‘I’m learning to live in history’: On Robert Lowell by Declan Ryan

This month marks the 40th anniversary of the death of the American poet Robert Lowell. Here Declan Ryan, Faber New Poet, reflects on Lowell’s remarkable legacy.


‘our life too long for comfort and too brief /for perfection’ (from ‘Ice’)

Robert Lowell was born 100 years ago, on 1 March 1917, and died, as he’d predicted, expected – one almost wants to say staged – at the age of 60, on 12 September 1977. In-between he turned the material of his life, the daily bread of a privileged, prominent American family, into a poetry of feeling, raggedness and grandeur.

It seems absurd to say in the face of his achievement that he was not a natural talent, but a forced, willed one; yet to deny the fact is to undervalue the commitment and drive behind the work. Built for public life and American football, the adolescent Lowell was bearish and overbearing, a wildman, unkempt and unrestrained, before bringing the great force of his concentration and ambition to the task of becoming a poet.

Robert Lowell, Notebook (1969)

His surname meant that when he addressed the President in print it was as an equal: ‘You will understand how painful such a decision is for an American whose family traditions, like your own, have always found their fulfilment in both the civil and military services’ – Lowell refusing to serve in what he saw as an unjustly pursued war made front-page news, and landed him in jail as a ‘fire-breathing Catholic C.O.’.

His Catholicism and his fire-breathing were passing phases, seen later as symptoms of, or at least coping mechanisms for, the bipolar illness which blighted his life and the lives of those closest to him. Allen Tate, an early instructor, felt that Lowell’s apparently Catholic work was less Catholic than the poems of Life Studies, written after his faith had lapsed – that his early Christ-laden set-pieces had been too ‘angelic’, and lacked concrete detail; they had taken some of Hopkins’ music but without his sense of inscape, the thingness of his things.

Bombastic and explosive: the poet as a young man

This early work, published first in Land of Unlikeness and then – a lifelong pattern – trashed, refined, worked over – in Lord Weary’s Castle was bombastic and explosive. The poems owe a debt to Hopkins’ clattering, percussive music but their hellish take on Boston is more demonic than devotional; they carry the scent of Old Testament brimstone, are hysterical and Parnassian.

Lowell’s early work is studded with his enjambments, forming cliff-faces of formality – his debt to the great English poets’ lines and stanzas never deserted him – but to categorise Lord Weary’s Castle as an outlier in his output is to misread it. In it are seeds of Lowell’s later, more mature, less ‘straitjacketed’ style, as well as his habitual borrowings – from Thoreau, Jonathan Edwards and others – and the turning towards his own life for material.

There are poems that led Randall Jarrell, a friend, former classmate and one of the finest critics of his generation, to remark that some will be ‘read as long as men remember English’, not least ‘A Quaker Graveyard In Nantucket’, a remarkable elegy for a cousin, equal parts ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’, Moby Dick and ‘Lycidas’ yet resolutely Lowell. Its ending (‘The Lord survives the rainbow of his will’) left the level-headed Jarrell clasping for words like ‘magic’.

Personal poetry in Life Studies

If Lowell’s early, ostensibly religious, work was urgent and prophetic, his breakthrough in his most celebrated collection Life Studies was into a personal poetry, the so-called (never by Lowell) ‘confessional’, through the need to face down his illness, the damage it wrought and the guilt it created. His crutch of faith kicked away, Lowell had to meet the world on its own uncaring terms, mining memory, investigating the Freudian talking cure and straining his symbolic eye for ways of bearing up and moving on.

Robert Lowell Life Studies (Faber Poetry, 1959)

A memoir begun in prose, indebted to Flaubert and Chekov, became the material of poetry and Lowell’s free verse was stately, supple and – compared to his ratcheted-up early work – airy.

Pen portraits of his family and domestic life marked out the fourth section of the book which contains some of its – and his most memorable lines: ‘I keep no rank nor station. / Cured I am frizzled, stale and small’, ‘I myself am hell; / nobody’s here’. ‘Skunk Hour’, from which the second quotation is drawn, speaks of a dark night of the soul, and is an existentialist tour de force of defiance, dedicated to, and modelled on the work of, his friend and most enduring correspondent, Elizabeth Bishop.

Theirs was a remarkable generation. Bishop, Lowell and Jarrell all struggled with depression and alcohol, as did other close contemporaries John Berryman and Theodore Roethke. In Berryman, Lowell found a benign rival, a poignant companion through the psychically perilous waters of mining one’s life for art. ‘I used to want to live / to avoid your elegy’, Lowell wrote of Berryman, whose Dream Songs would push Lowell towards his ambitious, uneven Notebook. ‘We asked to be obsessed with writing /and we were’, Lowell wrote in his elegy to Berryman in Day By Day, having outlived his old sparring partner.

The 1960s and the need for civic poetry

Mid-century America, as well as producing extraordinary poets, was marked by nuclear threat, wars in Korea and Vietnam, Civil Rights marches and televised assassinations. Having turned his everyday into poetry, Lowell – in part by virtue of his pedigree, in part his fame – had made his private life the stuff of national address, but his became an increasingly, deliberately, civic poetry in the 1960s.

For The Union Dead, its title poem one of his finest achievements, looked at the ‘chafe and jar / of nuclear war’, diagnosing himself and his fellow citizens as ‘a lot of wild /spiders crying together’. His poems looked towards political life of the present and past – a lifelong concern – most explicitly in Notebook, an unspooling stream of sonnets, which would later be portioned out into History and For Lizzie and Harriet.

Robert Lowell, New Selected Poems (Faber, 2017)

In its original form, the only ordering principle seemed to be time itself: days, summers at Harvard and at home, his wide and implicating reading of the great figures of the past, Alexander, Napoleon and Abraham Lincoln among them. ‘What is history? What you cannot touch’, he wrote, though at times Lowell seemed to feel all of the poets and figures of the past as contemporaries, and not only during periods of mania in which aggrandising delusions saw him empathise, even embody, such luminaries.

Sonnet fever gripped him, and, as well as revising old poems to fit this new shape, he wrote and rewrote hundreds more, including those that went into The Dolphin. Of a controversial, exposed and exposing career, the poems in which Lowell reworked letters sent by Elizabeth Hardwick during the breakdown of their marriage was a low-point, the egregious high-tide of his indelicacy – ‘not avoiding injury to others, /not avoiding injury to myself’, he would write in the book’s last poem, ‘my eyes have seen what my hand did.’

Lowell’s later years

Like his manic episodes, these poems distanced and fractured relationships; Bishop argued art wasn’t worth the pain the poems caused; Adrienne Rich and Auden cut him off entirely. Lowell’s life was fractious, especially during mania. Aside from the violent outbursts, public displays and ‘snowballing enervation’ they brought, there were short-lived, ill-judged, over-promising, love affairs.

Unlike the rest of these infatuations, Lowell’s break from Hardwick and relocation to England to marry Caroline Blackwood was not a symptom of a breakdown, but while it led to periods of settled contentment and the dramatic impulse of much of his late work, the marriage was fraught and persistently unravelling. If his public poetry was imperious – ‘Pity the planet, all joy gone /from this sweet volcanic cone’ – it was his poetry of love and tentative, vulnerable joy that struck the sort of ‘heartbreak note’ which he recognised in his own favourite poets: ‘how can I love you more, /short of turning into a criminal’; ‘We saw /the diamond glare of morning on the tar. /For a minute had the road as if we owned it.’

‘The painter’s vision is not a lens, /it trembles to caress the light

Lowell’s final journey was the stuff of art: riding in a cab from JFK airport to Hardwick’s apartment, carrying a painting of Blackwood by her ex-husband Lucian Freud, Lowell suffered a heart attack and was dead on arrival.

His poems are an autobiography in verse, but not in a tell-all, candid outpouring sense. His brand of ‘confession’ was always one in which the symbol and phrase took precedent over the base fact, in which his first debt was always to the line, or poem, rather than the verity of the recollected moment.

His oft-quoted dictum ‘Yet why not say what happened’ has occluded another, more telling line, from the poem in which it appears – ‘The painter’s vision is not a lens, /it trembles to caress the light‘. Lowell made a world from the substance of his life, giving ‘each figure in the photograph /his living name’, and left behind a body of work which is moving, rigorous and enduring; which attests to a life spent in service of his obsession with writing, and his need of it as a way to cope with a life shattered by illness and public calamity.

Ian Hamilton, Lowell’s biographer, read from King Lear at the memorial service held for Lowell in New York, as fine a tribute as any to a man who, in an unusually expert and devastated generation, was seen as the finest of the crop: ‘We that are young / Shall never see so much, nor live so long.’

Robert Lowell: New Selected Poems (ed. by Katie Peterson) is available to buy now.


Next month, Declan Ryan will be discussing Robert Lowell and Marianne Moore and their role as revisionists of their own work at the Poet in the City event Back to the Beginning, alongside Dr Susie Orbach and Dr Fiona Green. For more details and to book tickets see here.


Ryan, Declan (c) Rob Selby
Photo by Rob Selby

Declan Ryan was born in Mayo, Ireland in 1983 and lives in London. He has a PhD in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway on ‘perfect speech’ in the poems of Ian Hamilton. His pamphlet was published by Faber as part of the Faber New Poets series in 2014.




Cover Photograph: Robert Lowell by Alfred Eisenstaedt