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 the 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.

I Feel You Twitch My Shoulder

Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick

The future may be an enemy.  Time can turn happy days and nights into nothing.

Elizabeth Hardwick (1916 – 2007)

Her Dead Brother (Excerpt)

by Robert Lowell (1917 – 1977)

. . …………………………… …… We are ruinous;
God’s Providence through time has mastered us:
Now all the bells are tongueless, now we freeze,
A later Advent, pruner of warped trees,
Whistles about our nunnery slabs, and yells,
And water oozes from us into wells;
A new year swell and stirs.  Our narrow Bay
Freezes itself and us.  We cannot say
Christ even sees us, when the ice floes toss
His statue, made by Hurons, on the cross,
That Father Turbot sank on Mother’s mound –
A whirlgig! Mother, we must give ground,
Little by little; bit it does no good.
Tonight, while I am piling, on more driftwood,
And stooping with the poker, you are here,
Telling your beads; and breathing in my ear,
You watch your orphan swording at her fears.
I feel you twitch my shoulder.  No one hears
Us mock the sisters, as we used to, years
And years behind us, when we heard the spheres
Whirring venite; and we held our ears.
My mother’s hollow sockets fill with tears. 

Lowell, as an adult, did not function well without a wife.  He didn’t function particularly well with one either, but it was as Elizabeth Hardwick’s spouse that he found the greatest stability and productivity of his career.   When you look at Lowell’s history of relationships there is a tendency for them to be cemented under duress.  When Hardwick and Lowell connected at Yaddo in the fall of 1948, Hardwick was scheduled to depart, but fell for Lowell’s affections and decided to stay on.  During the early part of 1949, while both were in residence, there was a scandal at Yaddo, when the FBI, on the vigilant lookout at the time for communist spies among liberal artists, visited Yaddo and interviewed Hardwick on the activities of Agnes Smedley, a writer on Far East politics and a known Marxist.  Intertwined among all this was another scandal, the fact that current year’s Bollinger award had been given to Pound, who had published a book of poems while being imprisoned for his support of Mussolini.  The zealous nature of the federal government during this period to root out fascists, socialists and communists from all reaches of American life, and particularly the arts lead them to Yaddo, who had several individuals involved in both scandals.   The long and the short of it is, in a complicated and only partially verifiable report, the long finger of Hoover’s FBI was pointed at Smedley and other’s at Yaddo for some involvement in some unproven nefarious scheme to steal government secrets and FBI agents showed up to root out the foreign agents of a supposed communist plot. Hardwick was one of the people interviewed about the same time the two of them were falling in love and this was just the kind of heavy handed government interference that was in Robert Lowell’s wheel house of righteous indignation.  He promptly applied the full powers of his maniac intellect and family connections to cry foul; and come to his lady’s aid, loudly!  This kind of moral, emotional and political support strengthened their bond, but it also fed Lowell’s unhealthy manic side with the inevitable outcome that there was going to be a crash, sooner or later.  As it turned out, it was sooner.   

I mention this only for context around Lowell’s three major accomplishments in 1949; he reconnected with the Catholic Church in a fervent elevation of piety, he had a nervous breakdown and he married Elizabeth Hardwick.  Lowell is quoted in Ian Hamilton’s biography as telling Hardwick before they married, while in the midst of a deepening depression; “No one can care for me, …… I have ruined my life.  I’ll always be mad.”  Hardwick married him anyway in his parents home in Boston late in 1949 and it was agreed by all, he should be admitted to Payne Whitney clinic in New York for treatment shortly after the honeymoon to sort himself out in January of 1950. 

Lowell’s second volume of poetry, The Mills of the Kavanaughs, was published in 1951 and obviously written during these turbulent years.  The long form poems are imbued with a rising moral authority and psychiatric insights about himself and his family and for the most part, are not my cup of tea.   However, when I take the time to focus on portions, there is remarkable beauty.   I admire that he kept writing during this time of personal chaos.  The best of The Mills of the Kavanaughs, both the poem and the book,  is a foreshadowing of what was to come next, his best work, which would set him apart in American Literature, all written under the loving care and intelligence of Lizzie Hardwick. 

The Mills of the Kavanaughs (Excerpt)

by Robert Lowell

The leaves, sun’s yellow, listen, Love, they fall.
She hears her husband, and she tries to call
Him, then remembers.  Burning stubble roars
About the garden.  Columns fill the life
Insurance calendar on which she scores.
The lady laughs.  She shakes her parsol.
The table rattles, and she chews her pearled,
Once telescopic pencil, till its knife
Snaps open, “Sol,” she whipsers, laughing, “Sol,
If you will help me, I will win the world.”
Her husband’s thumbnail scratches on her comb.
A boy is pointing at the sun.  He cries:
O dandelion, wish my wish, be true,
And blows the callow pollen in her eyes.
“Harry,” she whispers, “we are far from home –
A boy and a girl a-Maying in the blue