A Partial View of Robert Lowell

Robert-Lowell-Setting-the-River-CropMeg Schoerke at the Hudson Review:

Although Lowell was justly celebrated throughout his life as one of the most innovative poets of his generation, his reputation took a nosedive five years after his death, with the 1982 publication of Ian Hamilton’s demonizing biography, in which Lowell comes off not as subject to biochemical forces, but as crazy and cruel, imperious and arrogant—oblivious to how terribly his words and actions lacerated everyone unfortunate enough to be drawn into his orbit during his manic phases. Although Paul Mariani published a longer, more balanced biography, Lost Puritan, in 1994, by then the damage was done. More workmanlike, and less sensational than Hamilton’s book, Lost Puritan was not as widely reviewed, and Hamilton’s interpretation of Lowell’s life stuck, as hard to rub off as the remains of the burst bubble in Lowell’s analogy. In detailing Lowell’s manias, Hamilton depicts him as a spoiled child on a spree, or as a petty, sadistic dictator (reflecting Lowell’s rapturous obsessions, when manic, with Hitler, Napoleon, Mussolini, and Roman tyrants like his nick-namesake Caligula). Although the biography was valuable for its inclusion of drafts of poems and generous quotations from Lowell’s then-unpublished letters, Hamilton’s view of the poetry was largely negative: with the exception of well-known poems like “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” he repeatedly dismisses Lowell’s early work as overwritten and unintelligible, then goes on to condemn Life Studies and Lowell’s later books as sloppy and narcissistic. He also cedes more space—or gives the last word—to friends and reviewers who criticize Lowell’s poetry rather than praise it. Thus a quotation from Elizabeth Bishop, in which she admires the new, autobiographical Life Studies poems, is followed by a two-paragraph warning from Allen Tate, which begins: “all the poems about your family, including the one [“Man and Wife”] about you and [second wife] Elizabeth [Hardwick], are definitely bad. I do not think you ought to publish them.” Following Tate’s lead, Hamilton links Lowell’s “bad poems” to bad behavior, suggesting that Lowell was losing control of both his poetry and himself: “To others, Tate was putting his objections even more forthrightly: these loose, self-centered poems made him wonder if Lowell wasn’t on the brink of another manic episode.” That he was, indeed, on the brink of a manic episode serves, in Hamilton’s framing, as proof positive that the poetry was somehow suspect.

more here.