Robert Giroux’s selection and editing of Lowell’s prose is valuable as a contribution not only to the poet’s artistic legacy (he died in 1977) but also to American letters. Never a literary critic in the technical sense of a writer who establishes a distinct aesthetic or rhetorical system, Lowell is more a judicious guide to writers and to ideas that he cherished. Among writers whom he examines with balanced appreciation are his friends, mentors, and colleagues, such as John Crowe Ransom, Alan Tate, Yvor Winters, Randall Jarrell, and Ford Madox Ford. Other distinguished writers are remembered on the basis of brief or lengthy acquaintance or from anecdotal reminiscences of friends, among them Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot, and John Berryman. In all these appreciative essays, most of them brief but carved with the precision of a poem, Lowell records his insights into character as well as art. He attempts to discover in his subject a key trait or artistic predilection that illuminates the writer’s special quality. Even in writers as neurotically secretive as Frost or Eliot, Lowell discovers qualities of warmth, flashes of kindness.
Giroux divides the prose pieces into three groupings: the first treating contemporary or near-contemporary figures, mostly poets; the second, formal essays for special occasions or for literary-critical journals; the last--for most readers the most moving--on Lowell’s own career. Two selections from the poet’s uncompleted autobiography appear (“Near the Unbalanced Aquarium” is a devastating but unsentimental view of his hospitalization in 1954 for mental illness), as well as two important interviews, one with Frederick Seidel in 1961 and the other with Ian Hamilton in 1971. Without exception, the collected pieces reveal a fine intelligence, a delicate sensitivity to the great theme of the artist’s struggle to create, and the gentle, tolerant, engaging personality that was Lowell’s.
When he died at the age of sixty in 1977, Robert Lowell had published only one widely known piece of prose, the autobiographical “91 Revere Street,” an unblinkered, unflattering, and yet oddly affecting scrutiny of his Brahmin-yet-embarrassing upbringing in Boston during the 1920’s. While Lowell did contribute an occasional review, particularly in the earlier part of his career, he was in no danger of being taken for, or compared with, the brainy poet-critics he so obviously surpassed in the intensity and architecture of his poetry, Randall Jarrell and John Berryman—both friends of Lowell (and the subjects of essays in this volume). Yet the pieces collected here, admirably edited by Robert Giroux, reveal for the first time the extent to which Lowell was a critic of astute insight, as well as a master of American prose, a prose filled with enough wildly surprising and knowing evaluations and asides to put whole schools of academic critics to shame.
Giroux divides the Collected Prose into three parts. The first consists essentially of reviews and occasional pieces, the earliest being a 1943 paean for the just-published Four Quartets, the most recent a 1974 eulogy of John Crowe Ransom. There are also essays on Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Yvor Winters, Stanley Kunitz, Robert Penn Warren, W. H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, Andrei Voznesensky, and Sylvia Plath, as well as essays on the poems of critic I. A. Richards and of novelist Ford Madox Ford. There is also a charming and characteristically self-deprecating remembrance of his first visit to the Allen Tates, when, misinterpreting his hostess’ remark that there was no room for an unannounced guest unless he “pitched a tent,” Lowell, with “adolescent heedlessness,” traveled to Nashville, returned with a Sears, Roebuck umbrella tent, and pitched it for a watershed summer.
In assessments that are as nervously precise as they are respectful and at times reverent, Lowell’s method is to dart...
(The entire section is 2,879 words.)