Robert Lowell Part 4
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
This article appeared in the Mosaic section of Ceylon Today on Sunday October 26 2014.
For the Union Dead
Lowell’s next book of original verse For the Union Dead (1964) was widely praised, particularly for its title poem, which invoked a poem by his friend Allen Tate, “Ode to the Confederate Dead.” Lowell built upon the loose, personal style he had used in Life Studies. He wrote about a number of historical figures in “Lady Raleigh’s Lament,” “Caligula,” “Jonathan Edwards in Western Massachusetts”. He combined personal and public concerns in “Fall 1961” which addressed Lowell’s fear of nuclear war.
The title poem, “For the Union Dead,” is a 17-stanza eulogy to the white leader of the first all-black troop in the Union army. The narrative is a chain of associated images, beginning with a child’s view of the Boston aquarium, and moving to the tearing down of the aquarium and the building of car parks in sight of the statue of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, who was a colonel of the Union Army during the American Civil War. Shaw commanded the 54th Infantry from Massachusetts, the first all-black infantry. He was killed, along with many of his men, in the Second Battle at Fort Wagner near Charleston, South Carolina in 1863. Shaw was related to Lowell.
Their monument sticks like a fishbone
in the city’s throat.
Its Colonel is as lean
as a compass-needle.
He has an angry wrenlike vigilance,
a greyhound’s gentle tautness;
he seems to wince at pleasure,
and suffocate for privacy.
The nation has entered an irreversible decline into crass commercialism.
The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.
The Old Glory
In 1964, Lowell also wrote three, one-act plays that designed to be performed together as a trilogy. The first two parts, “Endecott the Red Cross” and “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” were stage adaptations of short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the third part, “Benito Cereno,” was a stage adaptation of a novella by Herman Melville. The Old Glory was produced off-Broadway in New York City in 1964, directed by Jonathan Miller who lived in the same building as Lowell at the time, witnessing one of his manic episodes . It won five Obie Awards in 1965 including an award for “Best American Play.” Most of the reviews were very positive but others have felt that Lowell merely reorganised the prose of Melville and Hawthorne rather that intensifying it into convincing poetry.
Near the Ocean
With Near the Ocean in 1967, Lowell returned to writing more formal, metered verse as well as loose translations. The best-known poem in this volume is “Waking Early Sunday Morning,”
No weekends for the gods now. Wars
flicker, earth licks its open sores,
fresh breakage, fresh promotions, chance
assassinations, no advance.
Only man thinning out his kind
sounds through the Sabbath noon, the blind
swipe of the pruner and his knife
busy about the tree of life …
Pity the planet, all joy gone
from this sweet volcanic cone;
peace to our children when they fall
in small war on the heels of small
war – until the end of time
to police the earth, a ghost
orbiting forever lost
in our monotonous sublime.
This is now thought of as a key ‘political poem’ of the 1960s.
During 1967 and 1968, Lowell experimented with a verse journal. In an “Afterthought”, he wrote: “This is not my diary, my confession, not a puritan’s too literal pornographic honesty, glad to share private embarrassment, and triumph. The time is a summer, an autumn, a winter, a spring, another summer; here the poem ends, except for turned-back bits of fall and winter 1968 … My plot rolls with the seasons. The separate poems and sections are opportunist and inspired by impulse. Accident threw up subjects, and the plot swallowed them–famished for human chances. I lean heavily to the rational, but am devoted to surrealism.”
Steven Gould Axelrod wrote that, Lowell was trying to achieve the balance of freedom and order, discontinuity and continuity, that he [had] observed in [Wallace] Stevens’s late long poems and in John Berryman’s Dream Songs”. He hoped to capture “an instant in which political and personal happenings interacted with a lifetime’s accumulation of memories, dreams, and knowledge.”
In 1970, Lowell left Elizabeth Hardwick for a new life in London with the British writer Lady Caroline Blackwood. Caroline Blackwood was a well-known figure in the literary world because of her journalism and her novels.
She was also known for her high-profile marriages, first to the artist Lucian Freud, (that did not last long) then to the composer Israel Citkowitz. During the mid-1960s, Blackwood had an affair with Robert Silvers, a founder and co-editor of The New York Review of Books, who stayed close to the family thereafter. According to Blackwood’s daughter Ivana, both Silvers and Ivana suspected that Silvers was her biological father. On her deathbed, Blackwood revealed that Ivana’s biological father was the screenwriter Ivan Moffat, the grandson of actor-manager Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree.
Her third husband Robert Lowell, described her as “a mermaid who dines upon the bones of her winded lovers”. Her anxieties, alcohol-related illnesses, and late-night tirades exacerbated Lowell’s own mental problems. Their son, Sheridan, was born on 28 September 1971; and, after obtaining divorces from their respective spouses, Blackwood and Lowell were married on 21 October 1972.
Between 1970 and 1977, Lowell compounded the injury he had done to Hardwick by frantic shuffling between England and America, unable to decide which woman he wanted and needed.
History and For Lizzie and Harriet and The Dolphin
Interacting with a lifetime of personal happenings did not always have happy consequences. The confessional mode could cause hurt and many questioned Lowell’s ethics. For Lizzie and Harriet, included poems that described the breakdown of his second marriage and contained poems that were supposed to be in the voices of his daughter, Harriet, and his second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick. The Dolphin (1973), which won the 1974 Pulitzer Prize, included poems about his daughter, his ex-wife, and his new wife Caroline Blackwood whom he had affectionately nicknamed “Dolphin.”
Many responses were negative. Lowell admitted to having incorporated (and altered) private letters from Hardwick into poems for The Dolphin. He compounded his crime by giving public readings of these poems. Elizabeth Bishop chided him privately, accusing him of “infinite mischief”. “Art just isn’t worth that much.” Adrienne Rich publicly criticized Lowell calling the poems “cruel and shallow.
Day by Day
Lowell published his last volume of poetry, Day by Day, in 1977, the year of his death. In May 1977, Lowell won the $10,000 National Medal for Literature awarded by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and Day by Day won that year’s National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry. Anthony Hecht said that “[Day by Day was] a very touching, moving, gentle book, tinged with a sense of [Lowell’s] own pain and the pain [he’d] given to others.” In the final poem, “Epilogue,” Lowell reflects upon the “confessional” school of poetry with which his work was associated.
But sometimes everything I write
with the threadbare art of my eye
seems a snapshot,
lurid, rapid, garish, grouped,
heightened from life,
yet paralyzed by fact.
Yet why not say what happened?
Helen Vendler wrote that critics who found the book a failure were disappointed because it was so different from any of his previous volumes. She wrote, “Now [Lowell] has ended [his career], in Day by Day, as a writer of disarming openness, exposing shame and uncertainty, offering almost no purchase to interpretation, and in his journal-keeping, abandoning conventional structure, whether rhetorical or logical. The poems drift from one focus to another; they avoid the histrionic; they sigh more often than they expostulate. They acknowledge exhaustion; they expect death.”
Death and Reputation
In 1977, Lowell died of a heart attack, reportedly clutching one of Lucian Freud’s portraits of Blackwood, in the back seat of a New York cab, on his way back to Elizabeth Hardwick.
Despite his crippling illness, which he knew caused him to hurt others as well as himself, Lowell was able to create a magnificent body of work, to become a revered public figure and to be loved on a personal level. He was invited to Kennedy’s inauguration and sent the President an inscribed copy of Life Studies. When JFK spoke to Lowell at the inauguration, he displayed a knowledge of his work. It was during Lyndon Johnson’s presidency that Lowell became a focus for protests against the war in Vietnam. Lowell publicly turned down an invitation from LBJ to attend an arts festival at the White House. It was a great embarrassment to Johnson when nearly every artist in the US rallied in support of Lowell.
Seamus Heaney gave a memorial address for Lowell at St. Luke’s Church, Redcliffe Square, London on October 5, 1977. “He was and will remain a pattern for poets in his amphibious ability to plunge into the downward reptilian welter of the self and yet raise himself with whatever knowledge he gained there out on to the hard ledges of the historical present, which he then apprehended with refreshed insight and intensity”.