The generation of American poets born between Teddy Roosevelt’s inauguration and the end of World War I proved neither as varied nor as innovative as the radical talents born to the Gilded Age. Though more conservative than their forebears, the younger poets could not ignore the lessons of Eliot, Pound, and other modernists. Coming of age during the Depression, they seemed the country’s homegrown Sturm und Drang, overblessed with the muses’ gifts, turning inward as Emerson had hoped. His 1844 essay “The Poet” may now seem hidebound and nativist, but through Whitman he made our literature post-colonial.

It has taken a cruel century to diminish the reputations of that generation. The best of them died before they became grandfathers, but most had already written themselves out. There were no books of late style, no final decades of efflorescence; and many poets ended in brutish self-destruction. Their moments of triumph during the twenty-year campaign of the Vietnam War, when Robert Lowell appeared on the cover of Time, look thinner and more harried now. The anthologies have begun to shut their doors.

Delmore Schwartz, that enfant terrible once called the American Auden, has vanished from some anthologies altogether. Randall Jarrell has been reduced to “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” and another war poem or two. Theodore Roethke may soon amount to no more than “My Papa’s Waltz,” “The Waking,” and perhaps a botanical; John Berryman, a few of the Dream Songs, whose minstrelsy and blackface have gone from sublime effrontery to grotesque offense. Yet Lowell could fairly be represented by no fewer than a dozen or two poems; and Elizabeth Bishop, as would surprise most readers of fifty years ago, by just as many, if not more.

Lowell first married the novelist Jean Stafford, whose face he ruined by driving the family Packard into a brick wall, probably blind drunk. He next married the novelist Elizabeth Hardwick, better known as a waspish critic. (Given the generosity of her venom, she was more a hornet.) His frequent bouts of mania were often signaled by an affair—there was a long list of other women, some of them his students. Reading about Lowell’s love life is like watching a man thumb his way through a rosary.

Confessional poetry, as it came to be called, began with the publication of two books in April 1959: Lowell’s Life Studies, which received the National Book Award, and W. D. Snodgrass’s Heart’s Needle, winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Thereafter, the messy lives lurking beneath the surface of poems were splashed across the page in Technicolor. Poets ever since have labored under the delusion that art is life and life, art—and that poetry begins and ends, in our mealy-mouthed language, in the poet’s truth. Most great poems, whatever their intention, consist of half-truths and unwholesome lies.

The Dolphin Letters proves an important corrective to the fantasies in which poets now write.1 The letters trace the end of Lowell’s marriage to Hardwick and continue until his unhappy death at sixty. They’re partly an instruction booklet to the misery two literate, intelligent adults can bring each other; and the letters have cruelly and crucially now been paired with two versions of Lowell’s The Dolphin (1973), where his mania for revision is nakedly on display. Charles Lamb was famously appalled when he gazed on the drafts of Milton’s Lycidas in the library at Trinity College, Cambridge and saw that the poem had been delivered to the poet, not complete by the angel Gabriel, but rather haphazardly through second and third thoughts.

How it staggered me to see the fine things in their ore! interlined, corrected! as if their words were mortal, alterable, displaceable at pleasure! as if they might have been otherwise, and just as good! . . . I will never go into the workshop of any great artist again.

Lamb said of these draft pages that he wished the librarians “had thrown them in the Cam.”

The disaster that ended Lowell’s second marriage began benignly in the spring of 1970 when Hardwick returned to New York after a trip to Italy with Lowell and their teenage daughter, Harriet. The poet continued on to Oxford, where he had accepted a fellowship at All Souls College, which admits no undergraduates—“a club,” the poet called it, “dressed up as a college.” His letters home were slow in coming.

Unwritten letters have their own pathology. Like unreturned phone calls, their absence leaves ghosts of suspicion. Lowell was soon offered a two-year position at the University of Essex, beginning that fall; after a fearsomely expensive transatlantic call to Hardwick, he accepted, the family planning to move to England with him. Through May and half of June, the poet kept shilly-shallying about his return to New York; his wife grew anxious, having been through so many of his manic episodes before. She perhaps did not realize that for the previous six months, while teaching at Harvard, he’d been sleeping with one of his students.

Hardwick made plans to rent out their New York apartment, canceling her teaching at Barnard, canceling their daughter’s enrollment at Dalton (the fancy private school that made her miserable), and badgering Lowell for not writing her—then apologizing after his vague and emollient excuses. Hardwick received a cable that read, “personal difficulties make trip to new york impossible right away.” Soon she suspected that Lowell was in love with some passing fancy, but not until the end of June did she recognize the seriousness of the affair. The letters before the revelation are made more wounded, more scouring, by the familiar touches: “I miss you, old man. I wish I were there to hang up your clothes.” The discovery of his unfaithfulness brought the usual shock and recrimination on one side, with stammering evasions on the other.

What Hardwick didn’t know was that, at a party a few days after his arrival in England, before he’d even made his way to Oxford, Lowell had renewed his acquaintance with the younger woman who became his Dolphin, and who until then had been seeing the editor of The New York Review of Books. That night the poet moved into her London house. Lady Caroline Blackwood, an elfin, fetching heiress almost fifteen years younger than Lowell, suffered from Alma Mahler Syndrome—Mahler had married the composer Gustav Mahler, the architect Walter Gropius, and the novelist Franz Werfel. When Lowell began their affair, Blackwood was divorced from the painter Lucian Freud and finished with her marriage to the composer Israel Citkowitz. Lowell completed the trifecta. He might have come down with a touch of the syndrome, too. Half-a-dozen years into his marriage to Hardwick, he had shocked Elizabeth Bishop by confessing that asking her to marry him was “the might have been[,] . . . the other life that might have been had.” The connection between marrying genius and impostor syndrome might deserve study—but so might the link between marrying beauty and a Napoleon complex.

The Dolphin Letters tears the public face off the collapsing marriage, though Lowell’s misbehavior was even at the time widely known and subject to literary gossip. Saskia Hamilton, the editor of these volumes, notes that in the two decades of the marriage Lowell had had “at least ten major manic episodes and at least fifteen hospitalizations”—and by the second decade the mania arrived annually, like a tax bill. There’s no laundry dirtier than laundry dumped at the end of a marriage—when a literary couple comes to blows, the air is full of pummeling haymakers.

After Lowell’s betrayal was revealed, Hardwick let him have it: “You are a great American writer. You have told us what we are, like Melville. . . . [Harriet and I] had utterly uprooted ourselves. I miss Barnard, which would have meant a lot to me, but they have filled my post for the year. Crummy, cruel thing for you two selfish little people there to do. . . . You must leave that parasitic life and come home.” Months later, she was still beside herself: “We can’t bear your photographs, anything. . . . All we need to know is when you are coming back. . . . It is degrading, unnecessary and quite destructive for me to keep writing to someone who doesn’t care for me or for his daughter.” Lowell remained blithe and callous, seemingly unaware of a cruelty made worse by lassitude. Hardwick’s description of her estranged husband is indelible: “He is such a childish torturer—that little side look of malice he gives you—and so spooky, more and more. I feel glad to be out of the torment.”

The Lowells were perennially short of money, with scarcely enough for one household, let alone two. (Theirs in New York consisted of the family apartment and two studio apartments in the same building, used as studies.) Their troubles are hard to understand. The Lowells were apparently supported in large part by his trust fund, unmentioned here, which according to Lowell’s biographer Paul Mariani provided $20,000 a year, double a young professor’s salary in the seventies. His royalties were not negligible, and he was teaching at Harvard, she at Barnard. His beloved cousin Harriet Winslow had given the couple her summer house in Castine, Maine, but deeded it to Hardwick, who later explained that Winslow thought Lowell “too unstable to take care of the property.”

Hardwick, even before the affair, had proposed that Lowell sell his archive, then cluttering up his unused study. Stony Brook had approached her that spring about buying the papers and made an attractive offer. She sorted the massive accumulation but also slyly wrote to Harvard. Soon the universities were bidding aggressively against each other. All this involved massive labor to which Lowell was blind. With the loss of her teaching, Hardwick had been reduced to writing short reviews for Vogue, a magazine she despised. Lowell, meanwhile, could not even bother to take care of his teeth. (“There are now five holes I can stick my tongue in; none yet painful.”) Even after their divorce, when their final joint tax-return came due, the poet couldn’t bestir himself to send her the information required. Over and over, she begged him to have his accountant forward the necessary figures. Over and over, he conveniently forgot while juntering on about other things. What a shrink would make of such sublime passive-aggression can be guessed. Lowell was lucky his wife didn’t hire someone to break his legs.

Like a slowly collapsing building, the marriage fell apart, the divorce offering its own drama of unhealed wounds, their legal wrangling a replay of the couple’s separation, Grand Guignol this time rather than Drury Lane melodrama. Hollywood bust-ups are so common that, no matter how lurid the details, they’re hard to recall a week or two later. The rupture of a stable literary marriage, however, cuts into the moral matter of our culture, confounding the rumor that poets and novelists are too high-minded to fall for the come-hither smile or smoky glance. The letters, richly discomfiting during the four years it took to unravel the long marriage, thin out badly after the quarrels over the divorce. The letters of those years of turmoil take four times the space of those in the four years remaining before Lowell’s death in 1977.

The Dolphin Letters would be enlightening and rage-inducing enough had there been nothing more to say. There was, as it happens, a great deal more to say, because in the aftermath of the separation Lowell took to poems. The year before his affair, he had published Notebook 1967–68 (1969), which he called, in an “Afterthought,”

not a chronicle or almanac; many events turn up, many others of equal or greater reality do not. This is not my diary, my confession, not a puritan’s too literal pornographic honesty, glad to share private embarrassment, and triumph.

He takes a lot of space declaring what the book is not, but the whisper between phrases suggests that in that year of anti-war protests he protested too much. Lowell had indulged himself with a binge of almost three hundred unrhymed sonnets, dedicating them to Hardwick and Harriet (“Even before you could speak, / without knowing, I loved you”). Trauma is an unforgiving muse—the creative draft comes with a dose of belladonna. The moment a poet begins to think of his work as an omnium gatherum, the reader has leave to question his sanity—poetry is usually about the pruning, not the shoveling in. The major offenders are Christopher Smart (Jubilate Agno) and Walt Whitman, good company and bad models.

In the midst of this mess, Lowell continued to revise Notebook. In the second printing he had altered a few poems, adding three new ones; in 1970, he brought out a new edition further revised, and enlarged to nearly four hundred poems. His changed circumstances again unleashed the demon in him, and he began to write additional sonnets about his love affair and the collapse of his marriage. Notebook grew like Topsy; and soon there were three Topsies. The historical poems, with a battalion of additions, were marched into History; the poems for his daughter and soon former wife became For Lizzie and Harriet; and a raft of new poems about his affair was titled The Dolphin—all published in one whack in 1973.

Lowell later reworked a few of the sonnets for his disastrous Selected Poems (1976), where he revised some of his finest early poems into near extinction. (“In Memory of Arthur Winslow,” “The Death of the Sheriff,” “The Mills of the Kavanaughs,” “Her Dead Brother,” and “Thanksgiving’s Over” were all butchered.) Hapless, soul-crushing, he vandalized some and merely damaged others. It was as if Michelangelo, dissatisfied with David, kept chiseling now at the cheek, now the ear, now neck, now neck, until the head fell off.

The Dolphin was, inevitably, controversial but not because it violated Lowell’s earlier plea that the poems were “not a puritan’s too literal pornographic honesty,” which made it little different from those in Life Studies. The backlash came, first from friends who had been given the manuscript, and later from critics, because he’d used Hardwick’s pained, heartbroken letters in the poems, used them but also altered and rewritten them at will. (Elizabeth Bishop wrote him, “Aren’t you violating a trust? IF you were given permission—IF you hadn’t changed them . . . etc. But art just isn’t worth that much.”) He had the arrogance of a writer who carelessly seized whatever he needed.

How much of Hardwick’s letters actually appears in The Dolphin? Though footnotes in The Dolphin Letters record Lowell’s borrowings, most passages that the poems put into quotations—seemingly taken word for word from Hardwick—can’t be found in the letters at all. Having looked until my eyes bled, I could find scarcely twenty lines that came directly from her letters, most in a single poem, “Letter [Marriage, 8].” I’m not counting others so loosely paraphrased Lowell made them his own. Some lines might, of course, have been drawn from conversations or letters now missing—or just cut from whole cloth.

Hardwick had every right to be furious, even so. To see your words rewritten or simply invented—isn’t that a great deal more insulting to another writer? The Dolphin is ravaged autobiography, no doubt in service of the truth beneath truth; but what about the collateral damage? Lowell was revising life into art as it was being lived—we are far from Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquillity.” Do the demands and privileges of art include harming those you love? In the book, Lowell went beyond what he’d done in Life Studies, and later he had regrets. He admitted to his publisher Robert Giroux that the letters in the book were only “versions” “made up of a mixture of quotes, improvisation, paraphrase.” This edition could have clarified exactly what Lowell filched and what he fabricated, showing more plainly if the gains in art were worth the loss of fidelity. That would have been cold comfort to Hardwick. To read the book would have been little better than finding that your ex has been posting nude pictures of you all over the web.

The reviewer of The Dolphin Letters in The New York Times claimed that the “letters, of course, belonged to Lowell. He had the right to do with them as he wished.” Not quite. By long-established copyright law, the recipient of a letter owns no more than the piece of paper, which he may crumple up, use to light a cigar, or sell at auction. The words, on the other hand, remain the property of the writer. J. D. Salinger stopped publication of a book whose author had quoted from his letters without permission, and he intended never to grant permission. Hardwick could certainly have followed suit with a suit and likely barred publication. Due to Lowell’s creative falsifications, she might also have sued for libel—she may have been stayed only by the probable effect on their daughter. This massive collection of letters reads like an epistolary novel, one in many ways unfinished, a great mansion under construction when the money ran out.

Lowell trawled through his present in The Dolphin—sometimes day by day and hour by hour. (Day by Day [1977] became the title of the poet’s final and weakest book.) The Dolphin: Two Versions, 1972–1973, is more or less a tease.2 The front half is the 1973 edition; the back half, the typescript circulated among friends a year before, with Lowell’s handwritten alterations meticulously transcribed by the editor. The published version of the book alters the chronology, making the end of the marriage come a year after the birth of his child with Blackwood, instead of months before.

When Lowell wanted someone to help him press forward with revisions, he called on Frank Bidart, his Man Friday. Bidart’s role was difficult, less lion tamer than lion whisperer. Every poet needs a contrary voice, a critic who can stand outside the poems and risk shouting, “Ridiculous!” or “You’ve got to be kidding!” Yet Lowell’s revisions became a kind of madness, compulsive reworkings without the trappings of art—and Bidart seemed to egg him on. The younger poet was later guilty of bad behavior. Hardwick had desperately wanted to see her original letters; after Lowell’s death, when they came into Bidart’s possession, he pushed them under his bed and never told her. She died three decades later, never learning that he’d handed the packet to Harvard with a note restricting access until her death. Lowell apparently worried that she would destroy them; but, as the editor notes, Bidart could have given her copies. She once described him as

the flagrant Frank Bidart, atremble, but ever obsequious. . . . [H]e captured me and began his breathing inanities. . . . I truly dislike him deeply, do not trust him and think he is boring in that special way that only those without any depth or real character can be.

In light of the letters, the poems stand newly exposed, the gold, however sparse, glinting in the miner’s pan. The purpose of this double volume is, alas, never entirely clear. Major revisions are relatively rare and not always convincing. Most variants, fixing typos and making small adjustments to wording, seem just housekeeper’s taskwork. Despite occasional acts of genius, the revisions are rarely better than the original line. All are interesting in their secret access to what Lamb abhorred, that cesspit of the artist’s workshop. Given the multitude of versions of some of Lowell’s poems in his archive, trying to present The Dolphin so simply was always going to be a bit of a cheat.

Lowell was an inveterate reviser, which is not quite the same as a golfer taking more than his share of mulligans. Charles Lamb’s revulsion at seeing the drafts of Lycidas came from realizing that the words had not fallen upon the page like some ineradicable and incorruptible heavenly dew. T. S. Eliot, by contrast, didn’t mind all sorts of earth-moving and monument-razing while he worked upon a poem; but after he was done he was done, his further thoughts limited to rare touches of correction or improvement, like a knife sharpener knocking burr off a blade. There’s a moment, even so, where every improvement creates an equal amount of destruction. It’s Newton’s fourth law.

Most poets, when second thoughts occur after publication, scribble them in a copy of the book, waiting for a selected or collected poems. Lowell loved too well the frenzy of revision. In preparing his true first book, Lord Weary’s Castle (1946), which won the Pulitzer Prize, he radically reworked and judiciously fiddled with poems from Land of Unlikeness (1944), the limited edition that introduced him. Even as far back as Lord Weary’s Castle, he changed lines between printings. He continued the practice in Notebook and its heirs—and his long-suffering publishers let him. At times he seemed to be running into the publishing house, shouting, “Stop the presses!” It would be easy to say that this was perfectionism without perfection, or change for change’s sake, or antic indecision, or yet another sign of Lowell’s ever-latent mania—it’s admirable up to a point, but he always skated past that point.

The two versions of The Dolphin are either too much or not enough. That Saskia Hamilton, who has thorough gifts as an editor, might easily have done more is shown by her long footnote to “In the Mail” in The Dolphin Letters. Presented entirely as a quotation, presumably by Hardwick, the sonnet has at least five sources: a remark by Frank Bidart in a letter of June 1970; a phrase in a telegram from Hardwick to Lowell that October; a single word, perhaps, plucked from Lowell’s letter to Harriet on Easter 1972; three lines from a poem titled “The Messiah” in the Dolphin manuscript; and at last an anodyne passage from a Summer 1972 letter by Hardwick:

Am watching a scruffy, seal colored woodchuck graze on weeds, then lift a greedy snout, listening, then back to the speedy feeding. He weighs a ton and alas has the human aspect in certain munching profiles.

Lowell recites this almost word for word:

“I’m watching a scruffy, seal-colored woodchuck graze

on weeds, then lift his greedy snout and listen;

then back to speedy feeding. He weighs a ton,

and has your familiar human aspect munching.”

The poet has turned Hardwick’s vivid prose to pentameter, changing little, just intensifying. The shift from “the human aspect” to “your human aspect” is cunning and incriminating—but it’s not what Hardwick wrote. Neither did she write much else in the poem. Curiously, if you forget to look at the headings of the letters, it’s sometimes hard to tell whether they’re by Lowell or Hardwick. Their styles share a marital intimacy, the more disturbing as The Dolphin is a book about marital infidelity. Both writers had a vicious gift for simile and metaphor, he saying that “flying is like six hours of giving blood,” she describing him as an “invalid Archbishop.” Ventriloquism would have been a small step.

The draft manuscript of “From My Wife” is a good example of the more radical revisions in the book. His changes are in bold:

“Last March, we hoped you’d manage by yourself,

you were the true you; now finally

your clowning makes us want to vomit—you bore,

bore, bore the friends who want to keep  wished to save your image

from yourthis genteel, disgraceful hospital.

You tease the sick as if theirthey were your friends;

your suit laziesis lazied to grease. And that new woman—

when I hear her name, I have to laugh.”

In the published version (now titled “Voices”), this becomes

“Last March, I knew you’d manage by yourself,

you were the true you; now finally

your clowning makes visitors want to call a taxi,

you tease the patients as if they were your friends,

your real friends who want to save your image

from this genteel, disgraceful hospital.

Your trousers are worn to a mirror. . . . That new creature,

when I hear her name, I have to laugh.”

Obviously another revision, or two, or three came in between, but where and when is not revealed.

If the main purpose of the paired versions is to exhibit a remarkable artist at work, a great deal more might have done. The numerous drafts of “Skunk Hour” now at Harvard are extraordinary, revealing how the poem only gradually and painfully became itself. The early drafts go in all directions, like a compass at the North Pole; and it’s almost a miracle that by such a crippled path Lowell eventually found his way to a masterpiece. This bifocal version of The Dolphin gives us nothing like that. A title index would have helped the impatient reader, as would cross-references to The Dolphin Letters, whose own index is inadequate.

The poems in The Dolphin finally seem much of a muchness, or such of a suchness. Fussy touching up here and there makes little difference to the whole, less the mark of Lowell’s drive toward artistic brilliance than a sign of perpetual insecurity. Of the volumes that descended from Notebook, the poems in History look strongest now, poems where Lowell’s life is held almost at bay, the lines called into being by matters and consequence outside the self. They lack only the passions and torsions of autobiography. Lowell remains one of the great autobiographical poets; but in his finest poems he’s usually more observer than observed.

The memorable poems in Life Studies, apart from “Skunk Hour,” “Beyond the Alps,” and one or two others, are largely about friends and relations, not Lowell’s life—portraits, not self-portraits. (The great shocker in the book, the sonnet “ ‘To Speak of Woe That Is in Marriage,’ ” came from a tale Gertrude Buckman told Lowell about her husband, Delmore Schwartz.) The phrase “life studies” should be taken seriously—sketches from life, art achieved through deep inspection and practice, but “studies,” not finished work. Watching Lowell watch Lowell is as much a parlor game as the appearance of Velázquez in Las Meninas. The king and queen of Spain are shrunken, ghastly spirits in a mirror; the artist is the giant in the room.

The cost of Lowell’s use of Hardwick’s letters was severe. She wrote Elizabeth Bishop that the poems “hurt me as much as anything in my life” and was scathing to his publishers. Hardwick comes off more warmly and sympathetically in later letters, as well as more forgiving, after she accepts the inevitable. Lowell’s new marriage was soon on the rocks. Beginning in November 1975, he suffered numerous hospitalizations—an overdose of lithium, at least two manic episodes, and a bout of congestive heart failure—to say nothing of the sprees of odd behavior, like announcing in a restaurant that he was the king of Scotland. The spring after this long year of illnesses, he visited Ireland, where Blackwood had moved to reduce her taxes; but the marriage was over. He set up housekeeping with Hardwick in what was, apparently, a mariage blanc—then four months later flew to Ireland one last time, dithering as much about women as he did about poems.

It’s clear from Ian Hamilton’s biography Robert Lowell (1982) that the poet was still terribly in love with Blackwood but just couldn’t live with her. A necessary picture of Lowell in this period would have required printing the remains of all his letters to her, certainly the twenty-one Saskia Hamilton included in The Letters of Robert Lowell (2005). (These were apparently lost after being excerpted for the biography.) She does offer two letters from Blackwood that Lowell mercilessly filleted for a pair of sonnets and, in footnotes, fragments of others, as well as three brief and inconsequential telegrams from Lowell. The omissions, which are unaccountable, make Blackwood an outsider, beyond the circuit of The Dolphin Letters, which gives only a partial view of the emotional extortions present and fails to document the juddering desperation of Lowell’s last months. Are there letters from Blackwood to Lowell that also lie ungathered?

In September 1977, Lowell returned again to New York. Arriving at Kennedy Airport, he took a taxi to his old apartment. Having pulled up to the building, the cabbie found Lowell slumped in the back seat, holding a flat parcel wrapped in brown paper. Hardwick was called down and immediately ordered the taxi to the hospital, though she knew he was dead. Afterward she took his belongings back to her apartment. When she opened the package, Hardwick found herself staring into the face of the woman who had stolen her husband. He had bought her portrait.

That the most original poet of his generation—the most brilliant we’ve had in the century since the modernists (Berryman was brilliant, but not always in his poetry)—was also among the most troubled, the least stable, the poet most likely to be voted bad company when drunk (Schwartz, Berryman, and Bishop would have been in the running) proves nothing about poetry and little about Lowell. Some have suggested that poetry rescued Lowell from worse—it’s true that he saved poetry from worse, though in the forty years since his death American poetry has gone narrowly down the path he cleared, with no end in sight. He was backward looking—he once wrote to Hardwick, “to me poetry means poetry written before 1906”—but then great poets look over their shoulders, not at their contemporaries. As with Berryman, some of the things he wrote would offend later sensibilities: in one letter, “I’ve hardly met the real Lesbian storm troops, but I think they talk like hysterical Negroes and other fanatics.”

After Lowell and Plath, confessional poetry had little more to say, but it has said those things over and over in weary repetition. Young poets now assume that they must write about their rotten lives, though most have not lived lives nearly rotten enough. We have gone from shying away from the dark side of life to offering little else, and from confession we have fattened ourselves on identity politics.

Lowell died at sixty, which seems old to the young and young to the old. His short-lived generation of poets (like Byron, “mad—bad—and dangerous to know”) lived much longer than the young Romantics. Still, Jarrell died at fifty-one; Schwartz, fifty-two; Roethke, fifty-five; Berryman, fifty-seven; and Lowell, sixty. Bishop survived until sixty-eight. The lesser poets of the generation, a few of them, staggered into their nineties—three became centenarians.

There are few poems in The Dolphin I’d want to take to a desert island. And yet. And yet. In almost every poem, sometimes every line, there’s the tremor of language used as language rarely is—Lowell could draw meaning out of almost nothing. He had an unnatural gift for forcing words to shake off the burden of unmeaning and expose—no, embrace—the density latent in the language. Very few poets have wrestled with that gift—Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Keats, and more recently Geoffrey Hill, at a start. When Lowell succeeded, in “Mr. Edwards and the Spider,” “Falling Asleep over the Aeneid,” “Skunk Hour,” “Jonathan Edwards in Western Massachusetts,” “For the Union Dead,” and many another, he showed where he stood in the long ranks of poets in English.

In the aftermath, Hardwick took a measured view of the man who had caused her more grief, and perhaps given more joy, than any other: “His fate was like a strange, almost mythical two-engined machine, one running to doom and the other to salvation.” She perhaps misremembered the difficult lines from Lycidas, “that two-handed engine at the door,/ Stands ready to smite once, and smite no more.” The old theological idea, that the sword of God will save some and damn others, is not quite Hardwick’s two-engined Cadillac—or whatever it is. Lowell, whatever he was, had a monster of genius in him.

1The Dolphin Letters, 1970–1979: Elizabeth Hardwick, Robert Lowell, and Their Circle, edited by Saskia Hamilton; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 504 pages, $50.

2The Dolphin: Two Versions, 1972–1973, by Robert Lowell, edited by Saskia Hamilton; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 195 pages, $18 (paper).

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 6, on page 4
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