The Letters of Robert Lowell

His second wife needed secretarial help.

Saskia Hamilton: "Lowell changed me intellectually."
  • Saskia Hamilton: "Lowell changed me intellectually."


Over the course of his life, Robert Lowell impressed those who knew him by his "refusal to be boring on paper" (Christopher Benfey). One of the most influential poets of the 20th Century, Lowell was also a prolific letter writer who corresponded with many of the remarkable writers and thinkers of his day, including Elizabeth Bishop, Ezra Pound, Hannah Arendt, William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, and Edmund Wilson.

Wilson noted of Lowell's company, "What he says is probing and witty, sometimes perverse, with a desire to startle." These letters, conversations in writing, document the evolution of Lowell's work and illuminate another side of the intimate life that was the subject of so many of his poems: his deep friendships with other writers; the manic-depressive illness he struggled to endure and understand; his marriages to three prose writers; and his engagement with politics and the antiwar movement of the 1960s.

The Letters of Robert Lowell shows us, in many cases for the first time, the private thoughts and passions of a figure unrivaled for his influence on American letters.


Poetry: The publication of Robert Lowell's letters has the potential to help clarify the complex relations between his life and work.... In these letters -- more than 700 of them, written over 40 years -- Lowell's friendships and romances, manias and recoveries, which have been flattened by years of biographical speculation, suddenly stand out in high relief. Inevitably, a first reading must surrender to all the drama and color and revelation the book so generously, and fearlessly, offers.

From Publishers Weekly: Already excerpted in the New Yorker and elsewhere, these letters have been awaited at least since Ian Hamilton's monumental 1985 biography of Lowell (1917-1977). Brilliant, intimate, free, sculpted, various and wildly desirous of communication, the letters were worth the wait. The letters to Randall Jarrell and John Berryman have a peculiar professional intimacy. Those to his various wives, particularly Elizabeth Hardwick, have a raw pleading that often centers on the aftermath of episodes of mania or depression, but they never veer into bathos. The letters to Elizabeth Bishop form the core of the collection, and they are extraordinary, particularly the letters describing Maine, where both summered (though almost never at the same time): Lowell's eye for physical detail and feel for emotional valence seem directly wired into his prose. There are love letters to an Italian mistress and lovely, frank letters in friendship to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Lowell corresponded at one time or another with many major modernists (Eliot, Pound, Frost, Williams); watching Lowell simultaneously assert, defer, and posture without obsequiousness is fascinating. Over the course of this vast volume, Lowell's reading, moods, professional obligations, political engagements, family life, and final sense of isolation come through with often searing clarity. Even for those who don't care for Lowell's verse (or any verse), this is a major epistolary life.

From Booklist: Given his status as a major American poet, Robert Lowell's manic depression, friendships with prominent people, and influence on other poets, including Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, have been well documented. Now, with this monumental volume of his letters to friends, family, peers, teachers, and even political leaders, those facets of his life are further illuminated.... Lowell had his finger on the pulse of writing during his lifetime and was motivated to stay in the thick of literary movements. Mainly for readers intrigued or inspired by Lowell, this collection is an invaluable primary resource, supplement to Lowell biographies, and companion to his fascinating poetry.

ABOUT THE POET: Robert Lowell (1917-77) was the renowned and controversial author of many books of poetry, including Day by Day (FSG, 1977), Life Studies and For the Union Dead. FSG published his Collected Poems in 2003.


Saskia Hamilton was born in Washington, D.C., in 1967. On the day that we talked, she from her office at Barnard College in Manhattan, where she teaches, Ms. Hamilton said that as a child, she read "voraciously. We -- my older brother and I -- were sort of ritually read to when we were younger, when we were learning to read. It was part of the social life. It was a way to gain access to privacy. It was both of those things in an interesting way."

The first book she recalled as really wowing her was Where the Wild Things Are. "It's still a wonderful book to read. I still love to read it. My grandmother read us The Secret Garden. And I loved Beatrix Potter.

"Someone said recently that a lot of children have an English childhood because the great children's books by and large are English. Everybody has some imaginative idea of what a Yorkshire moor looks like."

The first "adult" book that Ms. Hamilton recalls loving was not a book but poetry. "My Dutch grandmother and my American father both read a lot of poetry to me. They both read me Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot when I was 11 or 12. The first books that I remember buying with my own money were Faber paperbacks of The Waste Land and Other Poems and Selected Poems. I bought them both on the same day. Those were the first grownup books that totally mystified me. I was in love with the sound of the poems."

Ms. Hamilton attended Georgetown Day School in D.C. In the eighth grade she'd been bassist in a girl band. "It would have helped if I could play, but we were very bad. We were terrible. We were called 'The Outsiders.' " She went on to Kenyon College, where Lowell studied. For her M.A. in creative writing and English, Ms. Hamilton attended NYU.

I had wondered how someone born ten years before Lowell's death was chosen to edit Lowell's letters. Ms. Hamilton explained. "It's a funny little history or a strange little history, or, should we say, an unpredictable history. When I was in graduate school, someone said, 'Elizabeth Hardwick [Lowell's second wife] needs secretarial help.'

"I went to her apartment [on Manhattan's west side], the apartment that she shared with Lowell, where she still lives, and she said, 'I have this whole room full of Cal's [one of Lowell's nicknames was Cal] things.' She wanted to get them in order. She said, 'I don't want to die and have my daughter have to do it. I don't want to leave that burden with her.'

"So she hired me to catalog all these papers. In the early 1970s, Lowell sold his papers to Harvard. But a lot was kept back, intimate stuff, and that's what she had. There was correspondence through the course of their marriage and divorce. There were Elizabeth Bishop letters that had been kept back. Things like that."

Ms. Hamilton said, about Elizabeth Hardwick, the ex-Mrs. Lowell, "I was very mindful at the time of not intruding on her privacy. I was quite young, but even at that age I could imagine that it might not be pleasant to have somebody going through your private papers. I remember that during the time I did this that the confirmation hearings of now-Justice Souter were going on. Hardwick, of course, reads everything and follows political developments avidly. She would drift down occasionally and tell me some funny anecdote about what was going on in the hearings. She, Elizabeth Hardwick, was very, very witty and wonderful.

"For the most part, she left me alone in this room to go through this lifetime of correspondence. I tried not to read them because I thought, 'It would be nosy of me.' And I just wasn't comfortable doing it.

"But occasionally I would have to look at something, to get a sense of the context from which it was written, that kind of thing. There were sentences that I would catch that were haunting. There would be letters apologizing for something and writing that things were going to be better in the future. Or he would apologize for something he'd done when he was ill and write, 'Next year, I'll get over this.'

"I remember thinking that it's haunting to read letters for that reason. Because you're caught up in the moment where the letter writers themselves can't see the arc of their lives, but after they die, we do. We know the plot, but they don't. I hadn't studied letters before, and that was the first time that occurred to me."

Ms. Hamilton believed that it was 1989 when she first began sorting the Lowell letters in the apartment where he and Ms. Hardwick had lived. "And then," said Ms. Hamilton, "in 1995, Paul Mariani's biography of Lowell [Lost Puritan: A Life of Robert Lowell] was published. In the same year, Elizabeth Bishop's letters were published. Paul Mariani's biography takes snippets of letters in order to move his narrative forward. There were a few that he quoted that I remembered from this cataloging work that I had done. So I asked Lowell's literary executor, Frank Bidart, what had become of Lowell's letters and said that since Bishop's letters were now published, and there was interest in this generation, that if anyone did Lowell's letters, I would love to work as his or her assistant.

"Bidart said, 'Write me a letter about that, and I'll send it along to the publisher.' I did. I hadn't written to Elizabeth Hardwick because I didn't want to bother her. But I suddenly began to feel I was being very rude. That it would be weird for her to hear about this from the publisher without having heard from me.

"So I sent her a note saying that I would love to assist whoever might do a letters project. She phoned me right away and said that she had phoned Lowell's publisher and said that I should do the job."

"Did you jump up and down?"

"I couldn't believe it. I was pleased, yes. I felt it was quite a responsibility. I wasn't an academic, I wasn't a Lowell scholar. Who was I? But that's how it started."

"How did your work on the Lowell letters change your life?"

"In lots of ways. First of all, there was the immersion in somebody's life in that way, especially somebody like Lowell who was brilliant but also had a manic brilliance, which meant a kind of wildly allusive brilliance. You might say that I went to the Graduate School of Robert Lowell. It was an extraordinary education.

"I didn't pursue a doctorate, although I had considered it and sometimes wished I'd done it. I did the letters instead, an immersion in scholarship and the history of the period during which Lowell lived.

"He came of age and into his own as an artist right at the beginning of American Imperialism. So his relationship to himself as an American, should we say, is interesting and complicated. He knew not only everyone in the literary world, but he knew everyone beyond that world -- the Kennedys and so on and so forth.

"He changed me intellectually. I grew enormously from the experience. I learned also just the daily discipline. For a long time when I was working on this project I worked full-time, nine-to-five, in jobs that were quite demanding of my time. I also began to figure out why the academic calendar is organized the way it is. Because when you're trying to do sustained work, and it's constantly interrupted, it takes much, much longer because you're always trying to retrace yourself and then hop on the train again. I had decided that I would transcribe everything I could get a hold of before beginning to select. So I would get up very early in the morning and I would spend weekends transcribing the letters."

We talked then about how a book, once it's finished, takes on a life of its own. "And, of course," said Ms. Hamilton, "as a friend once said to me: 'It could go on forever. It's as long as a piece of string.' The other thing is that I know there are things I missed. There must be. There are always unconscious things slipping out.

"I was dreading publication for that reason, and my friend said, 'Just think of publication as a tax you pay to be a reader.' So I figure that occasionally the time comes that you have to contribute. And then you can go back again into the anonymous life of a reader."

"Did you leave a lot out?"

"Yes. There was much, much more. It was quite a job to get it little enough to be publishable in one volume. I was encouraged by my editor to keep cutting and keep cutting and keep cutting.

"Toward the end every cut was incredibly painful, but the shape of the whole improved. I'm sure that one day there'll be a multivolume edition of Lowell's letters. They're still finding Balzac's letters. It takes so long to find all the letters that somebody wrote. But yes, there are many wonderful letters I couldn't include. Wonderful letters to very dear friends."

When I began reading the Lowell letters and learned how young Ms. Hamilton was, I thought, "What an education in adult lives this project must have been."

Ms. Hamilton agreed. "With Lowell it's particularly striking because he suffered from bipolar disorder at a time when the medical treatments were so limited. Even now they are limited. But back then it was worse. His experiences led him to doubt that the self really could be possessed as an action, as it were."

"In part perhaps that was what attracted him to the Catholic Church."

"I think so. I think just the structure and order of the Church. Lowell was the maker of so much suffering in his manic periods, maker of his own suffering and suffering of his family. When he was well, he had to live with the person he was when he was unwell. He had to build his relationships and his friendships and yet take responsibility -- not to say, 'That's the mania talking.' He knew that the mania was part of himself. And he was troubled by that."

"I think also that his illness gave him a very tender conscience."

"That's right. I remember when I was younger, reading the poem 'Middle 1964':

  • Father, forgive me
  • my injuries,
  • as I forgive
  • those I
  • have injured!
  • You never climbed
  • Mount Sion, yet left dinosaur
  • death-steps on the crust,
  • where I must walk.

"I think I wasn't old enough yet, I hadn't lived long enough, to intuit what he was saying in that poem. I remember thinking he was very egotistical. It wasn't until later, as Lowell's character began to open for me in the process of doing this project, that I understood that what he was saying was that when you injure somebody, that person feels your worst. And it's sadly a very common human behavior not to forgive the person you've injured or not to be forgiven by somebody who has injured you.

"Lowell understood this. And the insight in that

  • Father, forgive me
  • my injuries,
  • as I forgive
  • those I have injured!
  • have injured!
  • opened up a whole new world to me.

"Even now, I think a lot of people's impression of Lowell is of egotism. He certainly had moments, but most of that was symptomatic of his illness, and when he was well he was anything but.

"A friend of Lowell's once said that when he was well he was incredibly attentive. Egotistical people tend to not be curious about other people, or attentive to them, or interested in who they are and their feelings. In fact, Lowell was extremely attentive.

"Most people, when they buy a book of letters, they dip into it like an anthology. And yet, I think that this book can be read from cover to cover as a true biography. As a study of character, it's fascinating. Lowell was a conscientious objector during World War II; he was passionately involved in the civil rights and antiwar movement of the '60s. He internalized the violence in the real world.

"So the tension was, again, tension between those two poles -- inner and outer violence. Bob Hass's essay on Lowell's 'The Quaker Graveyard of Nantucket' [in "Lowell's Graveyard" in Twentieth Century Pleasures] gets at the violence of the language.

"Unlike, say, Blake or Rimbaud, there's no glamorizing of illness in Lowell's work or his life. For me, as a young poet, his poems went against the grain and took me a while. I almost think Lowell is an adult, acquired taste.

"The relationship between the world and inspiration is not just theoretical. It's lived inside. There's an amazing sentence of his where he writes, 'Even his survival has had to be fought and fought for.' So that the poetic decisions that he makes have incredible resonance in the way he wrote about his lived life and in conversations with friends.

"I think there was exhaustion, culturally, after his death. He took up so much room. I think there was a sigh of relief or a turning away from him. Enough time has now passed. I think the publication of the Collected Poems was the most important moment. But I hope the Letters help also.

"He came of age during a time when writers and scholars and thinkers were trying to describe the aesthetic experience of a poem and trying to find a way to talk about it that was helpful and not obfuscating the work. You read the great poems of Life Studies, or any of his work, really; they teem with him. If you slow down to the pace and attend to it, it's just extraordinary what happens underneath the surface of those poems. He's wonderful to read. I hope that I honored him enough to introduce him to new readers and help bring back old readers that have turned away from him."

The Letters of Robert Lowell. Edited by Saskia Hamilton; Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005; 852 pages; $40.

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