Lowell, Robert (Vol. 4)
Lowell, Robert 1917–
Lowell is one of America's foremost contemporary poets. One of the most striking qualities of all his work has been the intensity of his moral and political concern for American civilization. He is also a playwright and the author of a book of "imitations." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
[Lowell's] poems have been offered to us, over the years, in several contexts. For a few years we were advised to consider him a major Catholic poet, and this gave us—depending upon our attitude to Catholicism—either a stick with which to beat the poems or a pilgrim's staff to help us reach them. Either way it was a temporary facility. We have also been told to think of the poems, especially the early ones in Lord Weary's Castle, as acts of violence directed against all the forces of constriction wherever the poet feels them—especially those associated with his own New England ancestors, guardians of a deadly law. This has now become critical orthodoxy in regard to Lowell's poems, and we tend to grasp it, on the principle that recommends any port in a storm. But I think we have settled down too easily. It is not very difficult to make a few generalizations about the New England ancestors, accurate or not, but there is very little evidence in the poems to support the sentimental image of a tender poet wounded and darkened by his membership in a great dark family. The occasions that incite those poems are invariably immediate, personal; we don't need to go back to Plymouth Rock.
Denis Donoghue, in his Connoisseurs of Chaos: Ideas of Order in Modern American Poetry (reprinted with permission of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.; © by Denis Donoghue, 1965), Macmillan, 1965, p. 150.
[What] Tate meant [in his introduction to Land of Unlikeness, Lowell's first book,] in calling Lowell "consciously a Catholic poet" is that Lowell has consciously chosen a position of aesthetic involvement which can merge the techniques of religious vision with those of artistic vision. Behind this choice is the belief that God, not man, is the measure of ultimate reality and that what is important about man is not his achievements but his soul, his likeness to God. In such a relationship the function of the poet, like that of the prophet, is to reveal essential reality to the world which may have lost sight of it. He is no longer the imitator of life in the Aristotelian sense; he is the illuminator of Joyce's Portrait or Dante's Divine Comedy….
Like Dante, he seems to take his heroes and epic events from Vergil, Lucan, and Ovid, and like Dante, he merges these heroes and events into a structure of Christian morality. The result is not always happy, for, as a poet, he can develop modern counterparts to Aeneas and still be forced to condemn them theologically. Ulysses, for instance, ends up in Dante's Inferno in the circle reserved for evil counselors. In addition, there is a whole realm of twentieth-century experience which Lowell seems not able to examine—or to examine only with distortion—because there are no exact classical parallels. (p. 19)
[With his second volume, Lord Weary's Castle,] his view of salvation has become narrower. It is now more completely allied with the contemplative tradition and seems to consolidate into one step the various separate ways to salvation suggested in Land of Unlikeness. No longer can one augment baptismal likeness to God merely through a complete faith in Christ or an avoidance of war or a belief in the power of prayer or an ability to value worldly goods at no more than their price or by Catholicism. One must go beyond these means into the contemplative life. (p. 47)
In the closing pages of Lord Weary's Castle, beginning with such poems as "Between the Porch and the Altar" and "After the Surprising Conversions," a new direction in Lowell's poetry appears. The direction manifests his reading of Friedrich Nietzsche and relies frequently on the run-on couplet and monologue devices of Robert Browning. It examples a change from the epical to dramatic and narrative forms [Mazzaro is referring to the three basic positions of aesthetic involvement defined by Joyce in the closing chapter of The Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man] and carries beyond Lowell's next volume of poetry, The Mills of the Kavanaughs (1951), into parts of Life Studies (1959)…. The new direction, then, may be seen as an attempt to expand the range of poetry so as to include both plot and character. But to do so successfully, Lowell must also increase his range of character and action beyond the limited mysticism demanded by his current means of salvation. (p. 61)
Lowell's poetry at this time does seem to be of its own direction committed more and more to the vitality and credibility of its characters rather than to the force of its ideas. (p. 62)
In The Mills of the Kavanaughs Lowell's interest in plot and character prompts seven new poems, all primarily human, time-possessed, and definite. Ranging into the "longer poem" category, they complete the disintegration of the anagogical level in Lowell's poetry and, at the same time, provide more diversification in his characterizations. The realization that his basic poetic vision relied heavily on sensuous detail, that he was unable to develop, as Dante had, a new way of looking at things, that his interest was in the active rather than the contemplative life, or that drama is basically anthropocentric rather than theocentric may account for this disintegration. In any case, the disintegration provides for the inclusion of new ideas and personages neither interested in nor capable of understanding the structure of religious contemplation. Having emerged, these voices receive a sympathy and understanding not often shown previously by the poet. (p. 74)
Life Studies (1959) continues Lowell's noncontemplative pursuit of plot and character and marks further changes in the religious concepts and structure behind his poetic style…. Man is constantly compared to creatures of habit, suggesting the loss of free will and the determinism of the obliterated spiritual purpose inherent in Anne Kavanaugh's final acceptance of death. In addition, with this acceptance of death and man's subsequent loss of spirituality, the automatic exclusion of contemplation as a means of regaining God's likeness leads to the elimination of minutely realized detail indicative of meditational poetry. These details, which once contributed to Lowell's inverted baroque style, were important only as they led to an escape theology and, as in the case of "The Mills of the Kavanaughs," could prove cumbersome to the other facets of a poem's meaning. Their elimination results in an overall simplifying and tightening of techniques in Lowell's new character portrayals, but not to any lessening of his pessimistic world view. (pp. 88-9)
Simultaneous with these changes and perhaps as a justification of them is the appearance of a new, worldly aesthetic deriving much of its framework from the aesthetic ideas of Ezra Pound, particularly his definitions of style and culture in Guide to Kulchur (1938), but still preserving Lowell's own desires for an ideal, all-inclusive poetry. Style, for Lowell, becomes now a matter of "so knowing words that one will communicate the various parts of what one says with the various degrees and weights of importance which one wishes," and culture "is what you can pick up and/or get in touch with, by talk with the most intelligent men of the period." (p. 89)
Still it would be deceptive to conclude that the colloquial tone and the idea of culture, the imagery and the loose metrical structure of the poems in Life Studies are simply derivative. In the Cantos Pound transforms culture into talking; in these poems Lowell does not….
[Behind] the poems of Life Studies and the techniques of both Lowell and Pound lie epic visions which incorporate three common important principles: communication, history, and love. (p. 90)
[Although] the morality is the same, religiously Lowell has changed to a position which not only portrays but understands aspects of the active life. The contemplative threads and now the archetypal framework of meditation have been eliminated. What he keeps is a fluid, adaptable style which places communication and diversity of character above all else. But behind this lurks a tendency to view such diversity as a lack of spirituality and to picture people in animal images. Lowell needs to take a new look at himself, and in the final section of [Life Studies] the effect of this look is a long smoldering break with Joycean ideas. (p. 103)
Jerome Mazzaro, in his The Poetic Themes of Robert Lowell (copyright © by The University of Michigan 1965), University of Michigan Press, 1965.
I think the real and radical importance of [Lowell's] best … poetry [is that it] does not create a world of its own in its age, but looks out.
Lowell's poetry looks out in an unexpected direction. It yearns towards non-existence. If a poetry can be said to have the death-wish, it has it. As his poetry has transformed itself it has perfected a capacity for self-extinction. The words of the early poems lie about helplessly, turgid and swollen: the words of the later ones achieve a crispness of cancellation, leaving behind them only a kind of acrid exhaust smell. A lot of poets, no doubt, have had a death-wish, but none have entailed it by method on their poetry—their poetry is on the contrary an insurance against the extinction they may personally seem to crave….
It is Lowell's achievement to have successfully alienated the poem itself, to have made it as unaware of us as the suicide caught by the camera flash. And this seems to me the real thing. It gives Life Studies and many of the later poems their quality of nicking the advanced edge of time, the moment that burns us before the unmeaning future and the numbed unordered past….
Lowell's most ambitious attempt to create a prophetic myth of the American past and present—The Mills of the Kavanaughs—is a complete and incoherent failure. He has written no open public prophecies, no Waste Land or Second Coming. And one must emphasise … that the notion of him as 'important' in that way is quite misleading. He is not a prophet, but his best poems are in themselves prophetic indications of a state which may be becoming increasingly common in Anglo-American society, the state in which traditional 'feelings' are ceasing to exist, or to have their traditional status assumed—the state in which more and more people come to have knowledge of, even to desire, the symptoms of clinical alienation.
It is this state which Lowell catches, in himself and others. But the 'others' are in fact usually himself, for … one cannot project madness….
In [his "imitations"] Lowell still seems to be attempting … the rhetorical and explanatory side of his poetry which is also its weakest side. However much he is expected to be in America he simply is not a poet of the 'big bow-wow'—he is a big poet who cannot write 'big' poems. Unquestionably his best poems to date are the most seemingly trivial ones, poems which find their precision and their weight in the slightest context; and when he moves us, as in such a poem as Man and Wife, he does no unexpectedly and as it were unmeaningfully, as Dryden does in his Epistle to Congreve. In an age when destruction and madness oppress the poet, like every other citizen, Lowell has learnt not to write about these things but to take them on; and he has taken them on with brilliant success and logic in terms of a style which can perfectly be its own alienation, if it can be little else.
John Bayley, "Robert Lowell: The Poetry of Cancellation," in London Magazine, June, 1966, pp. 76-85.
As we read For the Union Dead, we realize that two intellectual traditions, both bankrupt, have come together in the book. One is the entire string of intellectual longings represented by the history of the Partisan Review. The Partisan Review writers never broke through to any clear view of modern literature or politics. Their insistence on the value of alienation, their academic notions of modernism, are dead, like fatigued metal.
Phillip Booth foolishly compared Lowell to Whitman in his review, but Lowell's book embodies exactly what Whitman was fighting against. For the Union Dead has a peculiarly stale and cold air, instantly recognizable. It is the air of too many literary conversations, an exhausting involvement with the Establishment.
Since the ideas behind the book are decrepit, Lowell has no choice but to glue the poems together with pointless excitement. The persistence of bodiless excitement derives from a second bankrupt tradition which is centred on the notion that an artist must never be calm, but must be extreme at all costs. This destructive notion, a bourgeois notion, flows from both right wing influences on Lowell, like Tate, and left wing influences like the Partisan Review writers.
Lowell has always had a poor grasp of the inner unity of a poem. In Imitations he inserted violent anal or explosive images into quiet, meditative poems—his translations of Montale for example—without realizing that the sensational images had destroyed the inner balance of the poems. In For the Union Dead he does the same thing to his own poems….
For the Union Dead is something rare, a book of poems that is a melodrama….
Men write melodrama when the ideas available to them are dead. Lowell tells us that modern life makes everyone nervous, that we shouldn't support South American generals, that gods seem less real as we grow older. The ideas Eliot and Stevens put in their poems had size and vigor; Lowell's ideas are banal and journalistic. They have no life of their own, and are painfully incongruous in poems intended to be on the highest level….
What Lowell is doing … is counterfeiting. He is counterfeiting intellectual energy, pretending to be saying passionate things about tyrants and hangings, but in fact he gives only a series of violent words set next to each other; the indignation is ersatz….
Robert Bly, "Robert Lowell's 'For the Union Dead'," in his Sixties #8 (copyright © 1966 by Robert Bly; reprinted with permission), Sixties Press, 1966.
[The] stereotype of Lowell as the confessional poet struggling for identity is only half true. The forces of darkness that swell in his mind and those that aggrandize the world are often the same: the history of his personal salvation cannot be separated from the social and political destinies of his countrymen….
Lowell's ambivalent attitude to the Puritans is central to an understanding of his poetry. Although he repudiates them intellectually, he is at home with their buffetings and morbidity. From them he takes or rather corroborates the habit of self-examination and the strenuous burden of their, at times inexplicable, guilt. They are the injectors of a foul self-righteousness into the national life; they are carved in the heroic mold but are mean-spirited (the poet, self-castigating, sees himself as the inheritor of a "poor bred-out stock"); they are visionaries but theirs is a carrion vision….
The Puritans wrestled with the devil, with the powers of blackness, and this drama, spelled out in their theology and acted out in the colonial experience, intrigues Lowell. The serpent is an omnipresent figure in the gardens of his America. Evil is double-dealing, vital, corporeal; it inflicts a lasting isolation….
Lowell excels at funerary art, at epitaph-making, and in the elegaic sequence "In Memory of Arthur Winslow," the finest poems in Land of Unlikeness, he mingles his Gothic religiosity with ambiguous pride in his birthright and discomfiture at the Puritan heritage—even if his ancestors had not burned any Salem witches like Hawthorne's. The weight of his ancestors is heavy; they speak to him from the grave of loss: loss of power, loss of a secure selfhood, loss of grace….
Notwithstanding his God-intoxication, his Edwardsean belief that God is glorified by Man's dependence, Lowell cannot shake free of his confusions and overwrought crises to write simply about the things that matter to him: his boyhood, family, and Americanness; his sense of engulfing chaos. It is not a matter of insincerity—Lowell believes that he believes and that he is unworthy of grace—but poetically his Catholicism is probably responsible for the Baroque embellishments of his language, for a feigned knowledge and contrived emotionalism, whereas his Puritanism, as in "Children of Light," calls forth a spare, stark language and a relative fidelity to his emotions….
The world of Lowell's poems is a world of wonderful particulars. The qualities most conspicuously missing in his verse are not hard to locate: joy and jubilation certainly, in Stevens' phrase, "the rotund emotions"…. But Lowell has what no other American poet writing today has: scale, featly energy, inventiveness. His singular achievement does honor to his ancestors and to his predecessors in the American tradition: it illuminates the moral history of our time.
Herbert Leibowitz, "Robert Lowell: Ancestral Voices," in Salmagundi I, Fall-Winter, 1966–67.
It would appear that the domain of Robert Lowell's Imitations is public rather than private in character [and that] … Lowell, like Pound and Eliot, has employed a mode of translation to enact a repertory of "personae" native to his irascible and inquiring genius; that what we have is, in fact, not an anthology of European poetry, but a species of dramatism: an artist's mimicry of other artists….
The "one voice" "running through many personalities, contrasts, and repetitions" is unmistakably the voice of Robert Lowell—the most eventful and passionate voice of our epoch, whose voracity matters because it helps to give character to our century. Its impersonations, collapses, reassertions are never parasitical in the morbid sense of enacting flights from the poet's responsibility, or providing lines of least resistance in a peripheral struggle for existence.
On the other hand, little is to be gained from rushing to the defense of the Imitations with toplofty disclaimers which pay the poet the dubious compliment of removing him from the imputation of translation entirely….
It is to be hoped that with the passing of time and the channelization of a sensibility which hindsight now shows to have been constantly "histrionic," Lowell will continue to leaven the integrity of his translation. Ultimately, there should be no need for him whatever to remove himself from the rank and file of translators as such, or work in a special aura of privilege, in the name of "imitation." I say this without much hope that translators are ever any the wiser for having translated for a decade or a lifetime, or that they can ever hope for Adam's dream, who "awoke and found it true."
Ben Belitt, "'Imitations': Translations as Personal Mode," in Salmagundi, Winter, 1966–67.
[Robert Bly's] review [of For the Union Dead] disregards almost entirely the integrity in Lowell's dealing with the teleological problems of his vision and launches an attack into his failure to form an acceptable, practicable socio-political program. Bly extends this failure generally to writers whom he groups about The Partisan Review…. The disappointment might have been less had Bly disregarded The Partisan Review altogether and proceeded along lines suggested by Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Self-Reliance" that the failure to believe in one's values makes for a literature and a life whose excitements can only be pointless. He might have then seen that Lowell's current message to a post-Christian world is precisely the portrayal of fatigue, decrepitude, and pointless excitement….
The means by which Lowell seems to come to grips with the substance of his vision … is twofold. First, having gained in the interval distance from his once Christian convictions, he is able now, for the purposes of his art, to sustain perspectives in which he does not necessarily believe. He is able to do so because in an age of overkill such perspectives evoke nightmare visions of a world either destroyed by continuing its wrong idea of a struggle for existence or else reduced to an equally destructive sado-masochism in the drive by its populations to prove their existences through their powers to inflict and endure pain. The real fears of both prospects in the absence of a constructive alternative contribute to Lowell's ability to make them visible, human alternatives rather than mental hypotheses. Moreover, he is able to strengthen his distance from them by adding to the outlines of the masks he formed elements which either so repulse his nature that they preclude his sympathy or so work to reinforce his initial antipathy that they provide complementary, supporting arguments….
Next, the effect in Lowell's poetry of this gained distance is a temporary acceptance of an ironic view of life similar to that which began his career. Then, the intensity of a Christian vision in a world of perverted Christianity on the verge of the Last Judgment turned the irony into a source for invective and satire. Now, as his protagonists lack the grace for meaningful action, the irony results in a picture of the combined futility and absurdity of weighing the minimal actions which man can muster against an irresolvable purpose. Time and again these actions turn into a mockery of the protagonist as Lowell ends his poem by evoking a Schopenhauerian future. This future, if it will not solve the problems of meaning raised, will at least distance them into some perspective that perhaps may overcome their pain as time is reputed to heal all wounds. Thus, what begin as basically personal and ontological poems evolve into seemingly didactic, impersonal observations which record simply the biding of time.
The movement to these final observations with their releases from the bondage of the present by the acceptance of this Schopenhauerian will recalls structurally the release or escape to God in the contemplative poems of Lowell's initial volumes. A similar pattern of vividly constructed scenes which start off the contemplation which, in turn, proceeds to annihilate and escape the scenes is established. However, whereas the pattern of this annihilation in the contemplative poems followed a progression of humility (self-knowledge) to love (knowledge of others) to contemplation (knowledge of God), the pattern now seems to flow from egoism (the impulse toward one's own good) to malice (the impulse toward others' woe) to compassion (the impulse toward others' well-being). This last impulse, under the guise of Christian charity, is probably Lowell's strongest link with the past….
In concert, the poems reveal that man is somehow at odds with the structure of his world and ill-equipped to create permanent new structures without some sort of absolute purpose. On the basis of the purposes suggested by any of the perspectives left after Christianity, Lowell advocates a preservation of Christian charity or Schopenhauerian compassion as basic to all social reform since it establishes the spirit for law. On this spirit rather than on law or social institutions, Lowell bases his socio-politics. Thus, the few specific references which he makes to social and economic reform are principally to structures which have been outdistanced rather than to structures which should come into being….
Lowell may no longer be able to see the true city of the religious mystic or even of the romantic, he can still tell the Vanity Fairs along the way. He may no longer be the conscientious objector crying out against the evils of war in Land of Unlikeness and Lord Weary's Castle, or the Arnoldian in "The Mills of the Kavanaughs" and Life Studies struggling with a belief in personal relationships which gives out in For the Union Dead. Nevertheless, he has still not lost faith with human concerns, nor with history, or rather faith with the inevitable will, which for him is now the reality of the future.
Jerome Mazzaro, "Lowell After 'For the Union Dead'," in Salmagundi, Winter, 1966–67.
From the first Lowell's poetry has had an inner force be-speaking his great native gifts. It has put him in the class of wonder boys, along with poets like the early Auden and Dylan Thomas who, however idiotic they may sometimes look in other respects, were simply unable to write a trite or flaccid line….
In each stage of his poetic evolution, Lowell has written a few poems that seem to me extremely fine, and he has also written poems that seem to me mannered, pointless, incomplete, and obscure. Indeed, try as I may—and I have tried again and again over the years—some of his poems, particularly his earliest and then again his latest, remain incomprehensible to me, as dark and profuse as a pot of Bostonian whistleberries. Moreover, I cannot escape the feeling that some of this obscurity has been purposely, even crassly laid on. For me, this is the single largest detracting element in his work….
Lowell's defect is a temptation to mere appearance, to effects, trappings—to the extraneous. And it arises, I believe, from a discrete imagination, i.e., an imagination which works best in disjunctive snatches. I suppose some people would call it an analytic, rather than a synthetic, imagination. His problem as a poet during the past fifteen or twenty years has been to continue digging deeper toward his essential theme, while at the same turning, if it is possible, his defect into an advantage….
Lowell's methods are distinct from those of Ezra Pound. This is a distinction we must be careful to draw, I think, because Pound's methods have become so much second-nature to us all that they blur our recognition of the principal fact about the two poets, viz. that the historical gulf separating them is enormous…. Pound's work, in effect, is an Arnoldian criticism of life on a very grand scale, which is only possible because the critic looks out from the secure bastion of his own personality founded on a stable scheme of values. Lowell, on the other hand, is a poetic ego without fixtures: in a sense neither being nor becoming, but a sequence of fragments, like the individual frames of a movie film, propelled and unified by its own creative drive. This does not mean that Lowell's work lacks values; his poems are as strenuously moral as anyone's. But his objective is not critical, nor even broadly cultural; it is personal; and the moral elements of his poetry are used, not as precepts, but as the hypotheses of an experimental venture in self-validation. In his autobiographical work, both translations and original poems, Lowell employs many of Pound's devices, perhaps most of them, but his ends are his own—and this makes all the difference….
Why has Lowell moved progressively away from the simplicity of Life Studies toward a new formalism?…
No doubt [various] reasons … are at work. But the result is a too great concentration of effort upon the verbal surface—to my mind very unfortunate. We now have poems which are compositions of brilliant minutiae, like mosaics in which the separate tiles are so bright and glittering that we cannot see the design.
Hayden Carruth, "A Meaning of Robert Lowell," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1967 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XX, No. 3, Autumn, 1967, pp. 429-47.
What Robert Lowell has done in his poetic translations, which he calls "imitations," is to return to the medieval mode: to retell a poem as though it came from some communal stock of plots or topoi in his own terms. One difficulty with this is immediately apparent. The medieval poet drew on stories that were vaguely but widely known, and his hearers or readers expected both a certain fidelity to and a certain variation on the themes. This poet-translator was dealing with stories in verse, and long story poems lend themselves to such "retelling": more or less following an outline while improving on some particular, embellishing a detail. But when poetry becomes predominantly lyrical and highly personalized, there is no story line to cleave to: everything is in the imagery, prosody, diction, sound. You render these—to the extent that you are able—or you render nothing….
The begetter of Lowell's imitations is, without question, Pound, and particularly the Pound of the versions from Propertius. But though I am no great admirer of Pound's Propertius (and even less of such jesuitical champions of Pound's Propertius as Hugh Kenner), I cannot be wholly unmoved by Propertius's Pound, that is to say, by what Propertius brought out in Pound. But it is precisely because Pound was able to ignore his original so sublimely, and because Pound is a great enough poet in his own right, that the damage to Sextus Propertius becomes an homage to Ezra Pound and English free verse. Lowell, however, is not that free from his models, nor has his free verse the energy and variety of Pound's. It is the neither-fish-nor-fowlness of Lowell's imitations, plus all the red herring they contain, that makes them perverse as translation and unpalatable as poetry. And though there may be only a tenuous connection between literature and morality, there seems to me to be a more demonstrable one between this kind of translation and immorality.
John Simon, "Abuse of Privilege: Lowell as Translator," in The Hudson Review (copyright 1968 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XX, No. 4, Winter, 1967–68, pp. 543-62.
The Old Glory is [a] disappointment. Whatever one thinks of Lowell as a poet it ought to be obvious that his subjects are limited and his manner is nearly always violent. Both conditions would suggest that Lowell's talents are best suited to the short poem and not to the verse drama; and for me the best writing in Lowell is to be found in the short poems such as "The North Sea Undertaker's Complaint," "Water," "Caligula," and "The Severed Head": on the other hand none of the plays seems successful to me, and one of the reasons may be that Lowell has developed skills for writing short poems which are not suited to longer works. The main difficulty, however, is that Lowell's plays inescapably invite comparison with their sources, with the result that Lowell comes off rather badly. Two of the plays are based on tales by Hawthorne and the third and best play, Benito Cereno, on Melville's short novel.
Kenneth Fields, in The Southern Review, Vol. V, No. 2, Spring, 1969, p. 574.
I suspect that the complaint one sometimes hears about nothing happening in Lowell's plays has less to do with stage action than it does with characterization…. [The] characters in Lowell's plays … do not climb off the page, as do Uncle Vanya and Big Daddy and George and Martha. Even on stage, they can suggest men, down to the details of thought and gesture that make individuals, without quite becoming men. In part, this is because Lowell's plays are not in the realistic tradition. Yet, I am not faulting Lowell's characters because they are not true-to-life, as the cliché has it, but because they lack theatrical validity. They are somewhat hedged in by his virtues—his intellectuality, his irony, his sense of language, his emphasis on theme, his preoccupation with the major concerns of our or any time.
Gerald Weales, in his The Jumping-Off Place: American Drama in the 1960's (reprinted with permission of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.; copyright © 1969 by Gerald Weales), Macmillan, 1969, p. 179.
Lowell has been in and out of mental institutions as well as jail…. It is interesting that Lowell mentions Catholicism in … poems about both lunatic and criminal: they are all Outsiders…. Lowell's poetry, his lunacy, his felony, and his Catholicism all conspired in his revolt against the heritage of the Puritan Fathers. But he is a puritan, a father, a patriot and WASP citizen, descendant of the Mayflower, at the same time that he contrives his revolt…. These are the roots of the tensions that animate his poems. They reach deep inside the American conscience. (p. 25)
The revolutionary energy of which Life Studies was a center was exactly [as Eliot wrote in "A Talk on Dante," Kenyon Review, Spring, 1952] "to make poetry out of the unexplored resources of the unpoetical"—including the private, homely, or indecorous, or even the prosy minutiae of the poet's own life. I have heard it maintained that the real innovation in Life Studies was not so much to treat the everyday as to use the poet's own personal history as subject, contra Eliot's influential conception of the impersonality of poetry. But this is to take a very narrow view of Eliot's idea, as well as of Lowell's poems. Eliot did not mean that the personal should be avoided, only that it should be transformed; and Lowell's treatment of autobiographical material, in Pearson's words [in The Review, March, 1969], "was not making his poetry more personal but depersonalising his own life." (pp. 38-9)
Life Studies channeled a flowing together of currents long waiting to be combined. Its antecedents include, I believe, not only the work of William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg, but also Prufrock and Other Observations, to mention only the earliest of Eliot's poems. And its theory can be found in [Eliot's] famous essay on "The Metaphysical Poets," whose incidentally lofty distinction between the poet and the ordinary man may have thrown half a century of readers off the real track: "When a poet's mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man's experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes" (italics mine). (p. 39)
Lord Weary's Castle is a book of lyrics in the grand manner. By way of a lyric ambivalence that is dramatic and universal, it engages themes as large as Milton's and Shakespeare's. At the same time, it is an intensely personal book: the problem of evil is brought all the way home; the monster finds his tongue in colloquial speech. (p. 54)
Lowell's descent from the high style of Lord Weary's Castle, through the dramatic but still elevated monologue, "The Mills of the Kavanaughs," to the low style of Life Studies and after, enacts a movement of the pattern [Geoffrey] Hartman describes [in "Structuralism: The Anglo-American Adventure," Yale French Studies, October, 1966], and corresponds to a profanation of the sacred. The development of Lowell's style recapitulates, by analogy, the pattern of mythic descent, the descensus Averni, required for the renewal of the seasons. The project of renewal is familiar in both myth and poetry. (p. 69)
The cycle of the Notebook is a paradigm of renewal. Renewal of his life, renewal of his work, was the special need that governed the book's inception. (p. 140)
Behind the breaking and re-establishing of illusion, behind the artifice of the autobiographical awareness, and implicit in the equation of the life with the writing, of the body of the poet with the corpus of his work ("this open book … my open coffin"), is the figure of the circle. The Notebook is bound by the circle of a year, and its parts reflect corresponding cycles of all sorts: the "invisible/coronary," crowning and circular network of the bloodstream; the cycles of the earth's waters, through the rivers, to the ocean, and back again across the sky; the paths of the stars; the cycles of human and animal conflict and generation, mindful and mindless, mythic and historical; the pattern of the seasons, the year. These are not the subjects of the poems, but implicit and traditional clues to their coherence. The awareness of their fabric brings together, in a single thought, poetry, "the little myth we make," and history, "the big myth we live, and in our living, constantly remake." Not only is there no contradiction; poetry and history validate each other. (pp. 151-52)
Philip Cooper, in his The Autobiographical Myth of Robert Lowell, University of North Carolina Press, 1970.
Lowell shows affection for individuals in his family history but he is obliged always, even when he is not raging at the hypocrisy and determined brutality that gave New England birth (as in 'Concord') to 'place' them—and thus diminish them—because they do not meet the terrible standards set for the 'unblemished Adam'. This critical alienation from his heritage has had profound effects on Lowell, for it has meant that the New England and family material which forms so great a part of his work, is never or rarely central to the ambition and drive that characterises his best as well as his weakest poetry. It is not so much, indeed, that his disdain and disgust come between him and quotidian experience (no modern poet uses the bric-à-brac of life more richly or rewardingly) but that they come between him and a just judgement of experience: common sense alone would revolt against so total a claim that the historical and individual activities of men were so profoundly against the grain of the search for God which New England believed characterised its history and which Lowell has said dominates all poetry. But Lowell could not, in his earlier work, achieve a morally balanced understanding of the strengths and frailties of men because of the religious demons that whipped him on in the search for the loudest possible religious affirmation. (pp. 18-19)
[An] inherent violence—moral in appearance, probably partly psychological in origin—is inseparable from Lowell's work at its fullest stretch. Secondly, though this violence is highly personal—even his religious views were nearly heretical—the true ambition of the poet is public; that is, he burns to judge men and affairs against an immutable and objective standard. The work is public, too, in a more obvious sense, in that much of it deals with the world of politics and public affairs. (pp. 23-4)
Occasionally—and most particularly in Life Studies—Lowell uses a symbolism too private, too inexplicable to bear the weight of emphasis he puts on it; he never falls victim to the counter-vice of neurotic over-explanation. A great source of strength has, of course, been his close study of the poetry of other times and languages, which bears fruit in the Imitations. The great courage of Lowell, however, is shown in his determination to judge experience, from which he rarely relents, and to judge it—as the whole corpus of his work, particularly in its intricate system of reference to history shows—by objective and immutable rather than contemporary and personal standards. In him the ambition is devised which was natural to the eighteenth century: but it is there and it forms the link with the great tradition of public poetry. (p. 36)
Lowell [eventually] abandoned religion as the source of an independent system of moral reference and evaluation to put against quotidian experience in his verse. The trouble with his religious structure was, of course, precisely its failure to provide him with—or his failure to find in it—a wide and flexible system of values. (p. 44)
The inadequacy of both poetic forms and religion as life systems left Lowell with only New England and, in a wider sense, America, as subjects. In small domestic poems (notably in For the Union Dead) and in wry moments of affection for his ancestors, Lowell achieved a certain balance, a momentary tranquillity. But fundamentally, perhaps because he was still struggling to free himself from its theology, he found more to hate than to love in his own history. New England and his hate threatened also to swallow him up, because his own attitude of total condemnation was as inhuman as what he was attacking, his own total condemnation of the self-righteousness leading to injustice of historical New England culture was ultimately destructive.
Lowell was left with himself, with the richness or poverty of his own nature and personality, which he lacerated in search of truth in Life Studies. This unrelieved focus—of, say, 'Skunk Hour'—could not long be maintained without madness. Lowell was left with two resources. One was the private and obscure world of historical analogy of 'Falling Asleep over the Aeneid': but this is always ultimately incomplete and unsatisfactory because … we can only see that there is some analogy, not what it is. Nevertheless, though flawed, work in this vein is impressive, if neither wholly satisfactory nor commensurate in achievement with Lowell's ambition. The other resource was the Imitations, the one mode of work which has remained constant throughout Lowell's development. If only because they are so consistent a resource for the poet, I believe the Imitations have been insufficiently attended to. (pp. 45-6)
The imitations … represent a deliberate apprenticeship on his part, a cultivated vocation for poetry, enjoying a separate existence—an educational existence—from his own work.
It seems to me that this concern is ultimately self-critical and represents the sense in which Lowell's devotion to the craft of poetry is pure, disinterested, concentrated and objective, the sense in which it is separate from and standing above the egocentric non-poetic and anti-poetic tendencies that intrude so frequently into his own original work. The pursuit of the imitations reminds us of the extent to which Lowell's triumphs are triumphs of will. There is a sense, of course, in which poetry and literature generally can be thought of as enjoying a separate existence—an existence on a different moral plane—from the human experiences, with or without order, on which it draws for substance and sustenance. The cultivation of such a belief is, however, dangerous, because it may tend to separate the poet from human nature, separate him from the human concerns of his species. This is a danger Lowell has often met and often fallen victim to; nonetheless, in the end, the failures that resulted from his falls may have well been worth the achievements purchased by his deliberate dedication. (pp. 206-07)
Patrick Cosgrave, in his The Public Poetry of Robert Lowell (copyright © 1970 by Patrick Cosgrave; reprinted by permission of Taplinger Publishing Co., Inc., and Victor Gollancz, Ltd.), Taplinger, 1970.
In Life Studies, which marked the beginning of what has been called confessional poetry, Lowell's techniques of self-discovery exclude myth; he concentrates on the personal and intimate episode, and his language is direct and sometimes colloquial. Important as this volume is as an expression of Lowell's new voice and his growing power to elicit from the absurd remark or the pathetic incident a link to the deepest levels of human suffering, and vital as it was in influencing younger poets, such as Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, it represents only one phase of his development as a poet. Lowell has gone on in later works to combine the mythical method of his early poetry with the direct and sometimes shocking psychological revelations of Life Studies and, in so doing, has reached beyond the compulsive inner probings of that book for a deep and intimate knowledge of human feelings as they are manifested in the larger realm of natural, social, or political life.
Lillian Feder, in her Ancient Myth in Modern Poetry (copyright © 1971 by Princeton University Press; reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press), Princeton University Press, 1971, p. 408.
The sequence [The Dolphin, History, and For Lizzie and Harriet] records the poet's change from one life and marriage in America to a new life on new terms with a new family in England. This shift in geography and emotion is set down in fourteen-line poems of such stunning technical power and control that their art and skill go almost unnoticed. Lowell's long training in classical forms has enabled him here to produce verse which at its best is beyond the powers of any other living poet including Auden. The poems move out into a new and enlarged sensibility where the matter-of-fact joys of life are recognized and accepted, holding in balance the old demons, time and death. Lowell has left behind him the liabilities of worn-out emotions and narrow insatiable concerns and brought his poetry at last with certainty to the high open ground of greatness.
Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 49, No. 4 (Autumn, 1973), p. cxxxviii.
Robert Lowell's career has exemplified in every phase [a] perspective which I have identified as "modern"—the thrust towards ever-more-direct confrontations with time. Both Land of Unlikeness and its impressive sequel, Lord Weary's Castle, reinvigorate conventional forms while courting a future of apocalypse. Filtering his vision of contemporary America through the context of a sordid American tradition, Lowell achieves tremendous power by an almost total rejection of the present. The apocalypse follows hard upon the sins of America's past, and the poet treats the time from which he prophesies as minimal. The violence of language and tone in Lowell's early poems suggests that the poet-prophet behind them already finds himself surrounded by the sparks of the "fire next time," after which there will be no next time….
Although the two earliest volumes of Lowell's poems present themselves as poetry of vision, Lowell substitutes for this a poetics of revision in subsequent work. On the most basic level, even Lord Weary's Castle is a revision of Land of Unlikeness. A passage from "Cistercians in Germany" (Land of Unlikeness) is rewritten to form the ending of "At the Indian Killer's Grave" (Lord Weary's Castle); poems like "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket" provide Lord Weary's Castle an air of completeness which Land of Unlikeness lacked. But the varieties of revision embedded within both early volumes come to represent, in the later work, both an embryonic subject and a means for the continuation of the poetic enterprise. When Lowell borrows—or "steals"—from Thoreau, Melville, or Milton in "The Quaker Graveyard", he has already begun to reach beyond the simplest interpretations of Pound's command, "Make it new," and has pointed to a self-conscious treatment of literary works as existing and enduring objects—objects which endure largely through their capacity to change under the pressure of the perceiving consciousness. Just as Eliot's "Animula" and "Marina" simultaneously assert the continued existence of Dante's verses and Shakespeare's Pericles and also explore a road not taken by the earlier poets, so Lowell's "The Quaker Graveyard" establishes itself through revision, seeing again.
Imitation—seen as a repetition constituting re-vision—is not Lowell's attempt to supplant all previous literature. Rather, it represents his recognition that poetry documents the movement of consciousness—which can only be living—upon the objects of consciousness—which have an observable existence but no living consciousness. In the eyes of Lowell-as-poet, all previous literature exists initially as an aggregation of enduring objects and, eventually and significantly, as an index to a once-living consciousness which can be renewed by an altering re-vision. If Emerson and Stevens directed their attention to the consciousness acting upon the objects of the world, Lowell constructs an imaginative order in which the new poem may openly take those very acts of consciousness as objects for a new subjective creation….
Even in Life Studies, the book which has repeatedly been regarded as the poetic autobiography which instituted the contemporary school of "confessional poetry", Lowell was writing a very peculiar sort of confession, because the disjunction between the Robert Lowell writing in the present and the past Robert Lowells which he describes immediately introduces a disjunction between Robert Lowell and other subjectivities external to him. The effort to recapture his own past selves tends to accompany an effort to recapture other past selves.
What initially appear to be the most intensely personal, unborrowed poems in Life Studies, poems about Lowell's struggles against madness and the collapse of his first marriage, frequently rely upon complicated movements of the Lowellian speaker into and out of the consciousness of various literary characters….
In Notebook: 1967–68 (1969) and Notebook (1970), the problems inherent in Lowell's allusive techniques have been multiplied, and they have, I think, been met less successfully than in Life Studies, For the Union Dead, and Near the Ocean. The two editions of Notebook: 1967–68 gesture compulsively toward the world of experience beyond the poems, and Notebook compounds the self-conscious inadequacy of these gestures with an additional appeal to temporal process…. Each poem is less an entity than a reminder of the existence of the others; individual poems—and individual words—undergo devaluation in the notebooks….
Lowell's obscurity in the notebooks is the obscurity of a poetry which sets out, through a poetical recasting of a traditional Hegelian view of historical time, to make nonbeing increasingly tangible with the passage of historically poeticized time. In Hegelizing his poetry, Lowell attempts to yoke the passage of personal historical time with a growth analogous to the development of the phases of World-History…. Through the poeticized personal history of the notebooks, Lowell clearly struggles to reconcile a language of representation—which represents the world of historical time—with a language of self-consciousness or spirit—which represents the eternity beyond duration. Poetry is his mode of confronting historical time, but poems are not properly objects of historical change, because literary works are (in some sense) intended to endure. In subjecting his poems to historical time by linking them to temporal schemata and by discarding them in progress, Lowell incorporates his own words, his own poems into a language of representation which marks duration. Although some such incorporation seems inevitable in any poetry striving for self-consciousness, Lowell's minimalization treats everything under the rubric of representation and historical time as mere rubble to be stared through…. Lowell frequently and finally stakes the poetry of the notebooks on the possibility of wresting a spiritual autonomy from the flux of historical time. But one finishes each of the volumes. Notebook: 1967–68 and Notebook, with a sense of the triviality of historical time and a Satanist's question—Can there be an eternity which is not in love with the productions of time?
Frances Ferguson, "Appointments with Time: Robert Lowell's Poetry through the 'Notebooks'," in American Poetry Since 1960: Some Critical Perspectives, edited by Robert B. Shaw (reprinted by permission of Dufour Editions, Inc.), Carcanet Press, 1973, pp. 15-27.
In For the Union Dead (1965) Lowell's extremes are his familiar ones, of paradise and purgatory; 'We know how the world will end', he writes, 'but where is paradise?' Those moments of nostalgic recall that so beautifully flare up in poems like 'Old Flame' or 'The Lesson' have only the power to hurt; it is in spite of love that we are 'wild spiders crying together' who are doomed to nuclear extinction, who must crack up or hit the bottle, or cling in desperation to the imagery that can merely measure our predicament…. The relaxed, digressive sadness of Life Studies is tightened up into a sustained, but never hysterical, alarm.
There is no other poet writing at the moment who can match the dense visual accuracy of Lowell's best work; his concentration is insistently upon 'the stabbing detail', his intense demand is always for 'the universal that belonged to this detail and nowhere else'—nothing is inertly factual, nothing is neurotically corrupted; there is fever, but no delirium. By an immensely subtle process of reverberation, his images seem to seek each other out, not to be wise so much as to be confirmed in tragedy, and they are interpenetrated in a structure tight enough to encompass their full range of connotation without any loss of urgency. In the title poem, for example, there is the minimum of actual comment; what seems at first a local scandal is intensified—without the reader really having noticed how—to reveal itself as a profound upheaval in the whole of nature, an 'earthquake', a dinosaur that eats into the heart of America, a nuclear explosion. What really impresses, though, is that even with this much evidently conscious shaping it still comes over as a deeply personal lament for those American images, both private and public, that have meant most to the poet and that are now braced for extinction. Lowell has fought hard to rid himself of Boston, but has returned to it time and again, probing nearer every time towards what he sees as the root of its, and America's, corruption, from the apocalyptic pulpitry of his early poems through the movingly ambivalent elegies of Life Studies (1959). In this … book it seems much less the private burden of a Mayflower aristocrat, and much more a richly emblematic means of giving voice to the sort of anguished perceptions about modern America that could only spring out of a deep involvement in what Boston can still, if feebly, point to as its failed historical mission.
Ian Hamilton, in his A Poetry Chronicle (reprinted by permission of Faber and Faber Ltd.), Faber and Faber, 1973, pp. 11-13.
After publication of The Mills of the Kavanaughs (1951), a book many regard as a failure, Robert Lowell stated it was difficult for him to find a subject and a language of his own. But by 1959 it was obvious he had found his subject—himself. And the more personal material gave rise to a more personal style, a style modeled upon Lowell's own voice, freed from the early echoes of Hart Crane, Eliot, and Tate, freed from all packed and baroque mannerisms and iambics. If Lowell's earlier work can be summarized as an attempt to reconstitute American history and the Christian experience, these later poems are an attempt to reconstitute his family history and personal experience. And his style changed as radically as his subjects. It is almost as if the abandonment of rigid Catholic dogma tripped a loosening in his own work….
Life Studies … began as prose. Its intention was to communicate personal history. With their free metrics, there is about the poems a great deal of the accessibility of a prose autobiography. Surely they are the most readable of all Lowell has written.
Readability, however, is not to be confused with ease of composition or ease of comprehension….
This is a poetry of self-discovery and fact far removed from the fiction and melodrama of The Mills of the Kavanaughs and the religious allegory and ideology of Lord Weary's Castle (1946). One should by no means assume that every statement in Life Studies is factually autobiographical. But Lowell's inclusion of the long prose piece, "91 Revere Street"—labeled "An Autobiographical Fragment," and presumably what remains of the autobiography he attempted in prose—confirms that the poems are indeed autobiographical in intent. As never before in Lowell's work, the persona gives way to the person, fiction to fact….
While working out his personal salvation in these poems, Lowell in no way exhausted the confessional mode…. Lowell continues to define the moral and intellectual passions which distinguish man as a social being, and his poems perform a civilizing function in an increasingly barbaric world. Looking inward, Robert Lowell continues to find images valid for the outward world, and powerful enough to illumine it.
Robert Phillips, "Robert Lowell: Free-Lancing Along the Razor's Edge," in his The Confessional Poets (copyright © 1973 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1973, pp. 18-44.
[Lowell] shares with Eliot a sense of the decadence of New England culture and a Puritan preoccupation with death and the problem of personal salvation. These qualities strongly mark such early poems as "Colloquy in Black Rock" and "The Drunken Fisherman." In both, Lowell develops themes and images reminiscent of Eliot's Waste Land story of the Fisher King, within the metrically regular forms favored by Ransom and the New Critics….
More recent poems, beginning with those of Life Studies (1959), reveal a shift away from his early models. In keeping with the trend of the times, the poems are in metrically freer forms. The habitual self-questioning and self-analysis, which have given Lowell a place among modern "confessional" poets, are carried on, but in an autobiographical rather than religious context. Some of the pieces, like the long prose narrative of Section II, "91 Revere Street," explore the writer's introverted childhood and painful family relationships. They are suffused with a sense of alienation and sickness….
An oppressive sense of general corruption (a link with Eliot) is perhaps the most distinctive quality of all Lowell's poetry.
Walter Sutton, in his American Free Verse: The Modern Revolution in Poetry (© 1973 by Walter Sutton; reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation), New Directions, 1973, pp. 157-58.
With a few grave reservations, I find History a more satisfying book than Notebook. Despite some beautiful interweavings of past and present, public and private (such as the old "Charles River"), Notebook was often pointlessly haphazard in its organization. Swamped with irrelevant context, many poems turned obscure or merely anecdotal, that shine with intellectual depth when clustered around common themes: early religions, Romantic melancholy, the anti-war movement. The chronological sequence usually seems natural and dramatic, though there are a few dry stretches, particularly toward the beginning, where Lowell lays too many of his old translations on the Procrustean bed of his new sonnet. (Although some of the new renderings—notably Rimbaud—are both more faithful and better poetry.) A more severe misjudgment is the transplanting of previously successful personal sonnets onto unlikely historical figures—Cassandra, Antony.
After many comparisons, I found the overwhelming majority of Lowell's specific revisions to be in the direction of clarity, proportion, and metrical grace. There is less eccentric speech and syntax, and what remains is correspondingly more telling. For many poems—"Dawn," "The Good Life," "Death and the Maiden," and "Memorial Day," to name only four—placement and revision together make up the leap to greatness….
History is a darker book than Notebook—perhaps because a countervailing mystical tendency is sequestered off in the accompanying personal volumes; or because the chronological order contributes a double sense of repetition and inexorability. Chillingly and majestically, History tells the 20th Century's story of the short road man has travelled, not the 19th Century's story of the long. Everywhere we look we see the awesome dominion of sex and death, the crudely escapist element in the more complicated human enterprises: power and thought, primitivism and transcendence. It is a paradox of genius that Lowell makes so many subjects so interesting to us, when they show him such a painful sameness…. [The] Lowell of History, like Prospero, renounces his power to spin private worlds, to make symbol win over fact. The choice is hard to love, particularly for admirers of the younger Lowell's grandeur and momentum; but it is impossible not to respect.
Alan Williamson, "'History Has To Live With What Was Here'," in Shenandoah (copyright by Shenandoah; reprinted from Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review with the permission of the Editor), Winter, 1974, pp. 85-91.
What is most remarkable about Robert Lowell's The Dolphin is its continuous reflexive preoccupation with the problems of self-definition in poetry—problems necessarily elided in order to produce Lowell's great work of self-objectification, Life Studies. In The Dolphin, Lowell suggests that a writer can approach, but never quite reach, the limit at which self-analysis ceases to be in some sense self-flattery…. But the desire to overcome this limit obsesses Lowell on every page of The Dolphin….
Adrienne Rich [in APR, September/October, 1973] complains of Notebook and History that "this is poetry constructed in phrases, each hacked-out, hewn, tooled, glazed or burnished," and yet, at the same time, that "at the moment when you thought Lowell was about to cut to the bone, he veered off, lost the thread." These apparent flaws seem to me the result of a deliberate, peculiar honesty in Lowell, in which he uses his own tendency to excessive (or old-fashioned) formal definitiveness in order to clarify the limits of the reality people can bear, the perpetual element of self-consciousness in consciousness. To put it differently, he is attempting to represent action and reaction in his own psyche, to let each mood or insight attempt to become absolute and self-sufficient, to isolate or glaze itself, only to fall before the succeeding one. The great majority of lines are end-stopped, and turn on the lines preceding with a disruptive, sometimes an ironic, force. It is like watching a film just slowly enough to see the lines between frames; a hard, even irritating, effect, but one with definite advantages for self-inquiry, particularly when contrasted with the "surrealist" styles whose extreme fluidity tends to make of the unconscious—whatever its contents—a Peaceable Kingdom.
In moral as well as in aesthetic terms, The Dolphin is Lowell's "I am that I am," in which he declares his independence of the judgments of others without thereby exalting his own, or denying the consequences of his actions: "my eyes have seen what my hand did." The controversial letter poems play an important role in this: by letting his ex-wife appear in her own powerful, cogent words, not in his impressions of her; and by letting those words stand in poems by themselves, with no answering intrusion of his own voice, Lowell makes us feel that she cannot be answered, that there can be no literary, or human, resolution of opposing points of view into a more inclusive authorial one. Lowell even weakens his own voice to avoid excessive authoritativeness; he often ends poems, not with the settled epitome of truth the sonnet tradition calls for, but with a sudden influx of new, fleeting, often irrational emotion….
The quality that is meditated and practiced in The Dolphin—a reflexive turning on the self that paradoxically defines the self, casts it into three dimensions—is not unique to Lowell, though his current version of it is perhaps more extreme than anyone else's now writing.
Alan Williamson, "'I Am That I Am': The Ethics and Aesthetics of Self-Revelation," in American Poetry Review, January/February, 1974, pp. 37-9.
In general I have great faith in developing one's good critical facilities by simply attending to three things: the language on the page in front of you, the purposes of the poet in the individual poem and in a body of poems, and your own emotional response [to] what is being said and how the poet is saying it in the poem. With the last premise goes, 1) some humility, 2) some sense of your own prejudices (perhaps even a discussion of them), and 3) an openness to many kinds of poetic expressions….
But what could make Adrienne Rich [in her review of The Dolphin, APR, September/October, 1973] read Robert Lowell's magnificent The Dolphin with a better critical eye when what she is angrily denouncing is the poet's own life, his own ill-treatment of women, and his morals?….
The poems present a world with a magnificent woman named Elizabeth in it. They present a man who is living as he feels he has to live, even when he knows he has no justification for it, but his own passions. He does not ask for pity. He asks one thing, I think, of the reader. Belief in the poems. They are a mythology with characters named Elizabeth and Harriet and Caroline in it. The myth of the prince, inheritor of a throne, father's favorite, who leaves bourgeois morality behind, adopts feudal values yet struggles with a puritan and (ironically) bourgeois conscience. The poems present this so well. It is, in fact, a beautiful book. And Lowell himself becomes the modern anti-hero. Who can love him? Or even pity him? Yet we admire him. Why? Because he has written the very document that chronicles all this. A beautiful book.
Diane Wakoski, in American Poetry Review, January/February, 1974, p. 46.