A Review of Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire

Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character
by Kay Redfield Jamison
(Knopf, 2017, 532 pp., $29.95, hardcover)

Early in Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character, Kay Redfield Jamison recounts an anecdote about the poet Robert Lowell that Lowell himself was known to enjoy telling as an illustration of his “eccentric” nature. In a letter addressed to Ezra Pound, the then-nineteen-year-old Harvard student Lowell describes how, “overcome by the collecting mania,” he once penned up thirty-odd turtles in a well, where the unlucky reptiles subsequently “died of insufficient feeding.” This anecdote, which Jamison wisely includes without commentary, allowing the facts to speak for themselves, could be said to encapsulate a good deal of what made Lowell Lowell: his tendency toward reckless and obsessive ambition that more than once caused others around him to suffer, but also the self-deprecating humor with which he honestly owned up to his faults and happily incorporated them into his own self-mythology.

Setting the River on Fire, as Jamison is sure to make clear early on, is not intended to be a new biography of the poet but, rather, a “fresh reading of Lowell’s life and work,” shaded by Jamison’s professional background as a psychologist and by her research into Lowell’s illness and his poetry. This research included consultation of primary sources hitherto inaccessible to Lowell scholars, such as Lowell’s medical records, interviews with Lowell’s daughter Harriet, and a “red hardbound appointment book” in which Lowell jotted 200 pages of handwritten notes and poem drafts in 1973.

The resulting verbal monument—quite hefty, weighing at over 400 pages—is, first and foremost, a deeply sympathetic portrayal (whether this has anything to with the fact that Lowell was a distant relative of Jamison’s husband is difficult to tell). Jamison is uncommonly forgiving in her consideration of Lowell’s many adulteries (committed while both manic and sane) and of his elsewhere much-criticized choice to excerpt and alter his wife’s private letters for use in his poetry. Though a psychologist by trade, Jamison takes care not to put undue emphasis on the colorful drama of Lowell’s bipolar disorder in her account but, as the tome’s three-pronged title indicates, strives to give equal weight to what she understands to be Lowell’s “character”: that is, his “iron-laced” New-England-bred self-discipline, courage (political and otherwise), perseverance, work ethic, generosity to students, and loyalty to friends.

More than once, Jamison uses the word nerve to describe one of Lowell’s character strengths. It’s a wonderfully fitting word, given its slippery nature. We use the word nervous to signify someone who is anxious, perhaps someone who is prone to an anxiety disorder. The related word nervy means different things on opposite shores of the Atlantic: it means “bold or impudent” in North America but “easily agitated or alarmed” in Great Britain. Nerve is a word pointing to an element of the nervous system, one of the myelin-wrapped fiber bundles that transmit electric impulses between brain and body, but it has also come to take on abstract meanings related to complex mental constructs, like courage. A word belonging to the realms of both body and mind, encompassing both anxiety and the boldness to face it, fearfulness and the spirit to persevere in spite of it: a descriptor well-suited to Lowell’s multidimensional nature.

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One fascinating fact about Lowell that Jamison hones in on is that, “at different times, in different hospitals, he believed himself to be T.S. Eliot or Shakespeare or Homer and revised their works accordingly.” While inarguably Lowell’s psychotic illness was the primary reason he came to harbor this grandiose delusion, it can hardly be credited as the only reason. One might ask: why did Lowell’s psychosis take this particular direction, of all possible directions? Many people suffer from psychosis, but not all are driven to make improvements to the Iliad. I hazard the argument that the specific shape taken by Lowell’s psychosis is a testament to his rare spiritual kinship with Homer and his ilk, as someone who was himself a great poet and whose mind easily fell into the patterns of his great predecessors.

But not only was Lowell’s delusion of Homer-hood partly a consequence of his poetic greatness, but it could also be argued to feed back into his greatness and be a cause of it. Many poets wish they could merge their mind for just one hour with that of one of their role models: I, for one, would seize the chance to do a temporary (mind you, temporary) mind-meld with Emily Dickinson, say, or Sappho. Having actually felt his mind become one with Dante’s and Eliot’s and Shakespeare’s and Homer’s, albeit only in the delusory way his illness permitted, Robert Lowell could not have emerged the same poet he had been before. About another of his psychotic episodes, Lowell wrote, “To have known the glory, violence, and banality of such an experience is corrupting.” On another occasion, he said, more ambivalently, “What can you do after having been Henry VIII?” His mental illness was destined to reshape his mind, and his poetry, for better and for worse.

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For readers such as myself who first came to Lowell’s work by way of an interest in one or more of his three literary wives (Jean Stafford, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Caroline Blackwood), Jamison’s book gives especial satisfaction through its unsparing exploration of Lowell’s interpersonal relationships. Norman Mailer once described Lowell’s personal charisma as arising from a “mixture of strength and weakness…so dramatic in its visible sign of conflict that one has to assume he would be sensationally attractive to women.” Even Lowell’s psychiatrists, male and female alike, repeatedly described him in their official notes as “attractive.” Jamison vividly conjures the larger-than-life, ectoplasmic qualities that made Lowell appealing to so many. After a while, Jamison’s Lowell even begins to take on the dimensions of a kind of proto-rockstar, not dissimilar to the psychological profile of the folksinger James Taylor (another New England male artist from silver-spoon origins orbited by three talented women) that Sheila Weller sketched in her musical biography Girls Like Us.

Nor did the intense passion so many women felt for Lowell go unreciprocated: separate from his many short-lived mania-induced “romantic obsessions,” Lowell shared a real, profound bond with second wife Elizabeth Hardwick, grounded in a respect for her contributions to literature (as Hardwick wryly remarked, “I don’t think he ever had a true interest in a woman who wasn’t a writer—an odd turn-on indeed”). Lowell’s sincere admiration for the intellect of women such as Hardwick, one of his most if not his most endearing and redemptive qualities, is hard to square away with his less irreproachable treatment of some other women. Yet Jamison does a valiant job of approximating Lowell’s complexity, resisting easy condemnations or pigeonholing.

Jamison’s Lowell is a deeply complicated person, born into an extended family of mentally unstable geniuses, cooked into a state of oppositional fervor by a cold controlling mother and ineffectual doormat father. Jamison spends considerable time limning the adolescent Lowell’s emotional war with his parents in a way that secures her readers’ sympathies for the boy; when she describes how Lowell socked his father for opposing his choice of fiancee, we readers find ourselves rooting for the misunderstood young man finally coming into his own. It is no small shock, then, to witness Lowell’s transformation in the very next chapter into an abusive husband: the punch that Lowell landed on his patriarch may have been borderline-comic, but his smashing of first wife Jean’s nasal bones is decidedly not. And yet, we readers’ sympathies have already been netted, and it is now too late to tear ourselves away; we must stick with our flawed hero for the long haul.

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One facet of Lowell’s experience with mental illness that might be difficult for some readers to relate to is the relative privilege, both economic and racial, with which he bore it. Jamison relates, “Activities for McLean patients at the time of Lowell’s hospitalization in 1958 included…an excursion to Boston Common to view the Christmas lights…and a dinner party at the Colonial Country Club.” Acknowledging how these revelations might shock some readers’ sensibilities, she mitigates their effect by continuing, “These activities are far from the patient activities prescribed in most mental hospitals, but no patient, however wealthy,…can escape the pain of mental illness.” At another juncture, Jamison quotes an account given by Lowell’s friend Xandra Gowrie describing how, when “eight massive police officers with guns” came to Lowell’s house to transport him forcibly to McLean Hospital, he “threw [a milk bottle] at one of the policemen” and then refused to go peaceably until the officers agreed to sit down and listen to him recite one of his poems. Unlike with the Colonial Country Club anecdote, Jamison presents this anecdote without comment, but perhaps this is a situation where a little comment would have gone a long way.

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By profession, Jamison is a psychologist, not a literary critic, and it is perhaps due to this that relatively few pages in this sprawling, sometimes repetitive tome are devoted to offering original literary analysis of Lowell’s poetry. Throughout, Jamison hews somewhat closely to her area of expertise, for example quoting Helen Vendler’s opinion that Lowell clung too conservatively to the blank-verse sonnet form after he began taking lithium in 1967, but not venturing to give her own opinion on the merits and demerits of this formal choice. Jamison quotes Lowell saying, “I don’t believe I’ve ever written a poem in meter where I’ve kept a single one of the original lines,” a potentially interesting quote, but then doesn’t delve into what this might tell us about Lowell’s use of meter as an engine. And in a later chapter devoted to reviewing scientific evidence correlating bipolar disorder with poetic creativity, Jamison intriguingly quotes psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin’s observation that manic patients not only are frequently seized by a desire to write poetry, but seem in particular to have a propensity to compose rhyming poetry. This could have dovetailed into an interesting discussion of Lowell’s complex uses of rhyme in his poetry during an era when free verse was coming to the fore, but Jamison does not take that route. From personal experience, I have often wondered whether, for example, obsessive-compulsive disorder, with its love for strict order and patterning, might be correlated with a specific predilection for rhymed and metered verse, or might have a more complicated relationship to it. Perhaps some day there will be a book that addresses such questions.

Still, at all the right moments in the text, Jamison quotes sensitively from Lowell’s verse, exerting utmost intelligence and delicacy to situate each of Lowell’s poems in the appropriate biographical context. For instance, she makes the wise decision to quote my favorite Lowell poem, “Water,” in its entirety, contextualizing it with a few simple sentences explaining how this nakedly tender lyric salted with coastal imagery was Lowell’s tribute to his lifelong friend Elizabeth Bishop.

And then, Jamison quotes generously from “Night Sweat,” Lowell’s poem for his beloved wife Elizabeth Hardwick, including the lines, “Poor turtle, tortoise, if I cannot clear / the surface of these troubled waters here, / absolve me, help me, Dear Heart, as you bear / this world’s dead weight and cycle on your back.” Where Yeats had his gyres, Lowell had his “cycles,” the periodic swings between mania and depression that cut through his life like tractor tires. Many times in the book, Jamison tries to explain how Lowell suffered debilitating guilt from the realization of how much pain his mental illness caused his wife and other loved ones. This quoted scrap of poetry, which ties Lowell’s feelings about Hardwick back to the teenhood anecdote about him starving turtles in a well, drives that point home more vividly than a dozen pages of prose.

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Doubtless, everyone who has read and had feelings about Lowell will in some measure wish that this book were something it is not: some will wish that it contained more than a few stray mentions of Lowell’s Vietnam War opposition and his other political activity, while others will regret that it did not contain more incisive analysis of his poetic craft. Such will be the case for any great book about any great poet.

I cannot speak for others of my generation, but during my growing up, Lowell often seemed to me to be dismissed by my elders as a relic of a no-longer-relevant past. My grade-school teachers never mentioned him, while some of my college instructors alluded to him with impatience and irritation as if they had outgrown him: they would shake their heads over Lowell’s wrongheadedness as they retold the infamous anecdote about how Lowell wore a peeved face when Frank O’Hara performed “Poem (Lana Turner has collapsed!)” at a 1962 poetry reading that the two men headlined together (Lowell is thought to have been displeased that O’Hara was performing a poem he had scribbled on the Staten Island Ferry rather than a more “serious” poem that had undergone laborious rewritings and revisions). Lowell was made out to be a sort of bugaboo, a crotchety elder statesman of poetry, more limestone than flesh-and-blood, to be rebelled against if he was to be thought of at all. Jamison’s big-hearted, sympathetic, and exhaustively researched book does contemporary readers an invaluable service by helping resuscitate Lowell’s reputation, reminding us not only of his genius but also of his humanity and, with it, his ongoing relevance to life and poetry today.

Jenna Lê

Jenna Lê

Jenna Lê, a daughter of Vietnam War refugees, holds a B.A. in mathematics and an M.D. She lives and works as a physician and educator in New Hampshire. She is the author of two full-length poetry collections, Six Rivers (NYQ Books, 2011) and A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora (Indolent Books, 2018; 1st ed. Anchor & Plume Press, 2016), the latter of which won Second Place in the 2017 Elgin Awards.
Jenna Lê

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Author: Jenna Lê

Jenna Lê, a daughter of Vietnam War refugees, holds a B.A. in mathematics and an M.D. She lives and works as a physician and educator in New Hampshire. She is the author of two full-length poetry collections, Six Rivers (NYQ Books, 2011) and A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora (Indolent Books, 2018; 1st ed. Anchor & Plume Press, 2016), the latter of which won Second Place in the 2017 Elgin Awards.