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Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character

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A Pulitzer Prize Finalist 

In this magisterial study of the relationship between illness and art, the best-selling author of An Unquiet Mind brings a fresh perspective to the life and work of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Robert Lowell. In his poetry, Lowell put his manic-depressive illness (now known as bipolar disorder) into the public domain, and in the process created a new and arresting language for madness. Here Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison brings her expertise in mood disorders to bear on Lowell’s story, illuminating not only the relationships between mania, depression, and creativity but also how Lowell’s illness and treatment influenced his work (and often became its subject). A bold, sympathetic account of a poet who was—both despite and because of mental illness—a passionate, original observer of the human condition.

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About the Author:

Kay Redfield Jamison is the Dalio Family Professor in Mood Disorders and a professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, as well as an honorary professor of English at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. She is the author of the national best sellers An Unquiet Mind, Night Falls Fast, and Touched with Fire, and is the coauthor of the standard medical text on bipolar disorder, Manic-Depressive Illness: Bipolar Disorders and Recurrent Depression. Dr. Jamison is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Royal Society of Edinburgh and is a recipient of the Lewis Thomas Prize, the Sarnat International Prize in Mental Health from the National Academy of Medicine, and a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship. She is married to Thomas Traill, a cardiologist at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1

No Tickets for That Altitude

The resident doctor said,

“We are not deep in ideas, imagination or enthusiasm—­

how can we help you?”

I asked,

“These days of only poems and depression—­

what can I do with them?

Will they help me to notice

what I cannot bear to look at?”

—­From “Notice”

“Darkness honestly lived through is a place of wonder and life,” Robert Lowell wrote. “So much has come from there.” It was October 1957 and he was forty, writing poetry “like a house a fire,” and taking darkness into “new country.” It was, he said, the best writing he had done, “closer to what I know” and “oh how welcome after four silent years.” The new poems became the heart of Life Studies, “perhaps the most influential book of modern verse since T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.” The poems, most written at the boil in a few months’ time, left their mark: “They have made a conquest,” wrote a reviewer. “They have won . . . a major expansion of the territory of poetry.”

In December 1957, after his summer and fall blaze of writing, Lowell was admitted to a mental hospital severely psychotic. It was his fifth psychiatric hospitalization in eight years. He was involuntarily committed to the Boston State Hospital and then transferred to the Massachusetts Mental Health Center (until 1956 known as Boston Psychopathic Hospital). In early 1958 he was transferred yet again, this time to McLean Hospital, where his great-­great-­grandmother had been institutionalized more than a hundred years earlier. The repetition of circumstance was not lost on Lowell; Life Studies had begun with a steeping in his ancestry. Harriet Brackett Spence Lowell, he had come to believe, was the one who had brought poetry into the Lowell line.

Lowell told the doctor who admitted him to the Massachusetts Mental Health Center that the preceding months, September and October 1957, had been “some of his most productive months of writing poetry.” It was the pattern he had come to know well: first, the weeks of intense, fiery writing. Then the spike into mania, and finally, as night follows day, the “dust in the blood” of depression. His psychiatrist wrote in Lowell’s medical chart what many of his doctors were to observe: “The patient has had a series of breaks,” she wrote, “all in the light of unusual literary output.” Much had come from the darkness, but not without a cost.

This book is about fire in the blood and darkness; it is about mania and the precarious, deranging altitude to which mania ascends. It is about the poetic imagination and how mania and imagination come together to create great art. But it is as much and more about the vital role of discipline and character in making art from inborn gift. Poetry may come from an unhappy and disordered life, Lowell wrote, “but a huge amount of health has to go into the misery.” Without question, Lowell’s attacks of mania spurred his work; they also brought pain to him and to those he loved. Things he had done when he was manic haunted him when he was well. They were public and they gave fodder to his detractors. Yet Lowell came back from madness time and again, reentered the fray, and kept intact his friendships. He kept his wit and his capacity to love. He went back to his work.

This faculty for regeneration is uncommon; so too is the courage to face, and to write from, the certainty of impending madness. Creating poetry that expands the territory is rarer still. Lowell’s poetic imagination was tethered to an unstable but disciplined mind; it forged his work and branded his life. Mania took his poetry where it would not have gone, to an altitude for which, as he wrote in the first poem of Life Studies, “there were no tickets.”

“My trouble,” Lowell wrote to his friend, the poet Elizabeth Bishop, is “to bring together in me the Puritanical iron hand of constraint and the gushes of pure wildness. One can’t survive or write without both but they need to come to terms. Rather narrow walking—­.” Lowell turned to his use the warring elements of what one doctor described as a “rock crystal” will, “glittering, very hard, and very definite in its formation,” and the mania that lay almost beyond its reach; the fight gave a yield in art and a life graced but damaged. No measure of will could prevent madness, any more than it could bring down a storm at sea. It was the contending, the struggle, the effort that marked Lowell’s life and set the terms of his writing and ambition. A century earlier, Byron, no stranger to ungovernable moods, had written, “Yet see—­he mastereth himself—­& makes / His torture tributary to his will.” So too did Lowell.

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 affected 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. Mood disorders, depression, and bipolar illness, occur disproportionately often in writers, as well as in visual artists and composers. Studying the influence of both normal and pathological moods on creative work is critical to understanding how the mind imagines.

We know mania and depression to be ancient diseases, described by Hippocrates five hundred years before Christ and intensively studied by physicians and scientists in the centuries since. Mania is an unstable and complex state. It is seductive and blinding to those who are caught up in it, laden with risk and energy. It can bolt the mind into new regions and propel it to act upon ideas. Mania insinuates its way into its hosting brain: intoxicating enough to be dangerous, original enough to be valuable. Narrow walking indeed.

If it were only Robert Lowell afflicted by mania it still would bear thought because mania was a dominant force in the life and work of a major poet. Because it is a part of the lives of so many other writers and creators, however, it is of more general interest. Mania has had a subtle as well as a blunt impact on human history: it has struck those who founded religions and empires, discovered the laws of nature and mapped new lands; it has set fire to the imaginations of those who write, paint, and compose. Mania is important to understanding many who create; it occupies rare real estate in the brain, sharing permeable borders with the normal mind, madness, and imagination.

This book will explore the patterns of Robert Lowell’s mania and the mutability of his moods, as well as his long periods of depression, all of which shaped his temperament, character, thinking, and imagination. It will look at the forces Lowell brought to bear against his illness: his character and New England heritage; his discipline, intellect, capacity for friendship, and iron-­laced upbringing. Lowell had a severe form of manic depression. He fought to control, fend off, and make sense of his manic attacks and was acutely aware that his control was incomplete. Instability and the relentless recurrence of his illness hardened his discipline while mania impelled and stamped his work. Knowing that his sanity was subject to forces beyond his control marked his poetry and darkened his life philosophy.

“We face the precariousness of keeping alert, of keeping alive in the triple conflict between madness, death and life,” Lowell once said. “We must bend, not break.” Lowell was dealt a hand of cards high in privilege and poetic imagination but he also received dark cards, impossible to play, that broke him time and again. There are no rules for how to play such cards; no one is provided a map to navigate madness or depression. I will argue that Lowell played his cards with courage and imagination; above all, he did not fold. It would have been easy to do so. Much of his adult life was engaged in a battle against madness or fear that it would come back, contending with the suffering that it caused him, and the pain it caused others.

Nothing about Lowell’s mind was simple. The English poet and novelist Alan Brownjohn described spending time in his company: “We left feeling completely kind of drained, shattered, stupefied really . . . literary conversations with him were . . . tiring in the sense that you felt every nerve was stretched. It was partly the man’s knowledge, which was encyclopedic, partly the sort of darting perceptions and intuitions on behalf of you for what you were going to say next. He made links and connections for you in this slightly manic—­and paranoid—­way.”

Any attempt to understand such a mind must be partial and qualified; the usual limits of understanding another’s mind are compounded when trying to understand Lowell, a man who thought in metaphor, lived in history, and whose mind was engaged in a restless, stupendously elaborate game of three-­dimensional chess. Lowell’s mind was of a lurching, revising originality.

“Metaphor was his reality, not the original fact,” recounted his friend Esther Brooks. Lowell made her feel, his friend the literary critic Helen Vendler said, “like a rather backward evolutionary form confronted by an unknown but superior species. And when one asked what the name of the species was, the answer came unbidden: Poet.” Lowell, to the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, was “a man of genius”: complex, likable, and bewildering, he added, but a genius.

Lowell’s originality and breadth of thinking were matched by prodigious energy. Ideas flew. Brooks, a longtime friend, said that Lowell’s way of looking at things was “so completely original that you yourself began to see everything from a different perspective. Hours meant nothing to him when he was interested. Day turned into night and night back into day while he, with his seemingly limitless stamina, worried an idea, rejected it, discovered another, built mental pyramids, tore them down, discoursed on the habits of wolves, the Punic Wars, Dante, Napoleon, Shakespeare, Alexander the Great, politics, his friends, religion, his work, or the great noyade at Nantes. Whatever the subject it all came forth as though it were being pushed at you, helped on its way by that outward prodding palm. Sometimes this incredible energy of his would exhaust you and you would suddenly feel like screaming, or running away in search of some undefined moment, some unexamined fact, some purely sensuous reaction to beauty.”

I do not believe, as a psychologist or from my life, that anyone can more than partially understand the mind of another. When I teach psychiatry residents and graduate students about psychotherapy, I stress the respect one must keep for the abyss between what one thinks one knows and what one actually knows about another individual’s mental life. That abyss, unless its existence is kept in mind, will stand in the way of empathy and clinical acuity. We have a precarious understanding of our own thoughts and emotions, much less another’s. There are limits, but one can hope, within those limits, to create some sense of a life and to bring a fair mixture of compassion and dispassion to the task. Lowell’s mind, however many worlded and metaphoric, has a lighted way into it. His autobiographical writings, letters, poetry, and prose contain critical insight into his writing patterns and the evolution of his poetry; they allow a close look into his childhood and family, friendships, marriages, and the ongoing struggle he had with his mental illness. His letters, particularly, give a sense of who he was as a person, poet, father, and friend.

Looking back over thirty years of writing, Lowell said, “My impression is that the thread that strings it together is my autobiography.” Yet of course his poetry was spun from his imagination as well as from fact, and fact itself, like memory and mood, is mutable. “From year to year,” he wrote, “things remembered from the past change almost more than the present.” His “autobiographical poems,” he made clear, are “not always factually true. There’s a good deal of tinkering with fact. You leave out a lot, and emphasize this and not that. Your actual experience is a complete flux. I’ve invented facts and changed things, and the whole balance of the poem was something invented.” Yet, he said, if the writing is autobiographical, “you want the reader to say, this is true.” The memory mattered, certainly, but also imagination. He quoted the poet G. S. Fraser that there is a real sense “in which good poets are, when you meet them, like their works.”

Lowell’s letters, posted before revising and time could alter them, are particularly helpful in understanding his life. So too are the writings of those who knew him. Most of his friends and lovers, as well as the three women to whom he was married, were writers and described in detail his personality and work, as well as the dramatic changes in his behavior when he was manic. Lowell was interviewed at length by journalists and critics, and his primary biographer, Ian Hamilton, conducted comprehensive interviews with many of those who knew Lowell best. The original tape recordings of these interviews, together with Hamilton’s meticulous notes and correspondence, are of significant help in any attempt to understand Lowell. They are archived at the British Library and provide an invaluable portrait of Robert Lowell as a poet, husband, and friend. The interviews reveal the devastating impact of his mania on those who experienced his attacks at close hand, but they also give a good sense of why so many who knew him well loved him deeply.

Hamilton’s biography of Lowell, published in 1982, was carefully researched and written; it was widely read in the literary community and its impact on Lowell’s reputation as a poet and man was lasting and negative. The Lowell that Hamilton chose to portray is loutish, mad, humorless, a snob, and an overrated poet. There is much detail about Lowell’s breakdowns but relatively little about how his illness affected his poetry. Lowell’s capacity to live and work in the shadow of his madness is alluded to but not brought out in meaningful detail. His struggles and suffering, except for the suffering he caused to others, are not much in evidence. The cumulative and corrosive toll of Lowell’s disease on his personality, most apparent in the last years of his life when he lived in England, receives disproportionate weight over the longer years of his life in America when he was in better psychological health. Negative excerpts from reviews of Lowell’s work and interviews conducted by Hamilton predominate over the positive ones, which are given short shrift.

Artists and writers whose lives were spelled with madness and turmoil—­Schumann, van Gogh...

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Book Description Paperback. Condition: new. Paperback. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry, Robert Lowell put his manic-depressive illness (now known as bipolar disorder) into the public domain, creating a new and arresting language for madness. Here Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison brings her expertise in mood disorders to bear on Lowell's story, illuminating not only the relationships among mania, depression, and creativity but also the details of how Lowell's illness and treatment influenced the great work that he produced (and often became its subject). Lowell's New England roots, early breakdowns, marriages to three eminent writers, friendships with other poets such as Elizabeth Bishop, many hospitalizations, and vivid presence as both a teacher and a maker of poems are all explored, as Jamison gives us the poet's life through a lens that focuses our understanding of his intense discipline, courage, and commitment to his art. Drawing upon a trove of new material and a psychologist's deep insight, Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Firedelivers a bold, sympathetic account of a poet who was-both despite and because of mental illness-a passionate, original observer of the human condition. First published in hardcover by Alfred A. Knopf, New York in 2017. Shipping may be from multiple locations in the US or from the UK, depending on stock availability. Seller Inventory # 9780307744616

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