Stuart Kelly

Muses, nurses and punch-bags

Jeffrey Meyers includes among the poet’s ‘loves’ not only his many wives and mistresses but his colleagues, students, protégés, mentors and mother

The conceit of this book — the author’s third on Robert Lowell — is strong, although its execution is less successful. Lowell made his love life central to his aesthetic project, especially in For Lizzie and Harriet and The Dolphin, and so it makes sense to read his work through his major emotional attachments. Not all of these are romantic: as well as chapters on Lowell’s three wives, Jean Stafford, Elizabeth Hardwick and Caroline Blackwood, and a harrowing section on nine affairs, usually conducted at the start of a manic episode, Meyers devotes attention to Lowell’s mother, Charlotte, the Southern writers who mentored him, such as Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom, and his female poetic colleagues and students, notably Elizabeth Bishop, Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath.
Meyers has done sterling work in tracking down Lowell’s mistresses and combing the creative output of his wives for variously refracted images of ‘Cal’; as such the book serves as an important supplement to the biographies by Ian Hamilton and Paul Mariani. It is, however, a book which tends more to anecdotage than analysis.

There is something a little psychologically pat in the idea of the unloved child desperately seeking affirmation and affection in a string of sexual conquests. The chapter on Charlotte Lowell sketches the Freudian dynamic, and refers to poems like ‘Unwanted’, ‘Sailing Home from Rapallo’ and ‘Commander Lowell’ as well as the prose works ‘91 Revere Street’ and ‘Near the Unbalanced Aquarium’, which clearly deal with Lowell’s relationship to his mother. (In an aside on ‘Sailing Home from Rapallo’, Meyers notes that the line ‘The corpse /was wrapped like panetone in Italian tinfoil’ should properly be panforte.) But curiously he does not discuss ‘Clytemnestra’,with its rebuking ending: ‘A genius temperament should be handled with care.’

Time and again, as Meyers sketches out Lowell’s various relationships, it seemed as if lines from the poetry that might illuminate the situation were missing.

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