In April 1970, Robert Lowell went down from Oxford, where he was a visiting fellow at All Souls, to London. At a cocktail party thrown by Faber & Faber, his English publisher, the 53-year-old poet encountered an old acquaintance, Lady Caroline Blackwood, the writer and Guinness-brewing heiress. Soon after, he moved into her house in Redcliffe Square—“I mean instantly, that night,” Lady Caroline, 38 at the time, remembered.
Opinion is divided as to whether Lady Caroline was a succubus who preyed on men of genius or a tragic muse who sacrificed herself to their art. Her first husband, the painter Lucian Freud, was moving toward the succubus theory when, in 1954, he painted himself standing pensively behind her in Hotel Bedroom.
After Lady Caroline and Freud divorced, in 1959, she married the composer Israel Citkowitz. But in the spring of 1970, bigger game appeared. She became Lowell’s lover just as he was entering one of those periodic phases of mania in which, she said, he “flipped” and became deeply and even violently mad.
“I feel my old infection,” Lowell wrote in “Symptoms,” one of his sonnets of that spring; and at Oxford the dons debated whether his oddness was the result of drink or a boorishness peculiar to American poets. In New York, Lowell’s wife, the writer Elizabeth Hardwick, heard reports that her husband was seen wandering Lear-like in London, shaggy of hair and dressed in pajamas.
Between Dante’s Beatrice and the Spider Cannibal
Lady Caroline Blackwood was not a naïve enchantress; she was probably the most dazzling Anglo-Irish femme fatale since Lady Caroline Lamb, the Regency “It Girl” who madly loved Lord Byron. In her autobiographical story “Piggy,” Lady Caroline describes how as a girl in a mostly boys school she was made by the chief bullyboy to disrobe, only to find, as she stood naked before him, the “slack and trembly” lad overcome with awe.
She knew her strength; Lowell, in his sonnet “Dolphin,” tells how she “made for my body.” Made for it as the huntress does her prey, the critic Helen Vendler has suggested. Yet the verb is ambiguous—Lady Caroline might have “made” for the poet’s body as a friend, in a dark moment, makes for one’s sanity, healing rather than devouring.
Or so Lowell himself suggested. In his sonnets to Lady Caroline, published in his 1973 collection The Dolphin (in which they appear cheek by jowl with sonnets infinitely cruel to Hardwick), he insists that the nurturer in Lady Caroline prevailed over the spider cannibal that feeds on its mate, the “baby killer whale, / free to walk the seven seas for game …”
“I’m not mad and hold to you with reason,” Lowell declares in the sonnet “Knowing,” and in “Dolphins” he portrays Lady Caroline, much as Dante portrays Beatrice, as the emissary to a “new life, the new life.” A vita nuova of Jane Austen–ish country manners—the couple lived at Milgate Park, in Kent—spiced with “black rose-leaves.”
The autobiographical prose of Lowell’s Memoirs (much of it for the first time in print, all of it scrupulously edited by Steven Gould Axelrod and Grzegorz Kosc, who correct the mangled forms in which some of the material first appeared) has often been read by scholars as preparing the way for the openly “confessional” poems in which Lowell, in his 1959 masterwork, Life Studies, got beyond the closeted and oblique confessional poetry of T. S. Eliot. But the memoirs just as vividly show how a poet’s beginnings shape his end.
In his late-in-life journey to England and Lady Caroline, Lowell quixotically sought to escape the New England that both made and unmade him. It turns out that it’s not easy to be born in a city on a hill, especially if the hill is Beacon Hill, in Boston.
Lowell’s recollections, like Henry Adams’s, begin with the State House in Boston and the shadow New England Puritanism cast over Beacon Hill. His mother, Charlotte Lowell (née Winslow), passed much of her frigid existence on that hill. Believing that “a healthy house should be so cold that it hurt,” she opened her windows to the winter air, and her zeal for purity, lacking better outlets, made a hell for housemaids, as “Mother was death on dirt.”
Charlotte’s own “chilliness” was colder than her rooms. When Robert Traill Spence Lowell III, the naval officer she married, proved to be not the “buccaneer” of her dreams but the “unmasterful,” nervously smiling Bob Lowell, something in her turned to ice.
Lowell pictures Charlotte “grieving over the fact that she was pregnant” with him and accuses her of evading motherhood by “modeling a statue called I am a mother.” He was still bitter about it in one of his last poems, “Unwanted.”
His parents were cracked New England granite, but Lowell’s grandfather Arthur Winslow, an engineer who “netted … a million dollars” in Colorado, had the true “granite New England character.” Yet he too was blighted by the shadow. His “vitals burned and he looked out with a pale, aching eye” on life.
Arthur Winslow loved his grandson as Charlotte and Bob couldn’t, and he brought the boy to know the New England earth and the human dust it concealed, the bones of so many New England worthies. But the boy’s subversive foster grandpas, Hawthorne and Adams, taught him another lesson, that “Puritan light” was “darkness.”
Two decades after Winslow died, when Lowell found himself among Mayflower “screwballs” in the psychiatric ward of McClean Hospital, the loony bin of the Boston Brahmins, he knew the subversives were right:
… My heart grows tense
as though a harpoon were sparring for the kill.
(This is the house for the “mentally ill.”)
The shadow was real. New England was crazy. Sane people don’t cross the ocean to build a new Jerusalem in the wilderness.
Thinner Than a Cobweb in Calvinism’s Ebb
The deeper problem was that Lowell knew the madness lived in him. He adored Lincoln’s effort to perfect the hill city through a “new birth of freedom,” and he made his own gestures of reform in a different age. But the shadow mocks the perfectionist, and in his sonnet to Lincoln, Lowell asks the president, “Who shot the deserters?”
By the end of the 1960s, Lowell was hardly less morose about America’s city-on-the-hill prospects than Adams himself, “our greatest man maybe, certainly the greatest New Englander.” Adams foresaw America becoming imperial and Caesarean, and Lowell saw the prophecy fulfilled in the America of the Kennedys and King and Vietnam, a “Caesar’s Rome of assassins and sunsick palms.”
Despairing of America’s all too masculine politics, Lowell, like Adams, sought consolation in Woman in the abstract, though Lowell’s erotic career—there was always “something with a girl”—brought him closer to the concrete: in 1969, just before he decamped for Lady Caroline and the Old World, he deflowered a grateful Harvard virgin.
Lowell followed Adams in tracing America’s troubles to its perfectionist puritanism, which, being completely unworkable, had devolved into a priapic commercialism hot for the quick buck but puritanically cold to all splendor of form. Or, as Lowell wrote in “Fourth of July in Maine,” New England Yankeeism is “thinner than a cobweb, / caught in Calvinism’s ebb.”
The primal sin lay in New England’s Old Testament patriarchs, who conceded nothing to matriarchy. It was insanity, Adams thought, to dispense with the “mysterious” female “force” that creates the life-enhancing goddesses, “Astarte, Isis, Demeter, Aphrodite,” each “on a higher level than the male.” Just as women themselves, Lowell averred, are “a fraction more than” their sperm donors.
In his English adventures Lowell reprised, though in a different key, Adams’s pilgrimage to Chartres, to the “boudoir” of the “last and greatest deity of all,” Mary herself. (Adams claimed that the Virgin, indicating her child, confided her secret, “We are Love!”)
Even so, Lowell, in his joy at having got Lady Caroline with child, pictured himself a “pilgrim” on a “hard-edged Roman road” to his own Marian moment, the “miracle of birth” at the heart of The Dolphin, right down to a bed that smells of hay and the “Christ-Child’s drifter shepherds” in the field.
“There Is No God, and Mary Is His Mother”
Lowell, an Anglo-Catholic devoted from adolescence to a Mary whose “whole body” is “an ecstatic womb,” outdid Adams in Madonna worship, confessing awe before Lady Caroline’s swelling belly and marveling (in a pre-Viagra age) at the miraculous “new wine” that flowed when the old “cork, though fat and black,” was pulled to make it possible.
The prospect of a child, Lowell said, brought the couple “a peace we haven’t known, perhaps ever.” His Madonna was soon “globular,” swollen with a “sheer woman humanity” that promised perpetual benediction, a “happiness so slow burning, it is lasting.” It passeth understanding.
To be swept away in an undertow of Madonna worship and the Eternal Feminine was an occupational hazard of the fin de siècle aesthetes who preceded Lowell at Harvard. Not only Henry Adams and T. S. Eliot but Bernard Berenson and George Santayana felt the pull of that menstrual tide. “There is no God, and Mary is his mother” went Bertrand Russell’s burlesque of Santayana’s atheism.
The Marian fetishes of the Mauve Decade survived in Lowell, who in “They” exalted mothers over institutions, much as Adams preferred the Virgin to the dynamo (an electric battery). A Harvard girlfriend recalled Lowell’s “rather corny simplistic and too easily categorized view of women as being less contrived and closer to the truth of behavior.” Or as Lowell himself asked in one of the sonnets to Lady Caroline, “Mermaid, why are you another species?”
From today’s perspective, the Harvard aesthetes’ fetish of la donna pietosa—the compassionate woman—appears so much male fantasy and condescension. But though they were hardly feminists, Lowell and his Harvard godfathers were groping for something that was missing in America. The country in its neurasthenic jitters did need a touch of mere voluptuousness, the forgiving softness of older, saner civic poetries.
“Leftovers from God’s Picnic”
Lowell, in his last spell of the Old World, sought release from the effort at the perfect he anatomizes in the Memoirs. But the pilgrimage failed of its destination. Hardly was the child—Robert Sheridan Lowell—born than the mother seemed to change her shape. The poet woke to find himself not in Mary’s boudoir but in Circe’s “sybaritic bed.”
He broke down, drank disinfectant, pronounced Hitler’s literary gift superior to Melville’s. Lady Caroline despaired of his madness: “It’s like someone becoming an animal, or someone possessed by the devil.” He, for his part, despaired of her “late night ‘tirades’” of drunken reproach. The attachment dissolved in vodka and Valium, leaving nothing, Lowell said, but “leftovers from God’s picnic.”
The shadow he sought to escape was his own. Hardwick, the wife he divorced to marry Lady Caroline, insisted that he was the “most American of souls,” poetically consecrated to the New World: “You have told us what we are, like Melville.” It was true, and in his final fidelity, it was to America that he returned in September 1977. Hardwick found him dead in the cab from Kennedy, clutching one of Freud’s paintings of Lady Caroline.
Michael Knox Beran is the author of several books, including The Last Patrician: Bobby Kennedy and the End of American Aristocracy and, most recently, WASPs: The Splendors and Miseries of an American Aristocracy