In 1977, just months before his death, Robert Lowell wrote an essay for Salmagundi magazine in an issue published to mark his 60th birthday. Helen Vendler, Robert Pinsky, Robert Hass and other luminaries from the mid-20th century poetic and critical worlds wrote in celebration of the poet who — with his shift from formality to increasing freedom in his verse, with his blurring of the personal and the poetic — had transformed the landscape in which he worked.
Lowell’s own essay is marvellously titled “After Enjoying Six or Seven Essays on Me”. It was a chance for Lowell to consider the nature of his work. “Looking over my Selected Poems, about thirty years of writing,” he reflected, “my impression is that the thread that strings it together is my autobiography.”
His family background and life story was indeed central to his work. Lowell grew up in Boston in a prominent Massachusetts family: his first American ancestor arrived from Bristol in the early 17th century. Astronomer Percival Lowell was a relative; as was poet and critic Amy Lowell. His mother was a descendant of William Samuel Johnson, a signer of the US Constitution.
His renowned poetry works include Life Studies (1959) and For the Union Dead (1964); The Dolphin, which charted the unravelling of his marriage to Elizabeth Hardwick — and used material from her letters without her consent — was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1974. His life was inspired and marred by bipolar disorder; Kay Redfield Jamison’s 2017 book Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire is a remarkable account of his life seen through the lens of the condition with which he lived.
These Memoirs — described as “an unprecedented literary discovery” — are in a very real sense the result of his illness. After “a violent attack of mania” (as the editors, noted Lowell scholars, Steven Gould Axelrod and Grzegorz Kosc, describe it) the poet was committed to the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic in New York. This was the first time his condition was correctly diagnosed, and the first time he was able to benefit from sustained talk therapy.
Much of what appears in Memoirs is a result of being encouraged, while at the clinic, to write autobiographically — evocative descriptions of his childhood that have remained cloistered in archives until now. The first section of this book, “My Autobiography”, contains 20 chapters, only three of which have been published before — the best known of which is “91 Revere Street”, which appeared in the Partisan Review and then in Life Studies.
The editors are punctilious is describing their process of work; the result is a vivid evocation of a vanished age, upper-crust New England in the 1920s and 1930s. It is a world of formal dining, rooms full of “heterogenous luxuries and curios” picked up on trips to Europe, of privileged languor.
As a boy Lowell was happiest at his maternal grandfather’s farm at Rock, 40 miles south of Boston. Arthur Winslow had named the place Chardesa, after his three children: Charlotte (Robert’s mother), Devereux and Sarah. “An avenue of poplars led from the stable to the pine grove,” Lowell writes. “The leaves on these trees were always crisp, brilliant, dusty, athirst.”
He recalls his grandfather’s shandygaff, “made by blending yeasty, wheezing, exploding homemade beer with homemade root beer. Chardesa had been our family property and hobby for fifteen years. No one, except a silly gun-shy setter, had ever died there. Our lives there in 1922 were perfectly ancien regime.”
Along with these recollections of his past are striking portraits of the effects of his bipolar disorder. “The old menacing hilarity was growing in me,” he writes. He describes his regime at the Payne Whitney: “Each morning before breakfast, I lay naked to the waist in my knotted Malayan pajamas and received the first of my round-the-clock injections of chlorpromazine: left shoulder, right shoulder, right buttock, left buttock. My blood became like melted lead.”
In the book’s final section are found eloquent portraits of his contemporaries: Allen Tate, Randall Jarrell, Sylvia Plath, Hannah Arendt. It was Jarrell who introduced him to Arendt’s work; they later became friends, and Lowell describes her as “an oasis in the fevered, dialectical dust of New York”.
It might seem that Lowell’s portraits of his patrician milieu have less relevance to the concerns of a 21st-century audience. Yet — aside from the sheer beauty of the writing — the poet’s naked confrontation of his own pain, the honesty with which he portrays a family dynamic, should strike any reader to the heart.
Memoirs is also proof that Lowell remains an artist for the present moment — not least for his thoughts regarding Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, first published in 1951. Of Arendt he wrote: “Her imperatives for political freedom still enchant and reproach us, though America has obviously, in black moments one thinks almost totally, slipped from those jaunty years of Harry Truman and the old crusade for international democracy. We couldn’t know how fragile we were, or how much totalitarianism could ameliorate, bend, adulterate itself, and succeed.” We couldn’t indeed. Robert Lowell’s wisdom, his close observation, is as vital now as it was in his lifetime.
Memoirs by Robert Lowell. Edited and with a preface by Steven Gould Axelrod and Grzegorz Kosc Faber £40/Farrar, Straus and Giroux $40, 400 pages
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