Robert Lowell had a distinguished reputation from his three earlier volumes of poetry before Life Studies as the master of the kinds of qualities praised by the then dominant New Critics - poetry that was dense, allusive, impersonal, and difficult. The third of these volumes had been published in 1951, The Mills of the Kavanaughs. But in Life Studies Lowell wrote in a verse form freer than any he had previously allowed himself, and in a barely disguised autobiographical vein that exposed many of the personal, family, and marital crises of his own life. The four parts of the book are in some ways a record of the journey his poetry took from the 1951 volume to the poems of Life Studies, from the studied, still distanced poems of Part One, through the autobiographical prose of Part Two, written after a breakdown and hospitalization in the mid-1950s, to the looser poems begun in the summer and fall of 1957 after a reading tour of the west coast that sometimes included sharing a platform with Allen Ginsberg. Lowell had also begun a warm correspondence with William Carlos Williams. Writing to and meeting Williams, and listening to Ginsberg's powerful readings, were among the factors that encouraged Lowell to be more direct in his work, looser in the structure of his poems, and more openly personal in his subject matter. This direction was further reinforced by the move by a number of poets in the middle and late 1950s towards a more personal "confessional" poetry. For a number of reviewers of Life Studies, and even for Lowell himself, there remained an uncertainty about where his new style would take him, and what its possibilities, if any, might be.
The poems and prose of Life Studies set up multiple connections through recurring themes and motifs. These interweaving connections provide a counterpoint to the more linear narratives, such as the shift in the book's poetics, the family histories, and the poet's move away from the community of beliefs offered by the Catholic Church (one subject of the first poem
"Beyond the Alps") to the ironic observation of courage and commitment in the actions of a mother skunk and her family in the final poem, "Skunk Hour." Additional themes include the role of failed fathers and leaders, "killer kings" as "Beyond the Alps" terms them (the Pope, Mussolini, the exiled writers of Part Three of Life Studies, the Harvard graduates institutionalized in a mental hospital in "Waking in the Blue," and most importantly Lowell's own father); oppressive and powerful women, Marie de Medici of the second poem "The Banker's Daughter," deposed by her son - and Lowell's own mother, "still her Father's daughter," dominating her weak husband in "Commander Lowell," and dying in Italy in "Sailing Home from Rapallo"; and the oppression of the Lowell name, added to by his mother's Winslow heritage, both among the first names of New England, and associated with a history of leadership and achievement now diminished in a century in which identity and a role had to be discovered rather than merely inherited. As part of this latter theme there is a strain of nostalgic envy in Life Studies, introduced in the first poem, for the conspicuous waste of our grandparents on their grand tours -long-haired Victorian sages [who] accepted the universe, while breezing on their trust funds through the world.
This nostalgia becomes, in "Skunk Hour," "the actions of "Nautilus Island's hermit / heiress" who, "Thirsting for / the hierarchic privacy / of Queen Victoria's century / . . . buys up all / the eyesores facing her shore, / and lets them fall." But Life Studies is the story of a figure who can no longer so easily accept the universe, including the academic and literary world that had bestowed praise and prizes on his earlier work, and who is no longer able or content to purchase shelter with inherited wealth, or to - as he came to feel he had been doing - hide the real subjects of his verse behind the dense, complex, allusive style of his first three books.
Lowell had converted to Catholicism in 1940, itself an act of rebellion against his family's long association with the Calvinism of Boston history. "Beyond the Alps" describes a train journey from Rome to Paris, in effect leaving the Church behind, as well as the idealism represented by the mountains. In 1950, the date of this poem, "Everest was still / unscaled." This and the other three poems of Part One are representative of Lowell's earlier style. "Inauguration Day: January 1953" describes the beginning of the Eisenhower presidency, and what "Memories of West Street and Lepke" in Part Four terms "the tranquillized Fifties" (Lowell's own prescription medicines are included in the phrase).
Part Two consists of the autobiographical prose "91 Revere Street" -missing from the first edition of Life Studies, which was published in Britain, because of the haste required to have the book eligible for a literary prize that in the event it did not win. This account of Lowell's childhood from 1925 to 1928 is both a record of the self-examination he underwent as a result of his breakdowns in the 1950s and a repository of the major themes of the book. Within the prose are accounts of relatives living out the last rituals of the old Boston Brahmin heritage, the child's fascination with a history and heritage which in the poems becomes both redundant and oppressive, and descriptions of Lowell's parents, the tensions of their marriage, and the father's slide into failure once he gives up his naval career - the last place where hierarchy still served as a central principle of order. The tensions between parents are echoed in the son's own marriage in the Part Four poem "Man and Wife," where the couple "lie on Mother's bed."
The four poems on writers that make up Part Three are also earlier poems. Thematically they present the risks of breaking away from the safety of the familiar. In various ways all four die in exile, and represent the scant value that the diminished contemporary world gives to its writers. All four were also important figures to Lowell personally. Lowell knew Ford Madox Ford at the end of the older writer's life through their mutual association with the group of southern poets and critics that included such figures as Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, and Robert Penn Warren. Poet and philosopher George Santayana, the subject of another poem, spent much of his life fighting against entrenched New England values. Delmore Schwartz, the subject of a third, Lowell knew from his time at Kenyon College. Schwartz burst upon the literary scene as a poet of great promise, but suffered a series of personal crises that would eventuate in his lonely death in New York City in 1966. Finally "Words for Hart Crane" pays tribute to a poet who was an important stylistic influence on Lowell's work. Crane's suicide is a final reminder of the hostility facing all four writers, who have in common with the Lowell of Life Studies a refusal to take the easy route of conformity.
The final part of the book, actually subtitled "Life Studies," displays the newer, looser style that Lowell had developed after his west coast trip, and is in two sections. In the first of the poems, "My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow," Lowell recalls being "five and a half" and his own yearning to "stay with Grandpa!" and the solid comforts that his home and garden represented, rather than returning with his parents. Meanwhile, the figures peopling that afternoon are beginning to disappear, "My Uncle was dying at twenty-nine," or like Great Aunt Sarah are going through the rituals of madness. In another of the book's motifs that accumulate meaning as the sequence progresses, the young Lowell "picked with a clean finger nail at the blue anchor / on my sailor blouse washed white as a spinnaker." The action among other things associates the boy with his father's naval career, abandoned at the insistence of his wife, and the loss of the "anchor" of generational stability represented by the apparent solidity of the grandfather's house. The "décor" in this house "Like my Grandfather . . . / was manly, comfortable, /overbearing, disproportioned" as the weight of this past will come to seem to the mature poet.
The rest of this first section records the deaths of family members -Lowell's father died in 1950 and his mother in 1954 - as well as the poet's own mental instability and institutionalization. In "Waking in the Blue," he is, like the other inmates of the hospital, one of the "old-timers" and he struts "in my turtle-necked French sailor's jersey" through the wards populated by "Mayflower / screwballs" whose movements are monitored by "Roman Catholic attendants."
In the last of the poems in this first half of Part Four, "Home After Three Months Away," the poet returns home after electric shock treatment, his cure, a temporary one, coming at the price of displacement: "I keep no rank nor station. / Cured, I am frizzled, stale and small." The lines prepare for the ironic comparison of Lowell's condition with that of mass murderer Lepke in the poem that follows and begins the final section of Part Four, "Memories of West Street and Lepke." Lepke, an inmate of the "West Street Jail" where Lowell was held for his conscientious objection to the Second World War, faces the electric chair, and like the aristocratic Lowells of the past has special privileges that set him apart from "the common man." Lepke's segregation is juxtaposed to the isolation of the poet who looks back from the 1950s on the memory and on his idealistic pacifism - a pacifism which he now sees as naive. But Lowell's isolation is not only from his "nine months' daughter"; he also, like Lepke, has in the 1950s a special privilege - a comfortable teaching job, "Only teaching on Tuesdays." Like the lobotomized Lepke, the poet's world is one of "lost connections," but unlike Lepke's "sheepish calm" the loss and its consequences still haunt him and the pages of this book.
The depth of the isolation is reinforced in the two poems that follow, both on marriage. But the final poem, "Skunk Hour," offers a possible way to continue, through the determined survival instincts of the skunk. The poet's distance from the skunk family, which significantly has no father present, is emphasized just as much as any comfort that the mother skunk's courageous actions may offer to him as example. Earlier in the poem the possibility of such renewal through family is problematized by the narrator's voyeuristic prowling, and his discovery of mechanistic lovemaking in "love-cars" that "lay together, hull to hull, / where the graveyard shelves on the town." But the narrator acknowledges directly "'My mind's not right. //
... I myself am hell." There are no more evasions. In addition, the poem is dedicated to Lowell's friend and fellow poet Elizabeth Bishop, whose "The Armadillo" (which is dedicated to Lowell) he acknowledged as an important poem in showing him the way towards his new style. There is thus, through the dedication, at least this community of two poets, which, along with the frankness of the self-examination, could begin to counter the poem's forlorn "nobody's here - // only skunks . . ."
The reviews of Life Studies ranged from the mostly somewhat tepid notices in Britain to some enthusiastic reviews in the United States. Some reviewers regretted Lowell's abandonment of the grand style for one they considered little more than anecdotal, but it was recognized that for a major poet to change his style so drastically was itself an important event. The book went on to win Lowell a National Book Award. He continued further with what he called in a letter to Randall Jarrell the "opening" provided by Life Studies in 1964's For the Union Dead, the reviews of which spoke of him as the major poet of his generation, completing the canonization inaugurated by the earlier volume.
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