful and affectionately ambivalent treatments of his parents and “studies” of his own troubled life.

Lowell is at his best in this book, which is troubling, highly readable, and absorbing. Critics have made the point that in Life Studies he reclaimed for poetry some of the territory it had lost to the novel. If the poet himself is at the book’s center, one comes away from reading it remembering at least a dozen other vivid personalities. Some reviewers accused Lowell of snobbery because of his focus on the upper-class Boston world in which he was raised, but couldn’t Tolstoy justly be accused of the same thing? In the cases of both the Russian and the American, they wrote about the worlds they were familiar with. It’s a pleasure to reread these wonderful poems in Bidart and Gewanter’s edition. “My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow,” written first in prose and then rearranged in a very loose free verse, evokes the leisurely, old-fashioned life at Lowell’s grandfather’s summer place with marvelous lyrical passages:

What were those sunflowers? Pumpkins floating shoulder-high?
It was sunset, Sadie and Nellie
bearing pitchers of ice-tea,
oranges, lemons, mint, and peppermints,
and the jug of shandygaff,
which Grandpa made by blending half and half
yeasty, wheezing homemade sarsaparilla with beer.

Into this idyll slips the specter of death in the person of Lowell’s uncle, rendered in the same painterly strokes as the passage I have just quoted, with images from a child’s vivid imagination:

He was as brushed as Bayard, our riding horse.
His face was putty.
His blue coat and white trousers
grew sharper and straighter.
His coat was a blue jay’s tail,
his trousers were solid cream from the top of the bottle.
He was animated, hierarchical,
like a gingersnap man in a clothes-press.
He was dying of the incurable Hodgkin’s disease.

Life Studies represents the peak of Lowell’s achievement. But he followed it with three brilliant collections: Imitations (1961) is a book of very free translations from many languages, some of which Lowell knew, some of which he did not (he had been a classics major at Kenyon). For the Union Dead (1963) is the successor volume to Life Studies and contains some of his most memorable work, including the title poem, a stirring Civil War elegy that is at the same time a poem about Civil Rights and a jeremiad against contemporary American society. Near the Ocean (1967) completes the circle of technical experimentation that began with the free verse and loosely formal, slant-rhymed poems of Life Studies, because the title sequence employs tetrameter couplets, one of the most difficult verse-forms in English. Imagine the iambic pentameter couplet shortened by one foot. The best examples of this form can be found in Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” and A. E. Housman’s “Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff.”

Lowell uses the short couplets for several purposes in this sequence. “Fourth of July in Maine” takes the guise of a letter in verse to his cousin Harriet Winslow, who gave the poet and his family their house in Castine. As a sort of report to his cousin in Washington, the poem, by describing the Fourth of July in this small New England town, meditates on the decline of the region and of the American sense of patriotism and religion. There’s room within this framework for news about Lowell’s daughter Harriet, named after his cousin, and even for her guinea pigs: “only a vegetarian God/ could look on them and call them good.” Enervation is a familiar topic for Lowell, the result of his exhausting manic-depressive cycles, as well as of his sustaining but contentious marriage to the writer and critic Elizabeth Hardwick, which is neatly sketched in these lines:

And here in your converted barn,
we burn our hands a moment, borne
by energies that never tire
of piling fuel on the fire;
monologue that will not hear,
logic turning its deaf ear,
wild spirits and old sores in league
with inexhaustible fatigue.

Much as his rebellious nature needed to be restrained, he seldom stayed happy for long with constraints—the constraints of marriage, custom, law, social norms of all kinds. In “Waking Early Sunday Morning,” he even feels hemmed in by the poetic rhetoric he has created, the latest in a succession of styles that characterized his career. When he was a boy at boarding school he took on the nickname Cal, short for both Shakespeare’s unruly Caliban and the mad Roman Emperor Caligula. In his manic flights of fancy he identified with figures of political power, even those he hated. His poem “Stalin,” from History, ends with a few lines which leave open the question of ultimate comprehension, but certainly grope toward an understanding:

Stalin? What shot him clawing up the tree of power—
millions plowed under with the crops they grew,
his intimates dying like the spider-bridegroom?
The large stomach could only chew success.
What raised him
was an unusual lust to break the icon,
joke cruelly, seriously, and be himself.

I wouldn’t claim this is the last word on the twentieth century’s greatest murderer; but it does suggest certain things. “What raised him” hints at the sexual allure of power, and the last lines offer some insight into the man’s essential nature. In addition there is a little of Lowell himself in the portrait. Though Lowell was an utterly serious man, he too could joke cruelly to those around him, and he never wanted to be anything other than himself—though that was not as simple a proposition as it may sound. Here is a stanza about Lyndon Johnson, the president who succeeded Lowell’s beloved JFK:

O to break loose. All life’s grandeur
is something with a girl in summer …
elated as the President
girdled by his establishment
this Sunday morning, free to chaff
his own thoughts with his bear-cuffed staff,
swimming nude, unbuttoned, sick
of his ghost-written rhetoric!

The progress of Lowell’s poetry up to this point is familiar ground. The inevitable and controversial sticking-point when one attempts a definitive evaluation of his achievement is one’s estimation of the unrhymed “sonnets,” one of which I quoted near the beginning of this essay. Notebook (1969) was later transformed into three books, all published in 1973: The Dolphin, For Lizzie and Harriet, and History. The Dolphin and For Lizzie and Harriet continue Lowell’s work in the domestic vein; History continues his work on big political and historical themes. To understand how important the “big work” was in Lowell’s oeuvre, one has to look at what was a widely accepted model for a twentieth-century poetic career: that of Ezra Pound. A poet’s life-work, it has traditionally been felt, must be rounded off by something approaching an epic. In Pound’s case this was the Cantos. In the case of Eliot, the capstone work was, unsatisfactorily it seems to me, the Four Quartets. Hart Crane had The Bridge; William Carlos Williams had his Paterson. This model for a poetic career actually begins as early as the late seventeenth century, if one thinks of the verse epics of Milton and Dryden. It certainly continues through the eighteenth, with Pope’s works including long pieces like the Essay on Criticism and the Essay on Man and even the mock-epic Rape of the Lock; these works paralleled and complemented the verse translations of classical epics which were a staple in the careers of poets in the Augustan Age and even before. We should look at a long poem like Wordsworth’s Prelude as both a continuation of this tradition and a radical redefinition, because here the epic becomes personalized in its Romantic focus on the poet as hero. Byron’s Don Juan is certainly a far cry from Virgil’s Aeneas.

These big works all being modeled on the classical epic, expectations that poets and their readers brought to the epic—the founding of a nation or empire, the role played in this endeavor by a hero understood through the standards of classical antiquity—are as relevant to the big twentieth-century poems as they were to those of Pope, Byron, and Wordsworth. Of course in the age of Modernism these expectations are often met ironically or in a deflationary way. Pound defined an epic as a “poem including history”—which updates the classical notion of nation and founding hero. Certainly this model influenced Lowell. One tends to forget what a major figure Pound was for his successors. In terms of classical models, however, the Cantos do not put a hero figure center-stage except allusively. Leopold Bloom in Joyce’s Ulysses is an anti-hero, and a major figure is not defined in the Cantos; the figure of the poet stands behind it all, but invisibly, like Polonius behind the arras. The hero of The Bridge is the Brooklyn Bridge itself; the town of Paterson is the eponymous hero of Williams’s poem. What an American, Whitmanian idea these poems embody! In undertaking his own epic, Lowell was undoubtedly also influenced by the Dream Songs of his friend and competitor John Berryman, which, if they lack an epic theme, at least have a hero, Henry, who is as different from Ulysses or Beowulf or Aeneas as one can imagine.

I think Lowell was chiefly influenced by the verse unit that Berryman uses, an eighteen-line form composed of three six-line stanzas. Consider that the traditional epic had been stichic rather than stanzaic, a distinction that is easily understood if one compares the different effects produced by the repeating dactylic hexameters of the classical epic and the blank verse of Paradise Lost and The Prelude on the one hand, and the stanzas used by both Byron and Berryman on the other. A stichic organization tends to enhance the overall unity of the long poem, while a stanzaic organization calls attention to its individual parts. Lowell’s choice of the fourteen-line unit, which at least alludes to the sonnet even when it owes little to it structurally, is a virtuoso concept on the face of it. But History lacks the unifying presence of a central character, even one as fragmented as Berryman’s drunken and babbling creature, Henry. I’m not claiming that the Dream Songs are, overall, a success by comparison, but in my view both the Cantos and History are finally unsatisfactory because they lack a unifying point of view. Undoubtedly in each case the poet’s sensibility is meant to be the glue that holds it all together.

History is a marvelous grab-bag of a collection. I love sitting with it for an hour, searching though it randomly. In classical epics like the Odyssey, hero and theme go hand in hand: Ulysses and his long search for home are one and the same. Likewise if one does wish to apply a classical epic standard to History and identify a unified hero and theme, then the hero is clearly Lowell himself, and the theme is, obviously, history. So the poem gives us a man who embodies the search for the meaning of history.

My dissatisfaction with it as a whole has several aspects. One problem with these poems has to do with tone. “Near the Ocean” ends with a vision of a new, directionless America:

… until the end of time
to police the earth, a ghost
orbiting forever lost
in our monotonous sublime.

Unfortunately some of that sublime monotony entered Lowell’s own rhetoric in History. Often a poem in the series will become vague, particularly toward the end, with a sense of the rhetoric becoming inflated and abstract with no particular focus, as at the end of an elegy to Theodore Roethke: “Omnipresent, the Mother made you nonexistent,/ you, the ocean’s anchor and high out-tide.” What does it mean to be “the ocean’s anchor and high out-tide”? One might contrast this ending to that of an earlier elegy from Life Studies, “Ford Madox Ford,” which ends simply but definitively, “Ford,/ you were a kind man and you died in want,” or with the memorable last line of “Eye and Tooth” from For the Union Dead: “I am tired. Everyone’s tired of my turmoil.” Often the poems will rise to a rhetorically inflated ending whose frame of reference is unsatisfactorily broad. “Our Dead Poets” illustrates the same problem in its ending:

Sometimes for days I only hear your voices,
the sun of summer will not adorn you again
with her garment of new leaves and flowers …
her nostalgie de la boue that shelters ape
and protozoa from the rights of man.

Even the “Our” in the title is part of the problem. Lowell had left what he regarded as the provincial backwater of Boston for the cultural capital of New York roughly around the time of Life Studies and For the Union Dead. In succeeding years he became the all-but-official spokesman for the intellectual establishment, his poems often appearing in the New York Review of Books. Here is the ending of “Two Walls,” subtitled “1968, Martin Luther King’s Murder”:

At this point of civilization, this point of the world,
the only satisfactory companion we
can imagine is death—this morning, skin lumping in my throat,
I lie here, heavily breathing, the soul of New York.

If a poet could become “the soul of New York,” that would obviously give him a powerful voice and platform. But in my view Lowell was not well served either by his adoption of the first-person plural or of his semi-official status as poet laureate of the New York intellectuals. When one compares Lowell’s New York poetry to the much more engaging work done there by Frank O’Hara and Walt Whitman, one might conclude that it’s better for a poet to be poor, young, and on foot in the city, rubbing elbows with construction workers and the crowds on the street, than to be a distinguished man taking taxis, going to the opera and literary cocktail parties, and living on Central Park West.

The Dolphin was an improvement, because it was so much more personal and urgent: “What shall I do with my stormy life blown toward evening?” And in Day by Day we once again hear the unofficial, agonized, less technically polished voice of Lowell as an individual, facing up to aging and to some of the bad choices he had made. Here is the last section of “The Withdrawal,” a fitting title for the mood of his last poems:

When I look back, I see a collapsing
accordion of my receding houses,
and myself receding
to a boy of twenty-five or thirty,
too shopworn for less, too impressionable for more—
blackmaned, illmade
in a washed blue workshirt and coalblack trousers,
moving from house to house,
still seeking a boy’s license
to see the countryside without arrival.


terror in happiness may or may not cure the hungry future,
the time when any illness is chronic,
and the years of discretion are spent on complaint—

until the wristwatch is taken from the wrist.

Flawed, problematic, with what he probably intended as his crowning achievement falling short of his hopes for it, Lowell remains a major poet and a force to be reckoned with. He did, as he told Frank Bidart he hoped to, change the rules of the game in poetry. Was he the last “major poet” in the English language? Perhaps another one will come along, though there’s been little evidence of it since Lowell’s death in 1977. Our taste these days tends to run toward the more unassuming oeuvres of poets like Lowell’s friends Elizabeth Bishop, who published only about 100 poems in her lifetime and would have laughed self-deprecatingly at the idea of producing an epic, and Seamus Heaney, who has made a virtue of his own modesty.

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  1. Collected Poems by Robert Lowell, edited by Frank Bidart and David Gewanter; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1186 pages, $45. Go back to the text.