Robert Lowell is often considered the doyen of what is called “Confessional Poetry” in the tradition of Gerard Manly Hopkin’s. Kay Redfield Jamison in “Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character”, claims though he became a public person, he was never a public poet; he was, instead, a figure beheld in contemplation, working out the meanings of his thinking in plain view with what Joyce Carol Oates called Lowell’s ironic dignity”.
Dan Chiasson’s The Illness and Insight of Robert Lowell, brings clinical expertise to the poet’s case. In his poetry, Lowell put his manic-depressive illness (now known as bipolar disorder), his marital problems, or his stay (one of many) in a mental hospital, or even other people’s private letters, on open display.
Lowell was the third generation child of a highly reputable family. His grandfather was of notable distinction, while his father much less so. Robert was the unplanned and unwanted child of a weak father and a strong mother and therefore suffered an affluent but emotionally and psychologically deprived childhood. Early psychiatrictic sessions suggested a difficult boy who others would have to cope with.
In 1942, 25 years old, Robert Lowell attempted to enlist in the US Army and Navy, but was rejected on medical grounds. Two years later he was drafted but refused to serve due to his objections to the allied bombings of civilians. He was sentenced to a year and a day, of which he served five months in West Street Prison, Manhattan.
In 1954, Lowell also spent three weeks in the locked ward of Payne Whitney Clinic in New York City. In recovery, at the suggestion of his psychiatrist, Lowell began his writing, marked by “images and ironic or amusing particulars.” It is interesting that he became a mentor to a former student, Sylvia Plath, who too refused to become a passive victim, rather a defiant indomitable spirit of resistance; expressing her pain and “her cries from the heart”. Another student, Elizabeth Bishop, with her demons, prefers to objectify her issues behind the protective mask of universal experience. Lowell was exempt from Bishop’s outrage over the dominating School of Anguish, as she scornfully called the poets—Anne Sexton, John Berryman—who had learned from his example. (An even more telling term she used was “the self-pitiers.”) In an interview for a Time cover story on Lowell, in 1967, she was careful to implicate only his imitators when she said, “You just wish they’d keep some of these things to themselves.”
Elizabeth Hardwick, his second wife, a figure of equanimity and patience, remarked of Lowell that he seemed to like women writers. Lowell saw writing both as a way to understand his compulsions and as a compulsion in its own right, a roundabout leading out of trouble and immediately back in. From his thirties on, Lowell suffered the relentless cycles of bipolar disorder, the “irritable enthusiasm” that lurched him upward before landing him in despair.