Robert Lowell was considered by many to be the English-speaking world’s pre-eminent poet after the Second World War. In 1946, when he was barely 30 years old, he received the Pulitzer Prize for his second poetry collection, Lord Weary’s Castle. He received a second Pulitzer for The Dolphin in 1973, and many other awards followed until his death in 1977. He was charming, brilliant in literary subjects, admired by both men and women, and a good friend to both. Born into a prominent Massachusetts family, he was charismatic, ruggedly handsome and an extraordinary mix of New York liberal and Southern conservative. Though he had many Jewish ancestors, Lowell was raised Episcopalian and converted to Catholicism. The very large collection of his letters shows he was one of the central literary figures of his time.
Although Lowell was committed to a lifetime of writing poetry, there was another aspect of his life that caused much disruption for himself and others. He was manic-depressive, and his illness provided experiences that sometimes appeared in his work. Between 1945 and 1976 he suffered at least 16 mental breakdowns. Over the years he was confined in five different countries and 15 psychiatric hospitals and clinics. Some believe his best writing came when he was entering or emerging from his illness. A positive aspect of his condition was that it gave him greater compassion for the suffering of others.
In a compelling and insightful new book that draws in part on several previously unpublished sources, Robert Lowell in Love, biographer and literary scholar Jeffrey Meyers explores a central aspect of Lowell’s life and art: “As compensation for his mania, Lowell needed women and loved the idea of falling in love, and each affair became an intense dramatic episode. His impressive achievements came at great cost to himself as well as to the women who were attracted to his intellect, generosity, and charismatic personality. This book tells the stories of the women who inspired his poetry and were at the emotional and aesthetic center of his life.”
Lowell is widely identified with the term “confessional” poetry, a term he did not like. He always insisted that his so-called confessional poems were in significant ways invented. However, since some of his poetry dramatized his own emotional experiences, the women in his life, often part of a small literary circle where many knew the individuals involved, had to suffer again when his poems were published.
It is crucial to understand that Lowell’s parents were particularly unsuited to each other. Neither knew how to relate to their gifted only child. In his last book, Day by Day, published in 1977, Lowell’s poem “Unwanted,” dealt with his psychological wound from being the unwanted son of a mother trapped in an unwanted marriage. Lowell learned this early on, and it was something he had to bear until his death. His mental illness apparently developed, at least in part, because of his relationship with his volatile and unstable mother.
Meyers offers an overview of Lowell’s early life, including his years at Kenyon College where he demonstrated his commitment to a life of poetry by studying with the influential poet/critic John Crowe Ransom and became good friends with other literary figures. Meyers then focuses on Lowell’s three wives, Jean Stafford, Elizabeth Hardwick and Caroline Blackwood; his close women friends such as the highly regarded poet Elizabeth Bishop; and his best known students, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. Hardwick, a literary critic and novelist, was a firm anchor as his second wife between two turbulent marriages to emotionally unstable women, and Meyers characterizes her as the tragic heroine of Lowell’s life.
Meyers considers the “heart” of his book the section on nine of Lowell’s many lovers, with whom he was able to conduct extensive interviews. Lowell regarded each new romance as permanent, which made the ending of these relationships devastating to the women involved. Recognizing this, Lowell tried to keep in touch with his lovers, to check on their well-being. But he did confess, “Sometimes I think I am the enemy of womankind.” Surprisingly, few of the women wanted to leave him, even after he had treated them irresponsibly. When he died, Lowell was still married to Blackwood, although he had moved from England back to New York to live with Hardwick. The latter even had Blackwood stay with her in the days leading up to his funeral.
This absorbing biography has many riches, including perceptive readings of some of Lowell’s poetry, an appendix that reveals how Meyers was able to locate nine of Lowell’s identifiable romantic interests, and another appendix that lists significant literary references and allusions that did not make it into Lowell’s Collected Poems.