The Letters of Robert Lowellby Robert Lowell, Saskia Hamilton
One of the most influential poets of the twentieth century, Robert Lowell was also a prolific letter writer who corresponded with many of the remarkable writers and thinkers of his day, including Elizabeth Bishop, Ezra Pound, Hannah Arendt, William Carlos Williams, T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, and Edmund Wilson. These letters, conversations in writing, document the
One of the most influential poets of the twentieth century, Robert Lowell was also a prolific letter writer who corresponded with many of the remarkable writers and thinkers of his day, including Elizabeth Bishop, Ezra Pound, Hannah Arendt, William Carlos Williams, T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, and Edmund Wilson. These letters, conversations in writing, document the evolution of Lowell's work and illuminate another side of the intimate life that was the subject of so many of his poems: his deep friendships with other writers; the manic-depressive illness he struggled to endure and understand; his marriages to three prose writers; and his engagement with politics and the antiwar movement of the 1960s. The Letters of Robert Lowell shows us, in many cases for the first time, the private thoughts and passions of a figure unrivaled in his influence on American letters.
“As this valuable collection makes clear, [Lowell] tirelessly rewrote and reimagined everything, including his own life.” Charles McGrath, The New York Times
“Absorbing and intimate . . . As they unfold, the letters play a resonant obbligato to the life and the poems alike.” Helen Vendler, The New Republic
“The most important book to appear on the American literary scene in many years.” Eric Ormsby, The New York Sun
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux
- Publication date:
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- First Edition
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- 6.40(w) x 9.46(h) x 1.93(d)
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The Letters of Robert Lowell
By Robert Lowell
Farrar Straus GirouxCopyright © 2007 Robert Lowell
All right reserved.
Chapter One1. To Ezra Pound
A-12 Wigglesworth Hall Harvard College Cambridge, Mass. May 2, 
Dear Mr. Pound:
I have been wanting to write you for several months, but haven't quite had the courage to until now. You will probably think that I am very impudent and presumptuous, but I want to come to Italy and work under you and forge my way into reality. I have no right [to] ask this of you, yet let me try to describe myself and explain my desire.
I am 19, a freshman at Harvard, and some relation, I don't know what, to Amy Lowell. All my life I have been eccentric according to normal standards. I had violent passions for various pursuits usually taking the form of collecting: tools; names of birds; marbles; catching butterflies, snakes, turtles etc; buying books on Napoleon. None of this led anywhere, I was more interested in collecting large numbers than in developing them. I caught over thirty turtles and put them in a well where they died of insufficient feeding. I won more agates and marbles thananyone in school, and gradually amassed hundreds of soldiers; finally leaving them to clutter up unreachable shelves. I could identify scores of birds, at first on charts, later it led me into nature. Sometime overcome by the collecting mania I would steal things I wanted. At 14 I went to St. Mark's and never mixed well or really lived in the usual realities. At one point I became very strong but never got very far in athletics because I didn't think in terms of the necessary technique. I was proud, somewhat sullen and violent.
The summer before last I was a counsellor at a charity camp, hit the swing of it, and felt for the first time that I was driving ahead and breathing thru all my pores. I determined to keep it rolling tried very hard at football, didn't make the team but did well and gained a tremendous amount from the experience, then drifted along till winter. At that time I began reading Homer thru the dish-water of Bryant's 19th century translation. I mulled over the ideas for some time, and somehow they gradually became very real. The tremendous growth of Achilles and above all Zeus the universal symbol which has
begun become almost a religion with me. I had always chafed against what I thought was Christianity, the immortality of the soul, the idealistic unreal morality and the insipid blackness of the Episcopalian church. Homer's world contained a God higher than anything I had ever known, and yet his world blinked at no realities. The whoring of Zeus and the savagery of the heroes. I know that the beauty and richness of Homer are what impress you most. I found this later in Chaucer, but a poor translation is an ugly photograph.
Last spring I began reading English poetry and writing myself. All my life I had thought of poets as the most contemptible moth so you can see how violently I was molded and bent. I was encouraged by Richard Eberhart, whom you have perhaps heard of. I spent the summer alone with a friend reading and writing. Since then I have been sucking in atmosphere, reading; and
writing dreaming. Writing and trying to help one or two friends have been the only real things in life for me. At college I have yearned after iron and have been choked with cobwebs. I have had a good chance to read, I have gained a lot of inevitable experience; but no one here is really fighting. The courses are catalogues rather than windows.
I am enclosing a few poems as samples, you will probably think they are not enough to prove me. I pray you to take me! I can bring sufficient money to support myself, in a few year[s] I'll have to make my own living and am glad of it. I am ignorant of languages, but want to do nothing more than to learn. Your Cantos have re-created what I have imagined to be the blood of Homer. Again I ask you to have me. You shan't be sorry, I will bring the steel and fire, I am not theatric, and my life is sober not sensational.
Very sincerely yours, R. T. S. Lowell
2. To Ezra Pound
[n.d. May? 1936]
Dear Mr. Pound:
I have to apologize in advance for this letter, because I am still in the dusk as to the exact meaning of "Why not try mediating on a few MORE of the implications of yrl letter." Probably you expected me to mediate for several months and not 3 days. My interpretation is: "Work out specifically the various problems involved with leaving college and working under me and then I'll consider letting you come." You may have meant: "You're not wholly damned before you start but I don't see much hope." I assume that you made your wording intentionally vague so that I would throw myself into the future and push troops into all possible conjectures. That's fine but your tone is hard to catch. Rightly or wrongly I look on your note as sober and kindly rather than contemptuous or insulted.
Of course I don't actually know you, but I have felt increasingly enthusiastic about you for some time. Thru the indirect medium of your writing I can tell pretty well what I am up against. The main outline is hardly doubtful. If the 20th century is to realize a great art comparable to that of Chaucer or Shakespeare, the foundation will have to be your poems. You have re-created quantity, music, directness, and realism; your craftsmanship, your blood, and your ideals must be continued, but [I] don't think in exactly the same form. Can the main current of English literature float such a vast quantity of spondies and compound nouns? After all-
Ear, ear for the sea-surge rattle of old men's voices
(Justified by success) is just as peculiar as-With hollow shriek the steep of Delphos leaving. Your Cantos practically ignore hard narrative and motion. They are like lily pads on a lake: a flat surface swaying with vigorous and beautiful images. "Near Perigord" and the narrative in the Cantos are more impressionistic than the paintings of Monet and Renoir. Cantos XIV, XV, are completely static when set against the conclusion of the Pardoner's Tale. I would like to push both action and image to the limits.-
nor can Her heart inform her tongue: the swan's down feather That stands up on the swell at full of tide And neither way inclines. (Antony and Cleopatra)
For the exact word and the fewest possible words you ought to substitute Reality [(]boredom, religion, anything[)] expressed with the utmost vitality. Eliot's "Ariel" poems are closely and skillfully expressed but lack vitality. I would like to bring back momentum and movement in poetry on a grand scale, to master your tremendous machinery and to carry your standard further into the century; and I think I have life enough to withstand the years of pounding and grinding before accomplishment. More specifically to work in Italy under your personal direction: plenty of work and plenty of leeway for initiative.
Please don't feel insulted, I have no delusions as to your bulk and my smallness, I am only trying to show you more clearly why I wish to become your disciple. Let me join you in September. You will have no cause to be ashamed of me. As soon as I get acclimated I will make myself felt as an exponent of your ideals. I shan't bring any strings of principles, but will throw myself into the fight and stay there.
Sincerely yours, R. T. S. Lowell
P.S. Relatives have nothing to do with the question.
Address will be: Nantucket, Mass.
3. To Frank Parker
[Madaket, Mass., n.d. Summer 1936]
Plump As camel's hump Or elephant's rump Plump As mountain's bump Or walrus' dump.
Plump and plump and twice so plump As plump as any may be The rump is plump for thee alone And for no other lady
I suppose I am the goat and write first. Of course I don't dare to affirm positively that you have not written. Perhaps you wrote a letter and forgot to mail, perhaps you mailed and forgot to stamp, perhaps you stamped and forgot to envelope, perhaps you dreamt your epistle etc. etc. etc. ad infinitum. With this off my chest I can begin.
I was sorry not to see you before leaving and especially to have missed your "Christ before Pilate." Is work proceeding pretty solidly? My [work] is doing well. Blair is a kindly dull creature who ruminates about the house and life much like a clumsy, slow, methodical moose calf. One night he even had a tantrum, magnified all his peculiarities and wouldn't speak. Even taking this into consideration, however, I can truthfully say that he is literally always sweet natured. Cooks every morning, smiles under any amount of jeering, and will always consent to anything I want. I think he is making steady headway, of course his progress is rather unexciting, yet I find that I grow fonder of him as the days go by and what I thought might be a very tedious summer is turning out very pleasantly:
I have written two fairly long poems and a mess of scrap work. Extracts are hardly worth while, you will see what I have done when you arrive here. When do you think you can join us? I am looking forward to seeing you tremendously.
Anne wrote me about the 25th and her day with you, and your bewitching. I swear Sunswick has the weirdest power: sorcery and death. I think "Cousin Annie" deserves a sound spanking. I don't know how much Anne has told you, but we are engaged. Reality and time crawl on us fast before we know it. 2 months ago marriage, working for a living etc. seemed far away at least 3 or 4 years in the future and now the curtain appears to have fallen almost overnight. I love her and know her as deeply and as much as anyone could in a few weeks, but must admit that she has not yet the same reality to me as you have and that the trial and tempering of the blade all lies in the future. The realities and problems are extremely powerful perhaps glorious, but at the same time infinitely sober. Can she or should she burn thru her neuroses? My indirect work with her this summer will partially answer the question perhaps. Will we be able to float our feather against the winds. All I should like to consider definite about the future is that you and I and Anne ([and] Bobo) will live and fight thru life together always working toward realizing our ideals. We have got to think about living conditions, making money; we must not compromise and sink into school teaching, we must break away from our relations and throw aside all convention that we cannot believe in. I want you to think on those things, to be a friend of Anne's just as you are mine, to help her and tell me what is happening and to realize that you are and always will be a definite and imperative factor. I am afraid this letter has the tone of a campaign speech, but after all that's what we are beginning.
Could [you] buy a cheap volume [of] Shakespeare for Bobo. The Oxford at Grolier (Cambridge) also Marlowe complete you can get one of those green volumes in Cambridge for a dollar or two. Let me hear from you in a day or two. Cal
P.S. Try and persuade Anne to come down to Nantucket with you.
4. To Anne Dick
[n.d. summer 1936]
[...] No one is a "he's a good fellow except for-." No weakness is in itself worse than another. Regard people as glass spheres, filled with stained water, the bottom dark blue, the top almost clear, gradual suffusion forming the space between.
All law, morals, and rewards are based by necessity on the black and white of action. No notice can be taken of the individual's utter depravity or suffering. For some warfare is a lark, they are incapable of being terrified. They are dull amiable cows, munching buttercups. There is also the man whose heart's blood flows consciously to his fingers and the bottoms of his feet, whose every nerve is a glowing filament, and whose soul flounders in his mouth. Both receive the same reward. In the staggering zig-zag to a machine gun nest[,] one endure[s] little more annoyance than the keeper of the beehives caught without his gloves, the other goes through the darkest horrors of hell.
5. To Charlotte Winslow Lowell and Robert T. S. Lowell
[August 7, I936]
We wish you joy We wish you health But would destroy You for your pelf The water's fine and so are we One + one + one makes 3
Affectionately, Cal Frank Blair
Might be more If we were 4
6. To Charlotte Winslow Lowell and Robert T. S. Lowell
August 9, 1936
Dear Mother and Daddy:
Thinking it over soberly for several weeks, I feel no motive for particular gratitude or acceptance of your stand. Outwardly you assume an attitude of gossipy indifference, and inwardly compliment yourselves with the belief that unaided you can run everything according to your own whimsies. Another year of college will do no harm. Aside from that I might as well list out my position on all fundamental points:
(1) I consider a college education and degree as not only valueless but detrimental. One does not meet interesting or useful people. I have no interest in college life or athletics of any sort. The courses (English in particular, also the others) are largely conservative hack work conducted by mediocrities. Any profit that I have so far gotten, except for a valuable insight into the stupidity of academic methods, has been from my own reading etc. almost in spite of the authorities.
(b) The last thing I'd want to do would be to teach or profess, or get a fellowship.
(2) I regard your attitude toward a self-supporting job as sentimental. Perhaps if Daddy had been slower to self support himself he'd do better off now. Apart from necessity (which incidentally is not very pressing) the honor of earning one's own living, is a very small thing when set against the honor of writing lasting literature. Writing that is worth while seldom pays especially at first. I doubt if there is any poet of real ability alive, who supports himself by his writing.
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Meet the Author
Robert Lowell (1917–77) was the renowned and controversial author of many books of poetry, including Day by Day (FSG, 1977), For the Union Dead (FSG, 1964), and Life Studies (FSG, 1959).
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