by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
“Cut off from the sight of God, modern man wanders about in his Land of Unlikeness, driven by greed and cruelty.”
– Jerome Mazzaro, commenting on Robert Lowell’s first poetry collection Land of Unlikeness
Robert Lowell (1917–1977) was full of contradictions. His parents were both descendants of old and notable New England families, the Lowells and the Winslows, but the tension and unhappiness of his childhood made him reject his heritage. He spent two months living in a tent on the lawn of his friend and fellow poet Alan Tate’s family home when he left Harvard abruptly after a fight with his father, then went to Kenyon College in Ohio.
He converted to Catholicism, and married his first wife, fiction writer Jean Stafford. When Robert Lowell refused induction into the armed services, he spent five months in jail as a conscientious objector.
And through it all, he wrote. Land of Unlikeness was published in 1944 in a limited edition of two hundred and fifty copies by Harry Duncan at the Cummington Press. It was full of the fervor of a new religious convert, but made barely a ripple in the literary world.
The Holy Innocents
Listen, the hay-bells tinkle as the cart
Wavers on rubber tires along the tar
And cindered ice below the burlap mill
And ale—wife run. The oxen drool and start
In wonder at the fenders of a car,
And blunder hugely up St. Peter’s hill.
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; and the oxen near
The worn foundations of their resting—place,
The holy manger where their bed is corn
And holly torn for Christmas. If they die,
As Jesus, in the harness, who will mourn?
Lamb of the shepherds, Child, how still you lie.
Land of Unlikeness was followed in 1946 by Lord Weary’s Castle, which opposed war, the Puritan ethic, and materialism and greed. Lord Weary’s Castle earned Lowell 1947’s Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. He was 30 years old.
Night and its muffled creakings, as the wheels
Of Blücher’s caissons circle with the clock;
He lifts his eyes and drums until he feels
The clavier shudder and allows the rock
And Scylla of her eyes fix to his face:
It is as though he looks into a glass
Reflecting on this guilty breathing-space
His terror and the salvos of the brass
From Brandenberg. She moves away. Instead,
Wearily by the broken altar, Abel
Remembers how the brothers fell apart
And hears the friendless hacking of his heart,
And strangely foreign on the mirror-table
Leans the black shako with its white death’s-head.
Just as success had arrived, he met poet Elizabeth Bishop, who would be one of his most important friends from then on. Though they rarely met face-to-face, their regular correspondence was a source of inspiration, honest criticism and shared ambition. Bishop recalls their meeting “was the first time I had ever actually talked with someone about how one writes poetry.” It was, she said, “like exchanging recipes for making a cake.” Their collected letters were published in 2008 under the title Words in Air.
In the next three years, Lowell and Stafford were divorced, Lowell left the Catholic Church, and he was hospitalized for the first serious attack caused by a manic-depressive illness that recurred for the rest of his life. His next book, The Mills of the Kavanaughs, was again markedly different from his previous work, a group of poems as long dramatic monologues. It met with much less success than Lord Weary’s Castle.
He married his second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, another writer, who transitioned from short stories and novels to literary criticism. She would become a co-founder of The New York Review of Books. They lived mostly in Boston in the 1950s, while Lowell taught at Boston University. Their daughter Harriet was born in 1957.
Lowell’s swings from mania to depression not only made married life difficult, it made writing poetry so difficult that he often switched to prose: “I found I had no language or meter that would allow me to approximate what I saw or remembered. Yet in prose I had already found what I wanted, the conventional style of autobiography and reminiscence.” He worked on Life Studies, a collection mixing prose and slang with poetry, autobiography with observation of contemporary events. It was published in 1959, and won the 1960 National Book Award, hailed as “perhaps the most influential book of modern verse since The Waste Land” by poet Stanley Kunitz.
Inauguration Day 1953
The snow had buried Stuyvesant.
The subways drummed the vaults. I heard
the El’s green girders charge on Third,
Manhattan’s truss of adamant,
that groaned in ermine, slummed on want . . . .
Cyclonic zero of the word,
God of our armies, who interred
Cold Harbor’s blue immortals, Grant!
Horseman, your sword is in the groove!
Ice, ice. Our wheels no longer move.
Look, the fixed stars, all just alike
as lack-land atoms, split apart,
and the Republic summons Ike,
the mausoleum in her heart.
This poem is modeled on Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Armadillo,” which Bishop had dedicated to Lowell
(For Elizabeth Bishop)
Nautilus Island’s hermit
heiress still lives through winter in her Spartan cottage;
her sheep still graze above the sea.
Her son’s a bishop. Her farmer
is first selectman in our village;
she’s in her dotage.
the hierarchic privacy
of Queen Victoria’s century,
she buys up all
the eyesores facing her shore,
and lets them fall.
The season’s ill—
we’ve lost our summer millionaire,
who seemed to leap from an L. L. Bean
catalogue. His nine-knot yawl
was auctioned off to lobstermen.
A red fox stain covers Blue Hill.
And now our fairy
decorator brightens his shop for fall;
his fishnet’s filled with orange cork,
orange, his cobbler’s bench and awl;
there is no money in his work,
he’d rather marry.
One dark night,
my Tudor Ford climbed the hill’s skull;
I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down,
they lay together, hull to hull,
where the graveyard shelves on the town. . . .
My mind’s not right.
A car radio bleats,
“Love, O careless Love. . . .” I hear
my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,
as if my hand were at its throat. . . .
I myself am hell;
only skunks, that search
in the moonlight for a bite to eat.
They march on their soles up Main Street:
white stripes, moonstruck eyes’ red fire
under the chalk-dry and spar spire
of the Trinitarian Church.
I stand on top
of our back steps and breathe the rich air—
a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail
She jabs her wedge-head in a cup
of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,
and will not scare.
In the 1960s, he actively opposed the Vietnam War, and turned down an invitation to the White House Festival of the Arts from President Lyndon Johnson. He signed the anti-war manifesto “A Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority.” He also began taking lithium in 1967, which helped but did not entirely prevent his swings from manic hyperactivity to deep depression.
His collection The Dolphin relates the foundering of his second marriage. There was criticism of his inclusion of passages taken from letters written to him by Elizabeth Hardwick, but altered to suit his poems, and done without consulting her.
There were also poems about his relationship with Anglo-Irish aristocrat and author Lady Caroline Blackwood, which would become a third marriage for both of them. Lowell described her as “a mermaid who dines upon the bones of her winded lovers.” She was 14 years younger than Lowell.
My Dolphin, you only guide me by surprise,
a captive as Racine, the man of craft,
drawn through his maze of iron composition
by the incomparable wandering voice of Phèdre.
When I was troubled in mind, you made for my body
caught in its hangman’s-knot of sinking lines,
the glassy bowing and scraping of my will. . . .
I have sat and listened to too many
words of the collaborating muse,
and plotted perhaps too freely with my life,
not avoiding injury to others,
not avoiding injury to myself—
to ask compassion . . . this book, half fiction,
an eelnet made by man for the eel fighting
my eyes have seen what my hand did.
After moving to England, Lowell produced a number of sonnets, but returned to free verse in his final volume of poetry Day by Day, published in 1977, the year of his death. He also left Carolyn Blackwood, and returned to America.
Those blessèd structures, plot and rhyme—
why are they no help to me now
I want to make
something imagined, not recalled?
I hear the noise of my own voice:
The painter’s vision is not a lens,
it trembles to caress the light.
But sometimes everything I write
with the threadbare art of my eye
seems a snapshot,
lurid, rapid, garish, grouped,
heightened from life,
yet paralyzed by fact.
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 on September 12, 1977, having suffered a heart attack in a cab in New York City on his way to see his ex-wife, Elizabeth Hardwick.
The last two lines of another poem, Thanks-Offering for Recovery, are a kind of summing up of Lowell’s life for me:
This winter, I thought
I was created to be given away.
Robert Lowell exposed so much of his life in his work; his frankness about his illness has given solace to many who suffer from the same disease, while his search for answers to the unanswerable questions reflects that spark in all of us.
- Land of Unlikeness,introduction by Allen Tate, Cummington Press (Cummington, MA), 1944, reprinted, University Microfilms (Ann Arbor, MI), 1971.
- Lord Weary’s Castle(also see below), Harcourt, 1946, reprinted, 1985.
- Poems, 1938-1949,Faber, 1950, reprinted, 1987.
- The Mills of the Kavanaughs(also see below), Harcourt, 1951.
- Life Studies(also see below), Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1959, 2nd edition published with prose memoir “91 Revere Street,” Faber, 1968.
- Lord Weary’s Castle[and] The Mills of the Kavanaughs, Meridian Books, 1961, reprinted, Harcourt, 1979.
- For the Union Dead(also see below), Farrar, Straus, 1964.
- Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1804-1864(limited edition keepsake of centenary commemoration of Hawthorne’s death), Ohio State University Press, 1964.
- Selected Poems,Faber, 1965, reprinted, 1986.
- The Achievement of Robert Lowell: A Comprehensive Selection of His Poems,edited and introduced by William J. Martz, Scott, Foresman, 1966.
- Life Studies,[and] For the Union Dead, Noonday, 1967.
- Near the Ocean(also see below), drawings by Sidney Nolan, Farrar, Straus, 1967.
- 4,privately printed limited edition by Laurence Scott (Cambridge, MA), 1969.
- F. K., 1925-1968,privately printed limited edition, 1969.
- Notebook 1967-1968,Farrar, Straus, 1969 , 3rd edition revised and expanded as Notebook,
- Fuer die Toten der Union(English with German translations; contains poetry from Life Studies, Near the Ocean, and For the Union Dead), Suhrkamp (Frankfort on the Main), 1969.
- Poems de Robert Lowell(English with Spanish translations), Editorial Sudamericana (Buenos Aires), 1969.
- Poesie, 1940-1970(English with Italian translations), Longanesi (Milan), 1972.
- History(also see below), Farrar, Straus, 1973.
- For Lizzie and Harriet(also see below), Farrar, Straus, 1973.
- The Dolphin(also see below), Farrar, Straus, 1973.
- Robert Lowell’s Poems: A Selection,edited and introduced, with notes, by Jonathan Raban, Faber, 1974.
- Selected Poems,Farrar, Straus, 1976, revised edition, Noonday, 1977.
- Ein Fischnetz aus teerigem Garn zu knuepfen: Robert Lowell(English with German translations; contains poems from Lord Weary’s Castle, Life Studies, For the Union Dead, Near the Ocean, History, The Dolphin, and For Lizzie and Harriet), Verlag Volk und Welt (Berlin), 1976.
- Day by Day,Farrar, Straus, 1977.
- A Poem,Menhaden Press (Vermillion, SD), 1980.
- Collected Poems,Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997.
- The Old Glory(trilogy; contains “Endecott and the Red Cross” [also see below] and “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” both based on short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and “Benito Cereno” [also see below], based on a novella by Herman Melville; first produced Off-Broadway at the American Place Theatre, November 1, 1964), introduction by Robert Brustein, director’s note by Jonathan Miller, Farrar, Straus, 1965 , revised edition, 1968.
- Prometheus Bound: Derived from Aeschylus(first produced by Yale School of Drama, May 9, 1967; produced Off-Broadway at Mermaid Theatre, June 24, 1971), Farrar, Straus, 1969, reprinted, 1987.
- Endecott and the Red Cross(revised and expanded version of one-act play of the same title; first produced in New York City by the American Place Theatre at St. Clements Episcopal Church, May, 1968), American Place Theatre, 1968.
- Benito Cereno(English with Italian translation), edited and introduced by Rolando Anzilotti, All’insegna del pesce d’oro (Milan), 1969.
- Eugenio Montale, Poesie de Montale,Laterna (Bologna), 1960.
- (And editor) Imitations(versions of poems by Homer, Sappho, Rainer Maria Rilke, Francois Villon, Stephane Mallarme, Charles-Pierre Baudelaire, and others; mimeographed typescript entitled Imitations: A Book of Free Translations by Robert Lowell for Elizabeth Bishop privately circulated before publication, c. 1960), Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1961.
- (With Jacques Barzun) Jean Baptiste Racine and Pierre Beaumarchais, Phaedra and Figaro(also see below; Beaumarchais’s Figaro translated by Barzun; Racine’s Phaedra translated by Lowell), Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1961.
- Phaedra,Faber, 1963, Octagon Books, 1971.
- The Voyage, and Other Versions of Poems by Baudelaire,illustrations by Sidney Nolan, Farrar, Straus, 1968.
- The Oresteia of Aeschylus(contains “Agamemnon,” “Orestes,” and “The Furies”), Farrar, Straus, 1978.
- Poetry Foundation: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/robert-lowell
- Academy of American Poets: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/robert-lowell
- Robert Lowell in: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Lowell
- The Guardian: ‘Robert Lowell at 100’ – https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2017/mar/01/robert-lowell-at-100-poetry-centenary
- ‘Dear Elizabeth’ in The New Yorker – http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2004/12/20/dear-elizabeth
- NYT Obituary for Elizabeth Harwick
- Clinkered road
- Man wearing shako
- Old photo of New York in winter
- Dolphin underwater
- Damaged photo of unknown man
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud