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.

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