Robert Lowell – Setting the River on Fire review: Recuperating the poet’s reputation

The cost of making art, and how much of it the artist and those around him should have to bear, is the deep subject of Kay Jamison’s magnificent study of a brilliant, wounded and lavishly gifted man

Poet Robert Lowell: A New England aristocrat to the tip of his pen. Photograph: Alfred Eisenstaedt/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Poet Robert Lowell: A New England aristocrat to the tip of his pen. Photograph: Alfred Eisenstaedt/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Sat, Apr 15, 2017, 06:00


Book Title:
Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire


Kay Redfield Jamison


Guideline Price:

The posthumous reputation of even a great artist is remarkably fragile. Johann Sebastian Bach was in his day as famous as Telemann and Handel, yet for a century and a half after his death he was known dismissively as “Old” Bach, the dull father of a number of brilliant composer sons. Likewise, after his death in 1916, Henry James’s achievement was largely disregarded by critics and readers, until an essay by Raymond Mortimer in the magazine Horizon in the early 1940s heralded a revival of the Master’s fame. Even Mozart was for long considered no more than a trifler, a maker of pretty but negligible tunes.

From the publication in 1946 of his second verse collection, Lord Weary’s Castle, Robert Lowell was recognised as one of America’s leading poets, alongside Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens and his friend, Elizabeth Bishop. He was known as a “confessional” poet, a description that might have fitted him at the end of his career, when he wrote copiously about his own life and the lives of family and friends. But at the height of his career, in the 1950s and 1960s, he was before anything else a public poet, who took the history of his own family – his ancestors had come to the New World on the Mayflower – as directly emblematic of the origins and destiny of the American nation. For many, he was the quintessential poet of his times.

However, a biography by Ian Hamilton, published in 1982, did what seemed irreparable damage to Lowell the poet and, especially, to Lowell the man. Hamilton, himself a writer of verse, and a literary journalist, had known Lowell, and had seemed to admire him; however, as Hamilton’s friend, the playwright Simon Gray, wrote of the biography, “towards the end of the life of Robert Lowell, you can feel Ian’s unwritten revulsion working its way through the prose”, while the critic Richard Tillinghast declared that Hamilton’s portrait of Lowell was “damagingly wrong-headed and skewed”.

Mental illness

It should be said in Hamilton’s defence that Lowell was by all accounts, even of those who were closest to him, an extremely difficult person to deal with. He suffered from a severe form of mental illness, commonly referred to as mania, or manic-depression. Today, Kay Redfield Jamison informs us, it would be diagnosed as bipolar I disorder. When it took hold of him, which it did frequently throughout his life, it caused him to behave with violent unpredictability; he would go without sleep or rest for many nights and days, drinking and smoking incessantly, and indulging in the wildest fantasies and the most outrageous behaviour, haranguing everyone he met with outlandish accounts of his own divinity – he often saw himself as Christ – or issuing Napoleonic or Papal commands, and talking, talking, talking.

Lowell could also be sly and deceitful. His friend Seamus Heaney told of visiting him in hospital and being given a drink that Lowell claimed was crème-de-menthe but which turned out to be hair tonic; in Lowell’s enjoyment of the prank, he seemed, to Heaney, suspiciously sane.

In Setting the River on Fire, subtitled “A Story of Genius, Mania, and Character”, Prof Jamison sets out to recuperate the reputation of the poet, and of the man, an aim in which she succeeds triumphantly. Her book, she declares at the outset, is not a biography, but “a psychological account of the life and the mind of Robert Lowell”, as well as “a narrative of the illness that so affected him”. She is an academic and clinical psychologist, as well as a writer of rare elegance, distinction and, above all, passion. Her introduction and the closing chapters are dazzling and deeply moving, and would have been highly appreciated by her subject, himself a fine prose stylist.

Here she is, as she sets out on her long programme of vindication and celebration: “This book is about fire in the blood and darkness; it is about mania and the precarious, deranging altitude to which mania ascends. It is about the poetic imagination and how mania and imagination come together to create great art. But it is as much and more about the vital role of discipline and character in making art from inborn gift.”

Closely allied

Jamison’s final point in this passage is vital to any consideration of Robert Lowell and his poetry. We all know the old saw about genius and madness being closely allied, but we also know, or at least we should, that the task of making poetry is less a matter of inspiration than of hard, concentrated, unremitting labour. Jamison quotes a sentence, as true as it is beautiful, from Seamus Heaney’s memorial address for Lowell: “The molten stuff of the psyche ran hot and unstanched, but its final form was as much beaten as poured, the cooling ingot was assiduously hammered.”

Mania was not the divine fire; it was an illness that caused horrible suffering to Lowell and much anguish and distress to those around him, and if it also gave a propulsive force to his poetry, the recompense was small, though not inconsiderable. Lowell told one of his doctors that if he could control the mania without it controlling him, then he would welcome it for the sake of his poetry. But the mind was much, the madness little; Jamison writes, “when mania swept through Robert Lowell’s brain it did not enter unoccupied space. It came from dense territory, thick with learning, metaphor, and history . . .”

As WH Auden sardonically wrote, when it comes to the great, “A shilling life will give you all the facts”, but in the case of Lowell, the life and its manifold ramifications must be taken most particularly into account. Robert Traill Spence Lowell, IV, to give him his full appellation, was a New England aristocrat to the tip of his pen. His people were Boston Brahmins, and they knew it, and were proud of it; as a famous piece of doggerel had it, in Boston “the Lowells talk only to Cabots,/ And the Cabots talk only to God”.

Stultifying atmosphere

Despite his early efforts to break free from the stultifying atmosphere of the family home at 91 Revere Street, Lowell the poet recognised what a trove of treasure had been left to him in his New England inheritance. He dipped deep into it for the stuff of his poetry, especially in what is perhaps his most famous collection, Life Studies (1959), which, besides such Lowell classics as Home After Three Months Away and Skunk Hour, also contains a section of poems devoted to various of his ancestors, and a long prose section, the directly autobiographical 91 Revere Street.

A Brahmin he may have been, but he was also a wild youth, as he was, indeed, though many would attest to the sweetness and kindness of his nature, a wild man. “In a central way,” Jamison writes, “Robert Lowell was not quite civilized.” The first of the Lowells of whom records survive, Keith Lowell, came from Orkney, and emigrated to America just before the Revolution of 1776. It is fascinating to hear that although little is known of Keith Lowell’s father, he is listed on his son’s baptismal certificate as “writer”. The manic strain was on the maternal side – Robert’s great great grandmother, Harriet Brackett Spence Lowell, died insane in the mid-19th century; however, as Kay Jamison writes, “the dominant branches of Robert Lowell’s family tree – the Traills, Spences, Lowells, and Winslows – came together to create a dense rich thicket of temperament and talent, gift and blight”.

Lowell used the gift, and the blight, for all that he could get out of them in the way of poetry, and the passion that poetry lends to a life. Like not a few artists, he had a domineering mother and a kindly but somewhat ineffectual father. The mother, Charlotte Winslow, whom Lowell’s second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, trying to be kind, described as “a neurotically scratching presence”, added her own drop of mental instability to the already seething Lowell gene pool. And at the other end of the poet’s life he found himself bound to, and straining away from, another difficult woman, when he married the irresistible but emotionally dangerous Caroline Blackwood.

Straight cribs

The couple brought each other joy but also deep unhappiness, although as Hardwick generously noted, the poet’s suffering “made him more like the rest of us”. At this time, in the 1970s, Lowell was producing torrents of poetry, mostly sonnets, some of which were straight cribs from anguished letters Hardwick had written to him after the break-up of their marriage. This was something even his closest friends found hard to forgive – as a scandalised Elizabeth Bishop wrote to him, “Art just isn’t worth that much.”

The cost of making art, and how much of it the artist and those around him should have to bear, is the deep subject of Kay Jamison’s magnificent study of a brilliant, wounded and lavishly gifted man. Norman Mailer, who knew Lowell and, perhaps surprisingly, wrote of him with insight and understanding, left a simple and surely accurate judgment: “All flaws considered, Lowell was still a fine, good, and honourable man.” He was also, we might add, a great poet, as Kay Jamison’s book resoundingly affirms.

John Banville’s latest work is Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir