It's terrible...to think that all I've suffered and all the suffering I've caused might have arisen from the lack of a little salt in my brain.
From a collector of quotes who sifted through the rubble left behind by others that were scribbled here and there, this quote by Robert Lowell is both shocking and kind of every day inevitable. He, of course, was talking about lithium
.Considered by some to be the most important American poet after W.H. Auden
American poet Robert Traill Spence Lowell, Jr. had the remarkable ability to express in his poetry both subjective and objective views of turmoil of the contemporary world with a wonderful talent for making precise writing seem effortless.
With the exception of Yeats
, good poets are rare who have put as much of their own life and ego into their work as did Lowell. His marital and mental health problems were numerous, and the poems from the last two decades of his life do far more than reflect them; they relive them.
Born on March 1, 1917, in Boston, his mother Charlotte Winslow Lowell, was descended from an old New England family, his father was an officer in the United States Navy and he was cousin to the distinguished intellectuals, Abbot Lowell former president of Harvard Amy Percival Lowell, cofounder of the imagist school of poetry and James Russell Lowell , first editor of The Atlantic Monthly. Lowell was educated at private schools and attended St. Mark’s preparatory school for a couple of years. He had decided by then upon a career as a poet. Spending summers reading and studying the traditions of English literature, it was common for him to impose reading lists upon his school chums. After graduating from the preparatory school in 1935 he followed in the traditions of his family’s footsteps attending Harvard University. However, Lowell departed two years later when he encountered poet Allen Tate, a practitioner of the not-yet-institutionalized New Criticism and member the Fugitive group. Lowell and Tate immediately took to one another and spent the summer of 1937 working together at Tate’s home in Tennessee. When the fall semester rolled around Lowell transferred to Kenyon College, in Ohio, to begin an internship with Tate’s mentor John Crowe Ransom. It was at Kenyon where Randall Jarrell and Peter Taylor both successful writers, became acquainted with Lowell. Graduating summa cum laude in Classics from Kenyon in 1940 he then married his first wife Jean Stafford a fiction-writer. Lowell suffered religious doubts and temporarily rejected the New England Protestantism of his ancestors against his family’s wishes converting to what seemed to him the more genuine beliefs of Roman Catholicism. Both Lowell and his new wife transferred to Louisiana State for a year of study then relocated Monteagle, Tennessee, where they lived with Allen Tate and his wife; writer Caroline Gordon.
The next eight years would merge Lowell’s reputation as a lyric virtuosity, rich linguist, and mark the harbingers for his social concerns as a poet. With the outbreak of war in 1941 Lowell tried to enlist in the armed services. Rejected by the military for poor eyesight, in 1943 the United States military sent Lowell a conscription notification. Allied firebombing of civilians in German cities like Dresden had stunned and troubled Lowell leading him to declare himself a conscientious objector and was imprisoned six months for refusing to serve in World War II. It was during this time he finished and published his first volume of poems Land of Unlikeness (1944) his reflections of his conflicts with Catholicism and his Boston ancestry, as well as the disturbing effects of World War II. His 1947 Pulitzer Prize-winning complex and allusive Lord Weary’s Castle (1946) published three years later was well received by critics and contains his highly acclaimed poem Colloquy at Black Rock which focuses on a Roman Catholic feast.
Lowell divorced his first wife in 1948 marrying a young writer from Kentucky by the name of Elizabeth Hardwick and by 1951 he published his chief long narrative, The Mills of the Kavanaughs, a Greek legend set in New England. The book was severely disparaged as substandard to Lord Weary's Castle; even the author acknowledged the rigidity of the new book's dramatic monologues. Lowell and his new wife spent the next few years living primarily in Italy where he begin to suffer a number of episodes of a manic depressive disease that would preoccupy him throughout his life. He returned to his hometown in 1954 when his mother died and later entered a mental hospital in Massachusetts.
The following poem, Man and Wife is one example that showcases his abilities. A Miltown was a tranquilizer pill frequently prescribed in the 1950s.
Man and Wife
Tamed by Miltown, we lie on Mother's bed;
the rising sun in war paint dyes us red;
in broad daylight her gilded bed-posts shine,
abandoned, almost Dionysian.
At last the trees are green on Marlborough Street,
blossoms on our magnolia ignite
the morning with their murderous five days' white.
All night I've held your hand,
as if you had
a fourth time faced the kingdom of the mad--
its hackneyed speech, its homicidal eye--
and dragged me home alive. . . .
It was around this time that fellow poet William Carlos Williams began to review Lowell’s work in a positive light which influenced Lowell to write in looser poetic forms. His personal life marked by recurring bouts of manic illness, alcoholism, and marital discord; his poetry became notable for its intense confessional nature and for its ambiguous complex imagery. With his doctor’s encouragements to write about his childhood experiences Lowell put pen to paper revealing his inner torments in Life Studies (1959), which received the National Book Award. Opening with Skunk Hour
My mind's not right.
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,
composed in 1957 was Lowell’s reply to Elizabeth Bishop’s The Armadillo
and at the heart of this volume is the prose memoir 91 Revere Street
where he writes in a more relaxed style of free verse
. The publication of Life Studies
transformed Lowell's standing, though his old colleague and mentor Allen Tate deeply disliked the new poems saying they were too slack in form and personally embarrassing. In spite of this criticism many readers saw the book as merely a shift in landscape of American poetry. Even though it was tagged as ‘confessional’ poetry at the time it became extremely significant to the works of Sylvia Plath
and Anne Sexton
. Scenes that give the impression of shocking intimacy were delivered with proscribed art and more than purely autobiographical.
Beginning with his climactic and pioneering volume, Life Studies, Lowell reached new heights of respect and esteem among American poets, garnering the acclaim of critics and the beginning of many awards acknowledging his achievements in American poetry Yet, in spite of the powerful influence of Robert Lowell, his native city Boston came to look upon him with a proprietary distrust for his private life. Plagued with bouts of mental illness that spun out of control he remained a Bostonian. Amid hospitalizations he lived with his family in the Back Bay and taught a writing course at Boston University. It was W.D. Snodgrass' Heart's Needle, published just prior to Lowell’s Life Studies that established the poetry that came to be called, in M.L. Rosenthal's coinage, "Confessional."
The next decade for Lowell was an eventful one. He blended classical myths with New England landscape in his adaptations of the ancient Greek dramas Phaedra (1963) and Prometheus Bound (1969). During the early sixties he published his collection of loosely translated poetry by Rainer Maria Rilke, Arthur Rimbaud among others in Imitations (1961), which won the Bollington Prize. Becoming more involved in politics Lowell took part in civil rights and anti-war movements and made friends with Robert Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy, as well as Senator Eugene McCarthy. It was during this time he composed his later poems, For the Union Dead (1964) and Near the Ocean (1967). More political than any of his earlier work they addressed the dreadful potential of humanity's nuclear annihilation and the culture that endorsed it.
He also began working on the plays that would be published and performed as a trilogy of plays called The Old Glory (1965) based on works by Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne it was Lowell’s historical survey of American culture. It was from his historical interests that turned into political activism for Lowell.
The aquarium is gone. Everywhere,
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.
(For the Union Dead, 1964)
In 1965 Lyndon Johnson
invited the author to the White House
, Lowell refused the invitation as a statement for his objections to the escalation of war in Vietnam by America. In October 1967, Lowell went further still by taking part in, with thousands of others in the March on the Pentagon
which would later become the subject of his works The March I
and The March II
. That same year saw the publication of Lowell’s collection of lyrics Near the Ocean
and his translation of Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound
produced at Yale. However, the effort Lowell was most deeply engrossed in during 1967 and 1968 was Notebook
, a journal of verses loosely based on sonnets
where he documented his personal reactions to current world events alongside his views on American history and his family. The book clearly sought out to imitate Ezra Pound
's "poem including history." Popularity led him to produce verses hurriedly and experts say it is ‘overly constrained’ but still ‘has moments of stunning success.’ Lowell reached the height of his public celebrity during his opposition to the Vietnam war and support of Senator Eugene McCarthy
The seventies were the beginning of the end for Lowell. Notebook initiated the three books that were published in 1973: History, For Lizzie and Harriet; poems about his wife and daughter from Notebook and many new poems documenting the break-up of his marriage with Hardwick. The highly personal and revealing volume The Dolphin won him a second Pulitzer Prize in 1974. Containing a number of poems about his 1972 marriage to Caroline Blackwood it caused scandal with its disclosure of martial anguish and discord. That year Lowell wrote later wrote in the Kenyon Collegia, “The kind of poet I am was largely determined by the fact that I grew up in the heyday of the New Criticism. From the beginning, I was preoccupied with technique, fascinated by the past, tempted by other languages.”
We feel the machine slipping from our hands
As if someone else were steering;
If we see light at the end of the tunnel,
It's the light of the oncoming train.
(Since 1939, 1977)
Considered the leading poet of his generation, Robert Lowell in his beginning works scrutinized history--using the past to make commentaries on the present. Lowell spent much of his last years in England with Blackwood and their son. Passing away suddenly from a heart attack on September 12, 1977, in New York City in the back of a taxi on the way to his second wife Elizabeth Hardwick’s house. When the taxi pulled up at the door the driver turned around and discovered Lowell slumped forward in his seat. In his arms was a brown parcel, a painting of Caroline Blackwood, from whom he had just separated, by her first husband, the painter Lucien Freud. His last book, Day By Day, was published posthumously later the same year.
A special request by anthropod that's been happily fulfilled!
Bram, Robert Philips, Norma H. Dicky, "Lowell,Robert", Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia , 1988.
Lowell, Robert, Selected Poems by Robert Lowell Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc., 1976.
Robert Lowell :
Robert Lowell: Biographical Note: