‘When I die,’ Robert Lowell told me, three days before he did die, in 1977, at the age of 60, ‘Elizabeth’s shares will rise and mine will fall. But mine will come back.’ Elizabeth, in this context, was Elizabeth Bishop, who with Randall Jarrell was Lowell’s correspondent and best friend in the art. His temperament at once generous and competitive, Lowell’s prediction was right. Thirty or more years ago he was by some margin the most celebrated poet in the English-speaking world. A blurry impression of his features by Sidney Nolan even appeared on the cover of Time. Today, he seems to be treated as an Old Master, a museum piece.
Contemporary poets are no longer ambitious in the Lowell way. They do not try to take on Virgil or Dante, Milton or Wordsworth.