BOOKS: LOST PURITAN: A Life of Robert Lowell by Paul Mariani, Norton £2 4 Caligula unbound

His first wife knew this `uncouth, neurotic psychopathic murderer-poet' would track her down as long as she lived

THE YOUNG T S Eliot curled up in the window seat with the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Young Robert Lowell retreated to the attic with his toy soldiers and played at being Napoleon, memorising the names of 200 French generals and collecting a whole shelf of books on the superman. At school he was big and strong, a bit of a bully, "always fighting the world, ready to take on anyone and everyone", wild as his nickname, Caligula. Shortened to Cal, the name stuck throughout his adult life. His English teacher was the poet Richard Eberhart. Early on he was referred to the poet-psychiatrist Merrill Moore, who also treated his mother, and who dashed off a sonnet whenever he had a moment to spare. Paul Mariani's new biography takes us deeper into the minutiae of Lowell's anxious childhood as a rebel Boston Brahmin than Ian Hamilton's pioneering study of 1982. Father was an ineffectual ex-navy man beached quietly on the done thing. Mother was a ferocious snob and a go-getter. On her travels in Europe she thought nothing of calling out the American ambassador if the bathroom towels looked creased.

Young Bobby (b 1917) tore through football and religion and monastic devotion to literature, determining early on that it was a case of all or nothing. Once he knocked his father down, and spent a lifetime mulling over his guilt. Harvard couldn't hold him that long. He moved off to Nashville to sit at the feet of Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom and the visiting Ford Madox Ford. There were novelist wives too. "It's awful here," wrote Biala, Ford's wife. "In every room in the house there's a typewriter and at every typewriter there sits a genius. Each genius is wilted and says that he or she can do no more but the typewritten sheets keep mounting." Cal was out on the lawn in his tent, writing poems and presumably acquiring that rebellious Confederate accent.

He followed Ransom to Kenyon College, Ohio, where he graduated in classics with high honours. Meanwhile he'd met and pursued his first wife Jean Stafford, who saw early on that this "uncouth, neurotic, psychopathic murderer-poet" was going to "track me down as long as I live". Her face was badly injured in a car crash, with Lowell at the wheel; later he broke her nose again in a fight. She christened him the Back Bay Grizzly. Someone else said he looked like Heathcliff played by Boris Karloff.

His poetic apprenticeship coincided with the heady rigours of the New Criticism and he wrote armour-plated poems to match, so ignited by Gerard Manley Hopkins that he converted to Catholicism. He moved to New York to work for a Catholic publisher and live in penitential poverty, though there was always the Trust Fund to fall back on. Twice he volunteered for service in the war, and was twice refused on account of bad eyesight. Then came his celebrated letter to the president taking arms as a conscientious objector, in protest at the bombing of German cities, and his stint in jail, immortalised in the Life Studies poems.

"God go with you. If you like the company," Ezra Pound once said to him, and it was clear that he did. All the sweat of his early labour culminated in the Miltonic throb of "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket", an unlikely yet magnificent achievement for a mid-century American just before the age of Ike. In life as in his poems he was hard to pin down, the personae coming thick and fast. One minute ferociously pious - he once held Tate out of the window while reciting "Ode to the Confederate Dead" and giving Tate's wife a list of her husband's many lovers - the next he was boozing, smoking and womanising himself to death, or hounding the inoffensive director of Yaddo for being a Communist spy, or beating up the police, or sitting beatifically in front of old Italian masters, ready to return home and "teach, have five daughters, a complete set of china, and join the Republican party".

Mariani quotes extensively from Lowell's correspondence and that of his friends - and what friends he had! - vividly establishing the peculiar patterns of Lowell's zig-zag career: the Victorian work ethic, the suicidal boozing and smoking (four or five packs a day), the "speeding up" into outright mania, the strait-jacketings, the drugs and shock therapies, the affairs with young girls ("Cal thought you weren't a poet if you weren't in love"), the joyous co-creation with his amazing generation of American poetry's golden age, and the loving kindness of a large of a large circle of friends and disciples.

It was indeed an amazing crop of elders and contemporaries: T S Eliot, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound at his right hand, Tate, Ransom, Robert Penn Warren at his left, Randall Jarrell, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman inthe chairs opposite, Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, Louis Simpson, James Merrill, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, William Meredith, Allen Ginsberg rapidly coming into view. You'd have to go back to 17th-century England to find comparable riches; and Vietnam was on hand to provide a species of civil war.

"Talking about the past is like a cat's trying to explain climbing down a ladder," Lowell would say after his confinements. By the early Fifties he was famous, prosperous, sought after, living on Marlborough Street with swanky furniture, maids and 18th-century portraits on the walls like the proper Bostonians he'd once fled. He was also happily married to Elizabeth Hardwick and about to become a father. "It's terrible discovering that your moral plank, ie undiluted horror of babies, has crumbled! We're so excited we can hardly speak, and expect a prodigy whose first words will be `Partisan Review'."

Increasingly attracted to Williams's grainy American demotic, and alert to the emergence of the Beats, he was also in search of a new style, one that he carved out of 200 pages of prose autobiography into the ground-breaking Life Studies of 1959. "Confessionalism", as this kind of poetry came to be called, has had both a good press (Alvarez) and a bad one (Fenton) in this country. With hindsight it seems a logical extension of the conversation poem, the tight-lipped dramatics of A Shropshire Lad and thepoetry of the Great War. Through all his Picasso-ish renewals Lowell remained acutely aware that "we are all looking for darkness visible, and we know that a realistic awe of evil is a...valuable thing for the writer to have." Having located that evil inside himself he reiterated his always lordly utterances in the more public poems of For the Union Dead and Near the Ocean, a brilliant marriage between formality and soliloquy. I was only sorry to discover that what I had taken to be an inventive adjective ("my Tudor Ford") in "Skunk Hour" turned out to be the car's proper name, an ad-man's excruciating pun on "two-door". Still, it took a Lowell to appreciate its Henrician possibilities.

Mariani is good on domestic detail and mostly sensible about the poetry, though briefer and less penetrating than Hamilton, with a tendency to cast every other important poem as a rewrite of "Dover Beach". As ever in biography, much of the pleasure lies in incidentals - the young Adrienne Rich "bursting with Benzedrine and emanci-pation", Eliot confiding "I feel as foolish at 70 as I did at 17", newspapers as "an anthology of an unredeemable world", Elizabeth Bishop's epitaph on herself as "the loneliest person who ever lived". We end with a conviction that Lowell's sense of himself as a historian and public spokesman, somewhere between Plutarch, Henry Adams and the reportage of the novelists is justified, despite the "seedy grandiloquence" of the lastfour notebooky collections which so pained his wife and friends.

One of these talks memorably of "the chain- saw bite/of whatever squares the universe/by name and number". The metaphor is apt for a life that lopped so many branches off his nearest and dearest. Adrienne Rich referred in a scathing review to the "bullshit eloquence" of For Lizzie and Harriet, "a poor excuse for a cruel and shallow book". Perhaps the late stuff was post-modern avant la lettre, devouring its own flesh and blood in search of a meal. The lifelong obsession with Ahab, Satan and "the monotony of the sublime" stayed with him to the end. He died in a taxi in New York, en route to Lizzie, with a portrait of Caroline Blackwood (his last wife) in his arms. You can't get more up to date than that.

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test