Ian Hamilton’s Robert Lowell: A Biography fulfills the promises of the blurb on its dust jacket, an unusual feat. The book, which chronologically covers the sweep of Lowell’s life, public and private, links the innumerable manic-depressive cycles and hospital confinements to his love life, his friends, and his “vocation” as an American poet. Hamilton’s ambitious scope includes discussion of the development of each of Lowell’s books, a summary of their contents, a range of the contemporary critical reception of each, and some of Hamilton’s own critical judgments. His background as critic, poet, and editor is of considerable help in these sections. Such material will be particularly useful to scholars of American poetry, the audience Hamilton addresses implicitly by including many technical discussions of style, meter, imagery, rhyme, and other elements of poetic form.
Certainly, Hamilton must be praised for his extensive research, based on both public and private collections of manuscripts and letters, most previously unpublished, and interviews from 1979 to 1981 with Lowell’s wives and friends, many of whom are important literary figures in their own right. Thus, the book has the advantage of revealing sidelights on: such important literary figures as Richard Eberhart, John Crowe Ransom, and Allen Tate, Lowell’s first masters; Jean Stafford and Elizabeth Hardwick, his first two wives; the prior generation’s great poets—Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, W. H. Auden, and William Carlos Williams; the circle of his contemporary generation, which he came to feel was doomed—Randall Jarrell, Delmore Schwartz, Theodore Roethke, and John Berryman—and Peter Taylor, the distinguished prose writer whose friendship remained constant over forty years. Even this list is highly selective, as a glance at the informative footnotes or index, or at the twenty-four pages of photographs, would demonstrate. This book will long serve as an indispensable reference for present and future scholars. Nevertheless, it is not a definitive biography of Lowell the poet or of Lowell the man, for several reasons.
First, Hamilton’s own choice of a neutral tone and length-balanced coverage of each of Lowell’s works generally prevents him from stating clearly which of these works are the most significant. With the exception of “Skunk Hour,” Hamilton avoids the problem of choosing which poems and which books can by now be cited as truly lasting or even great. In addition, Hamilton never directly addresses the question of the extent to which Lowell’s early success was based on his having been a Lowell of Boston. There are certain indications in Lowell’s reception at Vanderbilt University and Kenyon College that his esteemed family name was definitely an asset.
Second, there is the problem of tracing Lowell’s literary development. The reader is told of Lowell’s high-school enthusiasm for the Bible, for William Wordsworth’s The Prelude (1850), for John Dryden and John Milton, his collegiate mastery of the great works of classical literature, and his desire “to get to Ezra,” but of little else that he studied. Until more extensive research on his reading is done, and until the manuscripts themselves are extensively examined, a full literary biography cannot be undertaken. Even the few influences mentioned above are never traced in Hamilton’s book. For example, he does not make any connections between Lowell’s high-school remarks on Wordsworth’s The Prelude and the title of one of the best poems in Life Studies (1959), “Beyond the Alps.” Also, Hamilton does not deal with the beginning of Lowell’s nervous breakdown at the 1952 Salzburg Seminar (where Lowell gave seminars on Wordsworth, among others), when he simply disappeared and was found wandering alone near the Austro-German frontier. Neither does the author comment on Lowell’s own description, in 1976, of the centrality of his autobiography as “a small scale Prelude.” How did this early disciple of the New Criticism of Ransom, Tate, and Jarrell end up as the leading practitioner of confessional poetry? Hamilton twice attempts...
(The entire section is 1710 words.)