I hear my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell, as if my hand were at its throatI I myself am hell;
So, in "Skunk Hour", Robert Lowell laid down a marker as "confessional" as any in the landmark poems that make up Life Studies (1959). If this meant invoking New England as faded grandeur, a parade gone by, it also spoke from (and to) his own "ill-spirit" in all its manic-depressive riffs and seizures. Could it be that an heir to Wasp gentility whose forebears included founding Puritan worthies on both the Lowell and Winslow sides of his family - not to say a "fireside" American Victorian like James Russell Lowell or a turn-of-the-century imagist as resolutely literary as Amy Lowell - could so have broken ranks? What price now the famed high reserve of Boston?
For, willingly or not, from his young manhood through to his death in 1977, Lowell became the unlikely stuff of publicity. His scrapes and drinking, the three marriages (respectively to Jean Stafford, Elizabeth Hardwick and Lady Caroline Blackwood), each revealed breakdown and hospitalisation, and the different shows of political dissent kept him anything but only in the arts columns.
Few "public" New Englanders, too, would manage to have given up Harvard (193537) for stints in the Old South with Allen Tate and Caroline Gordon and then Kenyon College, Ohio (where John Crowe Ransom became his mentor), converted in 1940 from the faith of Jonathan Edwards and Ralph Waldo Emerson to Papism, found themselves in time of world war serving a jail sentence for refusal to be conscripted and, alongside the likes of Norman Mailer and Dwight Macdonald, have become a frontline dissenter against the Vietnam war during the LBJ/Nixon 1960s.
All of this made for good copy, even headlines, especially the experience of hearing Lowell in public flow with his courtly, slightly tremulous speaking voice marked by its acquired southernisms. But it has also obscured his true achievement: that of the ground-breaking poet whose images seize and haunt. For Lowell ranks as one of the presiding figures in the modern American poetic canon, heir on the one hand to the austere classicism of T. S. Eliot (and with Pound an admired friend) and on the other to the warm vernacularism of William Carlos Williams with his credo of "no ideas but in things".
It is one of many strengths in Paul Mariani's new biography that he keeps the focus unerringly on Robert Lowell ("Cal" for both Caligula and Caliban as he was known from his schooldays at St Mark's) as poet, the prime mover of what he rightly calls the "tragic generation of Roethke, Schwartz, Jarrell, Berryman, Sexton and Plath." Towards the end of his life Lowell had every reason to think his poetry had helped "to change the game".
"These are the tranquillized Fifties, /and I am fortyII was a fire-breathing Catholic C.O.,/and made my manic statement" Lowell would write in "Memories of West Street and Lepke". "Disloyal still" is his self-description in "Grandparents". Both speak of Lowell's wish, no doubt his need, to play the renegade New Englander, be it in the form of apologias for slavery or seeking out a Jewish ancestor. He liked to taunt by calling himself "the Shelley of my age", if indeed "the lost puritan" then at the same time also a take-no-prisoners Rimbaud.
But from the early work of Land of Unlikeness (1944) and the Pulitzer-winning Lord Weary's Castle (1946), through For The Union Dead (1964) with its stunning title-poem, and on to the later work like History (1973), For Lizzie and Harriet (1973) and The Dolphin (1973), it no more escaped him than it did his sharper-eyed readers that poem after poem formulated the dissent, the turbulence within and which he saw about him from cold-war America through to Nixonism ("a great pollution has been removed from our country" he wrote in the wake of Watergate), with a quite classical exactness. Appositely Mariani quotes the poet W. D. Snodgrass writing that "A Lowell poem seemed like some massive generator, steel-jacketed in formal metrics against the throb of rhetoric and energy."
As to the life that gave rise to the poetry, not to mention translation-work as fine as Imitations (1961) or the plays derived from Melville and Hawthorne that make up The Old Glory (1965), Mariani keeps a full and even balance throughout. His tact is just right as to the marriages, setting Jean Stafford's own alcoholism in a context of important fiction like her Boston Adventure (1944), showing Elizabeth Hardwick ("Lizzie") for her own immense critical intelligence as well as love of Lowell, and crediting the damaged, wayward Blackwood ("dolphin") with her own creative accomplishments.
Equally good measure is given to Lowell's literary friendships, especially those of a lifetime with Elizabeth Bishop (including an uproarious reading-tour episode in Argentina), with the eventual suicide John Berryman (to whom he wrote "we have gone through the same troubles, visiting the bottom of the world") and with the Tates and Randall Jarrell. Mariani stops off, too, enlighteningly, at the Ford Madox Ford once squired around America by a young Lowell, the Khrushchev-era figure of Andrei Voznesensky, Robert Frost, Allen Ginsberg and the Beats, Sylvia Plath, Flannery O'Connor (whom Lowell memorably described on her too early death in 1964 as a "commanding, grim, witty child"), and from the English sojourn in Essex and Kent the anything but "confessional" Philip Larkin.
As this exemplary biography confirms, Lowell may well have found his New Englandism as much burden as asset. His life there as elsewhere may well have been conducted on the psychological high-wire, full of wear and fissure ("I myself am hell"). But the triumph, fully acknowledged in Lost Puritan, truly emerges in Lowell's poetry, at its best both of the pulse and nerves and yet fine-wrought. Mariani does well to avoid undue adulation or knowingness. Rather he follows the spirit of Seamus Heaney's observation on seeing Lowell in the aftermath of one of his depressive bouts - "disabled, pinned down, yet essentially magnificent".
A. Robert Lee is reader in American literature, University of Kent at Canterbury.
Lost Puritan: A Life of Robert Lowell
Author - Paul Mariani
ISBN - 0 393 03661 8
Publisher - W. W. Norton
Price - £24.00
Pages - 5