Books: Robert Lowell’s Marble Chips |
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Robert Lowell’s Marble Chips

Of the three new books by Robert Lowell — all of them consisting, like their antecedent Notebook, of unrhymed sonnets — only The Dolphin contains entirely fresh material. It is dedicated to Lowell’s new consort Caroline, and deals with the life they are now leading together. For Lizzie and Harriet deals exclusively with the life Lowell has left behind: it isolates and reworks those poems concerning his ex-wife and daughter which were earlier scattered through Notebook. The central and bulkiest volume of the current three, History, is an extensive reworking and thoroughgoing reordering of all the remaining poems in Notebook, with eighty extra ones mixed in.

When we consider that Notebook itself had two earlier versions before being published in Britain, it is clear that there is a great deal going on. If mere bustle were creativity, then later Lowell would be the most creative thing in modern poetry. Daunted, the critic is tempted to hand the whole problem directly to the scholar and get the work of collating done before any judgments are hazarded. Unfortunately judgment will not wait — not least because those recent works offer an invitation to scholarship to start up a whole new branch of its industry, an invitation which will be all too eagerly accepted if criticism neglects to mark out the proper, and reasonably discreet, size of the job. Lowell is a giant, but his perimeter is still visible: there is no need to think that he fills the sky.

In so far as it had one, Notebook’s structure was rhapsodic — an adjective which, in its technical sense, we associate with the Homeric epic. As the poet stumbled in circles of crisis and collapse, digressions could occur in any direction, sub-sequences of the proliferating sonnets form round any theme. These sequences constituted rhapsodies, and it was easy to sense that the rhapsodies were intent on forming themselves into an epic. At that stage, the Lowell epic resembled John Berryman’s Dream Songs: its digressions had shape, but there was no clear line of progress initiating them — no simple story for which they could serve as complications. The story was mixed in with them. All of human history was there, and Lowell’s personal history was there too. Both kinds of history jumped about all over the place.

The new books have simplified everything, while simultaneously making a claim to universality that takes the reader’s breath away. ‘My old title, Notebook, was more accurate than I wished, i.e., my composition was jumbled’ writes the poet in a foreword. ‘I hope this jumble or jungle is cleared — that I have cut the waste marble from the figure.’ Cutting away the marble until the figure is revealed is an idea that reminds us — and is probably meant to remind us — of Michelangelo. As we realize that not even these new books need bring the matter to an end, the idea that the figure need never fully emerge from the marble also reminds us of Michelangelo. Lowell seems intent on having us believe that he is embarked on a creative task which absolves his talent from wasting too much time polishing its own products. He does a lot to make this intention respectable, and we soon see, when reading History, that although thousands of details have been altered since Notebook, the changes that really matter are in the grand structure. It is at this point that we temporarily cease thinking of marble and start thinking about, say, iron filings. Notebook was a random scattering of them. In History a magnet has been moved below, and suddenly everything has been shaken into a startling linear shape.

As rearranged and augmented in History, the sonnets begin at the dawn of creation and run chronologically all the way to recent events in the life of the poet. We have often thought, with Lowell, that history was being incorporated into the self. Here is the thing proved, and the pretension would be insupportable if it were not carried out with such resource. The information which Lowell commands about all cultures in all ages found a ragged outlet in Notebook. Deployed along a simple line of time, it gains in impressiveness — gains just enough to offset the realization that it is Lowell’s propensity for reading his own problems into anything at all which makes him so ranging a time-traveller. History is the story of the world made intelligible in terms of one man’s psychology. It is a neurotic work by definition. Nobody reasonable would ever think of starting it, and the moment Lowell begins to be reasonable is the moment he will stop. There is no good cause to assume, however, that Lowell any longer thinks it possible to be reasonable about history. Stephen Dedalus said history was a nightmare from which he was trying to awake. Raising the stakes, Lowell seems to believe that history is something you cannot appreciate without losing your sanity. This belief releases him into realms of artistic effect where reason would find it hard to go. That the same belief might bring inhibition, as well as release, is a separate issue.

Broadly, History’s progression is first of all from Genesis through the Holy Land to the Mediterranean, ancient Greece and Rome, with diversions to Egypt at the appropriate moments. Medieval Europe then gives way to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, tipping over into the French Revolution. Through the complexities of the nineteenth century, strict chronological sequence is manfully adhered to, whether in painting, letters, music or ante and post-bellum American politics. French symbolism sets the scene for the twentieth-century arts, while the First World War sets the tone for the modern politics of crisis and annihilation. The Russian revolution throws forward its divisive shadow, which later on will split the New York intelligentsia. By this time Lowell’s family history is active in all departments, and soon the poet himself arrives on stage. Everything that has happened since the dawn of humanity has tended to sound like something happening to Lowell. From here on this personal tone becomes intense, and those named — especially if they are artists — are mainly people the poet knows. By now, unquestionably, he is at the centre of events. But the book has already convinced us that all events, even the vast proportion of them that happened before he arrived in the world, are at the centre of him.

History is a long haul through places, things and, preeminently, names. Helen, Achilles, Cassandra, Orestes, Clytemnestra, Alexander, Hannibal, Horace, Juvenal, Dante, Villon, Anne Boleyn, Cranach, Charles V, Marlowe, Mary Stuart, Rembrandt, Milton, Pepys, Bishop Berkeley, Robespierre, Saint-Just, Napoleon, Beethoven, Goethe, Leopardi, Schubert, Heine, Thoreau, Henry Adams, George Eliot, Hugo Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Lady Cynthia Asquith, Rilke, George Grosz, Hardy, Al Capone, Ford Madox Ford, Allen Tate, Randall Jarrell, John Crowe Ransom, F. O. Mattheissen, Roethke, Delmore Schwartz, T. S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, MacNeice, William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, Stalin, Harpo Marx, Che Guevara, Norman Mailer, Dwight Macdonald, Adrienne Rich, Mary McCarthy, Eugene McCarthy, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, De Gaulle, Lévi-Strauss, R. P. Blackmur, Stanley Kunitz, Elizabeth Bishop, I. A. Richards, John Berryman, Robert Lowell and many more: a cast of thousands. The range they cover, and the pertinent information Lowell is able to adduce when treating each one — these things are little short of astonishing. But they were already startling in Notebook. What makes these qualities doubly impressive now is the new effect of faces succeeding faces in due order. Leaving, of course, a thousand gaps — gaps which the poet seems understandably keen to set about filling.

Lizzie and Harriet’s retributive presence in Notebook has been eliminated from History and given a book of its own. The Dolphin likewise enshrines a portion of Lowell’s experience which is plainly not going to be allowed to overbalance the future of History. It is possible to suggest, given the dispersal of foci represented by these three volumes, that Lowell’s ‘confessional’ poetry is no longer his main thing. The History book now embodies his chief effort, and in relation to this effort, the ordinary people inhabiting his life don’t make the weight. History is full of public names, rather than private ones: public names united not so much by prestige as in their undoubted puissance in shaping, exemplifying or glorifying historic moments. In History Lowell, alone, joins the great.

And the number of the great grows all the time. Instructive, in this respect, to take a close look at the History poem called ‘Cleopatra Topless’, one of a short sequence of poems concerning her. Where have we seen it before? Was it in Notebook? But in Notebook it is untraceable in the list of contents. Where was it, then? The answer is that the poem is in Notebook but is called simply ‘Topless’ and has nothing to do with Cleopatra. In the Notebook poem she’s just a girl in a nightclub:

    She is the girl
    as Renoir, Titian and all full times have left her

To convert her into Cleopatra, it is only necessary to get rid of the inappropriate Renoir and Titian, filling the space with a line or so about what men desire. Throughout History the reader is continually faced with material which has apparently been dragged in to fill a specific chronological spot. Nor does this material necessarily have its starting point in Notebook: the fact that it appears in that volume, if it does appear, doesn’t preclude its having begun its life in an earlier, and often far earlier, Lowell collection. For example, a version of Valéry’s ‘Hélène’ is in Imitations, with the inspiration for it credited to Valéry. By the time it arrives in History, it is credited to no one but Lowell. It is true that the drive of the verse has been weakened with over-explanatory adjectives:

My solitary hands recall the kings

My loving hands recall the absent kings

Mes solitaires mains appellent les monarques

But this is incidental. As we can see abundantly in other places, Lowell’s minor adjustments are just as likely to impart point as detract from it. Fundamentally important, however, is the way the imitation has been saddled with extraneous properties (Agamemnon, Ulysses) in order to bolster it for the significance it is being asked to provide in its new slot. Though making regular appearances in the early sections of History, Agamemnon and Ulysses are nowhere mentioned in Valéry’s poem. But then, the poem is no longer Valéry’s: in History the source is uncredited.

Trusting to the itch of memory and ransacking the library shelves in order to scratch it, the reader soon learns that Lowell has been cannibalizing his earlier works of translation and imitation — cutting them up into fourteen-line lengths and introducing them with small ceremony first of all into Notebook and later, on the grand scale, into History. Usually the provenance of the newly installed sonnet is left unmentioned. There are exceptions to this: the ‘Le Cygne’ of Notebook, which the gullible might have attributed to Lowell, has a better chance of being traceable to its origins now that it is called ‘Mallarmé I. Swan’. It is in fact the second of the ‘Plusieurs Sonnets’ in Poésies and is called — after its first line — ‘Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui’. In Notebook Lowell had ‘blind’ for vivace, an inscrutable boldness which in History has been softened to ‘alive’. Other improvements in the new version are less welcome: ‘the horror of the ice that ties his wings’ is a reversal of Mallarmé’s sense, which in the Notebook version had been got right. Mallarmé is saying that the swan accepts the ice. Here Lowell seems to have been improving the first version without reference to the original. On the other hand, he has now substituted ‘wings’ for ‘feet’ and thereby humbly returned much closer to plumage. The key phrase, l’exil inutile, which is ringingly present in the Notebook version, is now strangely absent. Anyone who attempts to trace poems back through Notebook to their sources in foreign literatures is fated to be involved in these niggling questions at all times. But at least, with such a clear signpost of a title, there is a hint that this particular poem has such a history. In many cases even this tenuous condition does not obtain.

When a bright young American scholar produces a properly indexed Variorum Lowell — preferably with a full concordance — it will be easier to speak with confidence about what appears in History that is not in Notebook. A good few poems appear in both with different titles, and it is difficult for even the keenest student to hold the entire mass of the material clearly in his mind. But if History’s ‘Baudelaire 1. The Abyss’ is not in Notebook, it was in Imitations, where it was billed as a version of ‘Le Gouffre’. There, it reduced Baudelaire’s fourteen lines to thirteen. Now it is back to being a sonnet again, and the Êtres are now rendered as ‘being’ instead of ‘form’, which one takes to be a net gain. One is less sure that the poem’s provenance would be so recognizable if it were not for the memory of the Imitations version. The question keeps on cropping up — are we supposed to know that such material started out in another poet’s mind, or are we supposed to accept it as somehow being all Lowell’s? Is it perhaps that Lowell is putting himself forward as the representative of all past poets? It should be understood that one is not questioning Lowell’s right to employ allusion, or to embody within his own work a unity of culture which he feels to be otherwise lost. The ethics are not the problem; the aesthetics are. Because none of these poems carries the same weight, when presented as ordinary Lowell, as it does when its history is clearly seen to be still surrounding it.

‘Baudelaire 2. Recollection’ was called ‘Meditation’ in Imitations and is thus a revision of a version of ‘Recueillement’. It is interesting to see that va cueillir des remords now means ‘accumulating remorse’ rather than the previous and unfathomable ‘fights off anguish’. Minor satisfactions like that can be clung to while the reader totals ‘Baudelaire 1. The Abyss’ and ‘Baudelaire 2. Recollection’ and glumly reconciles himself to the fact that that’s his lot on Baudelaire — two revamped imitations.

Rimbaud does better. Five sonnets. But all five turn out to have been in a sequence of eight versions printed in Imitations. ‘Rimbaud 1. Bohemia’ was called ‘On the Road’ and is a version of ‘Ma Bohème’; ‘Rimbaud 2. A Knowing Girl’ was called ‘A Knowing Girl’ and is a version of ‘La Maline’; ‘Rimbaud 3. Sleeper in the Valley’ was more expansively called ‘The Sleeper in the Valley’ and is a version of ‘Le Dormeur du Val’; ‘Rimbaud 4. The Evil’ was less expansively called ‘Evil’ and is a version of ‘Le Mal’; ‘Rimbaud 5. Napoleon after Sedan’ was called ‘Napoleon after Sedan’, is a version of ‘Rages de Césars’, and was the only one of the five to have made an intermediary appearance in Notebook, where it was called ‘Rimbaud and Napoleon III’. With this last poem, then, we have three separate texts to help send us cross-eyed, but if we can concentrate long enough we will see a characteristic change. The Imitations version is shaped like the original and confines itself to the original’s material, plus a few scraps of interpolated elucidatory matter (where Rimbaud just said ‘Compère’ Lowell tactfully adds some explanatory horses) and of course the inevitable intensifying of the verbs. The Notebook version is no longer readily identifiable as an imitation: the stanza-breaks have been eliminated, the first four lines are a piece of scene-setting which have nothing to do with the original, and Robespierre’s name has been introduced, answering a question — ‘quel nom sur ses lèvres muettes/Tressaille?’ — which Rimbaud had left unanswered. The History version gets the fidgets, throwing out Compère but leaving the horses. By this time, you would need to be pretty thoroughly acquatined with Rimbaud if you were to spot the poem as anything but neat Lowell.

Of the other Rimbaud poems, ‘La Maline’ is now closer to the way Rimbaud wrote it than the Imitations version, but Lowell’s ‘Ma Bohème’ misses by just as far as it used to, though in a different way:

                September twilight on September twilight.

                September twilights and September twilights

A minor alteration to a major aberration: the repetition is not in Rimbaud and does nothing for his meaning whichever way Lowell puts it.

Material which had its starting point in Imitations can be changed to any extent from slightly to drastically on its way to a fourteen-line living-space in History. Lowell’s version of ‘L’Infinito’ is squeezed by three lines but is otherwise the poem we have come to recognize as probably the least sympathetic translation of Leopardi ever committed. ‘Hugo at Théophile Gautier’s Grave’ is a rearrangement of an Imitations version of Hugo’s ‘A Théophile Gautier’ which had already cut the original by more than half. ‘Sappho to a Girl’ was in Notebook  as just ‘Sappho’, and is a mosaic of bits and pieces which can been seen in Imitations still mounted in their original settings — i.e. versions of the poem to the bride Anactoria (No. 141 in the Oxford Book of Greek Verse) and that tiny, lovely poem to Night (No. 156) which contains the line about the Pleiads. In his Imitations version Lowell left the Pleiads out. In the Notebook version they were still out. In the History version he put them back in. The cardplayer, who is in all three versions, seems not to belong to Sappho, but could conceivably belong to Cézanne.

Imitations, however, is not the only source of workable stone. Notebook/History is Lowell’s Renaissance and like the Renaissance in Rome it doesn’t question its right to use all the monuments of the ancient city as a quarry. History’s ‘Horace: Pardon for a Friend’ started life, at twice the length, as a version of Horace’s Odes II, 7, in Near the Ocean. In the same collection first appeared ‘Juvenal’s Prayer’, which at that stage constituted the last nineteen lines of a version of Juvenal’s 10th Satire. And to return briefly to Cleopatra, ‘Nunc est bibendum, Cleopatra’s Death’ is (as the title this time allows) another imitation, or at least a fragment of one — Horace’s Odes I, 37, which in Near the Ocean can be found imitated in full.

And still they come, racing out of the past to find their new home. History’s ‘Caligula 2’ is part of a much longer Caligula in For the Union Dead. And from as far back as Lord Weary’s Castle, ‘In the Cage’ is an acknowledged reworking, with the attention now turning from the observed to the observer. But other material from the same early period is less easily spotted. The sonnet ‘Charles V by Titian’, for example, was called ‘Charles the Fifth and the Peasant’ in Lord Weary’s Castle, where it was subtitled ‘After Valéry’ and appeared to be a version of his ‘César’ in which almost every property, Titian included, was an interpolation. History’s ‘Dante 3. Buonconte’ goes back to a poem in Lord Weary’s Castle called ‘The Soldier’, which was modelled on the Buonconte da Montefeltro episode in Purgatorio V. Here we have a clear case of the way Lowell’s wide learning has matured with the years: he nowadays quietly and correctly renders la croce as Buonconte’s hands folded on his chest, rather than as a crucifix — a subtly rich textual point of the kind which Lowell at his best is brilliantly equipped to bring out. Restored from an unwieldy third person to the direct first person of the original, this poem is easily the best of those devoted to Dante: ‘Dante 4. Paolo and Francesca’ is a copybook example of how Lowell’s irrepressible extremism of language is unable to match the flow of lyrical Italian — and unabashed lyricism is a good half of Francesca’s self-deluding personality. Lowell takes Francesca’s side against the oppressors of her flesh. If it has occurred to him that Dante didn’t, he doesn’t say so. In the Dante rhapsody as a whole, we are able to see that below the uniform intensity of Lowell’s language there is a uniform intensity of psychology — a certain monotony of feeling. Dante’s love for Beatrice is presented rather as if the relationship between work and love bore strong resemblances to that same relationship in the life of Robert Lowell. Could Lowell find means, we wonder, to convey the fact that with Dante the consuming, disabling passion was just as likely to be for philosophy as for sex?

For all the examples cited above, elementary sleuthing suffices to trace the origins — either the title gives a clue or else the poem is more or less intact and can’t fail to jog the reader’s memory. But it’s doubtful if the cannibalizing process stops there, and at this stage it’s probably safer to assume that Lowell regards none of his earlier work, whether imitative or original, as exempt from requisitioning and a reconstruction ranging from mild to violent. For example, in a History poem called ‘The Spartan Dead at Thermopylae’ the lines about Leonidas are lifted straight from the Imitations version of Rilke’s ‘Die Tauben’. Pretty well untraceable, if these lines weren’t original Lowell then, they are now.

Lowell’s discovery of a linear historical structure for History has opened the way to a poet’s dream — the simple line allowing infinite complication. The sudden insatiable demand for material has sent him raiding back over all his past poetry — not necessarily just the translations — in a search for stuff that fits. A great deal does. On the other hand, isn’t there something Procrustean about carving up all that past work into fourteen-line chunks? To get back to Michelangelo and the marble, it’s as if Michelangelo were to pick up a power-saw and slice through everything from the Madonna of the Stairs to the Rondinini Pietà at a height of fourteen inches.

Whatever Procrustes might have thought, trimming things to fit an arbitrary frame is not a discipline. And without its rhyme-schemes, the sonnet is an arbitrary frame. There are many times in Notebook/History when the reader thrills to the impact of an idea achieving a formal measure almost in spite of itself:

I hear the catbird’s coloratura cluck
singing fuck, fuck above the brushwood racket.
The feeder deals catfood like cards to the yearling
salmon in their stockpond by the falls.

The singing power of the mimesis, the clashing couplings of the shunting assonance, the muscle of the enjambement: if there were a single sonnet wholly assembled with such care then one would not even have to set oneself to learn it — it would teach itself. But fragments are the most we get. Lowell’s later method might allow some parts of his talent free play but it allows his technique only child’s play. ‘I want words meat-hooked from the living steer’, he writes in the course of rebuking Valéry for preferring six passable lines to one inspired one. He gets what he wants: meat-hooked words and inspired lines. But what one misses, and goes on missing until it aches, is form.

Still, within the limits he has now set for it — the liberating limits, as he sees them — Lowell’s talent is still operating, and still majestic. There are times when nothing has happened except language yet you must helplessly concede that the vitality of his language is unique:

Man turns dimwit quicker than the mayfly
fast goes the lucid moment of love believed;

And there are times when the language subsides into nothing special, but the visualizing faculty reveals itself for the hundredth time as a profound gift:

Coming back to Kenyon on the Ohio local —
the view, middle distance, back and foreground, shifts,
silos shifting squares like chessmen —

What an idea! But in all the vast expanse of Notebook/History there are not many times when both things come together, and none at all when the poem sustains itself in the way to which Lowell once made us accustomed. There is no doubt that Lowell has abandoned his old course deliberately. Nor is there any doubt that he has opened up for himself an acreage of subject-matter which could never have been reached in the old way. But we still have to decide if what we are being given is poetry or something else. Of some comfort here is that Lowell appears to be still undecided himself.

Setting aside the decisive alteration of structure which turned the circularity of Notebook into the linear stride of History, all the minor changes seem to have been made with the fidgeting lack of direction that you might expect from a writer who somehow feels compelled to refurbish the deliberately formless. Most of the attention has been expended on points of language: it’s too late by now to go back to fourteen passable lines, but apparently there is still hope of drumming up the odd inspired one. All too frequently, the striving for intensity results in a further, incomprehensible compression of an idea already tightened to the limit. In the Notebook version of ‘In the Forties I’:

Green logs sizzled on the fire-dogs,
painted scarlet like British Redcoats....

Whereas the History version has:

greenwood sizzling on the andirons,
two men of iron, two milk-faced British Redcoats.

Without a knowledge of the first version, it would be hard to guess what the second might mean: the idea of red paint has become familiar to Lowell, and he has got rid of it without pausing to reflect that we will have trouble following the idea unless it is spelled out to some extent. Scores of these changes for the worse could be adduced. Other changes are simply neutral. In Notebook’s ‘Harriet 2’, the fly is like a plane gunning potato bugs. Appearing again in the sonnet ‘Summer, 2’ in For Lizzie and Harriet, the fly is like a plane dusting apple orchards. The second version is perhaps preferable for its verb being the more easily appreciated, but on the other hand potato bugs have more verve that apple orchards. It’s a toss-up.

Another kind of change is incontestably for the better. In History Robert Frost’s voice is ‘musical and raw’ rather than, as in Notebook, ‘musical, raw and raw’. One had always wondered why the repetition was there, and now one finds that Lowell had been wondering the same thing. In Notebook Frost was supposed to have inscribed a volume ‘Robert Lowell form Robert Frost, his friend in the art’. In History this becomes ‘For Robert from Robert, his friend in the art’. Much chummier. Was Lowell, for modesty’s sake, misquoting the first time? Or is he, for immodesty’s sake, misquoting now? It is impossible to tell, but grappling with the implications of these minor shifts is one of the involving things about reading all these books together.

The comparison between Notebook and History could go on for ever, and probably will. Discovering that the Notebook poem for Louis MacNeice is reproduced in History with one of its lines doubled and another line dropped — a really thunderous printer’s error - one wonders distractedly if anybody else knows. Does Lowell know? It’s large territory to become familiar with, even for him. Finally one decides that getting familiar with it is as far as appreciation can go. To recognize details is possible; but there is small hope of remembering the whole thing. Like Berryman’s Dream Songs, Lowell’s Notebook/History/For Lizzie and Harriet defeats memory. Perhaps The Dolphin is heading back to the way things were, but on examination it starts yielding the kind of names — Hölderlin, Manet — which make us think that most of it is fated to end up in the next version of History. In The Dolphin the only human, unhistoried, unsignificant voice occurs in the quoted parts of Lizzie’s letters. If Lowell wrote them, he should write more. But there isn’t much point in saying ‘should’. The outstanding American poet is engaged in writing his version of the poem that Pound, Williams and Berryman have each already attempted — The Big One. Lowell thinks he is chipping away the marble to get at the statue. It’s more likely that he is trying to build a statue out of marble-chips. Who cares about history, if poetry gets thrown away? Perhaps he does. And anyway the poetry was his to throw.

(T.L.S., 10 August 1973)