Poet Robert Lowell’s ‘graced but damaged’ life

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Elsa DorfmanImage: Wikimedia Commons/Elsa Dorfman

This is a rollercoaster of a literary biography. If you enjoy the sensation of high speed, sudden drops and vaults to giddy heights, this is the book to read about the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Robert Lowell (1917-77).

Lowell suffered from bipolar disorder, and so does this book’s author, Kay Redfield Jamison, which lends her account a sense of authenticity and insider insight. A clinical psychologist by profession, Jamison is also the first biographer to have access to the notes of Lowell’s doctors and other materials that Lowell’s daughter made available to her. She makes excellent use of this material to round out her descriptions and analyses.


Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire by Kay Redfield Jamison

Knopf. 160p, $17

Lowell was initially treated for mental illness at age 15, and his malady spanned so many years that Jamison’s book provides, in effect, a historical overview of treatments for bipolar illness. He underwent a variety of medical regimens, including enforced rest, electroshock therapy and treatment with the powerful drug lithium. He was admitted many times to mental institutions.

If you enjoy the sensation of high speed, sudden drops and vaults to giddy heights, this is the book to read.

The reader should not feel daunted by this book’s length (532 pages), as the main narrative occupies a fast-moving 405 pages, followed by appendices, notes and an index. While Jamison occasionally digresses or repeats herself, the length of her book is justified by the span and complexity of Lowell’s life and literary achievement.

For example, Jamison includes an impressive list of historical figures Lowell thought he was during manic episodes: “Christ, the Holy Spirit, Achilles, Aeneas, Saint Paul, Alexander the Great, Napoleon, King James IV, Hitler, Henry VIII, the Messiah, John the Baptist, Dante, Milton, Julius Caesar, T. S. Eliot.” After one manic episode Lowell asked a friend, “What can you do after having been Henry VIII?”  In Lowell’s case, what you can do is write remarkable poetry that earns you two Pulitzer Prizes for literature.

Religion played an especially important and complicated role in Lowell’s life. As a young man he bridled under what he called “the insipid blackness of the Episcopalian church.” In 1940 Lowell took instruction to become a Catholic, and he later wrote to the priest who had instructed him: “You were a road over a dark stream.” He was formally received into the Catholic Church in March 1941. He attended daily Mass and said not one but two rosaries every day.

Jamison notes, “It was no great surprise that he threw himself into Catholicism and, when incipiently mad, took his Catholicism to a psychotic extreme.” Lowell himself appeared to be aware of this danger. He wrote to George Satayana in 1950, “Often I long to walk in the great house of the church, but the candles would set my clothes on fire long before I reached the altar.”

Lowell had what Jamison calls “a life graced but damaged.” He found an intensity of language in sacramental experience. When he spent five months in prison for refusing to serve in the military during world War II, Lowell treated his cell as a monastic lodging, a kind of mission outpost where he tried to convert fellow prisoners to Catholicism.

“It was no great surprise that he threw himself into Catholicism and, when incipiently mad, took his Catholicism to a psychotic extreme.”

Religion seemed to offer Lowell a way to process his manic moods. Jamison notes, “Religious images and devotional practice were natural metaphors for Lowell, a way to make sense of his intense ecstasies and put them to use; the church provided a rich, ancient, and complex language.”

Lowell always felt caught in a tension between the Puritanism of his New England heritage and the frantic contemporary energies of his mind and imagination, as if he were managing a team of two horses, one tame and one wild. He also had a turbulent personal life marked by three marriages and a recurring battle with alcoholism. He was certainly a difficult, volatile person to live with, so Jamison paints an especially sympathetic portrait of Elizabeth Hardwick, Lowell’s wife of 20 years.

Lowell’s knowledge of his own illness was a poetic knowledge, as if he were an eyewitness reporter at the center of a bewildering storm. Some of his poems sound as if they are reports from the front of a battle for sanity. In “Skunk Hour,” he concedes, “My mind’s not right.”

Jamison’s personal experience with bipolar illness gives her an especially insightful perspective on Lowell and on the ways his bipolarity upended his personal life while still fueling his poetic life. Jamison stresses the sheer courage Lowell needed to cope with frequent hospitalizations, “the courage to live with madness and with the knowledge that it will return.” She conveys Lowell’s personal and professional resilience in the face of the “repeated battering of mania.”

Lowell’s knowledge of his own illness was a poetic knowledge, as if he were an eyewitness reporter at the center of a bewildering storm.

It is intriguing that Jamison argues there may well be an evolutionary advantage for society at large from manic depression illness, because the person with bipolar illness seems able to call upon extraordinary amounts of energy and creativity. She also cites a Harvard study of “everyday creativity” showing that bipolar patients and their relatives scored significantly higher on creative measures. Whatever illness Lowell may have suffered from, that illness operated on a mind already abundantly filled with literary knowledge.

One major strength of this book is Jamison’s vivid, even poetic, descriptions. She observes, for instance: “Mania is more than fevered mood and pelting thoughts. It is a disinhibiting force to act on ideas, fearlessly and however rashly; put ambition to action; scald the earth, splash color against the gray; to harm, to create.”

Jamison says of Lowell, “After the fever of mania had run its course, bringing with it infidelity, mayhem, the police, and straightjackets, he climbed down his ladder from the moon.” This image of climbing down a ladder from the moon conveys both the lofty heights to which Lowell aspired as well as the dizzying predicament he found himself in as he reached those heights.

"Mania is more than fevered mood and pelting thoughts. It is a disinhibiting force to act on ideas."

Ultimately, Jamison detects a growing tenderness and sense of compassion in Lowell as he neared the end of his life. “Gone was the breezy egotism,” Jamison states. Lowell died on Sept. 12, 1977, at the age of 60. He had requested a high Mass at Boston’s Episcopal Church of the Advent. At his funeral one of his poems was read that included these lines, in which he addresses himself as “exile”:

What can the dove of Jesus give

You now but wisdom, exile? Stand and live,

The dove has brought an olive branch to eat.

Here the dove may signify not only the Holy Spirit but also the avian messenger of hope to Noah after the deluge. Lowell’s life was flooded in several respects—by his mania, by his imagination and by his religious impulses.

Lowell eventually achieved a qualified sense of peace as he sensed death approaching. In “New York Again” Lowell asks, “What shall I do with my stormy life, blown toward evening?” Generations of readers are grateful for what Lowell did with his stormy life— namely, provide a legacy of outstanding, deeply moving poetry.

Jamison’s highly ambitious and energetic effort to make sense of this great poet is a lasting, unique contribution to our understanding of a major American literary figure.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Stephanie Barrett
11 months 3 weeks ago

I have read many years ago,
Kay Jamison's " The Unquiet Mind," many years ago. Sad that an admitted bipolar PhD would write a book that
in essence destroys Robert Lowell's life and his genius.
Alcoholics and bipolar disease often go hand in hand.
This was a tortured brilliant
man. He received two Nobel
Prizes. Why through ashes on great work.
Brilliance and these diseases do go hand in hand.
Let's leave the pain out.
Miss Jamison is writing
from her own life experience.
She is biased!

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