Robert Lowell, Lyric and Life
Robert Lowell, Lyric and Life investigates the meaning of autobiography as it is represented and produced by the work of art. I begin by tracing Lowell's poetics to the highly personal Romanticism of William Wordsworth and the highly impersonal Modernism of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Allen Tate. Reading Lowell's writing in light of this dual inheritance, I am able to point out the limitations of calling Lowell's poetry "confessional" and to propose a model of the lyric self that accounts for the significant semiotic and psychological complexity that goes into the making of a lyric "I." I argue that, from a reader's point of view, Lowell's autobiographical poems are more creations of experience than they are records of experience; that, although the reader is supposed to believe he is "getting the real Robert Lowell," what he really gets is a fictive representation. Taking hold of what Robert Lowell called the "thread of autobiography" that strings together his life's work, I then trace the changing role of Lowell's autobiographical lyric self in a series of three chapters. The first of these chapters concerns the manuscript drafts and published poems of Life Studies (composed from 1953-1959) and, through attention to Lowell's revisions, demonstrates the great extent to which Lowell fictionalized his experience: for instance, by omitting some of the most personal details of the poems in favor of elegant prosodic or thematic composition. The next chapter takes up what I designate "the Notebook poems" (the sonnets published between 1967 and 1972 in the volumes Notebook 1967-68, Notebook, History, and For Lizzie & Harriet), examining the ways in which Lowell's move to New York City and his readings of Hannah Arendt, Eric Auerbach, Simone Weil, and Herbert Marcuse (among others) affected his views of the lyric self in relation to history. This chapter ends by arguing for the Dantesque contours of the Notebook poems, and again takes a close look at Lowell's drafts, including an unpublished essay on Dante. A final chapter examines two ekphrastic autobiographical poems ("Marriage" and "Epilogue"), from Lowell's final volume, Day by Day (1977), in relation to poems by Elizabeth Bishop and William Wordsworth. It concludes by showing, through a close reading of "Epilogue" and its drafts, Lowell's own retrospective concern to question and doubt the autobiographical pursuits of his poetry. A brief epilogue draws the variegated threads of these chapters together and offers a final reflection on the inextricable knot of Lowell's lyrics and his life by way of reading his final poems and the biographical record of his death.