A Genius Temperament Should Be Handled With Care

Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick

In the long run wives are to be paid in a peculiar coin – consideration for their feelings.  As it usually turns out this is an enormous, unthinkable inflation few men will remit, or if they will, only with a sense of being overcharged.

Elizabeth Hardwick

The Infinite

by Leopardi

Translated by Robert Lowell

The hill pushed off by itself was always dear
to me and the hedges near
it that cut away of the final horizon.
When I would sit there lost in deliberation,
I reasoned most on the interminable spaces
beyond all hills, on there antedilvuian resignation
and silence that passes
beyond man’s possibility.
Here for a little while my heart is quiet inside me;
and when the wind lifts roughing through the trees,
I set about comparing my silence to those voices,
and I think about the eternal, the dead seasons,
things here at hand and alive,
and all their reasons and choices.
It’s sweet to destroy my mind
and go down
and wreck in this sea where I drown.


The early 1960’s saw Lowell and Hardwick transition from mostly Boston, where Lowell had been receiving care on and off through the 1950’s, to a more permanent New York residence for the decade.  During this decade he published Imitations in 1961, a book of translations, from which The Infinite comes and The Union Dead in 1964.  Imitations was met with mostly a blah response from readers and critics and mediocre reviews, not something Lowell was accustomed.  His friends rallied around it but the general feedback was Lowell made Rilke, sound like Lowell and Rilke and Pasternak, generally didn’t read well as Lowell. In the first half of the decade Lowell dabbled in creating a magazine, wrote a screen play, which led to an embarrassing affair with an actress involved in its production and generally was his normal irascible undisciplined self, writing mostly productively and mostly misbehaving personally.  Then things derailed a bit in the middle.  His dear friend Randall Jarrell died, along with several other writers in his sphere (Roethke, MacNeice, Blackmur)  and he spent most of 1965 and 1966 in mourning, depressed doing very little writing or much of anything else.   

But in 1967, things changed and Lowell entered a period of maniac productivity again.  He began writing what would become History, Lowell’s derivation of Berryman’s The Dream Songs and was politically active in his vocal resistance to injustice and opposition to the Vietnam War. He was active in writing for magazines and critiques of other writers work.  He supported Eugene McCarthy’s campaign and was a vocal critic of Nixon.  He was to be on the losing side politically as the decade stretched on and in his marriage.  Hardwick continued to support him emotionally and stayed by his side through his ups and downs.   Lowell did not hold up his side of the bargain. 

In a sonnet published in Notebook, Lowell mixes his Mother’s and his own perspectives, in the kind of painful confessional style that renders all the fat off the bone:

After my marriage, I found myself in constant
companionship with this almost stranger I found
neither agreeable, interesting, nor admirable.,
though he was always kind and irresponsible.
The first years after our first child was born,
the daddy was out at seas, that helped, I could bask
in the rest and stimulation of my dreams,
but he courtship was too swift, the disembarkement
dangerously abrupt. I was animal,
healthy, easily tired: I adored luxury,
and should have been an extrovert: I usually
managed to make myself pretty comfortable. . . .
Well ‘  she laughed, ‘we both were glad to dazzle.
A genius temperament should be handled with care.’

Unlike Imitations, For the Union Dead was generally well received, and continued to cement his place in the firmament of literature at the time.   He had ample opportunities to lecture and write, his body of work and awards opened doors at prestigious Universities for short term gigs lecturing and writing.  But in reading his poetry and about his life during this decade, its questionable if that success in the mid point of his career calmed his mind and reassured his ego.  The second to last poem in The Union Dead is Night Sweat, a dual sonnet.  It suggests life was not easy living inside Robert Lowell’s head.  Though obviously grateful for his wife’s support, and eloquent at times about acknowledging it,  he would not through his actions in the end reciprocate the trust she had placed in him.


Night Sweat

by Robert Lowell

Work-table, litter, books and standing lamp,
plain things, my stalled equipment, the old broom –
but I am living in a tidied room,
for ten nights now I’ve felt the creeping damp
float over my pajamas’ wilted white .  .  .
Sweet salt embalms me and my head is wet,
everything streams and tells me this is right;
my life’s fever is soaking in night sweat –
one life, one writing! But the downward glide
and bias of existing wrings us dry –
always inside me is the child who died,
always inside me is his will to die-
one universe, one body . . . . in this urn
the animal night sweats of the spirit burn.

Behind me! You! Again I feel the light
lighten my leaded eyelids, while the gray
skulled horses whinny for the soot of night.
I dabble in the dapple of the day,
a heap of wet clothes, seamy, shivering,
I see my flesh and bedding washed with light,
my child exploding into dynamite,
my wife. . . your lightness alters everything,
as your heart hops and flutters like a hare.
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.

Published by

A Sonnet Obsession

I am a life-long Minnesotan who resides in Minneapolis. I hope you enjoy my curated selection of sonnets, short poems and nerdy ruminations. I am pleased to offer Fourteenlines as an ad and cookie free poetry resource, to allow the poetry to be presented on its own without distractions. Fourteenlines is a testament to the power of the written word, for anyone wanting a little more poetry in their life.

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