In May of 1936, Robert Lowell screwed up his courage and wrote a letter to one of his idols, Ezra Pound. Pound was living in Italy and toiling on his great poem “The Cantos,” while dallying with Fascism and Benito Mussolini. Lowell was a freshman at Harvard, still processing his experiences at boarding school and charity camp, and reporting from A-12 Wigglesworth Hall. Lowell proposed “to come to Italy and work under you and forge my way into reality.” All his life, he wrote, he had been “eccentric according to normal standards”:
I had violent passions for various pursuits usually taking the form of collecting: tools; names of birds; marbles; catching butterflies, snakes, turtles etc; buying books on Napoleon. None of this led anywhere, I was more interested in collecting large numbers than in developing them. I caught over thirty turtles and put them in a well where they died of insufficient feeding. I won more agates and marbles than anyone in school, and gradually amassed hundreds of soldiers; finally leaving them to clutter up unreachable shelves. I could identify scores of birds, at first on charts, later it led me into nature. Sometime overcome by the collecting mania I would steal things I wanted.
Pound, Lowell wrote, had re-created what he “imagined to be the blood of Homer” in “The Cantos.” (Parts of the poem had already been published.) Zeus and Achilles were “almost a religion” to him; how could the “insipid blackness of the Episcopalian Church”—the faith of fashionable Boston—compete with the “whoring of Zeus and the savagery of the heroes?” The ambitious young man enclosed some poems for Pound, to bolster, as it were, his application.
It is hard not to be charmed by Lowell’s hyperventilating report on his agates and turtles and toy soldiers, but the word “mania” suggests that he suspected the darker fortunes to come. From his thirties on, Lowell suffered the relentless cycles of bipolar disorder, the “irritable enthusiasm” that lurched him upward before landing him in despair. Its early stirrings are apparent in his letter to Pound: the sentences racing to match in number and variety the collections they describe, the grandiose gestures of self-deprecation, the hyperbolized confession of trifling sins. This is a nineteen-year-old boy writing to Ezra Pound about his worship of Zeus. “Mania” means here what it often means colloquially—the head’s name for the heart’s excesses—but it is striking nonetheless: already, Lowell saw writing both as a way to understand his compulsions and as a compulsion in its own right, a roundabout leading out of trouble and immediately back in.
The line between elevated spirits and mania, often recognized only after it has been crossed, is the subject of Kay Redfield Jamison’s groundbreaking book, “Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character.” The third term, the old-fashioned word “character,” is the surprise; here, it connotes the response to genius and mania’s shifting, sometimes inextricable turbulence. Of course, character can’t be clinically tested, but something kept Lowell going, and something kept him writing. Once you decide that character is definitive but difficult to define, even anecdotes about Lowell, long scattered in various sources, begin to talk to one another. The key impression is what Joyce Carol Oates called Lowell’s “ironic dignity.” Though he became a public person, he was never a public poet; he was, instead, a figure beheld in contemplation, working out the meanings of his thinking in plain view.
Jamison’s book isn’t a biography. It is a case study of what a person with an extraordinary will, an unwavering sense of vocation, and a huge talent—as well as privilege and devoted friends—could and could not do about the fact that the defining feature of his gift was also the source of his suffering. Lowell’s “thinking,” naturally metaphorical even in its resting state, was catalyzed into poetry by extraordinary emotional responses to the abstract relations among symbols. When he was sick, Jamison suggests, the symbols changed places with reality. The implied “like” and “as,” which tie metaphor to the real world they transform, fell out of his mind. According to his friend Jonathan Raban, Lowell was “the most continuously metaphoric” person he’d ever met. In health, reporting on his periods of madness, he could be harrowing. As he put it in “Skunk Hour,” paraphrasing John Milton, “I myself am hell.” But when he was manic, Raban notes, “the metaphors took over” and the hell was real. He became, in his mind, Christ, Hitler, Napoleon, Dante, Milton, Alexander, John the Baptist, and many others; he ransacked his house for ancient treasure. Once the delusions had settled back into metaphor, they were, Jamison suggests, “differently known and expressed.”
Jamison has a difficult story to tell. Lowell’s life did not follow a straight line: it coiled like razor wire through intervals of misery, each a discouraging echo of the last. It was a gruelling way to exist in time. Between 1949 and 1964, a period that covers his second marriage, to Elizabeth Hardwick; the birth of their daughter, Harriet; and the publication of two of the most important books in the history of American poetry, “Life Studies” and “For the Union Dead,” Lowell was hospitalized twelve times, usually for periods of several months.
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. Various strategies to cope with Lowell’s unruliness were adopted and discarded, but, eventually, his poetry was judged to be good enough to make acceptance worth whatever its costs. The family psychiatrist, Merrill Moore, informed the Lowells that their son was a genius: everybody would have to “adjust” to him as he was. This held true throughout his life.
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. His life began to take shape as a series of bold strokes and renunciations, chosen at least in part for their symbolic significance. Harvard was the family school (his uncle, A. Lawrence Lowell, had been its president), but, on the urging of Allen Tate, he decamped for Kenyon College, where he was taught by the poet John Crowe Ransom. Harvard was a metaphor, as was Pound, as was leaving Harvard to study at Kenyon; his parents were, too, and his weighing of their characters was often a matter of comparing the forces they embodied.
Lowell’s earliest poems give us local and domestic tableaux, electrified by allegory. Driven by his supercharged ambition, they are keyed up and tenacious, surrounded by what he called, later, a “Goliath’s armor of brazen metric.” Though “willed” into language, as Tate put it, their mannerist modernism feels like a distinctly personal invention. Picture Boston: the Longfellow Bridge (nicknamed “the Pepperpot”), sculls drifting by like water striders, the sun glinting on the river. Now compare against Lowell’s version, from his 1946 collection, “Lord Weary’s Castle”:
The wild ingrafted olive and the root
Are withered, and a winter drifts to where
The Pepperpot, ironic rainbow, spans
Charles River and its scales of scorched-earth miles.
I saw my city in the Scales, the pans
Of judgment rising and descending.
Whatever these lines have to say about Boston, or doom, or the divine, their power comes from the feeling that a contemporary person has come under a Biblical spell in which, as Lowell put it, “simple experience is marked with pointers left here by providence.” Lowell had, by this time, mastered the mode of mentors like Tate, brilliantly executing its allusive distance and baroque locutions (“scorched-earth” is the only hint of living idiom here). But he increasingly saw such poems as “prehistoric monsters dragged down” by their armor; they were, at best, “alive maybe.” They had always acted as a cumbersome delivery system for personal revelation. As essential as style was to Lowell, no one style ever suited him for long.
Lowell published his first three books in the span of seven years; it was another eight before his next, “Life Studies,” which secured his place as the first, best, and, until the death of Plath, most famous of the so-called confessional poets. The breakthrough came in 1954, after Lowell had spent three weeks in the locked ward of Payne Whitney Clinic in New York City. He and Hardwick had moved to a “half palazzo and half loft” apartment in Boston’s Back Bay. 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.
The tone could be followed, like a thread through a labyrinth, back to his childhood. In “91 Revere Street,” a prose memoir, he gave his obsession with toy soldiers another look, recalling a friend, Roger Crosby, who had thousands of “hand-painted solid lead soldiers made to order in Dijon, France.” “Roger’s father,” Lowell writes, “had a still more artistic and adult collection,” and was “the first grownup to talk” to him “not as a child but as an equal” when he noted how closely Lowell was following his “anecdotes on uniforms and the evolution of tactical surprise.”
Prose allowed Lowell to move around in his recollections, to see his toy soldiers as a mark of difference from his mother and as a bond with his friend’s father, who had treated him the way his own parents never had. In “Life Studies,” he began to divide his sentences into lines, but the new poems retained the delight in narrative detail for its own sake—the names of schools and streets and friends and places to shop:
I was five and a half.
My formal pearl gray shorts
had been worn for three minutes.
My perfection was the Olympian
poise of my models in the imperishable autumn
of Rogers Peet’s boys’ store below the State House
in Boston. Distorting drops of water
pinpricked my face in the basin’s mirror.
I was a stuffed toucan
with a bibulous, multicolored beak.
The metaphors here, located securely in the past, measure the gap between one’s “distorting” reflection and one’s self. Lowell’s new assurance with metaphor was not only a stylistic triumph but a temporary psychic salve. The “armor” was off; he’d managed, in both life and work, to embrace private detail, private experience, and to express them without the abstraction of allegory. Lowell hated and rejected the “confessional” imprimatur, but the term was accurate in at least one regard: his poems were transactions between his closest-kept emotions—normally sealed up in shame—and language.
Jamison’s book is a real contribution to the literary history of New England, whose damaged sages Lowell read as a way to understand his own peril. Lowell’s New England was, as an honorary-degree citation from Yale put it, largely “a country of the mind.” He detected in the region’s authors and leaders his own struggles to untangle the imagination from madness, and treated them as though they were his intimate friends, using the same tone to describe Napoleonic generals that he used to describe his grandfather’s Scottish terrier. Cotton Mather was a “bookish” man with blood on his hands. Nathaniel Hawthorne was a fellow-student of the moods, and, like Lowell, a family man, alert to the household strains of his mysterious urges and swings. Ralph Waldo Emerson shared Lowell’s sense of the inevitability of temperament: “the iron string,” as Emerson put it, upon which the moods, like glass beads, were strung. And Henry Adams, who wrote within earshot of power his dyspeptic chronicle of failure and disappointment, suggested to Lowell how “his and our manic-depressive New England character” might be projected onto landscape and history, in the way that the region’s extremes of bleakness and abundance were internalized as emotional poles.
If you collected everything Lowell wrote about New England writers, you would find an alternative record of the region, with instability of mood among its primary features. It was the case, too, in his own family. Ferris Greenslet, the Lowells’ biographer, found frequent examples of “high-strung delicate men, prone to overwork and periods of nervous exhaustion.” James Russell Lowell, the nineteenth-century poet who presided over what his great-grandnephew called Boston’s “rank, upholstered, Olympian era,” had inherited, he believed, his “dear mother’s” madness, and many times contemplated suicide by revolver or strychnine. Percival Lowell, the astronomer who wrote several books on Mars, at least once experienced a “complete breakdown of the machine.” Closer to home, Charlotte Lowell, who occasionally wrote poetry, was treated for “semi-psychotic” states and spent a year following what she thought to be the daily habits of Napoleon—sleeping on an army cot and taking “cold plunges” every morning. There are cautionary examples in nearly every branch of Lowell’s family tree of the risks associated with imaginative work, but also of its payouts: Percival Lowell did help discover Pluto, after all. Lowell’s fixation on his ancestry was, at least partly, a way of understanding how the family’s “streak of the malade imaginaire,” as Greenslet put it, ran through him. He knew that history and heredity were joined.
Jamison’s study tells us a lot about bipolar disorder, but it can’t quite connect the dots to Lowell’s work. Poetry doesn’t coöperate much with clinical diagnosis. We can find, in any Lowell poem, symptoms that poetry shares with mania, but “clanging”—a mode of speech, common in psychosis, in which words are associated with their sounds—is present in almost every poem in the English language, and a poet who is not bipolar may use more of it than one who is. Rhyme is a form of clang association, yet its presence often indicates a level of calculation and aesthetic design that we do not associate with mental illness. A poem written, revised, and published is not a transcript of manic speech, no matter how off the rails it feels. Lowell wrote letters while manic; they are heartbreaking, but they are not art. Empathy at some point tends to check our deriving much aesthetic pleasure from works made as by-products of derangement.
But mood disorders occur with staggering frequency in creative people, and writers seem to suffer the most. A 1987 study at the University of Iowa found that eighty per cent of the writers studied exhibited the diagnostic signs of mood disorders, with fifty per cent fitting the criteria for bipolar disorder. A 2011 study of three hundred thousand individuals showed that “individuals with bipolar disorder were overrepresented in creative professions.” Poets might be the most susceptible of all. They count on a certain amount of basic disorientation to do their work, which many report involves the temporary unshackling of the mind from ordinary semantic logic. There are various names for this willed receptivity to associations: flow, inspiration, the muse. These are not the names we assign to symptoms of mental illness.
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 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.” ♦