by Richard King

Robert-lowell-by-elsa-dorfmanI happened to be emerging from a bout of depression when I first realised we were approaching the centenary of Robert Lowell's birth in 1917. Now that date – 1st March – has passed, but I've been rereading the poetry anyway, in the spirit of the young student in Richard Attenborough's 1993 film Shadowlands: ‘We read to know we're not alone.' Lowell once told his fellow poet Stanley Kunitz: ‘It may be that some people have turned to my poems because of the very things that are wrong with me, I mean the difficulty I have with ordinary living …' I think that's right: The idea of the ‘mad artist' is a mystification, a secular version of the divinely inspired genius; but there is no doubt that in the middle of the twentieth century mental illness began to emerge as a topic in US poetry in particular, and Lowell was one of its most sensitive registers, the equal of John Berryman and Sylvia Plath. Whatever his personal failings (and they were many) his best poems offer an exquisite exploration of this inescapable modern theme.

He was born in Boston into a ‘Brahmin' family – i.e. a family that can claim descent from the original English colonists, or ‘Mayflower screwballs' as Lowell would later call them in ‘Waking in the Blue'. As a boy he was violent and unpredictable, earning himself the nickname ‘Cal' – a nod to the pitiless Roman Emperor Caligula, and to Caliban, the bitter savage in Shakespeare's The Tempest. He attended Harvard, then Kenyon College, graduating in 1940. A convert to Roman Catholicism, he refused the draft in 1943 in protest at the allied bombing of German cities. (His subsequent stint in jail is recounted in his poem, ‘Memories of West Street and Lepke'.)

The turbulence and rebelliousness of Lowell's early adulthood were reflected in his poetry. The first collection, Lord Weary's Castle (1946), is a blast against the ‘spirit of New England', the ‘hell-fire streets' of Calvinist Boston. His passion is the passion of the religious convert, his Catholicism charged with puritanical zeal. Typically his poems will attempt a marriage between the modern world and a religious theme, a marriage that, like Lowell's own marriages, seems always to be on the brink of collapse. The incongruity is intentional: Lowell means to give us a vision of the world as having dropped short of expectations, as having forsaken the word of God and descended into war and commerce.

In ‘The Holy Innocents' he brings together biblical Israel and wartime New England, linking Herod's infanticide with America's role in the World War II. In a bold symbolic gesture, two working oxen are made to stand for vanished human innocence:

These are the undefiled by woman – their

Sorrow is not the sorrow of this world:

King Herod shrieking vengeance at the curled

Up knees of Jesus choking in the air,

A king of speechless clods and infants. Still

The world out-Herods Herod; and the year,

The nineteen-hundred forty-fifth of grace,

Lumbers with losses up the clinkered hill

Of our purgation …

The hurtling, rhymed pentameter, lofty rhetoric and earnest tone are typical of the early poetry. Writing in 1945, the poet and critic Randall Jarrell wrote of an ‘obstinacy of temperament extreme enough to seem a force of violence'. The style of the poems is an echo of that temperament. The form, like the spiritual frame of reference, groans with the effort of incorporation.

To readers wanting more of the same, Life Studies (1959) was a disappointment. It is possible to say in retrospect that this was Lowell's most important book, but at the time it looked like an eccentric departure. Lowell, in fact, was more than eccentric; he was profoundly sick with manic depression and had already had a number of breakdowns. He had also lost his religious faith, and these two losses – of mind and faith – are the themes underpinning Life Studies. Consequently the book has none of the bluster of the earlier, more religious books, and where the old formal patterns do remain they are faced with a quieter sensibility. In ‘Beyond the Alps', Lowell's inner journey – his journey from faith to disbelief – is figured in a physical journey across the mountains. The poem has a parenthetical foreword: ‘On the train from Rome to Paris. 1950, the year Pius XII defined the dogma of Mary's bodily assumption.' The theme of the papal proclamation is taken up in the second stanza:

When the Vatican made Mary's Assumption dogma,

the crowds at San Pietro screamed Papa.

The Holy Father dropped his shaving glass,

and listened. His electric razor purred,

his pet canary chirped on his left hand.

The lights of science couldn't hold a candle

to Mary risen – at one miraculous stroke,

angel-wing'd, gorgeous as a jungle bird!

But who believed this? Who could understand?

To declare the Assumption dogma is to expand the incarnation into an assertion about human destiny, but here the notion that we are redeemed in fulfillment, not denial, of our humanity is treated with suspicion. The image of the Pope shaving is ironic, since the daily removal of unwanted hair is itself a ‘denial' of one's humanity. The last two lines in the above quotation – the suddenness with which an exclamation wilts into a question – could very well stand for the poem as a whole, and for its place in Lowell's oeuvre.

The shocking thing about Life Studies was its candour. In an essay developed from his review of the book in 1959, M. L. Rosenthal coined a term that has been used by commentators ever since: ‘confessionalism'. Lowell himself disliked the word, but it seems to me at least partly useful. The confessional poem is autobiographical, but what distinguishes its use of autobiography from lyric poetry generally is its incorporation of personal detail of an explicit sort for emotional effect. The ‘I' of the poem is the ‘I' of the poet; there is no pretence of universality at the level of poetic voice. In ‘Sailing Home from Rapallo', for example, Lowell recounts the appalling business of having to escort his mother's corpse from Italy to New England – there to be buried in the family plot. The poem ends:

In the grandiloquent lettering on Mother's coffin,

Lowell had been misspelled LOVEL.

The corpse

was wrapped like panettone in Italian tinfoil.

Here the misspelling of the Lowell name has resonance beyond the purely personal: all the old securities of tradition and status are represented in this detail. But to the reader of 1959, it is the graphic nature of this last stanza, the bluntness of address, which must have seemed astonishing. To some it looked like tastelessness.

The candour of Life Studies is never more apparent than when Lowell is writing of his mental illness and the effect it has had on his wives and family. The overriding mood is one of remorse. ‘Home after Three Months Away' finds Lowell recuperating after a stint in hospital:

After thirteen weeks

my child still dabs her cheeks

to start me shaving. When

we dress her in her sky-blue corduroy,

she changes to a boy,

and floats my shaving brush

and washcloth in the flush …

Dearest, I cannot loiter here

in lather like a polar bear.

There's a sense of bewildered affection here that I find very moving. But more moving still is the recognition – figured in the awkwardness of that final rhyme – that the moment cannot last. The speaker of the poem is neither there nor not there; he seems to stand at an angle to his own life, even in this most personal of moments. In the final line he compares himself to the ‘gobbets of porkrind' left out for the birds in winter: ‘Cured, I am frizzled, stale and small.'

The confessional poet will be successful insofar as he can convince his readers that his personal pain has impersonal resonance, and Lowell always had the gift, I think, of giving his poems a general relevance. Certainly in For the Union Dead (1964), the now-characteristic rawness of address is combined with more political themes. The title poem is a case in point. It begins with a scene of urban decay:

The old South Boston Aquarium stands

in a Sahara of snow now. Its broken windows are boarded.

The bronze weathervane cod has lost half its scales.

The airy tanks are dry.

There follows a description of large-scale development, steam-shovels gouging an ‘underworld garage' in the heart of old New England. At the centre of the carnage – and at the centre of the poem – there stands a statue of Colonel Shaw, the commander of a regiment of black soldiers in the American Civil War. Shaw and his men are the representatives of the sacrifice made in the cause of ‘freedom', a freedom that, in Lowell's eyes, is now being used to devastate his city. The last stanza circles back to the first and contains an image of modern life that hits home like a wrecking ball:

The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,

giant finned cars nose forward like fish;

a savage servility

slides by on grease.

The aquarium is gone, and yet the child whose nose once ‘crawled like a snail on the glass', and whose ‘hand tingled / to burst the bubbles / drifting from the noses of the cowed, compliant fish', seems to reappear at the poem's close, struck by another kind of compliance, itching to prick another kind of bubble. Wonder has been replaced by horror, innocence by experience.

With ‘Waking Early Sunday Morning', the opening poem in Near the Ocean (1967), Lowell deepened and intensified his criticisms of the contemporary US. Regarded by many as Lowell's greatest poem, its first stanza is particularly brilliant:

O to break loose, like the chinook

salmon jumping and falling back,

nosing up to the impossible

stone and bone-crushing waterfall –

raw-jawed, weak-fleshed there, stopped by ten

steps of the roaring ladder, and then

to clear the top on the last try,

alive enough to spawn and die.

‘O to break loose …' But we cannot break loose. The poem swings from elation to despair and is a kind of lament for privacy. The Cold War and atomic weaponry have effectively made a conscript of everyone; all our fates, Lowell seems to be saying, are now tied to President Lyndon Johnson's. The use of octosyllabic couplets recalls the old Lowellian grandeur, but in terms of content ‘Waking Early' is entirely consistent with the later verse. Indeed, it represents a progression: the tension between the private and public is treated as a political theme.

Pity the planet, all joy gone

From this sweet volcanic cone;

Peace to our children when they fall

in small war on the heels of small

war – until the end of time

to police the earth, a ghost

orbiting forever lost

in our monotonous sublime.

In all his remaining books but one, Lowell adopted the questionable practice of packing all manner of subject matter – political, personal, familial, literary – into loose unrhymed sonnets or ‘fourteeners'. There are many hundreds of these ‘Notebook' poems and few who have read them with any care regard them as amongst his best work. At best they achieve a kind of clumsy intensity; at worst they are simply prattling, and very often indiscreet. Far more satisfactory are the poems collected in Day by Day, which was published posthumously, in 1977. I'm not the first to single out ‘Epilogue' as one of the best poems in that collection. Meditating on ‘These blessed structures, plot and rhyme', Lowell laments his inability to create ‘something imagined, not recalled'; his poems, he writes, are ‘paralysed by fact'. But the poem ends resignedly:

All's misalliance.

Yet why not say what happened?

Pray for the grace of accuracy

Vermeer gave to the sun's illumination

stealing like the tide across a map

to his girl solid with yearning.

We are poor passing facts,

warned by that to give

each figure in the photograph

his living name.

Lowell died in 1977. He never expected to live beyond 60, his parents having died at about that age. He left behind him much human wreckage – broken families, hurt friends. But he also left an imperishable account of a mind under pressure in a world going mad. I'll leave you with the man himself, reading one of his finest, ‘Skunk Hour':

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