Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Lady Caroline Blackwood

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 3

This article appeared in the Mosaic section of the Sunday edition of Ceylon Today on October 19 2014

elizabeth-hardwick-and-robert-lowell

Lord Weary’s Castle

Randall Jarrell praised the book in his essay “From the Kingdom of Necessity” in which he wrote, “Many of the people who reviewed Lord Weary’s Castle felt that it was as much of an event as Auden’s first book; no one younger than Auden has written better poetry than the best of Robert Lowell’s, it seems to me.” Austin Warren offered the explanation that the book’s title implied that “disaster is befalling the house, and the household, of aristocratic (Calvinist, capitalist) New England, which has failed to pay its moral bills to the ‘lower order’”.

In “Children of Light”, Lowell looks at how his forebears got where they are today:

Our fathers wrung their bread from stocks and stones

And fenced their gardens with the Redmen’s bones;

Embarking from the Nether Land of Holland,

Pilgrims unhouseled by Geneva’s night,

They planted here the Serpent’s seeds of light;

And here the pivoting searchlights probe to shock

The riotous glass houses built on rock,

And candles gutter by an empty altar,

And light is where the landless blood of Cain

Is burning, burning the unburied grain.

 

Lowell dedicated “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” to his cousin, Warren Winslow, lost at sea during World War II.

The corpse was bloodless, a botch of reds and whites,   

Its open, staring eyes

Were lustreless dead-lights

Or cabin-windows on a stranded hulk   

Heavy with sand. We weight the body, close   

Its eyes and heave it seaward whence it came,   

Where the heel-headed dogfish barks its nose   

On Ahab’s void and forehead; and the name   

Is blocked in yellow chalk.

The poem takes as its epigraph St Thomas Aquinas’s idea of man’s superiority in the natural order: “Let man have dominion over the fishes of the sea and the fowls of the air and the beasts of the whole earth, and every creeping creature that moveth upon the earth”. The poem questions New England’s past sins of greed and destruction of nature, the plundering of the sea and the fouling of its floor with corpses. Lowell brings in Melville’s mythic creation to mourn present-day losses, such as those resulting from World War II, in imagery that echoes that of Moby-Dick: “The bones cry for the blood of the white whale.” In this poem, Lowell laments all that American seamen of the nineteenth century “lost / In the mad scramble of their lives.” In grim pictures of Moby Dick’s destruction, the poet questions how the destroyer of the great beast will hide his sin, which risks a God-hurled punishment.

Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary are presented as the sources of salvation. The poem ends with a section called “Our Lady of Walsingham”. The poet describes veneration of Our Lady of Walsingham, an English shrine near Norfolk. The Slipper Chapel, where pilgrims have traditionally entered in bare feet to pray, honors a medieval saint, Lady Richeldis de Faverches, who saw and heard the Virgin Mary in 1061. Lowell describes the penitents walking barefoot down “the munching English lane” to the shrine where an inscrutable Virgin Mary sits, plain and expressionless and “too small for her canopy.” The “peace that passeth understanding” that is promised by Christianity is harsh.

Lowell’s ancestors are taken to task in “At the Indian Killer’s Grave” and he has the murdered Indian King Philip arise to condemn the Puritan elders to hell for having hurled / Anathemas at nature and the land. Lowell’s ancestor on his mother’s side, Josiah Winslow, waged a genocidal war against Philip’s people, the Wampanoag.

Philips head

Grins on the platter, fouls in pantomime

The fingers of kept time:

“Surely, this people is but grass,”

He whispers, “this will pass”.

 

Elizabeth Hardwick

hardwick

Elizabeth Hardwick was a formidably intelligent woman who came from blue-collar (but intellectual) stock and went on to be co-founder of the wondrous New York Review of Books in 1964. Even when she was a young woman , writers quailed before her acerbic reviews. She had enough intelligence to know what she was taking on; she married Lowell in 1949 when he was going through one of his worst manic phases.

In 1946, Hardwick met Lowell at a party in Greenwich Village. They met again at Yaddo, the writers’ colony in upstate New York, and married in 1949. Hardwick gave birth, at the age of 40, to a daughter, Harriet. In 1960, they returned to New York and settled in an apartment on West 67th Street where Hardwick lived until her death in 2007 at the age of 91.

Soon after meeting Hardwick, Lowell experienced a violently psychotic phase and had electric shock treatment in hospital. He was confined again when entered the depressive aftermath of the manic episode. After Lowell was released from the Payne Whitney Clinic, the couple embarked on a European tour during which he had a serious breakdown in Salzburg. Similar troubles happened throughout their marriage. Lowell gave in to many infatuations and was serially unfaithful to his wife. In 1970, Lady Caroline Blackwood, a member of the Guinness dynasty, smote him. Lowell and Hardwick divorced in 1972.

Hardwick paid a huge price for her love of Lowell. She accepted her fate with considerable dignity and a minimum of self-pity.

lowell and harriet

The Mills of the Kavanaughs

In 1951, Lowell published The Mills of the Kavanaughs. This did not receive unmixed praise. Randall Jarrell liked the shorter poems, but thought the epic title poem did not work. The people too often seem to be acting in the manner of Robert Lowell, rather than plausibly as real people act . . .I doubt that many readers will think them real.” Dudley Fitts used the term “Inoperable Particularity”. Fitts found the work full of “the kind of detail that looks significant, that one worries about as a possible symbol, and that is finally rejected”.

Philip Hobsbaum was more enthusiastic, calling it a” work of considerable distinction… verse of considerable suavity and flow”. William Carlos Williams liked it and Gene Baro found a new level of excellence in Lowell’s tight integration of idea, imagery and symbol.

Lowell hit a creative roadblock and took a long break from publishing.

Life Studies

His next book of verse, Life Studies (1959), which won the National Book Award for poetry in 1960, became the most influential book that Lowell would ever publish. In his acceptance speech for the NBA, Lowell divided American poetry into two camps: the “cooked” and the “raw.” These poems drew on the energy of Beat poetry and recorded Lowell’s break with Catholicism, soul-bearing confessions, and revelations of dishonour and scandal among the Brahmins. Because many of the poems documented details from Lowell’s family life and personal problems, one critic, ML Rosenthal, labelled these poems “confessional”. The label stuck and led to Lowell being grouped together with other influential confessional poets like Lowell’s former students W D Snodgrass, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton.

“Skunk Hour” is set on an island off the coast of Maine. The first part of the poem takes place during the daytime hours. The second half of the poem takes place at night as the narrator drives up the hill in his car. The town is deserted and he abandons the rich seaside description for a darker, lonelier look at things. We see dark streets and foraging skunks. “Skunk” stands for Lowell’s mood.

bishop

Elizabeth Bishop was a very close friend. Lowell talked of marrying her, even though he knew she was a lesbian. The poet models its atmosphere, pacing, and focus on Bishop’s “The Armadillo,” which she dedicated to him in 1965. The poem caricatures the short-term vacationers spoiling the New England coast. The poet drives his car over a skull-shaped hill, an allusion to Christ approaching Golgotha. Approaching lover’s lane, he acknowledges the black mood by comparing parked cars with downed ships. He ends the fifth stanza with, “My mind’s not right.” A battered ego recognizes that “I myself am hell”.

A mother skunk at the head of a line baby skunks shows the absurdity of defiant animals scavenging in the heart of town.

I myself am hell,

nobody’s here–

 

only skunks, that search

in the moonlight for a bite to eat.

They march on their soles up Main Street:

white stripes, moonstruck eyes’ red fire

under the chalk-dry and spar spire

of the Trinitarian Church.

 

I stand on top

of our back steps and breathe the rich air–

a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail

She jabs her wedge-head in a cup

of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,

and will not scare.

 

Lowell wrote this about the poem: “This is the dark night. I hope my readers would remember John of the Cross’s poem. My night is not gracious, but secular, puritan and agnostical. An Existential night. Somewhere in my mind was a passage from Sartre or Camus about reaching some point of final darkness where the one free act is suicide”.

 

The English critic A Alvarez wrote of Life Studies:”Instead of contorting his conflicts into a baroque theology, Lowell exposes their beginnings in a series of ironic, and often tender, reminiscences about the family figures who loomed large in his childhood”.

Imitations

Lowell followed Life Studies with Imitations (1961), a volume of loose translations of poems by classical and modern European poets. In the book’s introduction, Lowell explained that his idiosyncratic translations should be thought of as “imitations” rather than strict translations since he took many liberties with the originals, trying to “do what [his] authors might have done if they were writing their poems now and in America.” TS Eliot liked it and insisted that ”Imitations” should be the title rather than “Versions”. The book won the 1962 Bollingen Poetry Translation Prize but critical response to Imitations was sometimes hostile. In the New York Review of Books, on December 4, 1969, Vladimir Nabokov condemned Lowell’s Mandelstam translations – “some of the quite unambiguous passages misinterpreted, or otherwise mangled, by Robert Lowell in his ‘adaptation’”.

Thom Gunn complained that all those writers “translated” in the book “speak with the unmistakeable voice of Robert Lowell. Preserving the tone of most of these poets is, in fact, the last thing he has done”. Although Gunn also says that Lowell makes Villon sound like Allen Ginsberg. Many critics were offended that Lowell had treated these great poets as his equals.

Others saw the book as a positive development in Lowell’s style and a step forward for poetry. Philip Hobsbaum said that the book had to be read as a set of original texts and that some of the poems are among the finest in the language. Michael Hofmann wrote that Imitations was Lowell’s most “pivotal book,” arguing that the book “marks the entry into his work of what one might term ‘international style’, something coolly open to not-quite-English.” Hobsbaum wrote: “The theme of Imitations, then, is a romantic one. Ennui spells death; mania brings enlightenment; suffering is the matrix of poetry. This is self-justification: quite as much as TS Eliot’s doctrine of impersonality, though at the opposite end of the spectrum.”

Also in 1961, Lowell published his English translation of the French verse play Phèdre by 17th century playwright Jean Racine. I saw a memorable production of this at the Oxford Playhouse starring Simon Ward and Barbara Jefford. Lowell changed the spelling of the title of the play to Phaedra. This translation was Lowell’s first attempt at translating a play, and the piece received a generally positive reviews. However, George Steiner wrote: “I submit that Phaedra has an unsteady and capricious bearing on the matter of Racine. Far too often it strives against the grain of Racine’s style and against the conventions of feeling on which the miraculous concision of style depends… To link this version with Racine implies a certain abeyance of modesty. But modesty is the very essence of translation. The greater the poet, the more loyal should be his servitude to the original”.

http://www.ceylontoday.lk/96-75739-news-detail-lord-wearys-castle.html

 

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