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.
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.
“Anchors aweigh,” daddy boomed in his bathtub,
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.
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.
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