Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character

  • By Kay Redfield Jamison
  • Knopf
  • 560 pp.
  • Reviewed by David Kaufmann
  • May 5, 2018

These new titles prove there's much to be celebrated in the legacy of one of America’s most gifted and troubled poets.

Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character

We don't tend to honor our poets' memories. If we did, we would be setting off fireworks this spring for Robert Lowell’s centennial. Lowell, who died of a heart attack in a New York taxicab 40 years ago, was a monumental presence brooding over midcentury American poetry. His work was knotty, ironic, and self-involved. He swept up all the prizes — some of them twice — in the course of his 30-odd-year career.

As the psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison documents in Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character (Knopf), Lowell suffered calamitously from manic-depressive disorder. Back in the Fifties, before there were effective treatments to stabilize mood and manage the terrible effects of mania, Lowell’s psychotic breaks were huge, terrifying affairs that would last months and frequently landed him in the hospital for extended stays. (It is easy to lose count of the number of times he was hospitalized in the 1950s alone.)

His depressions were, by definition, less dramatic, but no less debilitating. The repetitive and drearily predictable cycle of mania and depression played hell on his friendships, his marriages, and all his human commitments. But not on his productivity.

Jamison, who is a leading clinical expert on manic-depressive illness as well as an eloquent advocate for its sufferers, goes to some pains to show that bipolar disorder correlates quite closely with creativity. Mania disinhibits the mind. It makes the synapses pop with associations. Manic patients see connections where others don’t. And to the extent that poetry — at least as Lowell understood it — is based on metaphor and simile, mania can be spectacularly poetic.

The same does not hold for the depressive troughs of the disorder. Nevertheless, Lowell found a way to put these to good use, too. Lowell was a great reviser, and his poems could easily run through 30 or more versions.

This back-and-forth became the rhythm of his career: In the early throes of mania, Lowell would write reams of poetry, and in the depths of the subsequent depression, he would rewrite. Between the early 1940s and 1977, Lowell published 11 books of poetry and several plays, not to mention articles, reviews, and the other flotsam of a literary life. His Collected Poems weighs in at over 900 pages.

This is an impressive legacy, but, truth be told, Jamison doesn't really care about the poetry. Rather, her book is a paean to his character, not his writing. It stands as a memorial to Lowell’s steadfast resolve in the face of illness.

Comparing him to one of his forebears, a Civil War hero, Jamison indulges in some rather high-toned praise: “Robert Lowell knew civic valor. Sixteen times and more he had been down on his knees in madness…Sixteen times and more he had gotten up. He had gone back to his work, entered back into life…Lowell’s life, as his daughter observed, was a messy one, difficult for him and for those who knew him. But it was lived with iron, and often with grace.” In other words, it took courage to be Robert Lowell.

There is indeed something admirable about Lowell’s battered resilience, but there is also something a bit overwrought about this quotation and about Jamison’s defense of her hero. Jamison wants her book to supplant Ian Hamilton's mean-spirited 1982 biography of the poet. So, their face-off comes down to this: Hamilton has little sympathy for the severity of Lowell’s illness, and Jamison has nothing but sympathy. Her book abounds with compassion for its subject. She doles out forgiveness wherever she goes.

While her approach serves as a much-needed antidote to Hamilton’s crabbiness, Jamison's defense-at-all-costs leads her to take a peculiar position for a psychiatrist. In order to counter the charge that Lowell’s madness was nothing but weakness of will, she treats the poet’s disorder as an external force, a fate that is visited on him by vengeful genes. In the end, Jamison does not quite accept that his manic-depressive illness was an integral part of Lowell's identity.

That said, my real complaint about Jamison’s always intelligent and sometimes moving book is that she never makes a case for the poetry as poetry. While she quotes his work at length, she uses it as evidence for something else, as if all those complicated and finely wrought poems were raw, psychic data. They most assuredly are not.

And a case really does need to be made for Lowell’s poetry these days. It has fallen almost completely out of fashion. The peculiarities of his work — the density of his allusions and associations, his high moral seriousness, his autobiographical insistence, his unrepentantly literary style — no longer resonate. They seem to hail from an incomprehensible, now distant past.

Is it possible to make Lowell sing a century after his birth? That appears to be the task of Katie Peterson's new and generous selection of Lowell’s work, New Selected Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). In her introduction, Peterson tries to allay her readers’ mistrust of Lowell’s undeniable social privilege. Privilege, of course, has become a near-fatal charge for a poet in our time, and Lowell — the well-heeled, male, heterosexual scion of one of Boston’s oldest families — was undoubtedly privileged. Of course, he was aware — often painfully — of his advantages.

A number of his poems trade on his name and his family’s history, only to take that name and that history to task. More to the point, Lowell felt that his privilege entailed a deep moral obligation and, as a result, he was eloquent to the point of obsession in his criticism of corruption, racism, and empire. Both his grandeur and his grandiosity rest on his tendency to see history as both his milieu and his responsibility.

Peterson’s selection does not really present this Lowell — the poet of history. Rather, like Jamison, she prefers to cast him as a poet of personal courage and psychological resilience. Peterson's Lowell is a man who is just trying to get through the day. As she says, “He doesn’t simply live — he lives through.”

This is a stylish and remarkably contemporary version of both Lowell and the role of poetry. While it doesn’t leave a lot of room for the craggy eminences of Lord Weary’s Castle (1947) or for the sheer sweep of history in History (1973), it does give due weight to Lowell’s best and most influential books: Life Studies (1959) and For the Union Dead (1964). It allows us to see the way Lowell can weave together the personal, the national, and the moral in a delicate skein of mood.

Lowell was a great poet of mood. It was his particular gift (when the magic worked) to pretend that the particularities of his emotional state were, in fact, an index of how it stood with the world itself. Sometimes, this led to poems of great despair. In other places, Lowell really did show himself to be the gritty poet that Jamison and Peterson champion. We can see this fortitude in his most famous poem, “Skunk Hour.”

"Skunk Hour" is frequently remembered for the melodrama of its quotation from Paradise Lost (“I, myself am Hell”) and its moments of gothic creepiness, but to dwell on these moments is to miss the point.

The poem is a portrait of corruption. The poem’s claim that “[t]he season’s ill” does not apply to the Maine seaside town that has fallen on hard times or to the poet who is going crazy, but to both at the same time and, we must assume, for the same reason. The world just feels wrong and it feels wrong because it somehow is wrong. (“Skunk Hour” is the final poem in Life Studies. The rest of the book shows in some detail just how things have gone awry.)

"Skunk Hour" establishes that the poet's ill will is of a piece with a general social malaise. Then it dismisses the gothic tones in which Lowell has draped the whole affair. The poet, standing on his steps, looking down on a family of skunks parading up Main Street, realizes that he has been making the wrong connection. Yes, his mind is wrong and yes, the world is wrong, but that doesn’t mean that he has to take despair as the last word.

The end of the poem is devoted to that family of skunks as they root around in the garbage. Lowell lends them a comic, commendable self-sufficiency, even a certain nobility. The mother skunk, “drops her ostrich tail/and will not scare.”

Ostriches, of course, are the watchword for fear. So when the mother skunk drops her tail, she is engaging in a willed and willful act of courage. She refuses to be afraid. “Skunk Hour” thus offers the poet a choice. He can either be scared or not. The poem does not show him making the choice, but rather ends at that instant where he sees that choice is possible.

This is the Lowell of New Selected Poems — a man living against the clock and weighing his options. He writes about time, not history, and he cuts an engaging figure. He composes poignant, adult love poems. He does well with kids. He is thus a more personal poet than the one I remember from earlier selections of his work.

Here, then, is a dilemma. What would the book have looked like if the selections had been made after the last election? Lowell was always a strongly political poet. A newer New Selected Poems would probably give more space to the prophetic, thundering, historical Lowell, that is, to the man who marched on the Pentagon and was a friend of Robert Kennedy. (To be fair, his elegy for Kennedy is included in Peterson’s selection.)

But Peterson couldn’t have seen what was coming, and we have to be happy with the book she has given us. Her Lowell is a poet we can certainly live with. He is definitely one we should celebrate.

[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2017.]

David Kaufmann teaches literature at George Mason University. His most recent book is Reading Uncreative Writing: Conceptualism, Expression, and the Lyric.

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