Book Review

“More than Just”: A Partial View of Robert Lowell

Kay Redfield Jamison draws her book’s title[1] from the first lines of Robert Lowell’s late poem “Reading Myself”:

Like thousands, I took just pride and more than just,
struck matches that brought my blood to a boil;
I memorized the tricks to set the river on fire—
somehow never wrote something to go back to.

Both ruminative and playful, Lowell blurs the boundaries between fire and water, poetry and prose (through the loose iambs and equally loose unrhymed sonnet structure of this fourteen-line poem), and most important, between poem and self: when “reading himself,” is he musing retrospectively on his poems and assessing their value? Or looking back on his life? With the metaphor of setting the river on fire, Lowell acknowledges how, as a poet, he disrupted the status quo at every stage of his career and then restlessly moved on, “never wrote some­thing to go back to,” a deeply ironic line, given that he revised his poems obsessively. Immensely productive, Lowell won all of the major awards of his era. He also suffered from manic depression, an illness still so stigmatized in 1977, when he died from heart failure at sixty, that the New York Times obituary euphemized, describing the late months of 1957—when Lowell wrote his breakthrough series of experimental, autobiographical “Life Studies” poems in a blaze of pre-manic energy and then was admitted to a mental hospital—merely as “a productive period, [during which] the poet also suffered what friends described as ‘incredible tensions’ and ‘terrible physical strain.’” But in the literary world, Lowell’s volatility and history of breakdowns were legend. In “setting the river on fire,” he always risked burning his bridges, personally and professionally.

Jamison therefore mines these lines for her title because the metaphors evoke the illness that, as she amply demonstrates, defined Lowell’s life and work. Arguing that his illness was, like fire and water, both destructive and generative, she lauds his immense courage and force of character. Rather than flame out (and die from suicide) like so many poets of his generation, Lowell survived and continued writing, despite the havoc his mood disorder repeatedly wreaked on his life. Thus the core opposition Jamison traces in Setting the River on Fire is between the volatility of Lowell’s manic depression and the solidity of character—his courage, determination, and discipline—that enabled him to channel that energy into his writing, endure his breakdowns (and the often debilitating psychiatric treatments that followed), and rebuild his life again and again. Her subtitle is therefore as telling as her title: “A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character” evokes Life Studies, whose core metaphor crystalizes her approach. Like the life artist, Jamison compiles selective views of Lowell, chosen to highlight the links she traces between his “genius, mania, and character” but omits details that are not relevant to her focus—a choice that leaves signifi­cant gaps in her narrative, but that she hopes to reconcile with the caveat that Setting the River on Fire “is not a biography” but instead “a psychological account of the life and mind of Robert Lowell.” Her view is partial, yet rich and revealing.

Along with defining Jamison’s limited yet exacting focus, “partial” also sums up her investment, professional and personal, in studying Lowell. A leading expert on manic depression, she co-wrote what is still the standard text on the subject, Manic-Depressive Illness. As a professor of psychiatry, she has the authority to evaluate Lowell’s condition from a medical perspective with case study precision. But her book is far from clinical. In studying Lowell, Jamison extends her career-long interest in the links between creativity and mental illness, a subject she explored at length in Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. In An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness, she has also chronicled, with exquisite clarity and pathos, her own struggles with (and, she argues, the rewards of) manic depression and the sometimes tense balance she has struck between studying the illness and suffering from it. In these and later books, she strives to destigmatize mental illness and raise public awareness about its risks (especially the danger of suicide) and benefits (such as enhanced creativity and sensory pleasure). Significantly, in all of these works, Lowell serves as a touchstone—not only for the intertwining of manic depression with creative genius, but for how memorably, in poetry, prose, and inter­views, he finds words, especially accurate metaphors, to describe every nuance of the illness. Quotations from Lowell flavor all of these works—even the medical textbook—and always highlight what the experience is like from the sufferer’s perspective, as in this example, in which he captures mania’s transitory elevation and its messy aftermath: “It’s not much fun writing about these breakdowns after they themselves have broken. One stands stickily splattered with patches of the momentary bubble.”

Drawing on her lifelong fascination with Lowell, Jamison mixes expertise with empathy in Setting the River on Fire. By foregrounding his strength of character and portraying his mental illness with care and compassion, she counters the still common assumption that manic depression is a character flaw, even a moral failing, rather than a failure of body chemistry. Lowell himself understood the distinction; after being prescribed lithium—a drug that finally tamed his illness—in the late 1960s, he told his editor, Robert Giroux, “all I’ve suffered, and all the suffering I’ve caused, might have arisen from the lack of a little salt in my brain.” Reflecting the changes in psychiatric understanding of mental illness, Jamison’s book aims to restore Lowell’s standing as a person and a poet.

Although Lowell was justly celebrated throughout his life as one of the most innovative poets of his generation, his reputation took a nosedive five years after his death, with the 1982 publication of Ian Hamilton’s demonizing biography, in which Lowell comes off not as subject to biochemical forces, but as crazy and cruel, imperious and arrogant—oblivious to how terribly his words and actions lacerated everyone unfortunate enough to be drawn into his orbit during his manic phases. Although Paul Mariani published a longer, more balanced biography, Lost Puritan, in 1994, by then the damage was done. More workmanlike, and less sensational than Hamilton’s book, Lost Puritan was not as widely reviewed, and Hamilton’s interpretation of Lowell’s life stuck, as hard to rub off as the remains of the burst bubble in Lowell’s analogy. In detailing Lowell’s manias, Hamilton depicts him as a spoiled child on a spree, or as a petty, sadistic dictator (reflecting Lowell’s rapturous obsessions, when manic, with Hitler, Napoleon, Mussolini, and Roman tyrants like his nick-namesake Caligula). Although the biography was valuable for its inclusion of drafts of poems and generous quotations from Lowell’s then-unpublished letters, Hamilton’s view of the poetry was largely negative: with the exception of well-known poems like “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” he repeatedly dismisses Lowell’s early work as overwritten and unintelligible, then goes on to condemn Life Studies and Lowell’s later books as sloppy and narcissistic. He also cedes more space—or gives the last word—to friends and reviewers who criticize Lowell’s poetry rather than praise it. Thus a quotation from Elizabeth Bishop, in which she admires the new, autobiographical Life Studies poems, is followed by a two-paragraph warning from Allen Tate, which begins: “all the poems about your family, including the one [“Man and Wife”] about you and [second wife] Elizabeth [Hardwick], are definitely bad. I do not think you ought to publish them.” Following Tate’s lead, Hamilton links Lowell’s “bad poems” to bad behavior, suggesting that Lowell was losing control of both his poetry and himself: “To others, Tate was putting his objections even more forthrightly: these loose, self-centered poems made him wonder if Lowell wasn’t on the brink of another manic episode.” That he was, indeed, on the brink of a manic episode serves, in Hamilton’s framing, as proof positive that the poetry was somehow suspect.

Despite his pose of objectivity, Hamilton invites readers to judge Lowell harshly. The book includes extensive quotations from Hardwick’s letters, in which she voices despair over having to deal with Lowell’s maltreatment of her during his breakdowns (especially his pattern of starting an affair with a young woman and declaring his intent to divorce Hardwick) and her exhaustion at having to support him through his hospitalizations and the paralyzing depressions that followed. Hamilton amasses a welter of damning quotations from her and others about Lowell’s erratic behavior and its negative effects but few quotations from Lowell about how he felt during, and especially after, enduring his manic-depressive swings; nor does Hamilton balance his narrative by devoting enough space (or much at all) to the texture of Lowell’s ordinary life. As Jamison notes in her introduction, Hamilton’s portrait of Lowell lacks “roundness.” It omits Lowell’s charisma, humor, intellectual vigor, air of bemused gentleness, and devotion to family and friends. By flattening Lowell, Hamilton sensationalizes—and sentimentalizes—his subject, turning him into a cliché: the mad poet.

Of course, such portrayals are likely to gain critical attention—and sell books. But, aside from the temptation to titillate with tales of alcoholic abandon, infidelity, wrecked marriages, mental breakdowns, and suicide, chroniclers of the Confessionals face a singular challenge: if the poets “read themselves” in their poems—expose intimate details of their lives—then how should biographers craft a narrative? If the poet has already limned the plot—or, as with John Berryman or Sylvia Plath, created a mythos—then what stance should the biographer take toward that plot? Reinforce the poet’s self-portrait, or find flaws in it? Give alternate versions of the incidents the poet mythologizes? Try to separate fact from fiction? And, in determining facts, should the biographer tap nontraditional sources—records of psychotherapy or of hospitalizations for breakdowns—if granted permission by a poet’s literary executors? In her best-selling biography of Anne Sexton, for example, Diane Wood Middlebrook made the controversial choice to reference not only journals Sexton made of her psychotherapy, but also “audiotapes of over three hundred . . . sessions . . . from 1956 to 1964,” on the grounds that the exhibitionist Sexton would not have banned such material from her archive. Although the therapist, Dr. Martin T. Orne, took more heat for his breach of the doctor-patient relationship in giving the tapes to Middlebrook than Middlebrook did for using them, the furor nonetheless underscored the risks of researching and writing about these poets. As Lowell himself admitted, when asked about the Life Studies poems: “They’re not always factually true. . . . I’ve invented facts and changed things, and the whole balance of the poem was something invented. . . . Yet you want the reader to say, This is true.” Always his own best critic, Lowell coolly parses the problem: for the sake of art, the poet may straddle fact and fiction to create the illusion of truth; yet such poems strain the hoary paradox that a poet lies in order to tell the truth. Moreover, if the facts of the life raise moral questions about how the poet behaved (including “invent[ing] facts and chang[ing] things” in a poem that poses as “true”), then does that behavior dilute the poet’s accomplishment? Which is not to suggest that writers should be angels; a writer’s bad behavior, as revealed by a biographer, may compromise his or her reputation as a person but not of the work—unless, as with the Confessionals, the work is inextricably tied to the life. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s alcoholic dissolution and early death do not tarnish the literary value of The Great Gatsby, but the distinction is not as easy to make in the case of a poet like Lowell, for whom “reading the self” meant also reading (and changing facts about) other people in his life: the self does not exist in a vacuum.

But the problem intensifies if some of the bad behavior results from an uncontrollable illness. Although he acknowledges that Lowell suffered from manic depression, Hamilton nonetheless wants that fact to serve double duty: he associates what he sees as the lack of control of the Life Studies poems with Lowell’s illness (and thus undermines the value of the poems) but invites the reader of the biography to judge Lowell severely for deeds done while manic.

The strength of Setting the River on Fire lies in how astutely Jamison navigates these waters, beginning with how she treats her sources. Although she was granted unprecedented access to all of Lowell’s medical and psychiatric records, she made the scrupulous—and ethical—decision to reference only material “of direct relevance to the subject matter of this book”: specifically, “Lowell’s discussions with his psychiatrists about his illness, particularly his fears that his mania would recur and the remorse he felt for things he had done while manic; the effects of his illness on his parents and his marriages; and his observations about the relationship between his mania and his poetry.” But she refrains from revealing “the more intimate psychotherapeutic discus­sions.” Balancing her dual responsibilities to study Lowell and to respect the doctor-patient relationship, her choice reflects Lowell’s evolving view of psychotherapy. Although he dutifully went to appointments for treatment—sometimes several times a week during the 1950s—he voiced skepticism after taking lithium at age fifty: “All the psychiatry and therapy I’ve had, almost 19 years, was as irrelevant as it would have been for a broken leg. Well, some of it was interesting, tho most was jargon.”

Jamison divides the book into sections that, while roughly chronological, correspond to her focus on illness, character, and art. Her pro­logue, detailing the decline into madness and committal to McLean Asylum of Lowell’s great-great-grandmother, Harriet Brackett Spence Lowell, chillingly underscores the disease’s heritability, its intensification with age, and how before the advent of modern treatment with lithium, its victims were likely to die institutionalized and insane—if they didn’t die earlier from suicide. In scrutinizing Lowell’s severe form of manic depression, Jamison consistently emphasizes its etiology: tracing the conjunction of madness and lyric gifts in Lowell’s family line in the “Prologue” and “Origins” chapter, and, in the “Illness” chapters, correlating Lowell’s episodes with standard diagnostic criteria. Like Hamilton, she gives unsparing details of Lowell’s breakdowns; unlike Hamilton, she frames them as following a predictable course, as when, on a 1962 trip to Argentina, his behavior tilted from florid, to bizarre, to violent:

Lowell was . . . grandiose, irritable, and pulsing with near-inhuman energy. He insisted on buying everyone expensive presents and sent cables to the pope and to former president Dwight Eisenhower expressing his conviction that America was the new Roman Empire. He believed himself to be the Caesar of Argentina. He took off his clothes, climbed up onto the military equestrian statues, and “rode next to the generals”; he did this throughout Buenos Aires, a city not without equestrian statues. . . .

The outcome was inevitable. It took six men to force Lowell into a straitjacket and admit him to the Clinica Bethlehem . . . where he was restrained with leather straps and heavily medicated with chlorpromazine. [His friend] Blair Clark flew to Buenos Aires to bring him back to the United States. On the flight to New York, Lowell “fell in love” with one of the stewardesses, told Clark he wanted to marry her and that they were going to start a life together in South America.

This concentrated description compiles symptoms that Jamison details at greater length as the book unfolds: wild spending sprees, delusions of grandeur, sudden infatuations, outbreaks of violence, and “the inevi­table outcome”: hospitalization. Beginning with his first breakdown at thirty-two, Lowell endured sixteen hospitalizations during his lifetime and a host of debilitating treatments: restraint, lockdown, hydrotherapy, electroshock, thorazine injections, the merry-go-round of talk therapy, and, eventually, the panacea of lithium (initially administered in huge doses). Following his manias, and in the wake of his hospitalizations, he would suffer months of depressive self-loathing and lassitude. In chronicling Lowell’s illness, Jamison stresses his suffering and lack of control over his behavior. Refusing to romanticize his illness, she criticizes people who, ignoring warnings of those, like Hardwick, who knew him well, excused the onrush of incipient mania—the boundless energy, the accelerated talk, the expressions of overweening ambition, and the indiscriminate love affairs—as “normal” behavior for a genius poet.

In her sympathetic accounting not only of Lowell’s illness, but of its effects on his art, Jamison reverses—and thereby rectifies—Hamilton’s view: she documents how Lowell tapped the power of his moods to create his poems (as in his pre-manic “mind at the boil” during which he wrote the autobiographical Life Studies poems in late 1957; or what he called the “lemony, soured” state of depression from which he generated For the Union Dead). But, along with riding the wave of his racing brain to draft poems, Lowell also assiduously worked to revise them once that wave subsided. Whereas Hamilton often includes drafts of poems in his book to expose prurient details—such as Lowell’s giddy praise of a new lover—Jamison highlights Lowell’s focused discipline—his conscious crafting of an exuberant, messy draft into a polished poem. For Lowell, she argues, writing offered ballast, “a place to channel his excitable blood, to exert control, mount a defense against the world without, and the world within.” Throughout the book, she reads Lowell’s poems not line-by-line, as a literary critic would, nor as “biographical evidence” to prove an agenda about Lowell, but for metaphors that correlate with his moods: fire and water, the bubble, the balloon tossed on the wind, the precariousness of Mr. Edwards’ spider. Her sensitivity to Lowell’s metaphors reflects her own gift for metaphor: striking analogies abound in the book, such as, “Mania, when it came, shook his memory as a child shakes a snow globe”; or, “independence, contrariness, ambition, toughness, receptiveness to experience . . . are the blood supply to a creative mind and temperament.”

Jamison argues that this “blood supply,” along with courage and discipline, nourished Lowell’s poetry and stabilized his life in the aftermaths of his breakdowns. In her section on “Character,” she rounds out her portrait with favorable views of Lowell as a sympathetic friend (especially to fellow poets recovering from their own breakdowns) and energetic father. Jamison is the first of Lowell’s life-chroniclers to gain support from his daughter Harriet, who shares her view of him as a “very present and loving father, whatever his mental state, and wonderfully odd.” But Jamison works hardest to redeem Lowell’s character through her many examples of how he himself experienced his illness. Unlike Hamilton, she stresses how it brought as much, or more, suffering to him as to those around him. Her frequent quotations from Lowell’s letters and from psychiatric notes reveal the stinging remorse and embarrassment he felt after his recoveries over his manic indiscretions (which he always acutely remembered); his pervasive fears of mania’s inevitable recurrence; and his double consciousness—of going mad, yet watching that madness unfold—that tinged his episodes with a strange poignancy, as on Christmas Eve, 1966, when “eight massive police officers with guns” arrived at his Boston home to haul him off to McLean, and, after throwing a milk bottle at them, Lowell only agreed to go if they would sit and listen to him read “Waking in the Blue,” a wrenching poem about his 1958 stay at McLean: “My heart grows tense / as though a harpoon were sparring for the kill. / (This is the house for ‘the mentally ill.’).”

But Jamison’s strongest challenge to Hamilton turns on ethics: whereas he frames much of Lowell’s behavior as morally questionable, Jamison discriminates between when Lowell was, and wasn’t, in control, especially if his actions hurt people. The test case is his seven-year relationship with Lady Caroline Blackwood, for whom he divorced Hardwick in 1972. While reinvigorating at first, the marriage to the alcoholic Blackwood soon turned explosive and exacerbated his illness: “Lowell said on more than one occasion, ‘I am manic. Caroline is panic.’ It was gasoline to tinder.” Jamison’s decision to begin her “Mortality” section with Lowell’s relocation to England and remarriage is telling, for she emphasizes how the turmoil abraded him yet also opened him to the suffering of others. Like all readers of Lowell’s work, however, she faces the challenge of judging his inclusion—and alteration—of anguished letters from Hardwick in The Dolphin, whose poems chronicle his abandonment of her and his reawakening to love and subsequent disillusionment with Blackwood. In his biography, Hamilton showcases negative evidence: letters in which Lowell petulantly defends his artistic license; Elizabeth Bishop’s eloquent insistence that he cut the Hardwick material because “art isn’t worth that much”; and scathing quotations from reviews. In contrast, Jamison includes both positive and negative assessments but frames the controversy as an old scandal and offers counter-arguments to reviewers’ criticisms. While she herself defends Lowell’s long view that art is indeed worth it, she also gives voice to Harriet Lowell, who notes that her mother “resented the bad lines he gave her as a writer with her own unique voice and that the story was changed so that her anger was taken out of context.” Yet Jamison concludes The Dolphin discussion on an ambiguous note: “Two years after Lowell died, Elizabeth Hardwick told an interviewer that Lowell was ‘like no one else—unplaceable, unaccountable.’ . . . Perfect words: wife to husband, writer to writer.” “Perfect” also, perhaps, because they let Jamison off the hook: does “unaccountable” mean impossible to explain or impossible (due to his being a great poet) to hold to account? Jamison lets the reader decide.

The Dolphin controversy aside, Jamison crafts a diplomatic narrative of Lowell’s last decade: equally sensitive to his divided loyalties, Hard­wick’s suffering and resilience, and Blackwood’s vacillation between love for Lowell and understandable terror of his illness. But in other sections of the book, Jamison’s partiality blemishes her perspective. Although sympathetic to the pain that Hardwick felt over Lowell’s many, and quite public, affairs, Jamison shows little concern for their effect on the young women (to whom he never fulfilled promises to divorce Hardwick); instead, she celebrates the affairs as giving Lowell “renewal of body and mind” and inspiration for poems. Jamison’s partiality has structural drawbacks for her narrative, as well. Despite her caveat that the book is a study, her chronological arrangement and adherence to biographical conventions, such as opening with Lowell’s ancestry, raise reader expectations for a biography. Yet she gives short shrift to important periods of Lowell’s life and outsized attention to others. Her abbreviated profile of Lowell’s childhood and adolescence as marked by creativity and stubborn rages is followed by an even swifter sprint through his late teens and his twenties: she devotes only nine pages collectively to his college years, association with New Critics Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom, his first marriage to Jean Stafford, his conversion to Catholicism, and his stance (and imprisonment) as a Conscientious Objector during World War II. She also gives scant attention to his life in the 1960s, particularly his opposition to the Vietnam War. Setting the River on Fire therefore feels numb to the temper of times that Lowell actively influenced, not only as a poet but also as a public intellectual. Such omissions are consequential given Lowell’s fascination with history and how he fine-tuned the suffering selves of his poems to match the zeitgeist. Moreover, Jamison’s goal to educate her readers about mental illness also leads her to break from Lowell occasionally and launch into long digressions (on the history and treatment—going back to Ancient Greece—of manic depression, and then again on lithium). Such didactic pages could have been better positioned as appendices, leaving additional room for Jamison to flesh out periods of Lowell’s life that she thins.

Despite these flaws, Setting the River on Fire shines because of its partiality. Like an artist skilled in life drawing, Jamison excels both in the focused precision of a single, thorough perspective—her professional and deeply personal understanding of manic-depressive illness —and in the character-defining strokes, such as her mastery of metaphor and narrative pacing, that capture the essence—the mind and spirit—of Robert Lowell. Although she admits in her introduction that a full understanding of another person’s mind is impossible, her partial portrait feels true to the quality and nuances of Lowell’s mind and its moods.
[1] ROBERT LOWELL, SETTING THE RIVER ON FIRE: A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character, by Kay Redfield Jamison. Alfred A. Knopf. $29.95.