Robert Lowell: Life and Art

Robert Lowell: Life and Art

by Steven Gould Axelrod, Steven G. Axelrod

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This major interpretation of the life and art of Robert Lowell exposes the full relationship between the poetry and the personal and national experience to which it is so remarkably connected. Steven Axelrod proposes that the key to our understanding of Lowell's poetic achievement lies precisely in this interpenetration of his life and his art.



This major interpretation of the life and art of Robert Lowell exposes the full relationship between the poetry and the personal and national experience to which it is so remarkably connected. Steven Axelrod proposes that the key to our understanding of Lowell's poetic achievement lies precisely in this interpenetration of his life and his art.

Originally published in 1978.

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Robert Lowell

Life and Art

By Steven Gould Axelrod


Copyright © 1978 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06363-8


Introduction: Lowell's Poetry of Experience

The province of art is all life, all feeling, all observation, all vision. ... It is all experience.

James, "The Art of Fiction"

"Risk was his métier," Lowell said of Ulysses, a symbol of himself. Throughout his career, Lowell demonstrated an astonishing willingness and ability to make his writing new. "My books have changed," he once explained. "It doesn't really matter whether one style is better than the last. When it no longer serves, you must adventure." Despite this characteristic modesty, he was an ambitious poet, and like other American poets before him — Whitman, Pound, Williams, Eliot — he spoke with different voices. Each of his books embodies his struggle to find a way to say the thing he had then to say. None succeeds completely. The books, and the individual poems, are imperfect because not fully distinct from the indeterminacy of the life that produced them. Lowell's "failure," if we want to call it that, is an inextricable feature of his ambition, is indeed part of what his poems are about: his attempt to create a language in which he could more fully realize his being.

He thus stands firmly within the main line of American poetry. Roy Harvey Pearce has observed that "American poems record the discovery, rediscovery, and again and again the rediscovery of the Fall into Existence — American Existence." Lowell's poetry microcosmically recapitulates that repeated rediscovery. Lowell once commented that American literature looks like "a bravado of perpetual revolution," and so indeed does his own poetic career. He successively appeared as the passionate young rhetorician-prophet of Lord Weary's Castle (1946); the Frostor Browning-like storyteller of The Mills of the Kavanaughs (1951); the cold-eyed, witty memoirist of Life Studies (1959), narrating his family history with an art disguised as candor; the translator of Imitations (1961); the withered observer of For the Union Dead (1964); the playwright of The Old Glory (1964) and Prometheus Bound(1967); the Jeremiah of Near the Ocean (1966); the historian-on-the-run of Notebook (1970) and History (1973); the verse novelist-autobiographer of The Dolphin (1973), recounting his quest for an elusive creature of joy; and, finally, the aging and introspective diarist of Day by Day (1977). Yet for all its dynamism, his poetic oeuvre is unified. At its center is Lowell himself, discovering, altering, creating the conditions of his own existence.

Although the style of Lowell's art changed radically over the years, its essentially experiential character remained constant. "The thread that strings it together," he remarked, "is my autobiography"; "what made the earlier poems valuable seems to be some recording of experience and that seems to be what makes the later ones." "Experience" does not mean only what "happened" to Lowell, for that formulation would place too much emphasis on an active but unilateral environment, and would reduce the experiencer's mind to the passive role of a transmitting lens. The mind itself is active, trembling to "caress the light" (DBD, 127). "Experience" more truly means the sum of the relations and interactions between psyche and environment. It grows from the Cartesian dualism of inner and outer, but through its interpenetrating energies abolishes the dualism. Just as experience mediates between self and world, partaking of both, so Lowell's poems mediate between himself and his world, and between his personal history and that of his readers. His poems are structures of experience. They both record his life and assume a life of their own; and as they transform the poet's life into the autonomous life of art, they reenter his life by clarifying and completing it.

In his first published essay, a review of Yvor Winters's Maule's Curse in the Kenyon College student journal Hika, Lowell revealed himself already to be centrally concerned with the relationship of art to experience. Just past his twenty-second birthday, he wrote that "literature can only dramatize life and world that is real to it. And literary reality must be judged on perception, consistency and moral seriousness." The crudities and cruelties of mortal life in this age, in any age, are difficult to bear, and artists and readers have therefore frequently conceived of art as a medium of escape, a "world elsewhere," a "beautiful illusion." Clearly, this conception of art never had the slightest interest for Lowell. From the beginning, he viewed art and life as being closely connected. In the Hika review he wrote, "When we ask [Winters] 'Is interpreted experience art?,' his answer is 'No, but what art is made from.'" Lowell soon came to ask the very same question of himself; his poetry is the history of his ever more sophisticated attempts at an answer.

In choosing poems from his early, privately printed book Land of Unlikeness to reprint two years later in his first commercial book Lord Weary's Castle, Lowell chose the poems that he felt were "more experienced," "more concrete." A decade later, in Life Studies, he rejected the impersonal and metrically regular mode of Lord Weary's Castle entirely because he found he "couldn't get [his] experience into tight metrical forms." In changing his style and subject matter, he turned away from the canons of Modernist formalism, precisely because Modernist esthetics, from Hulme, Eliot, and Pound on, tended to view the poem as a world of its own, lacking reference to the poet and culture that produced it. Lowell came to see that — at least for himself and perhaps for others — the relationship of art to human experience was too elemental for an "Impersonal theory of poetry," as Eliot called his own early theory, to do anything but block up the springs of inspiration. Lowell explained to Frederick Seidel in 1960 that "writing seems divorced from culture somehow. It's become too much something specialized that can't handle much experience. It's become a craft, purely a craft, and there must be some breakthrough back into life." Life Studies, a book about "direct experience and not symbols," was just such a breakthrough. All of Lowell's subsequent work centered around his quest for the craft and inspiration to bring even more experience into his art, and his related quest to account for the place art makes in experience.

Although art and experience continued to retain an important thin edge of distinctness for Lowell — art was experience that had been "worked up," imagined into form — the two came to have an increasingly complex interrelationship in his thought. His life made his writing possible, and the ability to write saved his life and gave it meaning. As much as Emerson, Lowell believed that "the man is only half himself, the other half is his expression"; as much as Henry James, he believed that art "makes life." He argued that for the American writer, "the arts should be 'all out' — you're in it, you're all out in it. ... The artist finds new life in his art and almost sheds his other life." Over and over again his later poems return to the interrelatedness of "one life, one writing" (FUD, 68). One of the loveliest expressions of this idea occurs at the conclusion of The Dolphin, in which Lowell accepts responsibility for his book as he accepts responsibility for his life:

My eyes have seen what my hand did.

(D, 78)

The hand has written that which the eyes have previously seen, that which the I has experienced. But also, the eyes have seen, the I has experienced and acknowledges, the hand as it writes.

Lowell did not write poems in hopes of achieving immortal fame, "grass on the minor slopes of Parnassus" (H, 194). His "open book," he suggests in History, amounts to no more than an "open coffin," doomed like his corporeal self to perish in time, though more slowly. Poetry had an entirely different value for Lowell, an existential value: it proved its maker was "alive" (H, 194). Thus he viewed himself as engaged in the quintessential labor of the American poet. For the difference between American and other writers, he once argued, is that in America "the artist's existence becomes his art. He is reborn in it, and he hardly exists without it."

* * *

Believing that "the artist's existence becomes his art," Lowell made himself into the classic figure of the American poet, a Whitman for our time, though a more tragic one, as befits our time. Like Whitman's, his conception of poetry closely resembles that of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson has been variously termed "the central figure in American poetry" (Hyatt Waggoner), a "hovering presence" in the work of virtually every American writer (Richard Poirier), and "our prophet" (Harold Bloom). More to the point, Lowell himself called Emerson "the beginning of American literature" and a "master." Therefore, a brief consideration of Emerson's ideas about poetry may help us to view Lowell's poetry in a clearer light — the light of his literary inheritance.

In his key essay "The Poet" (1844), Emerson formulated a theory of poetry that in part acknowledged tendencies already manifest in American culture and in part organized those tendencies as a main tradition for future American writing. Emerson's conception of poetry was founded on the doctrine of experience. He argued that "skill and command of language" cannot by themselves produce a real poem. Rather, poetry results from the passionate, living articulation of life, of the mind's experience of itself and its world. The poet, for Emerson, is a teller of news, for he "was present and privy to the appearance which he describes." False poets write "from the fancy, at a safe distance from their own experience," while the true poet "traverses the whole scale of experience" and gives that experience expression. Thus true poetry is neither a vehicle of escape from life nor a mere exhibition of craft, but rather an opportunity for the poet to "tell us how it was with him." By defining "imagination" as "a very high sort of seeing, which does not come by study, but by the intellect being where and what it sees," Emerson sought to blur categorical distinctions between mind and world, ideal and real, word and deed, art and life. The poem, indeed, inhabits the place where each of these linked pairs meets. Such a poetry, though based on the individual life, ultimately proves not solipsistic but on the contrary "representative," for it democratically assumes that humanity's essential perceptions are common. It possesses (as Lowell said of Emerson's own writing) the quality of "specific generality." Although Lowell's metaphysics differed from Emerson's, he wrote out of a neo-Emersonian conviction that poetry is "neither transport nor a technique" but rather a verbal manifesting of experience that itself takes its place within experience. Robert Lowell, like Emerson, lived in his art, at the place where deed meets word, or in his own terms, where "what really happened" connects with the "good line."

Lowell's esthetic places his art at the center of American literary tradition. In his seminal essay on this topic, "The Cult of Experience in American Writing," Philip Rahv termed the affirmation of individual experience the "basic theme and unifying principle" of American writing. Rooted in Puritan antinomianism, fostered by Jeffersonian democratic idealism, and formulated most eloquently by Emerson, this theme preoccupies the American literary mind. Whether the protagonist is Hester Prynne or Isabel Archer breaking out of conventionality through intense personal suffering; Huck Finn or Jake Barnes trusting his own senses in opposition to society's conventional unwisdom and a friend's illusory book learning; Ishmael going to sea, Thoreau going to Walden, or Ike McCaslin going to the woods; Henry Adams perceiving his life as a perpetual quest for self-education; Lambert Strether learning painfully to live, and even more important, to see; Ellison's Invisible Man deciding to live out his own absurdity rather than die for the absurdity of others; or Augie March playing Columbus of the near at hand — the principle is always the same, the growth of consciousness and the deepened sense of personal identity resulting from immersion in firsthand experience. The greatest nineteenth-century poets, too, refused to "take things at second or third hand," as Whitman put it. We accompany Whitman creating his identity on the open road or in the populous city, and Dickinson creating hers in her house and garden. In the twentieth century, however, the Modernist notion of impersonal objectivity tended temporarily to obscure this interest in personal experience. In most of the poems of high Modernism, there is no self among the objects; or, as critics of The Waste Land have begun to show, the self is there all right, but under cover of the objects, as if in frightened awe of itself. Yet though the self is hidden, the world remains extraordinarily present in these poems. And our need to live in that world and have the world live in us remains the crucial theme, whether in the form of Pound vaunting (and later proving) his ability to "know at first hand," Stevens asserting that "the greatest poverty is not to live in a physical world," Moore insisting on real toads in her imaginary gardens, Crane voyaging through "the world dimensional," or Williams evoking the everyday objects upon which "so much depends." American literature, with Emerson as its prophet, understands the individual's existence-in-the-world as both the overwhelming problem and the source of redemption.

Thus, in the radically experiential and existential qualities of his poetry, Lowell continues the central quest of the American imagination. But his accomplishment is even more significant than that. He has made himself an Emersonian "reconciler" for our time. For despite the wholeness advocated by Emerson and exemplified in good measure by Whitman, experience in American literature has tended to fragment itself. Early in this century Van Wyck Brooks lambasted American culture for failing to achieve an organic conception of life. Rather, Brooks argued, American literature drifts chaotically between two extremes — the extremes, simply put, of understanding experience intellectually and understanding it through the emotions. Brooks applied to these extremes his celebrated labels "highbrow" and "lowbrow," and termed the failure of our writers to synthesize the two "a deadlock in the American mind." This kind of dualism may have originated, as Edwin Fussell has suggested, in America's divided loyalties between Old World and Western Frontier; or it may have originated in class difference. Whatever its source, some version of the highbrow-lowbrow dualism has been discerned by most students of American literature. Philip Rahv, for example, argued that American literature composes itself into a debate between "palefaces" and "redskins." The "palefaces" (Henry James, T. S. Eliot, and Allen Tate would belong to this party) produce a patrician art which is intellectual, symbolic, cosmopolitan, disciplined, cultured. The "redskins" (Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams would tend to belong here) produce a plebeian art which is emotional, naturalistic, nativist, energetic, in some sense imcultured. Seen from individual' critical perspectives, this dichotomy, or a closely related one, has been variously termed "genteel" and "barbaric" (Santayana), "genteel" and "Indian" (Lawrence), "mythic" and "Adamic" (Pearce), and, in an appropriation of Emerson's terms, "the party of memory" and "the party of hope" (R.W.B. Lewis). AU such formulations attest to a basic bifurcation in American literature between writers who experience primarily with the head and those who experience primarily with the blood. This dualism appears within Lowell's poetic career as well, as he felt himself caught between two competing kinds of poetry whose extreme forms he called (echoing Levi-Strauss) "cooked" and "raw." The two strongest individual influences on his artistic development were first the "paleface" Tate, and then the "redskin" Williams. But like the very greatest of American poets, Lowell tried to diminish this split, to repair the "broken circuit" of American culture. His goal was not the middlebrow's bland insensitivity to any kind of experience, but rather the unified central vision of what Emerson termed "the complete man" among partial men.


Excerpted from Robert Lowell by Steven Gould Axelrod. Copyright © 1978 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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