Robert Lowell in Love by Jeffrey Meyers (review)
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Reviewed by
Jeffrey Meyers. Robert Lowell in Love. University of Massachusetts Press, 2015. 288 pp. $34.95.

Would you or I be pleased to learn that someone had written a book detailing our marriages, our divorces, our affaires du coeur? I for one can answer that question with a resounding "No!" But then again, I am not a famous person, and perhaps you, dear reader, are not one either. The price of fame seems to be that you lose all claims to having a private life. If you are Bob Dylan you may even have somebody raiding your garbage cans to try and learn things about you that are surely nobody's business. And that was even before he was awarded the Nobel Prize.

But I think few readers would begrudge Jeffrey Meyers his attention to Robert Lowell's love life, given that he is a distinguished biographer and author of some fifty-five previous books, two of them about Lowell. Had Lowell labored to protect his own privacy, had he agreed with his friend Elizabeth Bishop's statement about so-called Confessional Poetry, "You just wish they'd keep some of these things to themselves," the case might be different. But Lowell was almost gleeful about turning what is usually private into something public on the page. His literary career was one of the most spectacular in recent memory. Both Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot recognized his genius early in his career, and both became friends of his. He won every literary prize available. He lived across Central Park from Jackie Kennedy, who enjoyed chatting with him about books. When Teddy Kennedy was sailing up the coast of Maine, he and his entourage stopped off at Lowell's summer house in Maine to drink and talk about politics and history.

He had the same relationship with Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy. I think what these politicians valued about Lowell's friendship was his gift for placing contemporary events within a historical context most people would never think of invoking. During one of their conservations, RFK walked into the bathroom to relieve himself and Lowell started to follow, still talking, whereupon Kennedy shut the door, saying "If you don't mind. …" Lowell rejoined, "If you were Louis XIV you wouldn't mind." When as a young man, he came out as a Conscientious Objector; he wrote a personal note to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, saying "You will understand how painful such a decision is for an American whose family traditions, like your own, have always found their fulfillment in maintaining, through responsible participation in both the civil and military services, our country's freedom and [End Page 282] honor." Robert Lowell never doubted, nor did these politicians, that this poet, with his massive learning and powerful intellect, was these men's equal.

In addition to his mental brilliance, his genius as a writer, and other gifts, Lowell was also strikingly good looking, at least when he was young. When Elizabeth Hardwick and Elizabeth Bishop had to help a drunken Lowell back to his room at Yaddo in 1948, Hardwick exclaimed, as they were taking off his shirt in the process of putting him into bed, "Why he's an Adonis!" And like many of us, he loved being in love. I suppose that in terms of contemporary psychobabble, he was a "love-addict" or something of the sort. As everyone knows who knows anything about Lowell at all, he was bipolar. The high of being in love was closely akin to the high of poetic inspiration, as well as to the high derived from alcohol.

Meyers' research is tireless and exhaustive. He is less effective, though, as a critic and prose stylist than he is as a researcher and biographer. Lowell's mother's name was Charlotte, and this leads Meyers, infelicitously it seems to me, to title his chapter on the young Lowell's relationship with her "Charlotte's Web." That sounds a bit silly, like a cute pun in a newspaper headline, and not much more to the point than the title of the following chapter, "Southern Comfort," which recounts the poet's years as...