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The Struggles of Old Zeus

Gerald Dawe

The Dolphin Letters 1970-1979: Elizabeth Hardwick, Richard Lowell and Their Circle, Saskia Hamilton (ed), Faber and Faber, 504 pp, £35, ISBN: 978-0571357413

The Dolphin: Two Versions, 1972-1973, by Robert Lowell, edited by Saskia Hamilton, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 195 pp, $18, ISBN: 978-0374538279

Robert Lowell’s Collected Poems, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in hardback in 2003 and four years later in paperback, weighs in at a mighty – some might say, exorbitant – one thousand, one hundred and eight-six pages. That’s 1,186, including appendices, essays, several of Lowell’s self-reflections on his own work and on “confessional” poetry, plus notes, glossary, chronology, bibliography, acknowledgements and an index of titles. It is an amazing body of work, edited by Frank Bidart and David Gewanter, fronted by a meditative photographic portrait (by Alfred Eisenstaedt for Life magazine). The poet is in a sleeveless jumper, white shirt and woollen tie, neat, focused and watchful. He could well be a convinced church warden but for the somewhat knowing look and unforced (almost shy) smile of recognition: Here I Am.

Lowell, who died at the relatively young age of sixty in 1977, had spent his entire adult life with poetry in mind. It was an obsession beyond any other in his world. The early volumes he produced, from Land of Unlikeness in 1944, Lord Weary’s Castle (1946) and The Mills of the Kavanaughs (1951) could hardly have prepared his American readership for what would come breaking through the Miltonic arsenal of sound and fury of these highly orchestrated collections. Life Studies (1959) changed his line of direction and propelled him in subsequent volumes such as For the Union Dead (1964) and Near the Ocean (1967) into a personal landscape which would reshape poetry in the English language in the second half of the twentieth century. Along the way, driven by bouts of mania and drugs and alcohol dependency, Lowell’s precarious mental health suffered and he experienced repeated hospitalisations. With the unceasing support of family and friends he managed to survive many of these episodes but the physical toll was ultimately too much and his life ended, after a massive stroke, in a New York taxi. He was on his way to reunite with his second wife, the wonderful writer Elizabeth Hardwick (his first wife, Jean Stafford, was also a writer), having borne the chaos of his relatively brief relationship with the Anglo-Irish writer Caroline Blackwood. He had two children – with Elizabeth, Harriet who was born on 1957 and with Caroline, Sheridan, born in 1971.

Lowell’s public place in the American cultural and political landscape began with his conversion to Roman Catholicism and was confirmed in the mid-1940s when, as a conscientious objector, he was sentenced for refusing military induction during WWII, up to his support for John F Kennedy’s presidential campaign and later his protests against the Vietnam War. These civic acts earned him a platform which, in spite of repeated doubts and self-questioning, produced a new generation of younger readers, many of whom were more attuned to the Beat Generation of Ginsberg. He participated in the famous March on the Pentagon (1967) and though he is ironically portrayed by Noman Mailer in his Armies of the Night as a patrician figurehead, Lowell was intently media-savvy, on both sides of the Atlantic.

While the volume of his verse is intimidating there might be read today a significant core of great poems which will last so long as poetry is viewed as an art-form. However, Lowell’s turn towards his own immediate family history as a source for his writing would lead him to produce, at least in the present writer’s view, a strange and unhealthy fascination with and mythologising of his life as a poet, and the strains and damage which his instabilities had had, particularly, upon the women in his life. In both an aesthetic and moral sense and meshed in posthumous time, a troubling question sits at the very centre of the extensive sequence of sonnets (over one hundred of them) published as The Dolphin in 1973 and now reissued by Saskia Hamilton (another ideal editor and critic ‑ in which Lowell was blessed) in The Dolphin Two Versions, 1972-1973 alongside the volume of The Dolphin Letters 1970-79, Elizabeth Hardwick, Robert Lowell and Their Circle. The question concerns the private inner world of human contact, love (physical and emotional) and how much of this is or should be available without the distancing processes and transformations of art. Lowell, like some of those younger poets he greatly influenced, including Sylvia Plath, provoked questions about the nature of privacy, selfhood and the value of the imagination which seem so pertinent today when the very notion of privacy has been turned upside down in a digital world where literally everything thought, felt and experienced is made available and “shared”, no matter its provenance or the impact on others.

The consensus is that Lowell straddles mid-twentieth century poetry in English like a latter-day Milton; post-Yeats there really is no one who absorbed the depth and range of transatlantic literary influence as did Lowell. The academic, critical and popular culture of modern poetry is marked by his (barely) forty years of published work. Volumes of essays, biographies, studies and editions of his letters abound. From Steven Gould Axelrod’s pioneering Robert Lowell: Life and Arts (1978) – still the very best in my opinion – to the magisterial (and terrifying) Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire, A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character (2017) by Kay Redfield Johnson, Lowell’s life and his circle has been a subject of intense focus. Is art predicated upon the psychology of the artist? Is the cost of such high achievement inevitably a compromise with mental health and the destruction of ordinary human ties and bonds? Lowell, by all accounts, tried to preserve these even during some of his most self-destructively manic phases. In a letter to the poet Theodore Roethke, quoted by the scholar and critic Marjorie Perloff, (one of the best guides in my book to modern American poetry), written on July 10th, 1963, only a month before Roethke succumbed to a heart attack, Lowell speculated:

There’s a strange fact about poets of roughly our age, and one that doesn’t exactly seem to have always been true. It’s this, that to write we seem to have to go at it with such single-minded intensity that we are always on the point of drowning … I feel it’s something almost unavoidable, some flaw in the motor. (“Poètes Maudits of the Genteel Tradition”, Robert Lowell: Essays on the Poetry, edited by Steven Gould Axelrod and Helen Deese, Cambridge University Press, 1986).

In Lowell’s situation, the helplessness of his illness was only latterly ameliorated with the prescription of lithium ,but while the onslaught of his recurrent downward spirals steadied, the damage to his self and unprovoked violence to those closest to him, could never be forgotten, even if forgiven. Perloff quotes in the same essay a sentence from one of the letters which addresses directly the sense of betrayal Hardwick felt as Lowell, in the words of his poem “The Couple” from The Dolphin series, declares: “Our conversation had a simple plot / a story of a woman and a man / versifying her tragedy’.

“My utter contempt,” writes Hardwick, “for both of you [Lowell and Caroline Blackwood] for the misery you have brought to two people [Hardwick and daughter Harriet] who have never hurt you knows no bounds.”

As The Dolphin letters amply illustrate, to a degree which is almost suffocating and claustrophobic, Lowell’s obsession with producing poetry at such a rate and volume and with an undiminished visionary zeal one is left virtually breathless at; and by the end of it all: a taxi ride to reunite with his American family which ends in the cab. Elizabeth Hardwick was called to identify his slumped and lifeless body in the back seat.

The truly tragic was never too far below the surface of Lowell’s life and his Dolphin poems seek to reproduce the complicated tripartite relationship between himself, Elizabeth and his new wife, Caroline. The poems bristle with the conversational static of who is doing what to whom and the emotional cost of what looks like betrayal (Lowell’s) and at a somewhat crazy escapade (absconding with Caroline and their brief marriage and lifestyle) for which Elizabeth must pick up the broken pieces, along with her daughter and friends. The adorable Elizabeth Bishop provides a stern and uncompromising presence when the conversations, letters and phone calls between Hardwick and Lowell are included in the published book of poems, while maintaining her deepest affection for Lowell himself. But as the Letters make plain, the deception which predates the poetry book’s publication by some three years, cuts to the quick. Hardwick is engulfed with the endless demands of renting apartments, sorting out requests for Lowell to contribute to numerous conferences and book festivals as well as trying to clear his archive with two or three university suitors. While Lowell swans around England, visiting the great and the good from his base at All Souls College, Oxford, and taking trips abroad to visit their friends, Elizabeth is back in the States, sorting out their daughter’s summer camp and senior college. With both wife and daughter planning on moving to England for a year to be with Lowell when he takes up a position as visiting professor at Essex, the letters get increasingly vexed: which is the best school for Harriet in London; can they afford a good apartment, or even a house, on his salary? All the practicalities are zipping back and forth across the Atlantic along with the love and joy at the expected joining up again as a family. Meanwhile Elizabeth is maintaining her own serious commitments as a writer and public figure, writing some of her most important essays and reviews, which will be published as Seduction and Betrayal (1974) and, when the time comes, recasting her experience of Lowell’s temporary desertion in her finely judged and moving novel Sleepless Nights (1979).

Hardwick’s understanding of her husband’s mental health issues reveals a woman of profound moral dignity and ethical depth who, on visiting her husband after he had been hospitalised in London, remarked to her friends in the States what a sorry state he had found himself in and needed help. When it came to Caroline’s turn, she threw in the cards, frightened by his mood swings and troubled by the instability he brought into an already precarious and unstable relationship, fuelled by alcohol and – according to Hardwick – an indulgent aristocratic lifestyle. I never met Elizabeth Hardwick but we did very briefly correspond and I kick myself when I think of the possibility I once had of meeting her but chickened out. She comes out of this extraordinary edition of letters as, quite simply, a wonderful human being. Sure, there is an equal sense of obsessing over detail, and the sense of planning their lives away may well have nudged Lowell into a completely other direction with Caroline, and, bizarrely, in mistakenly locking himself into the family estate house, Castletown, providing a real-life metaphor for the final years of his life.

The sense of mortality as a presentiment carries over into Lowell’s Dolphin poems as well as his appetite for life: thinking about cultural life might be a much more appropriate way of describing it. There is something shocking about the sheer mental fight Lowell put up in his own life and in the life of his poems. I still find myself unconvinced at times by the unmediated quality of the Dolphin poems; as if Lowell’s celebrity and high-wire balancing act of readings, lunches, dinners, hanging out with the famous was in itself sufficient to make the poems thrive and luminate from the page. In a way, they are more like voices cascading in a closed room and looking outwards, as if the writer is trapped by his own supercharged intelligence and unable simply to “live”. This is heresy for those who see Lowell still as the greatest poet in English after Auden. At other times, The Dolphin captures, as these letters reveal in their hypnotic metronomic fashion, the psychic strains and stresses of trying to maintain a major poetic voice as popular culture was moving increasingly away from the privileges of the independent literary lyric to the freer release of saying whatever was on your mind.

Lowell struggled with this tension and bravely sought to recuperate the literary traditions of his mentors – from classic Rome to William Carlos Williams, from John Milton to Elizabeth Bishop – yet is there not something unresolvable about the legacy of a man who seemed both patrician and self-assured, on one hand, and on the other, the collapse of that seeming authority in the back seat of a New York taxi, heading back to the woman he loved and revered and could not live without. Such is life ‑ perhaps. But the last word surely belongs with Elizabeth Hardwick. “You must leave that parasitic life and come home in September,” she writes from their New York apartment on June 26th, 1970:

I know you can work at Harvard. You cannot stay away from me and Harriet for a year and a half, almost two and return, love\, I am not Caroline, unreal./ You know that. The choice you have made is ludicrous and destructive and unreal. You will be destroyed by the unreality, the spoiled richness, the alien ground. I believe this and say it without regret, since I am not trying to impress anyone but tell the truth as I see it. You cannot live on Caroline … You cannot continue your career as a fashionable London person, - that is all over\uninteresting/ ‑ and your talent is otherwise. I feel you are a loss to American literature and to the country, as well as to us.
Be …mad if you like, arrogant and above-it-all if you like, but this is the truth, or my truth.
I wish you everything with your book, old Zeus. I wish you health and dignity and serenity and moral beauty. I wish you a long creative life and a long life just for itself. I have contempt for your present situation, but love for you.

Saskia Hamilton has, with the editing of both these books, and with her previous titles The Letters of Robert Lowell (2005) and Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell (2008) produced an extraordinary innerhistory of the personal turmoil which poetry can sometimes bring in its wake and feed upon, heart-breaking stuff.

1/7/2020

Gerald Dawe’s most recent collection, The Last Peacock, appeared in 2019. Looking Through You: Northern Chronicles is due later this year.

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