“Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character.”*

*“case study” by Kay Redfield Jamison (American clinical psychologist).

From a review by Dan Chiasson in the New Yorker of March 13, 2017:

“…Jamison’s book is the first to bring clinical expertise to Lowell’s case; before it, the poet’s cycles of illness and recovery have been judged in scolding moral terms, or, worse, viewed as a kind of lifelong-mishap gif, with Lowell stuck in a permanent loop. When he was manic, Lowell smashed wineglasses and schemed to marry near-strangers. In recovery, his depressions were severe, his remorse profound, the work of repairing the relationships he’d damaged unrelenting. But the metaphors that came so quickly to hand could again be tamed and put to use. “Gracelessly,” he wrote, “like a standing child trying to sit down, like a cat or a coon coming down a tree, I’m getting down my ladder to the moon. I am part of my family again.”

Robert Lowell was born a century ago, at his grandfather’s baronial house on Beacon Hill’s south slope, the unplanned and unwanted child of Charlotte Winslow Lowell and Robert Traill Spence Lowell III, a naval officer who later worked for Lever Brothers, the English soap manufacturer. His mother was judged, according to the standards of the time, to be ironhanded and manipulative; she viewed her husband, a meek man whose soul, Lowell wrote, “went underground” in his forties, as feckless, dandyish, and abstract—a judgment Lowell shared, though he tempered it with pity. Together, these two horribly matched people created a troubled, physically powerful, emotionally frail, and altogether brilliant child, whose provocations shaped their lives…

…Lowell, for his part, saw himself as split between “conscience” and “instinct,” a “queer centaurish creature” whose self-insight often arrived long after the fact, as though delivered by Pony Express. Some of his best poems are pained audits of the damage he and those around him incurred as a result of his treating flesh-and-blood conflicts as clashes between allegorical opposites. In boarding school, at St. Mark’s in Southborough, he was given a nickname that stuck—Cal, likely for Caligula, the squalid Roman emperor.

…In recovery, at the suggestion of his psychiatrist, Lowell began to write prose autobiography, in a style, discovered in Flaubert, marked by “images and ironic or amusing particulars.” Particulars were not symbols; Lowell had found a way to write that did not require him to shunt every detail into cosmic significance. He had found a tone that implied pity, acceptance, and nostalgia, mild emotions that could be sustained across the arc of a narrative…

In his writing, though, Lowell drew upon the experience of feeling his mind speed up, his ideas accelerate, his sense of himself heighten and change, his sense of power and ethical behavior fracture, his memory and his reading switch places. He knew, too, what it was like to reëmerge from these states, to reëncounter his friends and family, to apologize to his peers, to reconnect with his young daughter, and then, cruelly, to feel the entire process start to quicken and again take hold. This is the critical point about Lowell as a writer: he had been straitjacketed, he had been physically violent, he had been shaken to his fundament with regret, he had been wounded deeply by wounding others. To create a life, along with a body of work that reflected it, was to find and follow the thread inside the maze. What Jamison calls “character” might simply be, for Lowell, a zone in which writing was detached from danger. Autobiography, with its basically stable theory of causation, its firm checks upon reality and dream, its ordered sense of past, present, and future, was for him a necessary condition of continued survival.

Character might also be called, simply, luck. Lowell had writing, and he had friends, all of whom thought of him as the greatest writer they had met. But the key to his later years is the devotion of (Elizabeth) Hardwick, who met Lowell in Greenwich Village and, later, at Yaddo, the artists’ colony, where he was in the grips of his first manic break to result in hospitalization. Their lives were rarely settled and calm for more than a few months at a time over the course of thirty years. He left her, in the seventies, for Lady Caroline Blackwood, an heiress to the Guinness fortune, moved into a manor house in England, and had a child, Robert Sheridan Lowell. He quoted from Hardwick’s pained letters, without her consent, in poems about the agony of leaving her and the dangerous pleasures of his new life. And yet she was a figure of equanimity and patience. It helped that she was a writer of rival brilliance: she remarked of Lowell that he seemed to like women writers, a taste, she noticed, “not greatly shared” among literary men of the era. Without her, it is almost certain that Lowell would have died younger, written less while he was alive, done worse injury to more people, and made fewer friends. His inscription to Hardwick, in a copy of his last book, “Day by Day,” published just before his death, acknowledges her Orpheus-like courage: “For Lizzie, / Who snatched me out of chaos, / with all my love / in Castine Aug. 1977 / Cal.” 

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