Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Jonathan Edwards

Robert Lowell Part 4

This article appeared in the Mosaic section of Ceylon Today on Sunday October 26 2014.

caroline

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.

robertgouldshawmemorial

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.

ForTheUnionDead

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.

Notebook

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.”

Caroline Blackwood

girl in bed

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.

freud

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.

girl in a green dress, 1954

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.

 

caroline and children

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.

All’s misalliance.

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.

mccarthy-let-us-begin-anew1

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”.

Robert Lowell Part 1

John Collins Bossidy wrote this Boston Toast:

And this is good old Boston,

The home of the bean and the cod,

Where the Lowells talk only to Cabots

And the Cabots talk only to God.

 

The Lowells were “Boston Brahmins”, a term coined by physician and writer Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr, in an 1860 article in the Atlantic Monthly. The term Brahmin refers to the highest-ranking people in the Hindu caste system. In the US, it has been applied to the old, wealthy New England families of British Protestant origin, which were influential in the development of American institutions and culture. New England gentry believed that they were a people set apart by destiny to guide the American experiment.

The distinguished poet Robert Traill Spence Lowell IV (1917-1977), came from this aristocratic milieu and could trace his origins back to the Mayflower. As well as having a father who was a Lowell, he had a mother who was a Winslow, another Boston Brahmin family. His mother was a descendant of William Samuel Johnson, a signer of the United States Constitution and Jonathan Edwards, the Calvinist theologian (about whom Lowell wrote in his poems including “Mr Edwards and the Spider”. Robert IV was related to poet Amy Lowell, whose great-grandfather and Robert Lowell’s great-great-grandfather were stepbrothers: that is, both were sons of Hon. John Lowell II, 1743-1802. Amy herself was herself the sister of astronomer Percival Lowell and Harvard president Abbott Lawrence Lowell. Robert’s great-great uncle James Russell Lowell was among the first 19th Century American poets who rivalled the popularity of British poets.

young robert lowell

Unfortunately for Charlotte Winslow, and possibly for her son, she married into the wrong line of Lowells. The big money and big prestige was elsewhere. The line of the poet’s father had, since the 18th Century, been regarded as the pious poor relations. Robert’s father, known as “Bob”, seems to have been affable but self-effacing to the point of invisibility. In a draft autobiography, Robert wrote of his father: “He smiled and smiled in his photographs, just as he smiled and smiled in life. He would look into the faces of others as if he expected to see himself reflected in their eyes. He was a man who treated even himself with the caution and uncertainty of one who has forgotten a name, in this case his own”.

Despite being a Lowell, Bob had to work for a living. He was a low-ranking naval officer who had to move around the country and failed to win the respect of his superior officers, who resented what they imagined to be his inherited wealth. This was a small bequest from a Cousin Cassie, which, said Charlotte. “was not grand enough to corrupt us, but sufficient to prevent Bob being at the mercy of his salary”. Bob was no match for Charlotte’s growing dissatisfaction. Robert Lowell’s biographer, Ian Hamilton, refers to “her apparently unappeasable discontent”. She delighted in being condescending to Bob’s colleagues and enjoyed waiting for the doorbell to ring so that she could instruct the servants to tell the naval wives that she was not at home. When he retired from the navy, Bob took a job with Lever Brothers and Charlotte taunted: “Don’t you think Bob looks peaceful? They call him the undertaker at Lever Brothers. I think he is love with his soap vat”. He declined from job to job and Robert wrote of his father: “In his forties, Father’s soul went underground”. He recalls Wondering when he was ten, “Why doesn’t he fight back?” He saw his clashes with his mother as a kind of love play and a good training for the rhetoric of his writing.

Charlotte_Winslow_Lowell,_1915

“Anchors aweigh,” daddy boomed in his bathtub,

“Anchors aweigh”,

when Lever Brothers offered to pay

him double what the Navy paid.

I nagged for his dress sword with gold braid,

And cringed because Mother, new

Caps on all her teeth, was born anew

At forty. With seamanlike celerity

Father left the Navy,

And deeded Mother his property.

 

He was soon fired. Year after year,

he still hummed ”Anchors aweigh” in the tub-

whenever he left a job,

he bought a smarter car.

Father’s last employer

was Scudder, Stevens and Clark, Investment Advisers,

himself his only client.

 

Charlotte was only happy when in Boston, but, although their house was less than fifty yards from Louisburg Square, the home of the old elite, she said, “We are barely perched on the outer rim of the hub of decency”. The Marlborough Street house was also close to Boston’s North End slums.

200px-Robert_Traill_Spence_Lowell_III_and_IV

This is the background that shaped the poet – and the manic-depressive that Lowell became. From an early age, he did fight back. As Hamilton puts it, “Lowell remained churlishly stoical, or was needling and argumentative…”. In the prose piece “91 Revere Street”, Lowell described his adolescent persona as: “Thick-witted, narcissistic, thuggish”.

At his school, St Mark’s, he was bigger than other boys his age and regularly bloodied the noses of rivals like Bulldog Binney and Dopey Dan Parker. Early on in his life, Lowell acquired the nickname “Cal”. Schoolmate Frank Parker told the BBC that this came from Caligula – “the least popular Roman emperor with all the disgusting traits, the depravity”. However, Parker claims that Lowell was first called Caliban, after the subhuman son of the malevolent witch, Sycorax in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Until the age of fifteen, Lowell was seen as a wild man, with dirty clothes, untied shoelaces and an intimidating d bulk. There were also fits of rage.

 

Another schoolmate, Blair Clark, noted that after fifteen, by an effort of will, Lowell “created himself as an intellect, as a creative spirit. It was astonishing to see such focus”. Lowell used to get into punch-ups. Now, he intimidated in a different way. He formed a small gang dedicated to discussing “the meaning of life”. Lowell rented a cottage at Nantucket for an intense period of self-improvement. Lowell set the reading programme for the group and even dictated what they ate. Clark later spoke of Lowell’s “brutal, childish” tyranny.

One of Lowell’s teachers at St Mark’s was Richard Eberhart, who later won a Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Lowell felt a certain disdain for Eberhart (he called him Cousin Ghormley) but was impressed that one of his teachers actually knew IA Richards and William Empson. Lowell reported to Eberhart about the intellectual progress of the members of his gang. Some years later, Eberhart wrote a verse drama whose central figure was based on Lowell as a pupil. In the play, the schoolmaster advises the schoolboy: “Keep your feet on the ground, renounce the sky”. The college psychiatrist describes the boy as “mad”; “he eats toenails”; he is “rude, vain and gloomy and “talks with cryptic wit”; “Furthermore, I must point out that he is unclean”.

Charlotte wanted to “tidy up” her son and in 1935 consulted psychiatrist Merrill Moore, who was himself a poet on the fringes of the southern “Fugitive” group led by John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate. However, the main plank of Charlotte’s tidying up project was to get her troublesome son into Harvard.

Harvard

Lowell did get into Harvard. While he was a freshman there, he asked Robert Frost for feedback on a long poem he had written on the Crusades. According to Lowell, Frost read a little of it, and said, “It goes on rather a bit, doesn’t it?” While at Harvard, he immersed himself in the poetry of Eliot, Pound and William Carlos Williams. This led to a marked improvement in the poetry he was writing, which became more direct and less mannered and clotted. However, after two years at Harvard, Lowell was unhappy.

In May 1936, he met Anne Tuckerman Dick and became engaged to her. There were reasons the Brahmins did not think this was good match, one of them being that she was 24 to Lowell’s 19. Her first meeting with Bob and Charlotte was uncomfortable for all involved. Anne described Lowell’s father: “He was like some kind of flabby Halloween pumpkin, long after Halloween, long after it had any point. And it had started to smell a little”. Tension over his proposed married to Anne led to Lowell punching his father to the ground.

In a later poem, he wrote:

In the Marlborough Street parlour

where oatmeal roughened

the ceiling as blue as the ocean –

I torpedoed my Father to the floor

how could he stand

without Mother’s helmsman hand?

 

Next week Lowell’s sojourn in the South

THE PRESS | Music Reviews

Click Header to Return Home

Julie MacLusky

- Author and Blogger -

HoaxEye

A fake image is worth zero words

Poet's Corner

Poems, poets, poetry, writing, poetry challenges

Casual, But Smart

Pop Culture From An Old Soul

PN Review Blog

‘The most engaged, challenging and serious-minded of all the UK’s poetry magazines’ - Simon Armitage

The Manchester Review

The Manchester Review

Slugger O'Toole

Conversation, politics and stray insights

Stephen Jones: a blog

Daoism—lives—language—performance. And jokes

Minal Dalal

Spreading resources for potential living.