Poetry has always trespassed on autobiography. Many readers detect a real Chaucer behind the narrator of The Canterbury Tales; and others would be heartbroken to find no shadow of the private life in Astrophil and Stella or Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Would we feel cheated had there been no Dark Lady or Fair Youth? Part of the hermetic force of poetry lies in believing that it secretly holds at least a whisper of the poet’s life. Milton’s sonnets, Coleridge’s “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” and “Frost at Midnight,” Wordsworth’s The Prelude, and Keats’s odes are all rooted in the soil of experience, even if some of the dirt is pretense or invention. Should a dusty scholar one day prove that no man from Porlock ever interrupted Coleridge, “Kubla...


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Robert Lowell, edited by Steven Gould Axelrod and Grzegorz Kosc
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 387 pages, $40.00

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