“Me miserable! Which way shall I fly
Infinite wrath and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep,
Still threat’ning to devour me, opens wide,
To which the hell I suffer seems a heaven.”
John Milton – Paradise Lost
O thou newcomer who seek’st Rome in Rome
And find’st in Rome no thing thou canst call Roman;
Arches worn old and palaces made common
Rome’s name alone within these walls keeps home.
Behold how pride and ruin can befall
One who hath set the whole world ’neath her laws,
All-conquering, now conquered, because
She is Time’s prey, and Time conquereth all.
Rome that art Rome’s one sole last monument,
Rome that alone hast conquered Rome the town,
Tiber alone, transient and seaward bent,
Remains of Rome. O world, thou unconstant mime!
That which stands firm in thee Time batters down,
And that which fleeteth doth outrun swift Time
Nouveau venu, qui cherches Rome en Rome
Et rien de Rome en Rome n’aperçois,
Ces vieux palais, ces vieux arcs que tu vois
Et ces vieux murs, c’est ce que Rome on nomme.
Vois quel orgueil, quelle ruine et comme
Celle qui mit le monde sous ses lois
Pour dompter tout, se dompta quelquefois
Et devint proie au temps, qui tout consomme.
Rome de Rome est le seul monument,
Et Rome Rome a vaincu seulement.
Le Tibre seul, qui vers la mer s’enfuit,
Reste de Rome. O mondaine inconstance !
Ce qui est ferme est par le temps détruit
Et ce qui fuit, au temps fait résistance.
Despite Lowell’s embrace of the true southern hospitality showed him by Tate, Warren and Ransom, Lowell was a Bostonian through and through. Though even he was a bit taken aback by the privileged life he grew up in and retained as an adult through his family’s Bostonian wealth, status and power, he never hesitated to embrace the safety net it provided. There are the penniless loonies, like Pound, who get by in part through their eccentricity. And then there are the wealthy eccentrics, who are tolerated because they have fuck you walking around money. They can be as crazy as they want, and their community will accept it, because there is an unspoken bond among families, schools and businesses that are so intertwined in their community, that they have mutually decided its better to accept a few nut bars of their own choosing, as long as they can pay their bar tab and afford expensive psychiatrists and luxury mental hospitals in times of recovery when substance abuse gets out of control. The field of psychiatry and the big business of treating mental illness and substance abuse largely evolved to serve the wealthy in the 1940’s, 1950’s and 1960’s. During the hay day of Lowell’s drinking in the 1940’s, there was an acceptance of heavy drinking that was part of the culture within which he associated that covered up real insanity, with a ready excuse of bad behavior by individuals as “just having had a few too many with the boys.”
Lowell had burned enough bridges in Boston with school mates, his father, and the upper crust of Bostonian society, that as a young adult and then throughout the rest of his life, he made New York more his adopted northern home. He would spend long periods in New York, in between stints at various Universities, including one triumphant return to Harvard, and travel abroad. Schwartz, who also came from money, but saw his inheritance squandered by a corrupt executor of his father’s estate, who died suddenly at age 49, was taken aback by the level of wealth and servants in Lowell’s parent’s household. He was also shocked by the undertones of anti-Semitism that ran through the banter between Lowell and his parents during “pleasant” dining room conversation when he and Lowell would visit.
Schwartz and Lowell were good friends, who palled around together in New York City in the 1940’s and early 1950’s when Lowell was in residence or visiting, during the high point in Schwartz’s career, when his books and poetry were being praised by Tate, Warren and others. But writing careers are like chess games, there is an opening, a mid-game, and for the best, an end-game. Schwartz had a clever opening and the start of a solid mid-game, but alcoholism and mental illness wore away his talents and opportunities, until even his brilliant conversational skills weren’t enough to keep his friends visiting him at his favorite bars in New York City. He died penniless in the Chelsea Hotel in New York City at age 52.
Lowell’s dark side was in full display early in his marriage with Stafford. There was a sense of obligation, from the car crash, that instantly began to erode its underpinnings and by 1945, Lowell was finding other female companionship to his liking better, if not for sex, at least for its pleasant diversion of company. For someone known as a bit of prude, who didn’t counter rough talk and sex jokes among his male companions, Lowell was unabashed in going through a series of lovers and female companions in the end stages of his marriage to Stafford. By 1946 serious negotiations were ongoing between the two of them around dissolution through Lowell’s lawyer on what would be the financial alimony paid to Stafford in a divorce so that it could be finalized. During this time from 1945 to 1948, Lowell and Stafford were married in name only. Lowell used this time to travel, live in New York and then in 1947 and 1948, as the divorce was finalized, take on a position in Washington D. C. as a consultant to the Library of Congress, the post that would eventually be renamed as the position of United States Poet Laureate.
It was during this time that Lowell lived in Washington, D. C. that he began visiting Ezra Pound in prison, who was being held on charges of treason at the Chestnut Ward at St. Elizabeths Hospital in southeast D.C. Lowell, no stranger to mental institutions, though ones far nicer in creature comforts than St. Elizabeths, began visiting Pound for weekly conversations on poetry and literature. Lowell had always been fascinated by Pound. Lowell first contacted Pound via letter his freshmen year at College. Pound, always a generous mentor and critic and fan of younger poets, had written back and so it is not surprising that Lowell seized this opportunity to further their friendship.
I am hopeful both men found solace in the acceptance of each other’s humanity. As someone who is having to come to grips with the depths of his own demons, I can appreciate the generosity and dangers these types of friendships represent. Friendships like Lowell had with both Schwartz and Pound, were the totality of their beings was not hidden, both the power of their artistic expression, the brilliance of their intellects and the brokenness of their souls, are on full display and tolerated, as friends, is a rare thing to find. And I would hope, all three were the better for it, even if not spared from the best and the worst each brought to those relationships and their own lives.
Why Do You Write An Endless History
by Delmore Schwartz
“Why when you write do you most frequently
Look in your heart and stare at it both first
And last, half agonized by what you see
And half bemused, seeking what is accursed
Or blessed in the past? And what demand
Is gratified?” I answered, hesitant
And slow: “Because I wish to understand
The causes of each great and small event
Choosen, or like thrown dice, an accident,
-My clumsiness each time I try to dance,
My mother’s anger when I wore long pants,
Thus, as the light renews each incident,
My friends are free of guilt or I am free
Of self-accused responsibility.
2 thoughts on “My Clumsiness Each Time I Try To Dance”
Just a note to say that I’m enjoying your series on Lowell and his contemporaries.
Looking at the Pound translation and comparing it to a rough AI translation of the original French below it, I admire just about every choice Pound made. While his English diction may read a little archaic in 2021, Pound solves a lot of problems adroitly as he moves between the languages and times.
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Thanks for adding your insights. Always enjoy your perspective.
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