In the summer of 1935, when he was 18, Robert Lowell and two friends from St Mark’s School – Blair Clark and Frank Parker – rented a house in Nantucket. Under Lowell’s direction, they studied the Bible (with special attention to the Book of Job) and ate cereal with raw honey and ‘badly’ cooked eels. Lowell decided that Clark should quit smoking and, when Clark resisted, chased him around and knocked him down. He also decided that they should get drunk, and so they mixed rum and cocoa and drank it ‘as if we were mainlining heroin’. ‘Why did we go along with it?’ Clark later wondered. The next summer they returned to Nantucket. By then Lowell had completed his first year at Harvard and was engaged to Parker’s cousin Anne Dick. That year’s programme included studying 75 Elizabethan plays; Anne, who didn’t set foot on this Mount Athos, was told to read Troilus and Cressida and post her comments. Lowell returned them with tart annotations. ‘I loved being mocked so wittily,’ she reported.
Why did they go along with it? ‘My picture of our friendship is of Aesop’s bronze vessel and clay vessel crossing the stream,’ Parker explained. ‘The bronze vessel says: “Come and help me, give me company.” And the clay vessel foolishly does it and is jostled and of course the clay breaks and the bronze goes on.’ What was true of those monastic summers was even more true of Lowell’s relationship with women. In love as in friendship Lowell was controlling and vulnerable, caring and neglectful, destructive and helpless to fix the damage. He was married three times: to Jean Stafford from 1940 to 1948, to Elizabeth Hardwick from 1949 to 1972 and to Caroline Blackwood from 1972 to his death in 1977. With Hardwick he had a daughter, Harriet, and with Blackwood a son, Sheridan; he was also stepfather to Blackwood’s three daughters. Towards the end of his marriage to Stafford and throughout his years with Hardwick, Lowell often also had a ‘girl’, as he put it, for whom he imagined leaving his wife.
In 1954, Lowell persuaded Giovanna Madonia, an Italian musician he had met in Salzburg two years earlier, to leave her husband. He promised he would leave Hardwick and assured his ‘silly Sicilian’ they would be ‘together, together forever’. Madonia prepared to join him in America; Hardwick waited for the episode to pass. Lowell was conducting the affair from the Payne Whitney Clinic, to which he had been committed after his third breakdown. ‘The whole business was sincere enough,’ he told a friend after his release from hospital and return to Hardwick, ‘but a stupid pathological mirage, a magical orange grove in a nightmare. I feel like a son of a bitch.’ The pattern would be repeated throughout his marriage to Hardwick, which ended when in 1970 Lowell left her for Blackwood, who was, he stressed, not ‘one of my many manic crushes’.
Robert Lowell in Love examines Lowell’s three marriages and nine of his affairs. Jeffrey Meyers criticises Lowell’s selfishness and cruelty towards these women, but maintains that they suffered for a noble cause – poetry! His wives, all writers, were, Meyers also claims, ‘driven by the snobbish appeal of his great name’ and ‘the formidable connections that would advance their careers’. Meyers is especially critical of Hardwick, whom he portrays as a less pretty, less talented, more status-obsessed Mary McCarthy, but sympathetic to the girlfriends and mistresses, whose encounters with Lowell make good material for easy sermonising. ‘His women,’ Meyers argues, ‘were drawn to his genius and madness … and became the sacrificial muses who inspired his poetry.’
Lowell grew up revering T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens and Ezra Pound (‘I ask you to have me,’ he wrote to Pound as a college freshman), but in the 1950s, famous after the publication of the technically masterful Lord Weary’s Castle in 1946, he started to feel stultified by the modernism of his heroes: ‘I began to have a certain disrespect for the tight forms,’ he said in a 1961 interview. Poetry had ‘become a craft, purely a craft, and there must be some breakthrough back into life’. In a quest for immediacy, he started to write poems about his childhood, his parents and relatives, his marriages and his mental breakdowns. In 1957 he sent the manuscript of Life Studies to Allen Tate, who responded that the poems about his family and Hardwick were ‘bad’, like ‘messages to yourself’, with ‘no public or literary interest’. Tate had been Lowell’s mentor, and remained attached to the New Critical separation of poetry from life.
Life Studies is an assault both on the literary forms of Lowell’s poetic fathers and on the social forms upheld by his parents. Lowell savours the degradation of his decorous Protestant family and the defilement of their sterile Boston world. Everyone is grotesque. His mother, Charlotte (née Winslow), is ferocious, Neronian, histrionic; having married beneath her, she expresses a ‘horrified giddiness’ at moving into a house near the slums of Boston’s North End. His father, Robert Traill Spence Lowell III, a naval officer until his wife forced him to retire, is bland, impotent, empty, an ‘“unhistoric” soul’ whose death is ‘abrupt and unprotesting’. Lowell himself is a ‘churlish’ brat with an aristocratic, martial spirit, a tiny Napoleon playing with toy soldiers in the attic while his parents quarrel downstairs. Away from home, the young Caligula (one source of his nickname, Cal, along with Caliban, whom he once played at school) throws wet fertiliser at his classmates, bloodies their noses, picks his own, sits in a girl’s urine, fingers piles of quicklime. His mother is ‘bored and bewildered’ by him.
Meyers’s first book on Lowell, Manic Power: Robert Lowell and His Circle (1987), examined Lowell’s friendships with Roethke, Berryman and Randall Jarrell, with an epilogue on Sylvia Plath. He observed that these four male poets ‘suffered from unmanly or absent fathers and from strong, seductive mothers’ and claimed that their unhappy childhoods ‘contributed to their emotional instability’ and ‘led them to mistreat their wives in order to vindicate their fathers and punish their mothers’. InRobert Lowell in Love, Meyers recycles swathes of material from Manic Power and advances an even bolder thesis: ‘The mental illness that plagued him throughout his life did not come from his bland and boring father, but from his volatile and unstable mother.’ What does ‘come from’ mean? Even Meyers seems embarrassed by this sort of analysis, as when he claims ‘a Freudian would say’ that the large amount of milk Lowell drank as an adult ‘compensated for the nursing he never had from his mother’