ROBERT LOWELL: SETTING THE RIVER ON FIRE
By Kay Redfield Jamison
Knopf, $29.95, 530 page, illustrated
Seldom if ever has there been such a neat match between author and subject as in this penetrating study of the American poet Robert Lowell (1917-1977). If other poets have struggled with mental illness, there can be few who have done so more fiercely and painfully than Lowell, nor perhaps any whose challenges in that arena are as bound up with his literary output.
Kay Redfield Jamison is a veteran clinical psychologist and a true pioneer in becoming a tenured professor of psychiatry, despite lacking the usually requisite medical degree. She is not only a professor in mood disorders and of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, but also an honorary professor of English at Scotland’s University of St. Andrews. Both these strings to her accomplished bow are on display in her deeply intelligent and unusually informed book, aptly subtitled “A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character.”
As if Ms. Jamison’s formidable professional qualifications were not sufficient to establish her authority, she brings to the table the hard-won insights drawn from her own experience with the particular disease that afflicted Lowell, although she never shifts the focus away from him. Her refined scrupulousness is evident everywhere, from her interest in correct terminology to knowing the difference between a patient and a subject:
“This book is not a biography. I have written a psychological account of the life and mind of Robert Lowell; it is as well a narrative of the illness that so afflicted him, manic depressive illness. This disease of the brain bears down on all things that make us human: our moods, the way we see and experience the world, the way we think, our changing capacities of energy and will and imagination, our desires, the gift to create, our determination to live or die, our expectation of the future, our sanity.
“My interest lies in the entanglement of art, character mood and intellect. My academic and clinical field is psychology, and, within that, the study and treatment of manic-depressive (bipolar) illness, the illness from which Robert Lowell suffered most of his life. I have studied as well the beholdenness of creative work to fluctuations in mood and the changes in thinking that attend such fluctuations.”
The result is a much more sympathetic portrait of the poet than we have seen in biographies of him or of those whose bruising contact with him made them collateral damage.
Part of this is undoubtedly due to Ms. Jamison’s empathy and a preternatural affinity for him and for his verse. She has also had the advantage of unprecedented access to secondary sources, medical and otherwise, and to his daughter and stepdaughter, who provide a much more measured picture than the disaster-causing wrecking machine too often seen.
She shows us his own terrible anguish, his terror at the approach of the manic episodes, but she also provides telling evidence of qualities even those horribly hurt by them could see. His second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick (whom he left for his third, Caroline Blackwood, and to whom he was actually returning when he died) “recognized the good beyond the ill in their marriage,” writes Ms. Jamison, “It was worth it, she said. ‘He was the most extraordinary person I have ever known, like no one else — unplaceable, unaccountable.’ But Hardwick more than anyone in his life, was also aware of how destructive Lowell could be when he was manic. The harm was real; she did not pretend otherwise.”
The all-important perspective in which this study places Lowell’s actions is perhaps its greatest contribution to understanding the man and his work. And it must be said Ms. Jamison is no slouch as a literary critic, her skills in that field especially important in tracing the multiple interfaces between life and art with him.
She is also interested in the way bipolar disease runs in writers’ families and traces this in her subject’s antecedents. Her book begins with a brief prologue which ends, “Harriet Brackett Spence Lowell died insane. She passed on to her children, and their children in turn, the instability that her parents had passed on to her. Her great-great-grandson was heir to this mental instability. He was also to write poetry that, in the words of a critic, ‘will be read as long as men remember English.’ “
The way Ms. Jamison elucidates how he managed to produce this oeuvre both despite and because of this dreadful legacy is amazing.
Lowell was fortunate enough to live long enough for lithium to be used to treat his disorder and it did have some beneficial effects, which helped him to live and to write. Like most drugs initially seen as panaceas, they bring not just side-effects but other more subtle complications. Ms. Jamison, who has had her own problems with the drug and the disorder, not surprisingly provides an exceptionally nuanced, perhaps even a unique, account of its positive and more problematic effects on Lowell. Future writers may again take a different approach to him, but they would be unlikely — as well as foolhardy — not to take note of Ms. Jamison’s distinctive insights.
• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, California.
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