Dark moments come and go

Claire Messud on Robert Lowell, a poet with an unswerving will to great ness
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The Independent Culture
Lost Puritan: A Life of Robert Lowell Paul Mariani Norton £24

Although the historian does not "quite make history", wrote Robert Lowell to Alfred Kazin in 1969, it is nonetheless true that most lived history is "dull, petty, hardly worth preserving, until the great historian assembles the facts and gives them form." Lowell's life's work, both in his public and his more confessional poetry, ordered history into meaning, winnowing out the details and images that could elevate experience - his own, his ancestors', his nation's - to epiphany.

Lowell's life served a similar function. Vital, extreme and excruciating as it was, punctuated by high drama from earliest adulthood, it has been appropriated and anecdotalised into myth - from the 1938 car crash that disfigured and almost killed his first wife (then girlfriend) Jean Stafford, to his death in a New York taxicab on his way to see his second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, with a portrait of his third, Caroline Blackwood (painted by her first husband, Lucien Freud), by his side. Lowell's greatness as a poet was matched by the symbolic stature of his life's narrative, which spoke so forcefully both to America's understanding of the artist and to America's understanding of itself.

Born into one of Boston's patrician families, related to poets James Russell and Amy, Lowell - like the Kennedys in politics - was bound to carry a dynastic aura. He combined his aristocratic carriage with an unswerving will to greatness. When he was only 17, according to Mariani, Cal (a nicknamed derived from "Caliban" and "Caligula") had decided that "All that was necessary was the will and the determination to do the required work and one could succeed at anything one set one's mind to." At Kenyon College, according to his close friend, the writer Peter Taylor, "We didn't hesitate to say what we wanted to be and what we felt we must have in order to become that. We wanted to be writers." In a 1944 essay on Gerard Manley Hopkins, Lowell lamented that"the beliefs and practices of most modern poets excluded the very notion of the possibility of perfection, and to shut that out was to shut out the possibility of true greatness in poetry" . It was to this end that Lowell struggled to invent and reinvent his form, and became notorious for being unable to read a page of his work without furiously revising it.

But if Lowell's poetic progress was a triumph of the will, the spirals of his human existence, and in particular of his grimly persistent manic episodes, were totally beyond his control. The pattern of restraint and excess that characterised his bebaviour is in keeping with America's national schizophrenia. Similarly, his life, like his work, was marked by an obsessive tension between the pull of history and the will to abandon everything and begin again - once again, a peculiarly American refrain. Evenas his poetry sought release through a salvaging of the past, each bout of insanity brought a new love affair and the firm be1ief that redemption lay in an unknown future.

These Promethean themes are the stuff of Lowell's life, and heady material for Mariani, whose offering is ambitious, diligent and thorough. In the case of Lowell, however, it is debatable whether these qualities are sufficient, especially in light of IanHamilton's fine work, Robert Lowell: A Biography. Published in 1982, Hamilton's book remains an elegant, intelligent and largely comprehensive appraisal of the poet and his uvre. Moreover, Hamilton's praise for Lowell is rendered the more substantial by the inclusion of criticism - both his own and others' - of Lowell's work.

Mariani is less stringent in his appraisal: as he states in his acknowledgments, he differs from Hamilton "in recognizing Lowell as a major poet at every step on his development". It is an indulgence which renders Mariani's book somewhat bland, a difficulty he endeavours to counter with poetic flights of his own - sometimes with dire consequences. The biography might have been improved were Mariani's critical faculties more fully engaged, not only with regard to Lowell but, more crucially, with regard t o his own prose.

This said, the book does offer some valuable insight into relationships glossed over in Hamilton's account. Jean Stafford is more fully portrayed here, as is the important exchange of ideas and affection between Lowell and the philosopher George Santayana. Most importantly, though, Mariani fills in the friendship between Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, one central to both poets' lives, both personally and professionally. Theirs - Bishop's and Lowell's - is a correspondence one longs to read entire, and oneof the chief pleasures of this biography is Mariani's extensive quotation from it.

What neither Hamilton's nor Mariani's book accomplishes, sadly, is an adequate rendering of the madness that was so central to Lowell's life. Both attempt it, Hamilton by an extensive quotation from Lowell's own writing about one of his episodes, and Mariani, in his prologue, by an imaginative leap into the poet's mind during his 1954 hospitalisation. Ultimately, though, and inevitably, both books provide largely external accounts of Lowell's antics and of the hardship he inflicted on those around him.

The unhinged genius and the subsequent weariness that made Lowell who he was - both as a poet and a man - still emerge best, and only, in the poetry, in the jarring and unforgettable similes, in the despair and glory. Movingly, the source of much of Lowell's power and profundity remains inaccessible to all but those who have experienced madness, a brotherhood which included so many of Lowell's close friends and associates. It is a knowledge that words and accounts can only glancingly reach towards, a fact of which Lowell was aware. He wrote to his fellow poet John Berryman in 1959, "I have been thinking much about you all summer, and how we have gone through the same troubles, visiting the bottom of the world. I have wanted to stretch out a hand, and tell you that I have been there too, and how it all lightens and life swims back . . . The night is now passed, and I feel certain that your fire and loyalty, and all-outedness carry you buoyantly on. The dark moment comes, it comes and goes."