Lowell, Robert (Vol. 3)
Lowell, Robert 1917–
Poet, translator, editor, playwright, and critic, Lowell is considered one of America's foremost living men of letters. During the late 1940's and the 1950's his personal life underwent a series of radical upheavals that profoundly affected his poetry. He recently expanded and revised Notebook, 1967–68 into three volumes: History, For Lizzie and Harriet, and The Dolphin. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
Mr. Lowell's [early] subject was of the largest [kind]; it had to do with history and the self. And although this was also the subject of some of his great elder fellow-poets, he had special reasons for laying claim to it too. Boston, city of historic battles and embattled selves, was his birthright as well as his birthplace; his family history was in some degree its history. And so the Boston of the old families, with its monuments, its Public Garden, its favorite suburbs and resorts, its own Atlantic Ocean, became the main setting of his poems—his Lake Country, his Yoknapatawpha….
In the apocalyptic climate of the 1940's Robert Lowell became the leading poet of his generation. He wrote as if poetry were still a major art and not merely a venerable pastime which ought to be perpetuated. But there were difficulties in his extreme position and style. Randall Jarrell, an intensely sympathetic critic, once summed them up by speaking of the contagion of violence, the excess of willful effort, in Lowell's work….
Lowell addresses himself to his life studies like a painter or sculptor who wants to ground his art more firmly in the observation of things as they are in the natural world. But the title of the volume [Life Studies] has, of course, only limited application. Nature for Lowell is his habitat, heritage and present existence; and his scrutiny of these things is anything but objective. More than his former religious commitments, these things vex his memory and confine his ego. Two poems describe actual incarcerations: in a mental hospital where the poet was a patient, and in a jail where he served a term as a conscientious objector during the last war….
His persistent refusal of happiness, his constant indulgence of a guilty conscience, would make a monotonous spectacle if it were not for a knowing humor and a distinct poise of style in the self-proclaimed offender. For Lowell is not only the hunger artist practicing an art of famine because he doesn't like food; he knows he is something like that and he makes a conscious role of it. The prose memoirs are the most triumphant example of his essential composure. The surface of them is all anecdote and caricature, malign and dazzling; but the interior is solid analysis of a family, a society, a period; and when completed the work should excel any poet's autobiography since Yeats's. The portraits and memories in verse are exciting in their search for a cadenced as opposed to a strictly metrical medium. Like Mauberley, Pound's sequence of satiric scenes and portraits, including self-portraits, from London Life, they add up to a marvellous comedy of secular damnation….
F. W. Dupee, "The Battle of Lowell," in Partisan Review, Summer, 1959, pp. 473-75 (and reprinted in his The King of the Cats, and Other Remarks on Writers and Writings, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1965).
Robert Lowell, the most talented writer of all the enormously talented Bostonian Lowells, is one of the few poets to come into prominence in the forties who has [the] power of significant change. One's first impression of Life Studies, his first book for nearly ten years, is that here at last in all the dreary welter of 'new' verse, is something really new. Mr. Lowell has dropped much of the rhetoric and all the contortion of his earlier work and is feeling his way to another kind of poetry. It is by no means less personal, but it is considerably less mannered….
Mr. Lowell's poetic advance boils down to this: the pressure is not off his work; but the torture, the sense of the inexpressibleness of conflict, has gone. In much of his earlier poetry the strain was almost unbearable. Only a prodigious effort of poetic will seemed to prevent it from splintering into incoherence. He imposed form on this passionate chaos by his superb ear for effects and by a rigorous use of Catholic symbolism. Even so, he maintained only a knife-edge and dangerous balance. There is neither symbolism nor debate, neither Catholicism nor oratory in Life Studies. In their place is a wry detachment, at times almost as painful as the great theological bust-ups of Mr. Lowell's earlier poems, but now always lucid….
The change in Mr. Lowell's work, then, is less a change of style than of heart. Instead of contorting his conflicts into a kind of savage and baroque theology, he seems now to be trying to trace them back to their source. The result is a series of controlled autobiographical reminiscences about the figures who loomed through his childhood: grandparents, father, mother, uncles and aunts. Granted they are caught, all of them, in their remorseless progress towards the family cemetery, but they are handled with a good deal of incidental tenderness and wit….
It is as though in these family portraits Mr. Lowell were setting his house in order so as to assure himself of some firm, known base from which his work can start afresh. Perhaps this faint suggestion of poetic therapy explains a certain overlooseness in some of the pieces—'Commander Lowell' and 'To Delmore Schwartz' in particular—that brings them dangerously near chattiness. But every minor fault is justified by a handful of poems at the end of the book. In these Mr. Lowell faces his old passions—violence, hatred, exacerbation and love—but with a new and dispassionate control, a rhetoric that has been purified and made stronger by the flexibility acquired in the other poems….
A. Alvarez, "Robert Lowell" (originally published in The Observer, 1959), in his Beyond All This Fiddle: Essays 1955–1967 (copyright © 1968 by A. Alvarez; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1969, pp. 72-5.
[The] poet from whom the whole movement towards Extremism derives should be Robert Lowell, who is not only the most brilliant and assured technician now writing but is also—in background, preoccupations and intellectual tone—most naturally the heir to T. S. Eliot. Lowell began by exploring the rhetorical possibilities of Eliot's legacy, adapting it to a nervous system palpably rawer and less protected. From the start he had an unwavering command of language and a knack of stamping every line with his own, utterly individual rhythm. This rhetorical brilliance matched the willed, convert's intensity of his Roman Catholicism. It was as though virtuosity and religion were his own special, serious brand of magic, a conjuring trick by which he controlled forces which might otherwise have been insupportable. Yet the real measure of Lowell's creative power was not in his rhetoric but the way in which he was able to break out of the limits of his technical gifts. The turning-point came when, after a long silence, he published Life Studies….
Though the subject-matter was largely the kind of material that is dug up in psychoanalysis, the poems were in no vulgar sense confessional—neither self-gratifying nor overweeningly self-absorbed. Instead, all his skill was concentrated on making them witty, tender and intensely serious without affectations. Reading them and his subsequent volumes—Imitations, For the Union Dead—you feel you are in the presence of a powerful and eloquent person, whereas in his earlier work the power had always seemed a by-product of his technical accomplishment, an artifact rather than an attribute. Where the earlier work is compressed and opaque, the poems since Life Studies have gained a kind of transparency: you look through them to see the man as he is, a man of great contradictions, tenderness and violence, a man obsessed equally by his own crack-ups and by the symptoms of crack-up in the society around him. The skill, intelligence and discipline never falter, but they are all in the service of an insistent directness. The raw material of the poems is, precisely, raw and the poet refuses all aesthetic subterfuges to disguise the fact. Instead, he concentrates his technique on stating the case as it is, without nagging or hysteria.
The peculiar transparency of his work obviously puts a great personal responsibility on Lowell. A poem succeeds or fails by virtue of the balance and subtlety of the man himself. Perhaps this is why he began to write in this way only when he reached his full maturity as an artist. Before that he could scarcely have brought to bear on such intimate themes resources that would have been full enough, poised enough, detached enough to allow the poems to survive as art.
A. Alvarez, "Beyond All This Fiddle" (originally published in The Times Literary Supplement, 1967), in his Beyond All This Fiddle: Essays 1955–1967 (copyright © 1968 by A. Alvarez; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1969, pp. 13-14.
When Elizabeth Bishop reviewed Robert Lowell's Life Studies in 1959 she expressed her admiration in a comment that can take us a good way toward identifying the sensibility that characterizes all of Lowell's work, early and late. "Somehow or other," Miss Bishop wrote, "in the middle of our worst century so far, we have produced a magnificent poet." The sense that this is the "worst century" lies behind the tense and savage verse of the volumes before Life Studies and is often openly expressed in Lowell's later poems. In Lowell's work, consciousness and conscience come together and produce a tension very nearly unbearable….
Though his poems are often as frankly personal as Roethke's, their probings inward and backward into memory are always set in a context of moral judgment operating in terms of social and historical fact. Perhaps no major poet writing today is further from the spirit of Emerson and Whitman, or more continuously aware of the evil that becomes apparent when we survey the "thoughtless drift of the deciduous years" that is history, as his ancestor put it, than is Robert Lowell….
The dominant historical awareness that so often forms the explicit subject of Robert Lowell's later poems was equally present in the earlier ones, though sometimes less openly. When Lowell was converted to Roman Catholicism in 1940,… he was reversing family and New England history in a most dramatic way. It need imply no questioning of the genuineness of the poet's religious feelings to say that the conversion was perhaps as much a gesture of rejection and disavowal as it was an acceptance. In effect, it said that the poet refused to accept the role thrust on him, refused to be a passive victim of what seemed to him the decline of Puritanism into Unitarianism and of Unitarianism into moralism and of moralism into secularistic accommodation. Like Eliot's earlier conversion, Lowell's was a dramatic acting out of a judgment at once personal, social, and historical….
His returning to strict syllabic prosody at a time when "syllable-counting" implied naivety in poet or critic was the formal counterpart of his turning to the clear and authoritative dogmas of a church his ancestors had left before they ever came to this country. Both the style and the faith, as we find them in the early poems, are modes of external order; and both imply the judgment that New England's Protestant and organic-Transcendental traditions were by 1940 bankrupt. There were for Lowell, as Stevens would say, no Transcendentalists at this end of the road.
Many of the poems in the early volumes make such judgments as these explicit….
Lowell's Catholic period ended in the late 1940's with several years of mental illness. The doctrines that had ordered experience for the man and given the poet a point of view from which to criticize both new and old New England had apparently not brought the man lasting relief from the agony of conscientious consciousness….
Life Studies is in effect an examination of the resources available to the poet in his effort to "do without faith" and still avoid "despondency and madness"….
Life Studies is carefully arranged to announce and justify Lowell's great decision to leave "the City of God where it belongs."
Hyatt H. Waggoner, "Centering In: Robert Lowell," in his American Poets From the Puritans to the Present (copyright © 1968 by Hyatt H. Waggoner; reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company), Houghton Mifflin, 1968, pp. 577-85.
Robert Lowell is one of the best poets writing in English, perhaps the best: the particular quality of his verse has always been an ostrich ability to digest the rhythms and tones of contemporary language; from his earliest formal lyrics he has been in some sense a dramatic poet. In his adaptation of Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound he has succeeded better than anyone since Dryden in theatrical poetry, and, as with Dryden's All for Love, there are long passages of this play which are completely successful. And yet there is something profuse and elaborate, an abundant habit of intellectual growth, which is the opposite of dramatic and which withers the play, as a play, on its stem.
"Rhythm in the Voice: Lowell's 'Prometheus Bound'," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), July 9, 1971, p. 799.
[Lowell's] gifts are everywhere apparent [in Notebook], and the poems are full of his "amnesia, ignorance and education," as he calls it, whether he is rifling history for images of "the powerful," looking across New York from his apartment, rehearsing domestic scenes, or remembering encounters with his contemporaries and peers. Sometimes one intrudes upon private occasions without being able to penetrate the protective hermetic language in which they have been clothed; but if Lowell is sensitive to the difficulties he puts in the reader's way, the example he chooses to explicate is not really representative. And if, as Lowell has recently suggested, he too has turned away from a poetry that attempts to express the ineffable, he nevertheless continues to write a poetry which stretches the rational to the uttermost and defies rational analysis. No one can object to this; as he says, "the true unreal is about something, and eats from the abundance of reality." But many readers will find it most rewarding to take Notebook on the terms his title allows, even when the gist of a particular poem may be little more than a "private lash."… Such generosity as one finds toward his contemporaries and peers is nearly always ambiguously qualified, as if to be human were and ought to be almost too painful a condition to be borne.
Samuel French Morse, in Michigan Quarterly Review, Fall, 1971, p. 293.
Lowell, despite all his dazzling skill in technique was, at least as far as themes are concerned, more like than unlike his contemporaries in the 40's and 50's. The problems of the personal self were at the core of the poems he was then writing. Fine poetry that much of it was, it remained private, special, even romantic.
For the Union Dead (1964) suggests a variety of changes in tone, attitude, theme. Is it possible that Robert Frost reading one of his poems at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy produced some kind of galvanic response among the American poets then writing? That a President of the United States would take a poet seriously enough, even as a public relations gesture, to have him read at his inauguration? Tantalizing as the question is, it is beyond the limits of literary criticism. What is quite clear, however, is that there were marked shifts in Lowell's thinking about poetry even before Frost appeared in Washington on that cold morning in January, 1961….
Since 1964 Robert Lowell has been a public figure; he has become something of a celebrity, a fairly unusual situation for an American modernist poet. Eliot and Frost were made into institutions; finally, they were monuments…. From the March on the Pentagon on October 15, 1967, through the Democratic Convention in Chicago of August, 1968, Lowell was prominently the American writer engaged in politics. It seems at times that he was the Arts Representative to that now aborted and even romantic street revolution. He was the writer committed; not cultural decoration, he faced the steel-helmeted MP's in front of the Pentagon. There were no Alexandrian forms suitable for that kind of experience. It was a long way from the "red fox stain" that covered the Blue Hill of "Skunk Hour" to the battle grounds of Grant Park and the Conrad Hilton. Foolish or at least awkward as some of his more public political posturings may now seem—politics becomes so easily dated—"Skunk Hour" to "The March" contributed to the making of at least a few unique American poems.
There is nothing like Notebook in recent poetry, not even Berryman's Dream Songs…. The poems are sometimes direct and seemingly simple, sometimes dense and obscure as his earlier verse. The book, however, gives us a sense of experience in its totality that is unusual. There are poems about close personal friends, "For Peter Taylor" and "Randall Jarrell" in the section called School; poems to his daughter; dream poems; poems about death; poems that are apparently autobiographical; poems on public figures in the past and in our own time. All the threads of Lord Weary's Castle, Life Studies, and For the Union Dead are rewoven into something new and quite different. And he has added one more element. Lowell says, "I am learning to live in history." That one line—"I am learning to live in history"—may have great implications in the future of American poetry. Lowell's poems in history and politics are not completely radical departures from his past; that is, a certain humane and civilized tone persists. This is all the more remarkable when we note that his list of dates at the back of Notebook reminds us that these poems were written during a period of great civil and international violence…. But if Lowell no longer swims like a minnow behind his studio window, neither is he now the poet of strident and fashionable radical rhetoric. He does not denounce; he does not traffic in the ready-made abstraction. If the self in these poems has re-entered the great world of sordid political activity, it has not been done for the sake of being up-to-date, for the sake of making a public statement of conscience. There have always been ample manifestoes, petitions, open letters; these things have nothing to do with poetry.
Statements of fury and disgust with the trends of public life are the currency of the moment; such statements are rare in Notebook. Instead, Lowell translates the international wrong into poetic structures of complexity and artistic wholeness. It is the only test of poetry on public themes: the successful poem, not the piety….
Poetry on the public theme does not of necessity mean propaganda or hysteria; modernist wit, intelligence, and irony in the hands of a poet of Lowell's ability may be the only way of reacting to our history, even when that history is at least partly made of war, murder, and riot. Long established literary devices and postures have been put to new uses in ways the generation of Pound and Eliot would not have believed possible. This is one of Lowell's greatest achievements.
Stephen C. Moore, "Politics and the Poetry of Robert Lowell," in The Georgia Review, Vol. XXVII, No. 2, Summer, 1973, pp. 220-31.
That poems by Robert Lowell should be reputed as they are, puzzles me. I suppose—to begin with some perhaps necessary conclusions—that a good poem is characterized by individuality of substance, by words which continue to be themselves (though inched a little in new directions) and all the same coalesce into a substance which is recognizably idiosyncratic, and agreeable, I suppose that a good poem requires to be interesting. It will be so—bother Olson and all—if its substance measures sufficiently well by sound, and if it is effective enough in the act of vocalization….
I think in other words that the supreme poem, whatever else it may be about, must chiefly be about itself; and in substance, measure, procession, vocalization, in the possible constituents of interest, the poems I am aware of by Robert Lowell are not, I consider, just wobbly, but worthless.
If that is so, some peculiarities of his three present collections don't need to be examined. In The Dolphin there are only new poems; in History there are eighty new poems with 287 poems, revised and/or rewritten, from the already revised and rewritten Notebook of 1970; other recensions from Notebook entirely constitute For Lizzie and Harriet. I am not going to analyse the uncertainty which is so revealed, and which makes these monotonous, mostly equal length and undramatic poems neither better nor worse. But I shall say that the reader of History may come straightaway on one or other of several poems which suggest, for a while, that a claim of worthlessness is extreme….
Endlessly Robert Lowell's are the poems of a cultural and personal fragmentation, bits of everything, everything in bits. A good reader, I am sure, a frequenter of art galleries, a haunter of the past. I find a disorder of Orpheus, Marx, Mary Stuart, Verdi, the Sphinx, Diogenes, Plato, Juvenal, Heine, Abelard, Dante, Potter, Cuyp, Fra Angelico, Albert Pinkham Ryder, Maleherbe, Chidiock Tichborne, George Grosz, Henry Adams, Gongora, Ford Madox Ford, Conrad, Eliot, Louis MacNeice, Hopkins, Leopardi, Emerson, Flaubert, Bishop Berkeley, Sylvia Plath, Froude, Kokoschka, Claudel, Norman Mailer, Lévi-Strauss, Goya, Gramsci, I. A. Richards, Ernest Thompson Seton, Herman Melville, Ned Kelly and Delmore Schwartz. I trail him to Torcello, Nantucket, Godstow, Killicrankie, Belsen, Florence, the Casentino, Bosworth Field, Kenyon College, and Saint-Denis, and on and on.
No, I don't call this showing off, I see it is the Lowell way, it is how he works; if as well it is rather American-poetical, in a now-a-days less evident mode, which still, however, fits the greatest land of Earthshifting Machine. In a European poet, whether he had been so much around or not, it would be a vulgarity; in an American, even from Harvard and Maine, even a Lowell, isn't it perhaps the extra need of the bright Muses—or at least of the Museum—in the larger wilderness?
Geoffrey Grigson, "American-Political," in London Magazine, June/July, 1973, pp. 131-34.
[History] is a tour de force of poetic prowess, hobnobbing with the greats of European and American literature, plucking the quiet moments that hold a germ of reality for the leisurely. Lowell so masterfully covers so much, dips into so many different sensibilities, worlds and—through translation—languages, that his voice claims its place before, behind, above, below and all around.
There is at points a kind of blessed genius spiking the lines. Occasionally the blessing is evil. There are poems which thrive on a sensibility of arrogance, and not just the arrogance of a poet. It is an arrogance which at its worst encapsulates the late Robert Kennedy as "forever approaching our maturity," or makes the mistake of trying to encapsulate God. Other poems barrage the mind with the inconsequentiality in so much of the experience, laced with literary and family jewels. For literary addicts it's grade A dope, uncut, preposterous, feline and ruthless in its beauty.
It's also good showmanship. His poetic drive here, to compete and judge and define, spares for the most part the living. The dead will no doubt answer him in their own way. Some poems venture into the world of politics, playing both sides of the fence, avoiding the middle. (The books were put together in England and Lowell seems to have realized the essential challenge of modern American life which is, perhaps, to get out of our prisons alive.)
For Lizzie and Harriet is an exploration of a spiritual imprisonment. The poems seem to be meant less for the literary world than for friends or family. The verse has appeared elsewhere and as a book it stands as kind of a re-run of the marriage which holds it together….
The sins of [The Dolphin] are lines like "we put God on his knees and now he's praying." Its strength is the released power of Lowell's poetry. But if it is a kind of love story it is also the story of Lowell's withdrawal, for a time at least, from America. We might rejoice at his own good fortune. But he has risked failing a generation of his own people who looked to him both for a shield, and as a guide through our labyrinth here. The poems in History about America were stronger, purer and more necessary than those which showed his entrance into the international literary cartel. Our country's attitude toward its best artists has often killed them at home or driven them to exile, but it's sad to see Lowell making the old choice of Pound, Eliot and Hemingway, at a time when we need voices to speak for us—both with each other and to a more just and stronger god than Lowell realizes.
John Bart Gerald, "Lowell Speaks Only to God," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), July 8, 1973, p. 10.
Lowell may prove one of the great poets of old age, having the necessary honesty, and showing signs of deepening fortitude and relenting love….
In ["History," "For Lizzie and Harriet," and "The Dolphin"] feeling is like an enveloping sack; Lowell is largely confined to his passions. If his mind transcends them, it is in wondering grief, occasionally in surprised joy, coming upon them almost always after the fact. Or such is his poetic, a poetic of taking stock: When, years ago, Lowell turned to "life studies," evidently it was because, lacking will, perspective, philosophy, he had no choice—even in "History" the face of his poetry is held down to the echoing well surface of biography. What makes Lowell compelling is the groaning degree to which he suffers the general collapse not merely of faith but of its modern substitute, faith in reason. He has found himself enclosed by the accident of his birth and temperament, the wilderness of his needs, the squirrel-case of every 24 hours, without any hope of growth or construction. "I come on," he says, "walking off-stage backwards."
The result has been increasingly unfortunate for his poetry, now the poetry of a victim, not a master ("I'm sorry, I run with the hares now, not the hounds"). The great loss is the poem itself, the poem as distinct from lines of poetry. The idea of the poem as such is as dependent on the trappings of reason (coherence, logical economy, subordination, proportion) as on the submarine couplings, the dip and dive, of intuition. And Lowell, a nihilist who "has to live in the world as is, gazing the impassable summit to rubble," has let the idea of the poem fall to pieces.
His faithful 14-line form (the sonnet razed, destructured) is a perfunctory repository for contingent facts and feelings. Inchoate and desultory, the poems never accumulate and break in the great way, like a waterfall seen from the lip, more felt than seen. In truth, they are under no pressure to go anywhere, except to the 14th line. Prey to random associations, they are full of false starts, fractures, distractions…. Even when the poems cohere, they seem inconsequent and listless, Lowell not really believing in their necessity as poems—that is, as works intent on themselves, transcending contingency—but only as the record, the absorbing gauze of the moment….
Lowell may have turned to sequences to catch his life on the run, but the result was to encourage incompleteness in the poems. Each being freed from the burden of comprehension and finality, they are abandoned to the rapid piranhas of his lines. They are almost all situation and yet, as if each counted on the others for exposition, the situations are obscure. Verbal shadows, the poems undoubtedly mean more to Lowell than they can to us, since he is hulking, perhaps deliberately, in the light. (Lowell may find himself in the predicament of wanting his privacy while needing to write about his life. In these poems poetry approaches the circumstantial interest of the novel or autobiography but without the fullness of information, the clarifying consecutiveness, the architectural intelligence, of those forms.
Nor is what is lost in the parts regained by the sum. Isolated, random, the poems in the sequences have neither ear nor memory for one another; they follow Lowell's life with a groping and local apprehension, as if learning Braille….
What survives in these volumes is an unimpaired vigor of language, words "handled like the new grass rippling." Though Lowell says of himself and John Berryman, "We used the language as if we made it," in fact he differs from the latter in being not the inventor of an idiom but—fluent, lustrous, acid, richly shadowed—a master of the common tongue. If the poems are private, the style is public. It is never strained yet never stale. The tact denied to the poems goes into the diction, the force and beauty into the phrase. There are few poems here without remarkable lines.
Calvin Bedient, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 29, 1973, pp. 15-16.
"History" and "For Lizzie and Harriet" are, apparently, the final version of "Notebook" (1970) which was itself an enlarged version of "Notebook 1967–68." Lowell has revised the original poems extensively, added some new ones, and, most significantly, plotted them coherently. The mixed bag of "Notebook" has been sifted and sequenced into order. The new titles alone suggest the major changes performed on the earlier manuscripts. For "History" Lowell has arranged the bulk of "Notebook" into a sort of personalized view of Western civilization—from Biblical characters and events, through Greece and Rome, and finally Europe from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century. His mode is a combination of dramatic monologue, narration, and subjective interpretation. And the result is neither history per se nor outright fiction, but a unique rendition of individual cultural events depicted in fact, brought to life from Lowell's own perspective, and redeemed into general human significance…. Roughly the last half of the book is devoted to Lowell's own "history"—early memories, elegies for poets and friends, events that influenced his life, and, finally, his activism in the sixties. Once again the mode is both personal and general, factual and interpretive. The poem as a whole is both an interpretation and an implied philosophy of history. Like Pound, Lowell sees the past in terms of real men acting out real events—events that only later become abstracted into historical "facts"….
In "For Lizzie and Harriet" Lowell collects all the poems from "Notebook" written about his second wife and their daughter. The poems are, like those of "History," well-revised and plotted coherently. The primary difference is in tone. Lowell is more intimate and subdued, perhaps a bit more sentimental….
"The Dolphin," though all previously unpublished, is in many respects an autobiographical extension of "For Lizzie and Harriet." Lowell remains at the center. The characters and tone have changed. The book is dedicated to Caroline (his third wife, now, I presume) and recounts the experience of his disenchantment and confusion, his stay in the hospital, his remarriage, and the ultimate birth of his first son. While the theme of death pervaded "History," Lowell now seems more intent on recapturing, through Caroline, the spontaneity and passion of youth. The dolphin symbolizes this desire, thus the title.
Lowell's tone is shriller, his turns of mood and mind more extreme, less consoling than in "For Lizzie and Harriet." And the general style more resembles the "confessional" candor of "Life Studies" (1958) than his more emotionally restrained recent work. But, as in "Life Studies," Lowell bares the most private recesses of his mind only under the strictest discipline of art….
Paul Kameen, in Best Sellers, August 1, 1973, pp. 208-09.
[The] intention behind History is clearly to produce a major literary document encompassing the élite Western sensibility of which Lowell is a late representative; a work to stand in competition with the great long poems of the past.
The lesson of Notebook/History is that brilliant language, powerful images, are not enough, and that they can become unbelievably boring in the service of an encapsulated ego. I remember Notebook as a book whose language sometimes dazzled even though it often seemed intentionally to blur and evade meaning, even though Lowell's own rather pedantic notion of surrealism led to a kind of imagemaking out of the intellect rather than the unconscious. I remember saying to a friend that in poem after poem, at the moment when you thought Lowell was about to cut to the bone, he veered off, lost the thread, abandoned the poem he'd begun in a kind of verbal coitus interruptus. In History it strikes me that this is poetry constructed in phrases, each hacked-out, hewn, tooled, glazed or burnished with immense expertise … but one gets tired of these phrases, they hammer on after awhile with a fearful and draining monotony. It becomes a performance, a method, language divorced from its breathing, vibrating sources to become, as Lowell himself says, a marble figure….
Lowell uses real people, versifies and fictionalizes them at will, and thus attempts to reduce or dominate them. They are face-cards in a game of solitaire, but solitaire is what it remains.
There's a kind of aggrandized and merciless masculinity at work in these books, particularly the third, symptomatic of the dead-end destructiveness that masculine privilege has built for itself into all institutions, including poetry. I sense that the mind behind these poems knows—being omnivorously well-read—that "someone has suffered"—the Jews, Achilles, Sylvia Plath, his own wife—but is incapable of a true identification with the sufferers which might illuminate their condition for us. The poet's need to dominate and objectify the characters in his poems leaves him in an appalling way invulnerable. And the poetry, for all its verbal talent and skill, remains emotionally shallow….
The inclusion of the letter-poems [in The Dolphin] stands as one of the most vindictive and mean-spirited acts in the history of poetry, one for which I can think of no precedent; and the same unproportioned ego that was capable of this act is damagingly at work in all three of Lowell's books [History For Lizzie and Harriet, and The Dolphin].
Adrienne Rich, "Caryatid: A Column" (copyright © 1973 by Adrienne Rich and reprinted with her permission), in American Poetry Review, September/October, 1973, pp. 42-3.
In Lord Weary's Castle, Lowell shows himself in touch with English poetic traditions and with the myths, value systems, and dimensions of history that have gone to make up earlier American and European experience. Lowell sets up the poems in the book as studied works that express a fascination for and discontent with that western culture in which they are so grandly, unhappily, and intelligently immersed.
The book's title comes from an Irish ballad about a nobleman who refused to pay his debts after having had his fine castle built. Lord Weary's refusal to meet his obligations to the mason who built his home for him results in the destruction of his family by the angry and unpaid builder. Lord Weary's is a depleted nobility. On one level, the title may refer to the culture or a system of belief the owner has no right to claim as his own, because he has not honored the terms and obligations of its creation…. That castle of the title may also refer to the world created by God but turned into all sorts of commercial, military, religious, or familial establishments which are constructed at the expense of the owners' debt to God and to other men. That mason may also be seen as representing the exploited lower class, the true creators of value, who will take their ultimate revenge on selfish owners.
Lord Weary's Castle is Lowell's effort to house his sensibility in an older world of Catholic belief, of Classical themes, of American experience, of European history, of inherited poetic forms he fiercely energizes. It is the strenuous book of a poet all wound up and ready to spring from his almost unbearable present into the past. One inviting aspect of the past is that it always seems more structured than our present. Even their "chaos" looks more orderly to our eyes than our historical moments. And of course the past can be meaningfully appropriated for our own turmoil.
Still and all, has there ever existed a reader not puzzled or disturbed by Lord Weary's Castle? There is not only all that knowledge rammed into the poems, all that heavy historicity, and a prosody of wrenched anger, but an insistence on attitudes that almost [seems] dictatorial on the part of the poet, dictatorial to history, to God, to the poet himself, and to his rhythms: 'The fathoms of the Bayeux Tapestry:/'God wills it, wills it, wills it: it is blood.'" One wants to squirm out of lines like that. Despite the fact that a great deal of history is on the poet's side, the charge against God seems less pressing than the poet's own obsession.
On rereading the book some twenty-five years after its publication, one is still puzzled and impressed by its insistence on God's forceful will in the domain of history; by the book's dedication to the idea of some furious religious commitment; and by the hidden self of the poet (whose presence in the book we can now see more clearly than we could originally). The poems have a frozen grandeur, almost defying us to crack through them. They are polished showpieces on display in the museum of Lowell's troubled mind….
Writing all of those poems so formally propped up, chiseled, and gilded, sometimes entwined in rhyme, and containing all that heavy, molded history, Lowell might have hoped that doom would be both comprehended and propitiated by such technique. God's insatiable demand for blood might be expressed and withstood by the poet's own forced-march repetitions and militancy of sound. The stunning style of Lord Weary's Castle may be partially explained by Lowell's need to hold together with great will and expertise what he fears will burst all mental sets. Indeed, if poetic technique and religious imagery had not been on Lowell's side when the war and history rose against his mind, he, like those Quaker sailors he describes, might have been swallowed up quick. Style and references combine to make the book a monument to the urge to incorporate the difficult present into a culturally strategic past that tends to make the contemporary turmoil a showpiece of permanent history. So much of the book is calculated as a means of withstanding present despair, but it never really convinces us of this achievement. Not artistic technique hammered into the poems—the poet wills it, wills it, wills it: it is form—nor religious faith so testily striven for, nor a knowledgeable invocation of the past will finally save the mind of the poet from simply having to face the turmoils of history or of his own life without built-in religious or historical explanations….
An obvious difference between Lord Weary's Castle and Life Studies is that in the later book Lowell opens himself up to that "blue kingfisher" in ways he cannot do at the time of the earlier book. There is a grace and an availability to a spirit of redemption that finally informs Life Studies that Lowell could never manage to find or exhibit in Lord Weary's Castle….
Like the shield and helmet in that glass case in the museum, the images of Christ and Mary in Lord Weary's Castle are housed for show. They are addressed, approached, rhetorically. They are religious figures, religious images, for the poet's imagination and skill, not simply the son and mother of God to whom he appeals, just as those military pieces are for display rather than for use, esthetic hailings to some glory.
In Lowell's development we can see that such images would be replaced along with that almost willed poetry through which they are expressed…. They never really worked for Lowell, at least as far as a reader of his poetry can tell. They were figures from the museum of belief….
As the later titles Life Studies and Notebook suggest, the museum pieces give way to direct impressions, seemingly careless, unfinished, unstructured, yet vibrant, touching, and formed out of almost casual and curious poetic and psychological subtleties. (How different the invocation of history or of scenes from past literary works in Lord Weary's Castle turns out to be from Life Studies, in which Lowell seems to stumble upon his own contemporaneity, with the past slipping in casually and strangely and with a kind of profoundly absentminded relevance.) The at best half-dead Christ child of Lord Weary's Castle, and the narrator's equivalent in that volume—the stern, angry child—are altered to the poet-child of Life Studies who misses his grandfather, mockingly mourns the failures of his father, and finds childhood a great source of pity and keen observation. "My last poems don't use religious imagery," to repeat Lowell's self-observation, "they don't use symbolism. In many ways they seem to me to be more religious than the early ones."
If reading Lord Weary's Castle is somewhat like seeing those Louis XIV pieces of artificial military splendor on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, then reading Life Studies is like moving from those glass cases to a Rembrandt face or a Van Gogh chair. At such a moment we feel we are less viewing objects in a museum than observing a person or a piece of furniture that tells us we are both livers and observers, and that what we observe observes us back. This is something of what we mean when we say that a work of art is like life. In such a case the work of art is greater than the museum that holds it, and it seems destined for more than a wall or a glass case in a museum. Something along these lines is the difference between Lord Weary's Castle and Life Studies.
Richard J. Fein, "Lord Weary's Castle Revisited," in PMLA 89 (copyright © 1974 by the Modern Language Association of America; reprinted by permission of the Modern Language Association of America), January, 1974, pp. 34-41.
For much of his career, Robert Lowell has courted an epic ambition with essentially lyric gifts. At least since Life Studies (1959), his volumes have comprised poems so intricately interrelated that, however strong in their own right, they gain from context. Gradually, Lowell has implicitly enlarged his context until it has come to include the volumes themselves….
History coheres, not only because of its chronology, but also because of the many connecting passages within the honeycomb. It is at some such level that I can best appreciate The Dolphin, which discloses Lowell's transition from his second marriage to his third. With a rather magnificent disregard for the conventional mechanics of symbolism, over the course of the book Lowell (Arion) literally—which is to say figuratively, by means of figure—turns his dolphin (his muse, his craft, his means) into a mermaid (his mistress, his siren, his muse) and a fishnet (his craft, his noose, his salvation). Such transformations are so unexpected that it is easy to be impatient with the mode of operation—so surprising, in fact, that one might at first overlook that mode….
For Lizzie and Harriet … commemorates Lowell's second marriage, especially "the days of the freeze" with their occasional "minor sun" at its end. Peopled not only with the poet, his wife, and their daughter, but also with ghosts of figures addressed in the second person whom not even Time and rumor can flesh out, this sequence confirms the impression left by The Dolphin that Lowell's context is expanding to include events in (as distinct from poems about) his private life. It is one thing to refer the reader to Life Studies and its figures, "almost life-size", and another to allude to phantoms in yesterday's twilight….
"We were kind of religious, we thought in images", he says nostalgically in My Heavenly Shiner (For Lizzie and Harriet). He still does; yet to the extent that he wants everyday history, it seems possible that he must forego substantial work on that monumental structure, formerly religious and lately historical and, yes, personal. In other words, if the system begins to generate ephemera, a sort of interplanetary dust, the question will be whether its new components can exert a mutually shaping influence.
Stephen Yenser, "Half Legible Bronze?," in Poetry (© 1974 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), February, 1974, pp. 304-09.