Book Review Criticism

The Going: Elizabeth Hardwick, Robert Lowell, and The Dolphin Letters

Dearest Lizzie:
It’s hard to believe letters cross the Atlantic in less than the months of the old ships at sea in the nineteenth century. It does something to smother expression maybe. Or is it that I feel you would \not/[1] much welcome details of my daily life?
-—Robert Lowell to Elizabeth Hardwick, August 3, 1971
Dearest Cal:
Yes, letters are strange. There is no answering in the true sense in our correspondence, since no answer or information is called for. There is just writing a letter.
—Elizabeth Hardwick to Robert Lowell, August 12, 1971

Between two working writers, especially writers who are, through transatlantic correspondence, with varying degrees of civility, tenderness, and flare-ups of anger and misunderstanding, defining the terms of their separation and divorce, there is nothing as simple as “just writing a letter.” Even Elizabeth Hardwick’s disclaimer here serves as an implicit answer to Robert Lowell’s query, as well as a commentary on letter writing. In The Dolphin Letters, 1970–1979,[2] letters are a recurring topic between Lowell and Hardwick, even before Lowell publishes The Dolphin, his book of autobiographical, unrhymed sonnets that narrate what he calls “one man, two women, the common novel plot”: his experience, at age fifty-three, of falling in love with Lady Caroline Blackwood, the beautiful, thirty-eight-year-old Anglo-Irish writer and heiress to the Guinness fortune, and leaving his twenty-year marriage to Hardwick to start a new life with Blackwood and her three children in England. The sonnets dramatize the poet-speaker’s trajectory of falling in love, vacillating between the two women, and deciding in favor of renewal—symbolized, in part, by the verdant English countryside and the birth of his and Blackwood’s son, Sheridan—over the stultification he feels in his marriage and the places associated with it, Manhattan and Castine, Maine.

The Dolphin won the Pulitzer Prize, Lowell’s second, in 1974. It also sparked controversy, due not only to Lowell’s portrayal of Hardwick as the aggrieved, abandoned wife—the “Lizzie character,” as he called her—whom he unflatteringly contrasts throughout to the fecund Caroline character, variously imagined as dolphin, mermaid, and baby killer whale—but also due to his appropriation, and changing, of Hardwick’s letters into sonnets that voice the wife’s side of the story, whether as letter-poems or admonitory echoes that surface in the Lowell character’s head. The awkwardness here of referring to real people as characters reflects the inherent problem with Lowell’s book: the line between fact and fiction is stretched so thin—even to the point of “character” names corresponding to those of their real-life counterparts—that readers are led to assume that the book chronicles reality, not fiction, despite Lowell’s equivocal disclaimer in the final, title poem that the book is “half fiction.”

It’s interesting, therefore, that during the years Lowell was writing and revising The Dolphin, Hardwick, along with pursuing her own distinguished writing career and caring for their teen-aged daughter, Harriet, was devoting significant time to organizing Lowell’s papers for sale to archives—and thinking deeply about correspondence as a subjective record of a writer’s life. Even before she learned that Lowell was making her letters into poems, she was concerned about how selective editing can slant readers’ perspectives; she tells Lowell that

. . . last spring Mary Jarrell called wanting to be able to make copies of Randall’s letters to you for a volume she wants to edit. I said I didn’t think she should edit the volume—speaking as a critic—and that I don’t particularly believe in one little volume of letters, then another. These things tend to preempt the field for quite sometime to come. She would make casual statements about, “Oh, I’ll take out anything personal,” and I informed her that the question of taking out was the great question—it is more than a matter of not hurting people’s feelings, etc. (7/13/71)

Presciently, Hardwick broaches some of the core questions that critics would raise about Lowell’s handling of her own letters in The Dolphin. Publishing limited quantities of a writer’s letters “preempts the field” by gaining publicity and shaping public opinion. More important, altering the letters, even for the sake of not hurting people’s feelings, is “the great question.” Such omissions misrepresent the original and risk giving readers a false impression: not only of what the writer said—the nuances and range of expression—but also of her character. In “Seduction and Betrayal,” her 1973 essay on betrayed women heroines in fiction, Hardwick asserts, “The letter is, by its natural shape, self-justifying; it is one’s own evidence, deposition, a self-serving testimony. In a letter the writer holds all the cards, controls everything about himself and about those assertions he wishes to make concerning events or the worth of others. . . . Reality lives in words.” Altering letters not only wrests control from the writer, it distorts reality—at least, the reality of her lived experience as she had defined it.

Ironically, Hardwick comments here not on real letters, but on the narrative seductions of Richardson’s epistolary novel Clarissa. Given the hall-of-mirrors that Lowell’s defense of The Dolphin opens into (how should a reader navigate through a “half fiction”?), it’s not surprising that The Dolphin Letters, 1970-1979: Elizabeth Hardwick, Robert Lowell, and Their Circle reads like an epistolary novel, with the twist that the testimony is true—at least, the truth according to each letter writer’s experience. Editor Saskia Hamilton skillfully orchestrates a many-sided conversation. Although Hardwick and Lowell are the primary correspondents, Hamilton also includes letters from others involved in the controversy: Caroline Blackwood (whose letters Lowell also versed as poems); Elizabeth Bishop (who warned Lowell that the book would hurt both Hardwick and his literary reputation); Mary McCarthy (Hardwick’s close friend and confidante); Frank Bidart (who helped Lowell edit and compile The Dolphin and divide revised poems from Notebook, 1967–68 into History and For Lizzie and Harriet, which were released concurrently with The Dolphin in 1973); and Adrienne Rich (whose scathing review of the book in American Poetry Review ended her friendship with Lowell). The Dolphin Letters is hard to put down. It not only reads with the momentum of a good novel, but shows Hardwick and Lowell modulating their self-presentations for different audiences (especially Lowell, who offers different takes to different people on his use of Hardwick’s letters). While Lowell’s self-justifications have been amply documented—in Ian Hamilton’s Robert Lowell: A Biography (1982), The Letters of Robert Lowell (2005), edited by Saskia Hamilton, and Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop (2008), edited by Saskia Hamilton and Thomas Travisano, Hardwick’s letters, including those Lowell appropriated, have been absent from the conversation until now. One of the great strengths of The Dolphin Letters, therefore, is its restoration of Hardwick’s voice, unadulterated by Lowell: her emotional range and cosmopolitan wit, her flexibility, patience, and support for him (even in many letters where she also expresses anger and frustration at his cavalier treatment of her), and her precise, evocative descriptions of people and places, all negate the stereotypical flatness of The Dolphin’s “Lizzie character” as the anxious, nagging wife.

The polyvocal intensity of The Dolphin Letters is amplified by Hamilton’s meticulous cross-references throughout to Lowell’s sonnets. Her footnotes alert readers to sentences or phrases—Hardwick’s, Blackwood’s, and Lowell’s own—that Lowell mined as raw material for the poems; she quotes the relevant lines, enabling readers not only to gauge the extent of Lowell’s borrowings, but also their contexts. For poems that Lowell shaped entirely from letters, such as “Marriage?” (in the voice of the “Caroline character”) and “Letter” (in the voice of the “Lizzie character”), Hamilton includes facsimile reproductions from the typescript of Lowell’s first full draft of The Dolphin. Only available before now to archival scholars, that typescript is on full display in The Dolphin: Two Versions, 1972–1973,[3] co-released with The Dolphin Letters and also expertly edited by Hamilton. The book includes the revised sonnets as published in 1973 and a facsimile of the 1972 manuscript, including handwritten revisions and corrections (some by Lowell himself, others by Bidart and Blackwood, to whom Lowell dictated the changes). Although the faint, small type of the facsimile is hard to read (and the edition would have benefited by including a printed reproduction), readers nonetheless can now compare the two Dolphins and examine, in its entirety, the version that so shocked early readers such as Bishop, Stanley Kunitz, and William Alfred (who objected to the 1972 version, then voted to give the revised Dolphin the Pulitzer despite his reservations).

Because Lowell, and The Dolphin, have helped normalize marital pain—and acrid portrayals of an ex—as common topics for poetry, contemporary readers may not find the 1972 Dolphin as shocking as did its original readers. Lowell himself had already paved the way by publishing confessional Notebook sonnets contrasting the transitory pleasures of his extramarital affairs with the tensions of his marriage. Hardwick had endured his affairs largely because most of them coincided with outbreaks of Lowell’s manic-depressive illness; such behavior, especially at the start of a manic upswing, was beyond his control, and he always went back to Hardwick, who had, during their marriage, supported him through ten major manic episodes. But the affair with Blackwood was different, due in part to his illness being somewhat tamed by lithium (“I’m not mad and hold to you with reason,” he asserts in “Knowing”). He sought, therefore, to dramatize his dilemma—having to choose between new love and old—in the sonnets. Incorporating quotations from letters into The Dolphin, Lowell ups the ante by offering multiple perspectives, yet the overall effect is to vindicate his decision to leave Hardwick, by making her appear—even in what seem to be her own words—far less appealing than Blackwood. These contrasts made The Dolphin hard to bear, especially for readers who knew Hardwick. Kunitz, although admiring some parts of the book as “wild, erotic, shattering,” found others painful: “they are too ugly, for being too cruel, too intimately cruel.” Likewise, Bishop chides Lowell for “violating a trust” in changing the letters, and concludes that “art just isn’t worth that much.” “It is not being ‘gentle’ to use personal, tragic, anguished letters that way,” she adds, “—it’s cruel” (3/21/72). In response, Lowell insists that his intentions are not cruel, even as his description of his family sounds oddly posthumous, “How can I want to hurt? Hurt Lizzie and Harriet, their loving memory?” (4/4/72). Yet it’s clear in his letters to multiple correspondents that he knows the book will wound Hardwick—so much so that early on he envisions slow-walking publication. Describing the project to Kunitz, he admits:

I’m playing with the idea of bringing out the book in a limited edition. . . . That might be the most tactful thing I could do for Elizabeth short of burning the Ms. Then in a year or so I’[d] bring out commercial editions. . . . Lizzie is the heroine, the eel I try to ensnare and release from the eelnet, but she will feel bruised by the intimacy. She should win all hearts but what is that when you are left, and left again in print. (4/25/71)

Lowell’s keen understanding that the book will hurt Hardwick, reigniting the trauma of his leaving her for Blackwood, is difficult to separate from intention. Moreover, if the “eelnet” is marriage —or the pain of a marriage gone sour—then immortalizing the narrative of its dissolution in a sonnet series seems a poor attempt at release (even aside from the creepy contrast between eel wife and dolphin-mermaid lover).

But for Lowell, the highest priority was his art, which for The Dolphin meant striking the pose of documentary truth. Thus, Lowell insisted the letter-poems were necessary to add pathos and realism to his narrative. He explains to Bishop: “Now Lizzie’s letters? I did \not/ see them as slander, but as sympathetic, tho necessarily awful for her to read. She is the poignance of the book, tho that hardly makes it kinder to her. I could say the letters are cut, doctored part fiction; \I/ thought of it (I attribute things to Lizzie I made up, or that were said by someone else. I combed out abuse, hysteria, repetition.[)] The trouble is the letters make the book, I think, at least they make Lizzie real beyond my invention” (3/28/72). Even admitting that he has modified the letters—and insinuating that he has improved them—Lowell claims that they make “Lizzie” real. Yet Lowell does “invent” the Lizzie character, through selectively editing—and often decontextualizing—sentences culled from Hardwick’s letters.

Although he refused to cut the letter-poems from the book, he did make revisions aimed to diffuse their impact. He shifted some of the lines from quotation marks into italics. More broadly, he rearranged the chronology of the narrative, so that it ends not with Sheridan’s birth but “Flight to New York,” a sequence based on Lowell’s 1970–71 Christmas visit, where the protagonist, like Lowell, decides once-and-for-all to divorce his wife. After Bidart criticized the changes, Lowell defended his rearrangement by calling on truth as his witness: “The new structure, with the alteration of a few lines here and there, seems a big improvement to me. I had meant to end with The Flight to New York sequence, even after R.S.’s conception, but feared I would be lying. Now The ‘departure’ is the real, though not chronological ending; it will of course seem to be both the real and chronological ending because I place it at the end—not from anything I say. Sophistry? No, not entirely. This is the real truth of the story and is in a way happening again now” (5/15/72). In the midst of these head-spinning claims about what, exactly, is the “real truth,” one thing comes clear: Lowell aims for “the real truth,” namely the emotional truth, of his experience, and thus the characters—Caroline and Lizzie—are filtered through that perspective, even in the letter-poems.

But what, then, did Elizabeth Hardwick—the “real Lizzie”—think of The Dolphin? Mutual friends, with whom Lowell had shared some of the poems, tried to warn her. But Hardwick responded with bravado, confiding to McCarthy, “I haven’t read any of the letter-poems, but I don’t care at all. . . . He hasn’t the intention of ‘hurting’ and hasn’t the intention of the reverse—that doesn’t enter in. He has some idea that there may be one person, reader, who needs to be informed of the background to the Caroline poems; without me he feels—foolishly I think—that it is ‘incomplete’” (4/9/72). Hardwick knows Lowell well enough to gauge his rationale, but her conception of the letter-poems as mere “background” shows that she has no clue of their prominence in the narrative. She writes on the same day to Lowell, “The matter of your work is yours entirely and I don’t think you have it in your power to ‘hurt’ me. . . . I mean that I cannot see what harm can come to me from a poem by you. Why should I care? The credit or discredit is entirely yours. I don’t see any of this as having anything to do with me in the long run.” While Hardwick, from experience, accepts that Lowell will do what he thinks he must do artistically, she also envisions the poems, and “the credit or discredit,” as being his “entirely.”

When the revised version was published fourteen months later, however, she learned, to her horror, that readers saw otherwise, even as she realized that the words attributed to the “Lizzie character” were not entirely hers. She was especially outraged to see reviewers dissecting the marriage in publications ranging from literary journals to wide-circulation magazines like Newsweek. Furious, she wrote Lowell that she was “near breakdown and also paranoid and frightened about what you may next have in store, such as madly using this letter.” On the same day, she wrote more measuredly to his publisher, Robert Giroux, complaining of the use of her letters without permission, Lowell’s distortion of them, and her inability to defend herself publically: “The facts are not in the nature of facts because of the disguise as poetry and so cannot be answered . . . There are so many wrong impressions in the book—nothing about my willingness to divorce, my acceptance of the separation, the good spirits of myself and the utterly gratifying contentment of my daughter” (7/5/73). To Bishop, who wrote expressing concern, she not only admits to harm done (“somehow it has hurt me as much as anything in my life”) but raises the question of value. A shrewd literary critic even in the depths of her despair, Hardwick condemned bad poetry in The Dolphin; she tells Bishop, “after having I guess some idea of what was behind Cal’s need to do this, it seemed so sad that the work was, certainly in that part that relies upon me and Harriet, so inane, empty, unnecessary. I cannot understand how three years of work could have left so many fatuities, indiscretions, bad lines still there on the page. That breaks my heart for all of us” (7/27/73). For the rest of her life, Hardwick never wavered from her conviction that bad art just isn’t worth that much: she resented not only Lowell’s appropriation of her letters, but his making of sub-par poems from them.

So, how do Hardwick’s own letters differ from Lowell’s representations of them in the letter-poems? The Dolphin Letters, paired with The Dolphin: Two Versions, exposes both the changes and the damaging effects of where he positioned the letter-poems in his series. For example, Hardwick closes a letter to Lowell—in which she tells him the time isn’t right for Harriet to visit him and Blackwood—with the assurance, “Harriet is fine, but she doesn’t like to talk about what is happening to you, even though she does talk about you, as you were, with much pleasure and pride” (4/9/71). Hurt that Harriet wouldn’t be coming (“It’s a great blow to me”), Lowell snipes, “You seem to have found a curious new stylistic trick, the phrase, uncertain between two meanings, id est, [‘]Harriet’s not interested in what has happened to you.’ Happened has two meanings, but I don’t suppose you knew that you couldn’t have both” (4/13/1971). Rankled, Hardwick replies, “Dearest Cal: I despair of letters. Apparently mine do not say what I mean or feel and I’m sure I read yours wrongly also. No matter. If you say I wrote ‘Harriet isn’t interested in what is happening to you,’ I suppose I did, but it is a fantastic untruth, misprint, something” (4/19/71). “Misprint” registers her bemusement, yet gives Lowell the benefit of the doubt, due to her assumption that, because he possesses her letter, he must be quoting her accurately. She goes on to reassure him about Harriet:

I do know that sometime not so long ago I said you were the main concern, not London, the scene or anything else. I want more than my life to do what is best for everyone. Harriet is absolutely wonderful, beautiful, gay, doing well in every way. I have a horror of upsetting this before she goes off to Mexico, alone, brave, all that. Children her age, Cal, just don’t sit around talking about things about their parents that upset them. . . . But I do talk to Harriet about you, gaily, friendly, never denying that I miss you, but no longer bitter. I have been absolutely candid about everything, clear, sure, and she knows you are not coming home, everything. . . .

I guess we will go to Washington this weekend. It is a dedication and like dedications, repetitious, gratuitous often, not specially interesting or fresh—merely necessary.

I hope there is nothing askew in this letter! May God keep you[.]

Unperturbed by the concerns Hardwick had already raised about his misreadings, Lowell appropriated this letter as a poem and further distorted the sentence under debate, along with other key elements:

“I despair of letters. You say I wrote H. isn’t
interested in the thing happening to you now.
So what? A fantastic untruth, misprint, something;
I meant the London scene’s no big concern, just you . . .
She’s absolutely beautiful, gay, etc.
I’ve a horror of turmoiling her before she flies
to Mexico, alone and brave, half-Spanish.
Children her age don’t sit about talking out
the thing about their parents. I do talk about you,
and I have never denied I miss you . . .
I guess we’ll make Washington this weekend;
it’s a demonstration, like all demonstrations,
repetitious, gratuitous, unfresh . . . just needed.
I hope nothing is mis-said in this letter.”

The tone here is flippant, cutting, accusatory. Small word changes—such as the substitution of “So what?” for “No Matter”—and the simplification of Hardwick’s nuanced complex sentences, harshen both the tone and the pacing. Lowell also eliminates Hardwick’s softening expressions of care and concern (“I want more than my life to do what is best for everyone,” “But I do talk to Harriet about you, gaily, friendly, never denying that I miss you, but no longer bitter”), while the added words, “unfresh” and “the thing,” tie the poem to others in the series. The “thing” is not only Caroline’s pregnancy, but also, in the wife’s letter concluding “Green Sore,” the previous poem, the poet-protagonist’s “physical presence or absence is the thing.” And, in the context of other Dolphin poems, “repetitious, gratuitous, unfresh” characterize the marriage, more than the demonstrations. The “I despair of letters” sonnet constitutes the wife’s last words in the 1972 Dolphin. The poem is followed by “Later Week at Milgate,” in which room refurbishment at Caroline’s country house becomes a metaphor for the speaker’s renewal in the face of age, and leads him to recall the marriage to Lizzie, which he equates with death: “I still remember more things than I forget: / once it was the equivalent to everlasting / to stay loyal to my other person loved, / in Maine each rock a skull, our common gravestone.” With his “fresh wife, children, house and sky,” he gains new life, symbolized by the birth of Sheridan in the next poem. Reworking the overall chronology of The Dolphin may have blunted what Lowell came to recognize as the “callous happy ending” of the birth in the 1972 version, yet did little to muffle the callous contrasts between the linguistic flatness of the wife’s speech and the linguistic flair—the poetry—he grants to the musings of the protagonist, the vignettes of Caroline, the many morning scenes of joyful waking to his lush life with her, and his descriptions of England’s green and pleasant land as a life-giving antidote to the bleak prospects of Maine and Manhattan.

Whereas the “Lizzie character” doesn’t seem like much of a heroine in either version of The Dolphin, Elizabeth Hardwick shines in The Dolphin Letters. In her eventual acceptance of Lowell’s relationship with Blackwood, and also in her own self-renewal—especially her rededication to her writing career—she fits the description she herself gives in “Seduction and Betrayal” of “the betrayed heroine,” who, “unlike the merely betrayed woman, is never under the illusion that love or sex confers rights upon human beings. . . . Affections are not things and persons never can become possessions, matters of ownership. . . . When love goes wrong the survival of the spirit appears to stand upon endurance, independence, tolerance, solitary grief. These are tremendously moving qualities, and when they are called upon it is usual for the heroine to overshadow the man who is the origin of her torment.” Lowell’s changes to the letters drain them of the very qualities—especially independence and tolerance—that give Hardwick’s epistolary testimony such strength and poignancy (and which also enabled her to take Lowell back into her life, though as “a kind of friendship, and listening to his grief,” as she tells McCarthy, when his marriage to Blackwood foundered in 1977, the year of his death).

Hardwick’s contrast between persons and possessions highlights strategies she adopted for “Writing a Novel,” which Hamilton includes in an appendix to The Dolphin Letters. Completed in the wake of The Dolphin’s publication, and expanded into Sleepless Nights (1979), “Writing a Novel,” an experimental hybrid between story and essay, debates the question of whether—and how—fictions can tell the truth about experience. In The Dolphin, mortality is much on the speaker’s mind, and Lowell evokes Keats’s “To Autumn”—the drawing out of sensuous experience, a “gold lull” before the eventual onset of death—in the many languorous late summer and autumnal moments with Caroline, in sonnets set at Milgate. In contrast, Hardwick’s muse is Hardy, for whom possessions evoke persons lost and the inexorable passage of time. Lowell had fallen for Blackwood so precipitously—moving in with her on the night their affair began in April 1970 and returning to New York only once, for Christmas in 1970–71, before he finally divorced Hardwick and married Blackwood in October 1972, that Hardwick was left behind—“like a widow,” she notes in one letter—surrounded by his possessions. Her catalogues of them in the letters are full-on Hardyesque: “Well, you are certainly not gone from here [Castine]. Your red wool shirt, your black and white checked wool, your sneakers, your dungarees, your bed in the barn and up here, your field glasses, your old muddy boots . . . It’s all like a Hardy poem. Birds are nesting in the house down there and up here. The trellis with the dutchman’s pipe vine absolutely collapsed, something before I came, and I am just staring at it, thinking about the next step” (7/14/70). She references Hardy again in a postscript to a letter about having to sell the house, “The seals, the swallows miss you & so do I. How awful life is in some ways, with its swift passage!” (5/24/73). She found “The Going,” the poem she alludes to here, so resonant that she quotes from it at the close of “Writing a Novel” and Sleepless Nights: “. . . O you could not know / That such swift fleeing / No soul foreseeing— / Not even I—would undo me so!” Yet in both pieces, these lines refer not to Lowell, but “to people I have buried.” In several letters, Lowell encouraged Hardwick to feature him in her fiction—as a pendant, “acerb” portrait to his characterization of her in The Dolphin (“Whatever you do, don’t burn your Notebook! I hope to live in it long after I’m dirt”). But Hardwick refused to take the bait. Instead, she did the opposite: sparing only two fleeting glances at him in Sleepless Nights, while prioritizing as major characters comparatively minor figures from her life. In “Writing a Novel,” Lowell is entirely absent as a character and present only implicitly in the things, and places, the narrator, “Elizabeth,” describes in letters to her friend “M” (in the same warm, confiding style as Hardwick’s letters to McCarthy). The letters showcase Hardwick’s gorgeous prose, marked by artful syntax and pacing, striking details, and exquisitely modulated emotion: stylistic effects missing from the “Lizzie” poems in The Dolphin. “Here I am,” announces “Elizabeth” repeatedly, in the Boston house on Marlborough Street in 1954, in the Upper West Side apartment in 1962, and having just sold the Castine house, planning in 1972 to renovate the barn, Lowell’s former writing studio, as her own, “new place.” It’s hard not to interpret these letters as saying this is what a “real” Elizabeth Hardwick letter looks like—even though she frames them as fiction. But the letters in “Writing a Novel” also come close to representing the stark truth of her relationship with Lowell: by 1973, it existed only in memory—a Hardyesque haunting spurred by places and possessions she had shared with him—and in correspondence. Lowell the person had gone. “Was that written for the archives?” the “Elizabeth character” asks after the close of the first letter. Thanks to Saskia Hamilton, the real Elizabeth Hardwick’s letters are no longer buried in an archive, but on rich display in The Dolphin Letters for readers to witness—and savor, like letters penned by the heroine of a good epistolary novel.
[1] Slashes indicate additions written on the typescript, usually by Robert Lowell.

[2] THE DOLPHIN LETTERS, 1970–1979: Elizabeth Hardwick, Robert Lowell, and Their Circle, ed. by Saskia Hamilton. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $50.00.

[3] THE DOLPHIN: Two Versions, 1972–1973, by Robert Lowell, ed. by Saskia Hamilton. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $18.00p.