On this day in 1977 the poet Robert Lowell died at the age of sixty in the back seat of a New York City taxi. He had hailed the cab at JFK airport and was heading up to West 67th Street, returning to his ex-wife, the writer Elizabeth Hardwick. He had just flown back from a disastrous trip to Ireland, where he had gone to explain to his present wife, the Anglo-Irish Lady Caroline Blackwood -- like Hardwick a writer, as well as heiress to the Guinness Stout fortune -- why their marriage was over. The meeting at Blackwood's estate outside Dublin had of course ended badly, with Blackwood storming out with her three children -- the son she had had with Lowell and two daughters from two former marriages, one to the painter, Lucien Freud (grandson of Sigmund Freud), one to the composer, Israel Citcowitz. At the end, Lowell still clutched in his stiffening arms one of Lucien Freud's paintings of the young Blackwood, staring out from the canvas into the void.
Lowell was the last great public poet in the U. S., one who had more than once managed to reshape the direction of modern American poetry. The first time had been under the aegis of Milton, Jonathan Edwards, Hopkins, Melville, Hart Crane, and T.S. Eliot, as well as his teachers at Vanderbilt and Kenyon College, John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate. The great poem that came out of that early period -- his "fire-breathing Catholic C.O." period as he mordantly dubbed it years later -- was The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket. This was written after Lowell had spent six months in the federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut, in 1944 for refusing President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's request to report for the military draft. For Lowell, the Allied bombing of the Ruhr Valley, which had resulted in the wide-scale deaths of German civilians, meant that any thought that America was still fighting a just war, as defined by Catholic social teaching, was a sham. Lowell dedicated his poem to his own cousin, Capt. Warren Winslow, who had perished when his ship blew up in New York harbor while taking on ammunition. The image of the dead sailor, like Eliot's Phlebas the Phoenecian, floating a fortnight dead in The Waste Land, stood as a stark reminder for Lowell of what war at bottom was all about: death and more death:
A brackish reach of shoal off Madaket,--
The sea was still breaking violently and night
Had streamed into our North Atlantic Fleet,
When the drowned sailor clutched the drag-net. Light
Flashed from his matted head and marble feet,
He grappled at the net
With the coiled, hurdling muscles of his thighs:
The corpse was bloodless, a botch of reds and whites,
Its open, staring eyes
Were lusterless dead-lights....
Portrait of Caroline Blackwood by Lucien Freud. (source)
A man entangled in a net against which, eel-like, he struggles. It was an image to which Lowell returned again and again in one form or another: the Roman retiarius with net and trident fighting against crushing odds. From his mid-twenties on he would suffer many times over from a full-blown bi-polar disorder; again and again it turned out to be poetry and the care of Hardwick and a handful of devoted friends which allowed him to swim back to the surface of reality. Somehow, against the odds, he managed to write (and rewrite) hundreds of extraordinary poems in the time given him, finding consolation and even what he called joy, in being preoccupied with the intricate mesh of language. "My dolphin," he wrote in his last years, addressing the ever-virgin, ever-ancient muse that had siren-like called to him across forty years of writing:
When I was troubled in mind, you made for my body
Caught in its hangman's-knot of sinking lines,
The glassy bowing and scraping of my will....
I have sat and listened to too many
words of the collaborating muse,
and plotted perhaps too freely with my life,
not avoiding injury to others,
not avoiding injury to myself--
to ask compassion...this book, half fiction,
an eelnet made by man for the eel fighting--