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Dying in Doubt

On Robert Lowell.


Robert Lowell
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, pp. 387, $40

When Robert Lowell published Life Studies in 1959, it marked a shift in his work. His previous volume, Lord Weary’s Castle, won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1947 and was praised for its verbal tension and symbolism. “The poems understand the world as a sort of conflict of opposites,” Randall Jarrell wrote in his review of the volume. But the critic Austin Warren understood its true subject: Robert Lowell himself. “The book,” Warren wrote, may aim “at a mythological structure,” but “Lowell starts with the natural and proper desire to find the meaning of his own life in terms of his heredity and cultural environment.” In Life Studies, he would put not only the lives of his ancestors but also his own life under the microscope of poetry. 

Lord Weary’s Castle was the culmination of his studies under Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren. Lowell first met Tate in the summer of 1937 when he arrived unannounced at the Tate home outside Nashville. He had decided to leave Harvard after two years to study at Vanderbilt, where Tate and Warren were professors. Ford Madox Ford had told him offhandedly that they should meet at the Tates’ that summer. Lowell took him literally and showed up before Ford had arrived. In a letter to a friend, Tate’s wife, the novelist Caroline Gordon, wrote that Lowell’s visit was “the strangest visitation we ever had”: 

Allen and I were standing in the circle admiring the lemon lilies when a car drove up to the gate and a young man got out. He stopped down there by the post box and answered the calls of Nature then ascended the slope. We stood there eyeing him sternly . . . when he came up to Allen, regarded him fixedly and murmured something about Ford. Something made us treat him more gently and ask him into the house.

After spending the night with the Tates, Lowell went to Nashville to sign up for classes and returned a few days later (after Ford and his partner, Janice Biala, had arrived) with “a Sears-Roebuck-Nashville” umbrella tent and asked to stay the summer in their yard. The Tates agreed. Lowell wrote several poems that summer under Tate’s tutelage and later said that he was “converted to formalism .  .  . in three months.” 

Lowell, accompanied by his wife, Jean Stafford, whom he married in 1940, spent a second extended period with the Tates—this time at a cabin in Monteagle, Tennessee, beginning in the winter of 1942. Lowell and Stafford would remain until June the following year. He had converted to Catholicism in 1941—partly because of Tate’s influence—and had planned to write a biography of Jonathan Edwards (to whom Lowell was related) while Tate worked on a novel. Instead, Lowell ended up working on poems that would be collected in Land of Unlikeness and Lord Weary’s Castle

The religious iconography in Land of Unlikeness and Lord Weary’s Castle is clearly indebted to Lowell’s passionate but short-lived Catholicism, but it is not an animating force in the poems, as William Doreski has shown in an article for Southern Literary Journal. What is an animating force is Lowell’s “personal drive for salvation,” Doreski writes, which sends him inward and backward, recalling his ancestors, and not to the forms of faith or the person of Christ.   

Lowell had always been unstable, but he suffered his first full-on manic attack sometime in the late 1940s. These got worse in the 1950s. He renounced his Catholicism in 1946, and he and Stafford divorced in 1948. During his manic episodes, he would start affairs, threaten friends, wander the streets at night, foam at the mouth, or frantically search for Satan. Sometimes he ended up in prison. He had a violent attack when his mother died in 1954 and was hospitalized at the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic in New York. It was here that he began work on an autobiography, which he never finished, as part of his therapy. Lowell would eventually publish three chapters of the autobiography as stand-alone pieces, but the entirety of the manuscript has never been published, until now. 

Under the title of Memoirs, Steven Gould Axelrod and Grzegorz Kosc have collected three texts—Lowell’s unfinished autobiography, which begins before his birth and ends when he turns seventeen; his memoir “The Balance Aquarium,” a much shorter version of which was published posthumously in Collected Prose; and his reminiscences of other authors, including Allen Tate, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Ford Madox Ford, and Sylvia Plath, among others. 

In the autobiography, Lowell presents himself as a precocious child with a short temper who loved the woods and who suffered from living with a controlling mother and an absent father. Lowell begins with his parents’ courtship. His mother was a Winslow, those proud supporters of Oliver Cromwell in the sixteenth century and George III in the eighteenth, the latter of which ruined them and sent them off to Canada temporarily. Lowell writes that his grandfather Winslow “wanted everyone to be pre-revolutionary and self-made.” His grandmother, Mary Livingston Devereux, was from Raleigh and hated New England. 

Lowell’s mother idolized her father, and so did Lowell. Arthur Winslow was a man of action who knew what he thought and who had an “intemperate reverence for propriety” and an “overbearing drive toward solitude.” Many of Lowell’s happiest memories are from his time at his grandparent’s house in Rock Village in Middleborough, Massachusetts. “My life  . . .  raced into pure actuality each morning,” Lowell writes, remembering his time at Rock, as he called it.

His mother was narrow and overbearing. “She did not have the self-assurance for wide human experience; she needed to feel liked, admired, surrounded by the approved and familiar.” His father, who came from a long line of famous Lowells, was henpecked and distant. A commander in the Navy, the elder Lowell retired early because his wife hated Navy life and didn’t want to live anywhere but Boston. He subsequently failed at being a businessman, passing from one venture to the next without much success. “In his forties,” Lowell writes, “Father’s soul went underground  . . .  His debunking grew myopic; his shyness grew evasive; he argued with a fumbling languor  . . .  He gasped and wheezed with impotent optimism  . . .  never ingeniously enjoyed his leisure, never even hid his head in the sand.” Lowell despised his father for his withdrawal when he was younger—“he seemed to treat me as though I were some relation of Mother’s who was visiting and he was waiting to be introduced”—and only understood later that he had been forced to live a life he hadn’t chosen: “Father wanted to live on his battleship, and be a bachelor just about to announce his engagement.”

The autobiography is a performative document—several lines and passages from it appear in Lowell’s later poems—and Lowell sometimes bends the truth for effect. In an interview with Edward Lucie-Smith, Frank O’Hara quipped that “Lowell has  . . .  a confessional manner which [lets him] get away with things that are really just plain bad,” and there are some bad lines in these memoirs. The first sentence of the autobiography—“Like Henry Adams, I, too, was born under the shadow of the Boston State House”—is pompous. He lets slip in a short piece on Ford Madox Ford that the novelist thought he “was the most intelligent person he had met in Boston.” One understands what Lowell means when he writes that during his time in the South “I began to discover  . . .  I, too, was part of a legend. I was Northern, disembodied, a Platonist, a Puritan, an abolitionist,” and, of course, a Lowell, which he doesn’t write because he doesn’t need to. 

But he is also disarmingly honest. At school, he writes, “I was extreme only in my conventional mediocrity, my colorless, distracted manner, which came from restless dreams of being admired.” And: “Thick-witted, narcissistic, thuggish, I had the conventional prepuberty character of my age.” Mostly, though, he is sad, restless, and angry. More than once he wishes “everyone would drop dead.” He gets into fights at school, yells at his parents, rails against “Boston snobs,” and gets into a fistfight with his father. 

The image that comes through in these memoirs, and in his poems, is of a man who didn’t want to be defeated by life like his father was defeated—a man who wants to wrestle a blessing from God like Jacob—but who, in the end, laments

all those settings out
that never left the ground,
beginning in wisdom,
dying in doubt.

Only in his poems would he attain something like a victory, which, for Lowell, was the only thing that mattered. 

Micah Mattix is the poetry editor of First Things and the author of the Prufrock newsletter. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, the New Criterion, the Atlantic, and many other publications.

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