(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The first question to ask about Paul Mariani’s biography of Robert Lowell is why there should be a new life of Lowell so soon after Ian Hamilton’s biography, Robert Lowell. Hamilton’s revelations about Lowell’s disruptive manic episodes and sexual adventures were startling when published in 1982. What can Mariani add to this scandalous presentation of the great American poet’s foibles? As it turns out, he has much to add. Mariani has more interviews with those who had a close relationship with Lowell and more letters to and by him, and he can draw on Lowell’s own autobiographical fragments, memoir, and writings. The result is likely to become the definitive biography of Lowell. It sheds important light on Lowell’s relationship with such figures as Randall Jarrell, Jean Stafford, Elizabeth Hardwick, and especially Lowell’s last wife, Caroline Blackwood. Mariani’s Lost Puritan: A Life of Robert Lowell is not a critical biography, but it is as full a rendering of Lowell’s life as readers are likely to get.

Robert Lowell was born in 1917 into the famous Lowell family of Boston. He was not a member of the main branch of that famous family. His father, Robert Trail Spence Lowell III, was a naval officer rather than a writer or intellectual; he had attended United States Naval Academy at Annapolis rather than Harvard University and rose to the rank of lieutenant commander by the time he left the navy. He was, however, a weak and dilatory man who was dominated by his wife, Charlotte Winslow Lowell. She was a formidable woman who could not bear to be separated from Boston or her father, Arthur Winslow. She forced her husband to retire from the navy so that she could remain in Boston and he could earn a better living at Lever Brothers, a job he soon lost. Her relationship with the future poet was fierce and smothering. Mariani is quite good at describing the conflicts in the family; he brings out fully the oedipal conflict between Robert Lowell and his mother and the struggle he had to free himself from her domination.

The family conflict came to a head when Lowell, in his first year at Harvard, struck his father and knocked him down. The elder Lowell had written some insulting remarks to the father of Robert’s fiancée, Anne Dick. Lowell’s parents were opposed to the engagement and the marriage, and the incident resulted in Lowell’s leaving Harvard. He went to the home of Allen Tate, a poet and critic, in Tennessee. When he was told there was no room in the house and the only way he could stay there was to pitch a tent, Lowell bought a Sears Roebuck tent and camped out on the Tates’ front lawn. He then entered Kenyon College to be with the American poet and critic John Crowe Ransom.

Lowell’s parents were shocked at his leaving Harvard. Yet it was a successful move for him. Tate and Ransom were accomplished poets and critics, and they served as more useful father-figures for Lowell than his weak father. At Kenyon Lowell also embarked on lifelong friendships with the poet Randall Jarrell and the fiction writer Peter Taylor.

After he was graduated summa cum laude from Kenyon, Lowell met and married the fiction writer Jean Stafford. Mariani provides an excellent overview of their stormy relationship, especially through quotes from letters and interviews with Stafford, whose remarks are always witty and sometimes acute. It was during this period that Lowell became a convert to Roman Catholicism. He was seeking some absolute authority, especially one he could use in his poetry, and also a way to cut himself off from his parents. Charlotte Lowell had once said that Catholicism was a religion for Irish maids, and now her son was a communicant. Stafford also became a convert, although not as zealous a one as Lowell.

Lowell refused to accept induction into the military in World War II. He based his decision on the bombing of civilians in Germany and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s policy of unconditional surrender. Mariani reproduces the manic letter Lowell wrote to the president to justify his actions. As a result of his refusal, he was sentenced to a year in a federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut.

During this period, he began writing his earliest important poems and gathered enough poems for his first volume, Land of Unlikeness (1944). The poems were clogged and obscure, as Lowell was following the example of Tate and the dictates of the New Criticism. The book received respectful reviews; the critics noted a new and unpolished voice in American poetry. Mariani does not discuss the poetry at any length, and he fails to cite many of the reviews the books of poetry received. He tends to quote the poems throughout the book as if they exemplified aspects of Lowell’s life. Sometimes this works brilliantly, but at other times it can be misleading.

Lowell’s next book, Lord Weary’s Castle (1946), was a far more accomplished work, but the poems were still filled with Catholic imagery and often obscure. The book received the Pulitzer Prize in poetry and adulatory reviews. Lowell had established his reputation as an American poet....

(The entire section is 2090 words.)