A Letter from the Bottom of the World: On Robert Lowell, Poetry and Madness

In a 1959 letter to his fellow poet John Berryman, Robert Lowell wrote,

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 goes.

Berryman had telephoned him the night before; he had just separated from his second wife. Lowell had indeed been there too, he really had “gone through the same troubles”; had, like Berryman, conducted an unstable and at times tumultuous personal life, had struggled with alcohol, had suffered from devastating mental illness. “The bottom of the world” was a place both men knew well. Neither would ever fully break free of the cycle of suffering. Berryman would commit suicide in 1972, while Lowell would continue to suffer periodic breakdowns and frequent hospitalizations until his death from heart failure in 1977. The dark moment comes, and then it goes; but for both men it always came again, later if not sooner.

Other poets of the American midcentury also suffered from depression. Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton committed suicide; Randall Jarrell is widely believed to have done so as well. Theodore Roethke and Delmore Schwartz, too, drank heavily and suffered from periodic bouts of mental illness. All of them, despite the challenges they faced, managed to achieve works of deep beauty and lasting significance. Lowell, for his part, was regarded while he lived as the leading American poet of his generation; his reputation has receded a bit since then, but he remains fairly firmly established. Reading the account of his life, and in particular the detailed account of his illness, Kay Redfield Jamison offers in Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire, one feels astonished that someone so severely afflicted could have managed to continue to write at all, let alone that he could have written the poems — poems that combine audacity and tenderness in roughly equal measure — on which that reputation is based.

Part of Lowell’s misfortune was to suffer in an era in which understanding of manic-depressive illness — Jamison prefers this term to the more current “bipolar disorder” — was limited at best. Lithium, the treatment that worked best for Lowell, came late onto the scene; by the time he began taking it in 1968 he had been sick for decades. (“It’s terrible,” he told Robert Giroux, “to think that all I’ve suffered, and all the suffering I’ve caused, might have arisen from the lack of a little salt in my brain.” Even then, while the lithium treatments improved his life considerably, they did not permanently relieve the manic cycle or prevent him from being hospitalized on occasion; the proper dosage and application of the new drug still needed to be worked out. Electroconvulsive therapy was tried early on; its ameliorations were at best temporary. As for psychoanalysis, Lowell found it interesting at times but mostly ineffective: while his emotional life was undeniably complex, the root of his problem was chemical. A late poem, “Notice,” expresses the poignant skepticism and frustration of an afflicted man whom medicine has repeatedly failed to save:

The resident doctor said,
“We are not deep in ideas, imagination, or enthusiasm —
how can we help you?”
I asked,
“These days of only poems and depression —
what can I do with them?
Will they help me to notice
what I cannot bear to look at?”

In manic-depressive illness, episodes of acute mania are followed by plunges into depression. In between are reprieves, periods of normalcy and calm. Those who knew Lowell talked about him as if he were two different people: one a tender, charming, brilliant, and entertaining man — Derek Walcott once referred to the “gentle, amused, benign beauty of [Lowell] when he was calm” — the other a chaotic, terrifying, and frequently delusional dynamo spinning wildly out of control. Jamison, though her focus lies largely on his illness, is keenly aware that Lowell was more often than not sane and lovable; she does not let the reader mistake the madness for the man. “He was known as a gentle and kind man when he was well,” she writes. “That he was well most of the time is underappreciated; the shadow cast by his illness was long.” The playwright William Alfred, a close friend of Lowell’s — like all of Lowell’s close friends, he called the poet Cal, a shortened form of Caligula or Caliban — touchingly describes one of the several occasions on which the police had to be called to restrain and subdue the poet:

So the police arrived at Marlborough Street to take him away. Before he left, he wanted to sit for a few minutes in [his daughter’s] room and watch her sleep. He did this, with me telling the cops: “He won’t be long.” Then we left in the police wagon. And I remember the look on Cal’s face — it was as if the real Cal, the Cal I knew, were looking out at me from within the mania. It was very moving. I’d never seen him crazy.

Still, as different as the two Lowells felt to those who knew him, Jamison in no way suggests that the poet’s mania was deeply separate or easily cleavable from his talent. Indeed she makes a fairly convincing case that he would not have been the writer he was, or became, if it had not been for his illness. She has argued in previous work — most notably in 1993’s Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperamentthat a general connection exists between manic-depressive illness and artistic genius. (A professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Jamison herself suffers from manic-depressive illness and has written a highly regarded memoir about her own experience of it.) The manic state, she argues, opens artists to new possibilities and prompts them to take risks — artistic and otherwise — they would not otherwise consider taking:

Mania infects the individual who is manic with the certainty that the newly generated ideas are important and must be shared . . . The elated mood that usually accompanies mania disinhibits, makes the taking of risks and exploration more likely and creative combination of ideas more probable. To be in the grip of mania is to experience the unimaginable, try the unthinkable, do the unforgivable . . . The element of mania referred to as flight of ideas . . . is at the heart of manic thought. Flight of ideas is clinically unmistakable, characterized by a torrent of near-unstoppable speech; thoughts brachiate from topic to topic, held only by a thin thread of discernible association. Ideas fly out, and as they do, they rhyme, pun, and assemble in unexampled ways. The mind is alive, electric.

Lowell himself had once told Allen Ginsberg that “the particular hopped-up state of mind in which he found himself [during manic episodes] was precisely the state of mind in which his best ideas for poetry occurred.” Still, the use of the word unforgivable in the above passage reminds us that, however productive such episodes might prove to be in the long run, the risks are not only artistic but moral and personal as well, and the effects can be highly damaging. Lowell’s behavior during his manic episodes, for example, could be dangerous. He more than once assaulted his first wife, Jean Stafford, breaking her nose on one occasion, attempting to strangle her on another. His second marriage, to Elizabeth Hardwick, endured for over twenty years; it was a deeply loving marriage but also an intensely troubled one. It was common for Lowell, during his manic periods, to seek out new women to have affairs with; he often convinced himself he was in love with them and several times announced to Hardwick that he was going to leave her and begin a new life with someone else. “I didn’t know what I was getting into,” Hardwick said later, “but even if I had, I still would have married him. He was not crazy all the time — most of the time he was wonderful.” But he eventually left Hardwick too, for the English writer Caroline Blackwood, who became his third wife and who also drank heavily and suffered from depression. (Lowell and Hardwick, it should be noted, achieved a partial reconciliation in his final months.)

Setting the River on Fire is a bit too long, in places redundant, at times a bit undisciplined. Jamison wants to cover everything, and her instinct is to include everything; the book contains, among other materials, selections from Lowell’s medical records, a great deal of general information about manic-depressive illness, and substantial accounts of Lowell’s ancestors and their mental issues. It is, nonetheless, a fascinating and frequently moving book, one that adds considerably to our understanding of a challenging and essential artist, and one that for the most part avoids the standard perils of writing about mental illness in the context of artistic creation. It avoids romanticizing madness, as well as the sort of objectionable reductionism that insists on seeing an artist’s entire oeuvre as resulting from, or being single-mindedly concerned with, his struggles with his illness. Lowell wrote insightfully about his manic and depressive episodes, and about the periods of recovery in between, but Jamison resists the temptation to treat all of his poems as veiled commentaries on his mental condition. She remembers, and reminds the reader, that he wrote about a great many other things too.

Indeed, what concerned Lowell most deeply, according to Katie Peterson in her introduction to his  New Selected Poems, was the depiction of a human consciousness that was highly self-aware, aware in particular of its own ephemerality and of the ephemerality of the world that it inhabited and navigated from moment to moment. (March 1st marked the centenary of Lowell’s birth; the appearance of these books at this particular moment is no accident.) The voice of Lowell’s later poems, Peterson writes, is one that comes “straight from a human body, in the middle of an ordinary day . . . The Robert Lowell I offer in this brief selection emphasizes the perishability of life, its twinned quality of fragility and repetition, as framed by the structured evanescence of daily consciousness.” Peterson, herself an accomplished poet, has made a selection that successfully emphasizes and dramatizes this aspect of Lowell’s work. In light of what Jamison’s book reveals about the difficulties of Lowell’s existence, the prevalence of this theme — the focus on momentary survival and experience in contrast to, or at the expense of, the security of sustained, coherent existence — should not surprise us.

Reading the New Selected Poems alongside Setting the River on Fire, other aspects of Lowell’s writing stand out as well. The biblical imagery of early poems, particularly his famous poem “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” takes on new resonances for a reader who is aware of Lowell’s fanatical early-life stint with Catholicism. (This happened during his marriage to Stafford, who found herself barred, by her newly devout husband, from watching movies that had not been approved by the Church or reading newspapers — or, for that matter, reading novels by anyone other than Proust, James, Tolstoy, or Dostoyevsky.) And the long prose piece “91 Revere Street” — from Life Studies, the 1959 volume that revolutionized Lowell’s poetic voice and became emblematic of the so-called confessional school of poetry — becomes increasingly affecting the more one learns about Lowell’s difficult childhood, his family’s eccentricities and internal tensions, and, in particular, his mother’s disappointment in her husband and the barely suppressed hostility she felt toward her son.

It is hard not to view the work gathered in New Selected Poems as a chronicle of the long, slow decline of Lowell’s talent. I remain among the minority convinced that “The Quaker Graveyard” represents the pinnacle of Lowell’s achievement, unmatched by any of the more informal and direct poems in Life Studies and later volumes. (Admittedly, “Skunk Hour” and “For the Union Dead” are tremendously powerful poems; either would be almost anybody’s best poem, though they are not Lowell’s.) There is more widespread agreement that the work following Life Studies shows somewhat diminishing returns. This is partly, no doubt, the result of Lowell’s lifelong struggle with his illness; but it also has something to do with his obsessive revisionism, his tendency to go back repeatedly and rewrite past work rather than breaking free and moving into fresh new territory. Individual poems appear in different versions in different books, and entire books are sometimes rewritten; 1969’s Notebook 1967−68 is expanded to become 1970’s Notebook, which is then split into History and For Lizzie and Harriet. It wasn’t Lowell’s first bout of radical revision, as a 1959 letter to Elizabeth Bishop makes clear:

In the hospital I spent a mad month or more re-writing everything in my three books. I arranged my poems chronologically, starting in Greek and Roman times and finally rose to air and the present with Life Studies. I felt I had hit the skies, that all cohered. I[t] was mostly waste.

Here Lowell draws a more or less explicit connection between his rewriting and his madness. But these episodes point to a different element of Lowell’s character as well: his profound restlessness, his inability to be satisfied with a single version of anything, a single plotline, a single life. It was a restlessness that found release during his manic periods, when he would fall in love with someone he had just met and be seized with the promise of running away and beginning life anew; as if his very existence were a text he could revise and, this time, get exactly right — until, each time, he fell back to “the bottom of the world,” forced to admit once again that it wouldn’t cohere, that it was “mostly waste.” Which explains, perhaps, why, as I read through the poems Peterson has selected for New Selected Poems, the lines I found most affecting were from a poem I had never taken much notice of before, a late poem called “Hospital 1” from Lowell’s penultimate collection, The Dolphin:

Too many go express to the house of rest,
buffooning, to-froing on the fringe of being,
one foot in life, and little right to that:
“I had to stop this business going on,
I couldn’t attack my doctor anymore,
he lost his nerve for running out on life . . . ”
“Where I am not,” we chime, “is where I am.”
Dejection washes our pollution bare.
My shoes? Did they walk out on me last night,
and streak into the glitter of the blear?
I see two dirty white, punctured tennis-shoes,
empty and planted on the one-man path.
I have no doubt where they will go. They walk
the one life offered from the many chosen.