The Magazine

The Last Public Poet

From the August 4 / August 11, 2003 issue: Rereading Robert Lowell.

Aug 4, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 45 • By J. BOTTUM
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Not that it made much difference while he was a child. He was banned from the Boston Public Garden for fighting, and his schoolmates nicknamed him "Cal": after the Roman emperor Caligula, according to one version of the story, or Shakespeare's Caliban, according to another version--either way, not exactly the image one wants for a boy. After his freshman year at Harvard and a knockdown argument with his weak father and overbearing mother, he fled south to spend the summer camped on the lawn of the poet Allen Tate. The Southern Fugitives quickly drew him in, and he transferred to Kenyon College, where he studied with John Crowe Ransom and became friends with fellow student Randall Jarrell.

After graduation, he converted to Catholicism, worked on his first chapbook of poems, "Land of Unlikeness," and married the young Catholic novelist Jean Stafford. It was a curious home. Describing her life after Lowell, Stafford once explained how nice it was to live in a place where it was all right not yet to have won the Nobel prize. Lowell insisted on daily Mass and limited the family reading: "no newspapers, no novels except Dostoevsky, Proust, James, and Tolstoy." He also became what he called a "fire-breathing" conscientious objector, and in 1943 he sent an open letter to President Roosevelt and various newspapers denouncing the war and refusing to serve. It was, he later admitted, a "manic statement," but the government's hand was forced by publicity he received, and he was convicted of draft evasion, serving several months of a one-year sentence in federal prison.

THE BOOK "Lord Weary's Castle" followed in 1946. There was a little of Allen Tate in it and a lot of T.S. Eliot. But mostly it seemed a completely original stew of American Puritanism, European Catholicism, and New England history--all in service of a serious modernism, written in the traditional rhyme and meter that had seemed anathema to modernism. "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket" is the longest poem in the collection, and it reads almost as though John Milton had decided to rewrite "Moby-Dick." An elegy for one of Lowell's Winslow cousins, lost at sea, it begins with hard enjambments and thick, loud lines--as though the language itself were compelled to match the topic:

A brackish reach of shoal off Madaket,--

The sea was still breaking violently and night

Had steamed into our North Atlantic Fleet,

When the drowned sailor clutched the drag-net.

"The Drunken Fisherman," "At the Indian Killer's Grave," and many other poems in the collection turned American Puritanism into the great tradition of Catholicism--in lines that read as though they had been carved from granite. Jonathan Edwards's theology was a perpetual fascination of Lowell's, and "After the Surprising Conversions" renders as poetry one of Edwards's famous letters about New England's Great Awakening:

September twenty-second, Sir, the bough

Cracks with the unpicked apples, and at dawn

The small-mouth bass breaks water, gorged with spawn.

What was America to make of all this? The nation decided to sink to its knees in awe. A Guggenheim fellowship followed the Pulitzer, and Lowell at age thirty was free to do anything.

What he did was divorce Stafford, leave the Church, and go insane for the first of what would be many times. After his recovery, he married the writer Elizabeth Hardwick, and, in 1951, published his second collection of poems, "The Mills of the Kavanaughs." Though it contained poetry as good as "Falling Asleep Over the Aeneid," which followed the mood of "Lord Weary's Castle," the book seemed in many ways to flounder. The title poem is a long dramatic monologue spoken by a young woman in Maine whose voice, Randall Jarrell suggested, sounded just the way a girl would sound if she were Robert Lowell--but who ever met a girl like Robert Lowell?

NO ONE COULD MISTAKE the voice in his third book, "Life Studies," published in 1959. Suffering more breakdowns and undergoing a cycle of institutionalizations and psychiatric therapy, he rolled together autobiographical prose and poems, still rhythmical though mostly unrhymed--creating the foundational document of an entire school of American poetry, the juggernaut of the "Confessional Poets." The collection ends with its best poem, "Skunk Hour," which owes something to Elizabeth Bishop's descriptions of animals but moves in what seemed at the time like nothing else in American verse:

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;

nobody's here--

only skunks, that search

in the moonlight for a bite to eat.