An Echo Chamber of a Marriage
The Dolphin Letters: 1970-1979: Elizabeth Hardwick, Robert Lowell, and Their Circle
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2019)
Robert Lowell’s The Dolphin, published in 1973, was one of the most notorious poetry books of its time. Lowell had left his wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, and then taken the letters in which she pleaded with him to come back to her and put them, sometimes altered, sometimes not, into the sonnets that made up The Dolphin. In 2019 Saskia Hamilton edited The Dolphin Letters: 1970-1979: Elizabeth Hardwick, Robert Lowell, and Their Circle. The Dolphin was probably meant to be, for Lowell, an exploration, even a celebration, of his own psychological and poetic resourcefulness and versatility. The Dolphin Letters show us how Lowell responded when confronted by his friends with the inevitable ethical questions raised by his use of Hardwick’s letters. He welcomed the questions; if he didn’t find them endlessly absorbing in themselves, he was willing to enter into them and entertain them with those who were transfixed by them, and he was eager to demonstrate intense concern with the feelings of the person who raised them. A peculiar intensity is provided by discussion of moral questions and Lowell craved intensity. Such discussions seem at the same time to have meant for Lowell a kind of instant intimacy, sometimes brand new, sometimes re-established. But more than that, maybe, he was fascinated by the kinds of voices people used when they were being intense. Lowell had wanted in writing The Dolphin to discover what acoustical effects he could achieve in the echo chamber of a book of sonnets about marriage. How could the language of outrage and indignation, voiced before and after the book came out, not fascinate him? Highly familiar voices wrote to him in unfamiliar tonalities. Unfamiliar people wrote him in intimate tones. For a poet like Lowell, that was intrinsically interesting.
The letters are painful to read, all of them. Sometimes it’s because of what the writer of the letter didn’t yet know. Hardwick wrote Lowell, who was in England, on April 14 1970, “How I miss you! I wrote the Brookses that if you stay married long enough you are bound to fall in love, and so I pass that along to you. It is so lonely without you.” Later in the letter she asks, “I wonder if you are in Oxford yet. Do let me know several things. One, when you will be returning. We have to make plans here for June appointments, going to Maine, preparing for camp, etc.” (Their daughter, Harriet, was going to summer camp.) Lowell, who had gone to England for a fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford, started the fellowship on April 24 and began an affair on April 30. When Hardwick learned that Lowell had decided to extend his time in England she immediately suspected that he was having another manic phase and another extra-marital affair. Lowell was bipolar and often had, during his manic phases, affairs that were taken seriously only by him. When Hardwick discovered that the affair was with Caroline Blackwood she thought it must be completely unserious. Blackwood, as Hardwick knew, was needy, histrionic, a sloppy drunk, ridiculous. Lowell would have to be out of his mind to take up with someone like that. The affair would end, Hardwick was sure, as soon as her husband found his right mind again. But when it didn’t end and when Lowell wrote to Hardwick about it as if it were of great consequence, Hardwick was furious—and horrified. On June 26, 1970 she wrote Lowell, “You cannot treat people as you wish to, you and Caroline. Caroline is deeply destructive and neurotic.” And later in the same letter: “I have contempt for your situation. I am not jealous of it, but horrified. How could I be jealous of Caroline? She is charming and pathetic and unreal.” Later in the letter Hardwick wrote, “The choice you have made is ludicrous and destructive and unreal. You will be destroyed by the unreality, the spoiled richness, the alien ground.” (Blackwood was very wealthy.) Lowell invited Harriet to England to visit. Hardwick wrote her close friend Mary McCarthy on June 30, 1970 that “Harriet is very upset, because Cal [Lowell’s nickname] spoke with all that detachment & gaiety you know so well, without meaning to, about Harriet flying over etc.” Writing to McCarthy on August 2, 1970, Hardwick returned to the subject of Blackwood. “I fear that she will be an awful disaster for him with her own deep unbalance.” She was right. When Lowell was hospitalized for a particularly bad manic episode, Blackwood wrote him, “I know it is better if I don’t see you or speak to you until your attack is over.”
Hardwick and Lowell stayed in touch regularly until Lowell’s death in 1977. That alone is surprising. What’s startling is that her letters, when they weren’t scathing, were, in fact, affectionate and witty. She was furious but she was also kind to him. Partly, no doubt, she was motivated by compassion—he was bipolar—but mostly, maybe, her motivation came down to simple loyalty and love. His manner, on the other hand, was sometimes defiant, sometimes apologetic, sometimes warm and funny and often weightless. He could sound light-minded. On September 17 Hardwick wrote McCarthy, “I believe one cannot win with Cal. He will spare you nothing, least of all that terrible breeziness and casualness about the deepest feelings of your own life and, also, of his own.” Lowell led Hardwick on, letting her believe he might come back to her. She offered to come to England to see him and take care of him. “This is good faith, not wife-maneuver,” she wrote him. Then Lowell let her know he was going to stay with Blackwood for good. On October 29, 1970, Hardwick wrote McCarthy, “He is such a childish torturer—that little side-look of malice he gives you—and so spooky, more and more.” On November 7, 1970, Lowell led Hardwick on again, writing, “Maybe you could take me back, though I have done great harm.” On November 16, he wrote, “I think about you and Harriet. I am jealous. Let me into your circle again.” He decided again, though, to stay permanently with Blackwood. He felt guilty, he told Hardwick and others, about leading Hardwick on. He had never meant to torture her. He was remorseful. On March 29, 1971, he wrote to Hardwick, “Our time on this earth is so poignantly short. Two additional lives would be too little to cleanse my character, to go the rounds of amends.” He uses the word poignantly, probably, because he hopes his letter itself will sound poignant.
There are many letters in which Lowell was clearly allowing Hardwick to think she had custody of his real self, to think that she saw him more clearly than anyone, and to think that she could, better than anyone, accurately monitor the distance he had fallen away from that real self. But Lowell saw himself as having a multitude of selves. His friends thought of him as sometimes manic, sometimes depressed, and sometimes “himself” but he was, he knew, more people than that. If it was hard to say who he was “really” it was also exhilarating at times (for him) not to know. Samuel Beckett’s Molloy says, “Yes, it sometimes happens and will sometimes happen again that I forget who I am and strut before my eyes, like a stranger.” The word “strut” is apt. What could be more scary but also maybe happy-making for someone who, a little weary of life, is enabled suddenly to feel not refreshed exactly but like a stranger to himself? There are times when Molloy seems to concede that he does have a core identity—but then he instantly casts doubt on his concession. “One is what one is, partly at least.” Meanwhile, although the idea of containing multitudes seems like a cliché to many people (it’s true but uninteresting) it never feels that way to the person who has made the discovery. Lowell wasn’t thinking about how all of us are multi-faceted. Nor was he associating himself with people who had multiple personality disorder. That was just another dreary disorder, like his own. He was thinking of what it was like to have a multitude not of personalities or facets but of selves, none of them responsible for any other (this would prove a relevant detail), each of them resembling the others (so that they could be mistaken for each other), all of them creative and magnetic and fascinating.
There were always those who believed that Lowell, like everyone else, had a real, authentic, central self and that his life was a story, like everyone’s and that its plot (or at least the plot of his poetic career) could be more or less predicted. Helen Vendler, for example, wrote, “Lowell has made a certain trajectory his own: the curve which begins in possibility and ends grimly in necessity.” Other people allowed Lowell two identities or, at least, two voices which were in tension with each other. Lowell’s lifelong friend Peter Taylor wrote, “He would not allow that any single experience denied him the right and access to some opposite kind. He never even wanted to give up a marriage entirely. He wanted his wife and children around him in an old-fashioned household, and yet he wanted to be free and on the town. Who doesn’t wish for all that, of course? But he would have both.” Both, yes, but more than both. And if it was a matter of trajectories he wanted more than one trajectory, more than two. He wanted to have access not just to one self and its opposite, everybody had that. What Lowell wanted was access to every imaginable, really every playable, self. He wanted to move from grim necessity into possibility. And he wanted to give voice in his poetry (and his letters) to all those possible selves.
Lowell was always alert to the way other poets delimited possibilities, and invariably acerbic or “acerb”—to use one of Hardwick’s favorite words—about it. In a letter to Elizabeth Bishop about Randall Jarrell (published in The Letters of Robert Lowell (2005), edited by Saskia Hamilton), Lowell wrote, “Randall thinks nothing adult is human.” Preoccupied by possibility, Lowell saw analogies for it where we might not. If the enemy shoots your horse out from under you in battle, you are endangered, unless you have eleven more horses, say. Lowell, in one of his earlier sonnets, celebrates his ancestor Charles Russell Lowell for having twelve horses shot out from under him. What so moved him about the anecdote? The bravado, maybe. The resourcefulness. The happy sense that there are always more horses available. The same happiness could be found in his famous love of revision. A poem like a person should be able to flourish in countless versions, all of them drafts, each of them promising. Frank Bidart, in his introduction to Lowell’s Collected Poems, (2003) tells us about Lowell’s pleasure in knowing that a number of strong drafts of one of his poems existed. Which was the real version? Each of them, all of them, any of them. Lowell’s compulsive generation of variants helped him to feel he was living as variously as possible, to take Frank O’Hara’s phrase out of its more innocuous context. It was impossible, then, to say which version was the real one, in poetry and in life. For Lowell the great events—-marriage, say, or divorce, or having children, did not necessarily involve our whole being, much as we liked to say they did. They involved one of our selves—and they may not have involved even that self very much.
All this time Lowell was working on The Dolphin. He felt a little uneasy about the responses he might get to the book. On April 25, 1971, he wrote Stanley Kunitz that Hardwick “will feel bruised by the intimacy. She should win all hearts but what is that when you are left, and left again in print?’ The phrase “win all hearts” is characteristically courtly and condescending. In December 1971 Lowell wrote to Frank Bidart asking him to come to London to help him with the poems for the book. “You can see how your advice and care would be unique and invaluable. This all began by trying to get around the mounting pressure on me not to publish The Dolphin (for moral reasons.)” The phrase “for moral reasons” was sort of wittily vague. But he could be vague because he was writing to Bidart, who was not making moral objections to the book. Bidart, like Lowell, was all for living as variously as possible. (Hardwick, as the letters reveal, came to despise Bidart.)
Living as variously as possible is all very well, a reader of that time might say, falling into the attitude of a scold, but Lowell was a husband and a father writing about his wife and daughter. If that sounds somehow old-fashioned in its tone of superiority and moral certainty, it’s true that The Dolphin was very much of its time. Harold Bloom dismissed Lowell as a writer of period pieces and there is a sense in which The Dolphin is a period piece. Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage came out in 1973, and so did Nigel Nicholson’s Portrait or a Marriage. In 1974 there was a TV series called How to Survive a Marriage and an Italian comedy called Till Marriage Do Us Part. Kramer vs. Kramer came out in 1979. It was hard to think about marriage without thinking about divorce. People quoted divorce statistics to each other, and felt themselves to be hardheaded and unanswerable. The word “marriage” all by itself promised hopelessness for those in the middle of it and hilarity for those at a distance. Marriage was, if not dead, like the novel or God, then outmoded, like the sonnet form. If it was outmoded, though, it was still on everyone’s minds. For anyone trying to write novels and sonnets, marriage was the perfect subject matter. If marriage might have seemed a tired fiction to some by 1973, it was, nevertheless, for Lowell and for other writers of that period the supreme fiction, to put Wallace Stevens’ phrase in a new context. If hardly anyone believed in it, people were still wondering what it might like to believe in it or how immoral it might be to pretend to believe in it. Today we are obsessed not with marriage so much as with malignant male narcissists and male sociopaths. It makes sense that The Dolphin came out in 1974 and The Dolphin Letters came out in 2019.
Lowell on marriage was not like other writers, though. He readapted modes that readers didn’t associate with marital intimacy. When Whitman says “I am large, I contain multitudes,” we understand it as a kind of exuberant outcry, addressed to everyone, anyone, but probably not to a lover—or a spouse. The Lowell of the late collections of sonnets—History (1973), For Lizzie and Harriet (1973) and The Dolphin (1973)—might have imagined Whitman’s phrase in the context of talking in bed. “Talking in Bed” is the title of a poem by Philip Larkin, a poet Lowell admired. In that poem, Larkin talks about how hard it is, as a relationship is breaking apart, “to find / Words at once true and kind / Or not untrue and not unkind.” The husband in Lowell’s marriage poems might well be thinking (and getting ready to say) something true and unkind. I am large, I contain multitudes is true and unkind but also a boast and a warning. Among the multitudes Lowell contained were the baleful and forbidding solitary men who people his early poems, those in Lord Weary’s Castle (1946) and The Mills of the Kavanaughs (1951), none of whom were, to put it mildly, marriage material. Lowell was, from the beginning, fascinated by what happens when such figures become husbands. In “Between the Porch and the Altar,” a poem from Lord Weary’s Castle, he writes, “I turn and whisper in her ear. You know / I want to leave my mother and my wife / You wouldn’t have me tied to them for life…” Often the solitary men were religious maniacs. In “Where the Rainbow Ends,” another poem from the same book, Lowell writes, “The victim climbs the altar steps and sings: / “Hosannah to the lion, lamb and beast, / Who fans the furnace-face of IS with wings / I breathe the ether of my marriage feast.’” The most startling word in the poem “Skunk Hour” from Life Studies (1959) must be the word “our” near the end. “I stand on top / of our back steps and breathe the rich air.” Who is the speaker living with? Or is there a body in there? The husband’s tone changes, as we get closer to The Dolphin, into an odd combination of sadism and tenderness, a combination that is a cliché in horror films but rare and hence unsettling in lyric poetry. What is most unsettling, maybe about Lowell’s haunted husband figures is that they often pay extraordinarily close attention to their wives. Such husbands have, traditionally, had their mind on something else. A project, say. Casaubon, for example, in George Eliot’s novel, Middlemarch, was focused on writing The Key to all Mythologies. The husband in a Lowell poem is focused on his wife. In his poem, “Man and Wife,” the man in the poem (he is a man with a wife but is somehow not a husband) watches the wife. She’s intent on him as well. “Sleepless you hold /the pillow to your hollows like a child; / your old-fashioned tirade—/ loving, rapid, merciless—/ breaks like the Atlantic Ocean on my head.” It must be gratifying. Not only is she focused on him but so is the entire Atlantic Ocean.
A person who wants to live as variously as possible needs, according to Frank O’Hara, grace, which might be called, in this context, luck. Such a person might want, along with luck, an enabler. Not Lowell. He wanted a reality principle. He tried to enlist his wives to play that role, though his second wife, Hardwick, was the only one with any aptitude for it. Some husband-poets who marry a reality principal believe they have solved one of the central problems in life and poetry. The reader also relaxes. We think we see how the marriage works: The wife represents common sense and decency, and these are virtues to which the poet must be, since every lyric poet is a humanist at bottom, loyal in some deep and central sense. At the same time we think we see what the poems are really about. Reading sonnet after sonnet in The Dolphin we are grateful to have something as reassuring as the reality principle to see us through to the end of the book. The poet must have a trajectory since he cannot take all roads at once and the reality principle is nothing if not a trajectory. If Lowell is flailing in the world of possibility, we tell ourselves, he is heading towards the land of grim necessity, where we, his readers, wait for him, hoping to reassure him (in our minds) that it isn’t that grim. (Lowell did visit that land when he wrote his last book, Day by Day.)
Lowell recognized, though, that putting the reality principle into a book might generate more problems than it solved. Was it possible to represent someone as the reality principle and at the same time to make them seem plausibly human? He tried to solve that problem by appropriating the Hardwick letters. She is “admirably patient, admirably impatient,” in Calvin Bedient’s phrase; she feels righteous indignation, her targets are always appropriate, the old South or her maddening husband. She is rapid, loving, merciless. She is the reality principle. But there is something sly and sinister about Lowell’s treatment of her. He gets to be endlessly particular, and she has to be an abstraction, though a noble one—and one who is allowed (since Lowell anticipates our objections) to talk as much as she wants about particulars, especially if they are the particulars of Lowell’s marital crisis. Lowell’s intimacy with the reality principle (whether currently represented by a person or not), his history with it, his sense of his possible or impossible future with it, his need for it, his condescension to it, make for uncomfortable, disquieting poems. A person who is made to represent the reality principle can’t be real and a person who is not real can’t, after all, have been really injured or suffered real pain. Lowell must have known that, and there may have been something devious and maybe a little vengeful about his representation of Hardwick in The Dolphin.
Lowell told an interviewer that one reason he could never write a novel was that he couldn’t write dialogue. An inability to write dialogue seems like an important piece of information about a writer, even a poet. It’s interesting to note that what Lowell liked more than dialogue was something that was similar: an exchange of phrases, not stichomythic, but with a week or two in between the phrases. In such an exchange there was little possibility of real connection. It’s as if Lowell read Forster’s line ‘only connect” as a disappointing restriction. Only connect? Connections could be intense and dramatic and full of possibilities for a poet but so were broken connections. A broken connection, permanent or temporary, even constituted its own form of intimacy, insufficiently exploited in poetry.
He was right to worry about what his friends would say about The Dolphin. Elizabeth Bishop, for one, was horrified. She wrote to Lowell praising the poems as poems but, after reminding Lowell that “Lizzie is not dead” added that “there is a ‘mixture of fact & fiction,’ and you have changed her letters. That is “infinite mischief,” I think. The first one, page 10, is so shocking—well, I don’t know what to say. And page 47… and a few more after that. One can use one’s life as material—one does, anyway—but these letters—aren’t you violating a trust? IF you were given permission—IF you hadn’t changed them…etc. But art just isn’t worth that much. I keep remembering Hopkins’ marvelous letter to Bridges about the idea of a “gentleman” being the highest thing ever conceived—higher than a “Christian” even, certainly than a poet. It is not being “gentle” to use personal, tragic, anguished letters that way—it’s cruel.” Bishop added, “I feel fairly sure that what I’m saying (so badly) won’t influence you very much. You’ll feel sad that I feel this way, but go on with your work & publication just the same.” She was right. He did feel “sad” that she felt that way and he went on with his work and publication just the same.
Bishop went on to suggest certain revisions that might make the poems seem somewhat less cruel, and Lowell made some of those revisions. His response to her letter, though, on March 28, 1972, was obtuse and unctuous. “Now Lizzie’s letters? I did not see them as slander, but as sympathetic, tho necessarily awful for her to read. She is the poignance of the books, tho that hardly makes it kinder to her. I could say the letters are cut, doctored part fiction; I thought of it (I attribute things to Lizzie I made up, or that were said by someone else. I combed out abuse, hysteria, repetition.) The trouble is the letters make the book, I think, at least make Lizzie real beyond my invention. I took out the worst things written against me, so as not to give myself a case and seem self-pitying. Or maybe I didn’t want to author them. I promise I’ll do what I can to answer your piercing thoughts. I’ve been thinking of course these things for years almost. It’s oddly enough a technical problem as well as a gentleman’s problem. How can the story be told at all without the letters? I’ll put my heart to it.” Calling a moral problem a “technical problem” makes it sound like just the kind of problem he likes: seemingly impossible to solve but ultimately manageable through the use of his very specific skill set. Lowell tells Bishop he has already begun by removing “abuse, hysteria, repetition” from Hardwick’s letters. Calling it a “gentleman’s problem” makes it sound as if he is wondering about the best place in London to find bespoke suits.
Lowell liked to use phrases verbatim but even more he liked to rephrase them. Other people’s phrases (and feelings) were preliminary, were drafts, like his own phrases and feelings. He listened to you, he heard you, he was sensitive, to use a seventies word, and what better evidence than to give you back your insight in a letter or poem rephrased, that is, improved? In a letter to Bishop on April 4, 1972, Lowell explained to her what her real objections were. “Let me rephrase for myself your moral objections. It’s the revelation (with documents?) of a wife wanting her husband not to leave her, and who does leave her. That’s the trouble, not the mixture of truth and fiction. Fiction—no one would object if I said Lizzie was wearing a purple and red dress, when it was yellow. Actually, my versions of her letters are true enough, only softer and drastically cut. The original is heartbreaking, but interminable.” In using the word “heartbreaking” Lowell was trying to sound suave and chivalrous but instead he sounds oleaginous—and the word “interminable” is cruel. Lowell wrote to Bidart on April 10, 1972, “I’ve read and long thought on Elizabeth’s letter. It’s a kind of masterpiece of criticism, though her extreme paranoia (For God’s sake, don’t repeat this) about revelations gives it a wildness. Most people will feel something of her doubts. The terrible thing isn’t the mixing of fact and fiction—but the wife pleading with her husband to return, this backed by ‘documents.’” In a later letter to Bidart on May 15, 1972, he returned to the subject. “I do think Elizabeth is mostly right, though is peculiarly (almost unintelligibly) sensitive to private exposure.” One might have said that Lowell was peculiarly (almost unintelligibly) eager for private exposure.
Hardwick finally got to see the book. She described her feelings years later in an interview with Lowell’s first biographer, Ian Hamilton, “I was genuinely shocked and appalled when I saw the book, the use he made, the distortion of the letters, the writing of some for me, putting lines unwritten by me, in my voice.” On July 5, 1973, Hardwick wrote Lowell, “I feel that our marriage has been a complete mistake from the beginning. We have now gone down in history as a horridly angry and hateful couple. A review is coming out in which Harriet is called the “Fictional Terrible Child.” She knows nothing of all this.” The review Hardwick was referring to was written by Marjorie Perloff and appeared in The New Republic in July 1973. Saskia Hamilton offers the reader an excerpt from the review in a footnote. “It is Lizzie who becomes the dominant figure in the sonnets, and she is depicted, perhaps unwittingly on Lowell’s part, as Dark Lady or Super-Bitch par excellence. In her letters and phone calls she is forever patting herself on the back for running to Dalton to pick up Harriet’s grades or driving to camp and she dwells irritatingly on Harriet’s goodness […] Poor Harriet emerges from these pages as one of the most unpleasant child figures in poetry; only Hopkins’ Margaret, grieving over Goldengroves unleaving, can rival her cloying moral virtue. It is therefore difficult to participate in the poet’s vacillation, for Lizzie and Harriet seem to get no more than they deserve. And since these are, after all, real people, recently having lived through the crisis described, one begins to question Lowell’s taste.” Hardwick continues: “I am near breakdown and also paranoid and frightened about what you might next have in store, such as madly using this letter. I do not wish to write you again. Your life is your own and has nothing to do with me.” She added, after her signature, “I would be grateful if you would show this letter to Caroline so that she could know what the situation is. I have written it many times, each part. I will not write it again. Do, say, feel what you wish.” As, of course, he did.
That same day Hardwick wrote to Robert Giroux, of Farrar Straus Giroux, Lowell’s publisher. “I am writing to give you my thoughts on the publication of The Dolphin, and will send a copy of this letter to Mr. Monteith at Faber. I am deeply distressed that both of you would have seen this book through to publication without asking my permission for the prodigal use of my letters, for the use in the most intimate way of my name and that of my daughter. I have since the publication been analyzed under my own name in print, given some good marks as a wife and person by some readings, general disparagement and rebuke by other readings. I know of no other instance in literature where a person is exploited in a supposedly creative act, under in his own name, in his own lifetime.” She continued, “There are so many wrong impressions in the book—nothing about my willingness to divorce, my acceptance of the situation, the good spirits of myself and the utterly gratifying contentment of my daughter. I have found in the book letters from the very early period of my distress, attached to a sestet written long after. I am very eager to go on record with you as saddened and deeply resentful of not only one, the use of my letters without permission, but many, many ill-effects upon me of your consent to publication without any consultation with me.”
On July 16, 1972 Lowell wrote to Hardwick, “I have been under a cloud thinking about you this week. The publicity is very poisonous; I think I should have foreseen it more clearly. Except for Miss Perloff, they are what one might have anticipated. She can hardly make a statement without some erroneous and hurting inference. I fear she has brooded on us for too long a time. I can’t defend myself too much, or anyway shouldn’t at this moment if I could.” Part of him must have been gratified that Perloff had been brooding so long. He had just written Bidart that he had ‘long thought” on Bishop’s letters. In a perfect world everyone, not just Lowell, would be thinking long, long thoughts about Lowell. And the Atlantic Ocean would be breaking on his head. After a few more sentences, Lowell told Hardwick, “I think I am living through many of your feelings. I suffer.” (One’s whole sense of Lowell as a person depends on how one reads those last two sentences.) On July 26 1972, Lowell wrote to Giroux, “Lizzie’s letter [to Giroux] reads to me as if a lawyer had looked it over. On the same day she mailed me one (written many times) in the same tone but irrational and incoherent.”
In August 1972, Adrienne Rich wrote a review of History, For Lizzie and Harriet and The Dolphin for the American Poetry Review. Here is the part that became famous: “Finally, what does one say about a poet who having left his wife and daughter for another marriage then titles a book with their names, and goes on to appropriate his ex-wife’s letters written under stress and pain of desertion, into a book of poems nominally addressed to the new wife?” Rich went on to quote lines 8-15 of the poem “Dolphin.” “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—// my eyes have seen what my hands did.” Rich wrote, “I have to say that I think this is bullshit eloquence, a poor excuse for a cruel and shallow book, that it is presumptuous to balance injury done to others with injury done to oneself—and that the question remains—to what purpose? The inclusion of the letter-poems stands as one of the most vindictive and mean-spirited acts in the history of poetry, one for which I can think of no precedent; and the same unproportioned ego that was capable of this act is damagingly at work in all three of Lowell’s books.” Lowell kept a gimlet eye fixed on his critics. If Bishop’s deepest motive in attacking The Dolphin was her inexplicable fear of revealing private information, here, according to Lowell in a letter to Stephen Berg, the editor of the American Poetry Review, is Rich’s secret motive: “Adrienne in her pre-prophetic days and for more than ten years was one of my closest friends. I could say that she has become a famous person by being cheap and enflamed; but that isn’t it. Her whole career has been a rage for disorder, a heroic desire to destroy her early precocity for form and modesty.” If Bishop was too morally fastidious, Rich was chaotic and destructive.
Hardwick continued to be (for the most part) superhumanly kind and loving to Lowell. On June 15, 1977, she wrote McCarthy that she and Lowell were becoming closer. “There is no great renewed romance, but a kind of friendship, and listening to his grief.” It’s a familiar story. The husband leaves his wife for another woman. The new wife becomes impossible and the husband starts visiting his former wife more and more in order to complain about the woman he left her for. In any case, Lowell and Hardwick spent more and more time together. Their time together would not last long, though. on September 12, 1977, Lowell had a heart attack in a taxi taking him from Kennedy Airport to Hardwick’s apartment in Manhattan. Kay Redfield Jameson, in her biography, Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire, A Study of Genius, Mania and Character, narrates the scene. “When the taxi arrived at Hardwick’s apartment, the driver noticed that Lowell was slumped over and appeared to be asleep. When he did not wake up, the driver rang Hardwick’s doorbell; she came down to the taxi and knew immediately that Lowell was dead. She accompanied his body to the hospital, eight blocks away.”
Reading the letters, it does seem as if compassion was the response Lowell most desired during this time. But if Lowell wanted compassion, then for which of his selves did he want it? For all of them? In order to get compassion he might have to admit to having only one self, at least in a moral sense. He might have to admit to remorse. He did admit to remorse but it seems, reading his letters, like the remorse of someone who was convinced that he was innocent and was sorry to have caused others to misunderstood him so badly. (Nina Simone’s version of the song, “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” was a favorite of husbands who were leaving their wives in the seventies.) If his remorse seemed authentic to him, shouldn’t it have felt authentic to others? Maurice Blanchot, in The Writing of the Disaster (1980), explains why it didn’t. “If there is among all words one that is inauthentic then surely it is the word ‘authentic.’” Reading these letters, one might also wonder: What did Lowell fear most? Another manic attack, probably. But also: accurate description, maybe. Of each of his selves one by one. Not description of him that was sent in a letter to him or said to his face. In a letter or conversation description became part of an intimate exchange and he knew how to proceed. As long as relationships were involved, Lowell would always win. No, accurate description not addressed to him, not even about him personally. To be described as a type by someone who gets him completely and has never met him or heard of him. The search for such a description of Lowell might lead such a reader not to authors of textbooks or magazine articles but to writers like Blanchot, Kierkegaard and Sartre. The reader, finding them, escapes the echo chamber of The Dolphin Letters, breaks out of the “Circle” mentioned in the subtitle and enters worlds in which no actual people are making other actual people suffer. And even better: no actual people are wanting it to be known that their multitude of selves is suffering as well and deserves compassion.
One of the most vivid such texts is Maurice Blanchot’s novel, Death Sentence (1948). Blanchot’s narrator, describing his relationship with one of the many women he is involved with, writes, “For quite some time I had been talking to her in her mother tongue, which I found all the more moving as I knew very few words of it. As for her, she never actually spoke it, at least not with me, and yet if I began to falter, to string together awkward expressions, to form impossible idioms, she would listen to them with a kind of gaiety and youth, and in turn would answer me in French, but in a different French from her own, more childish and talkative, as though her speech had become irresponsible, like me, using an unknown language. And it is true that I too felt irresponsible in this other language, so unfamiliar to me; and this unreal stammering, of expressions that were more or less invented, and whose meaning flitted past, far away from my mind, drew from me things I never would have said, or thought, or even left unsaid in real words: it tempted me to let them be heard, and imparted to me, as I expressed them, a slight drunkenness which was no longer aware of its limits and boldly went farther than it should have. So I made the most friendly declarations to her in this language, which was a habit quite alien to me. I offered to marry her at least twice, which proved how fictitious my words were, since I had an aversion to marriage (and little respect for it) but in her language I married her.” Friendly declarations, fictitious words. In her language I married her. To draw connections back to Lowell is easy but it is also to return to the echo chamber of the letters.
There is also Kierkegaard who, in Works of Love (1847), writes, “When a man turns his back upon someone and walks away, it is so easy to see that he walks away, but when a man hits upon a method of turning his face towards the one he is walking away from, hits upon a method of walking backwards while with appearance and glance and salutations he greets the person, giving assurances again and again that he is coming immediately, or incessantly saying “Here I am” —although he gets farther and farther away by walking backwards—then it is not so easy to become aware.” The image is familiar, of course, the husband refusing to say that that he is leaving, refusing to say goodbye, but instead saying “Here I am.” Kierkegaard continues, “And so it is with the one who, rich in good intentions and quick to promise, retreats backward farther and farther from the good.” One wants to ask: what does it feel like to be rich in good intentions and to be frustrated by the response of others? Lowell himself was interested in that question and has something to say about it. And so we return to him. In his poem on Robert Frost he quotes Frost: “when I am too full of joy, I think / how little good my health did anyone near me.” That is the tone one knows from Lowell’s letters: a genial, flustered bafflement that one has not done as much good to one’s loved ones as one intended to do. And there is Kierkegaard’s phrase “quick to promise.” That also sounds like Lowell. Remembering the letters, one might imagine Lowell feeling that even if he was someone who broke promises he was at the same time someone who at least made promises—and who promised sincerely and who meant to keep his promises, and could not be blamed if the promises were broken. Sometimes unforeseen circumstances break our promises for us. Back to Kierkegaard: “With the help of intentions and promises he maintains an orientation towards the good, he is turned towards the good, and with this orientation towards the good he moves backwards farther and farther away from it.” He is turned towards the good, at least. If he cannot always succeed in being good, this only proves that people are complicated and life is difficult. Lowell was always ready to defend himself against all charges—and to level some of those charges at himself, not because he feels their justice but because he likes the drama of accusing himself (other people’s accusations are sometimes insufficiently eloquent) and especially of defending himself. Kierkegaard writes, “What struggle is so protracted, so terrifying, so involved as self-love’s war to defend itself?” In addition, it’s a great opportunity to write poems made out of accumulated and still unused phrases, his own phrases and the phrases of others, rephrased.
Behind all these efforts at defense, of course, is the understanding that, even if he is guilty, he is a person of sincerity. That’s too hastily put. He is a multitude of selves, each of whom is absolutely sincere. In his chapter on “bad faith” in Being and Nothingness (1943), Sartre writes, “Under these conditions what can be the significance of the ideal of sincerity except as a task impossible to achieve, of which the very meaning is in contradiction with the structure of my consciousness. To be sincere, we said, is to be what one is. That supposes that I am not originally what I am…. I can become sincere; this is what my duty and my effort to achieve sincerity imply… … How can we in conversation, in confession, in introspection, even attempt sincerity since the effort will by its very nature be doomed to failure and since at the very time when we announce it we have a prejudicative comprehension of its futility? In introspection I try to determine exactly what I am, to make up my mind to be my true self without delay—even though it means consequently to set about searching for ways to change myself.” To make up my mind to be my true self without delay. That captures Lowell’s desire to ingratiate himself, to be helpful, to make promises, to say what people want to hear, which is that he has a true self. He’s happy to tell you he does but he doesn’t believe it for a minute.
Although he caused them pain, he wanted people to love him again. “Let me into your circle again,” he wrote. Sartre, in his chapter on “bad faith” in Being and Nothingness writes, “If I were only what I am, I could, for example, seriously consider an adverse criticism which someone makes of me, question myself scrupulously, and perhaps be compelled to recognize the truth in it.” That’s Lowell. He pretends to seriously consider adverse criticism—it is a great pleasure to do so. The more adverse the better. (Remember the Atlantic Ocean.) But if he does seem to recognize the truth in the criticism he is really recognizing the truth about a self who is only one among the multitude of selves. And he has invariably transcended or outgrown or at least temporarily abandoned that self. Sartre continues, “I am not subject to all that I am. I do not even have to discuss the justice of the reproach. I am on a plane where no reproach can touch me since what I really am is my transcendence.” Such people often seem to escape scot-free. They escape from others and, maybe best of all, from themselves; That is, they escape, all invisibly, from one self to another. But they can’t escape description. They are a type, that is the truth about them. They are the type who think that they can never be described, not really, not entirely and therefore not accurately. Sartre continues, “I flee from myself, I escape myself, I leave my tattered garment in the hands of the faultfinder.” That is an accurate description of the man who precipitated the events that take place in The Dolphin and The Dolphin Letters.
Nick Halpern‘s essay on Robert Duncan appeared in the last issue of Free Verse.