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Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire

Cover of Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire

Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire

A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character
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In this magisterial study of the relationship between illness and art, the best-selling author of An Unquiet Mind, Kay Redfield Jamison, brings an entirely fresh understanding to the work and life of Robert Lowell (1917-1977), whose intense, complex, and personal verse left a lasting mark on the English language and changed the public discourse about private matters.

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry, Robert Lowell put his manic-depressive illness (now known as bipolar disorder) into the public domain, creating a language for madness that was new and arresting. As Dr. Jamison brings her expertise in mood disorders to bear on Lowell's story, she illuminates not only the relationships among mania, depression, and creativity but also the details of Lowell's treatment and how 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, his many hospitalizations, his vivid presence as both a teacher and a maker of poems—Jamison gives us the poet's life through a lens that focuses our understanding of his intense discipline, courage, and commitment to his art. Jamison had unprecedented access to Lowell's medical records, as well as to previously unpublished drafts and fragments of poems, and she is the first biographer to have spoken with his daughter, Harriet Lowell. With this new material and a psychologist's deep insight, Jamison delivers a bold, sympathetic account of a poet who was—both despite and because of mental illness—a passionate, original observer of the human condition.
In this magisterial study of the relationship between illness and art, the best-selling author of An Unquiet Mind, Kay Redfield Jamison, brings an entirely fresh understanding to the work and life of Robert Lowell (1917-1977), whose intense, complex, and personal verse left a lasting mark on the English language and changed the public discourse about private matters.

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry, Robert Lowell put his manic-depressive illness (now known as bipolar disorder) into the public domain, creating a language for madness that was new and arresting. As Dr. Jamison brings her expertise in mood disorders to bear on Lowell's story, she illuminates not only the relationships among mania, depression, and creativity but also the details of Lowell's treatment and how 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, his many hospitalizations, his vivid presence as both a teacher and a maker of poems—Jamison gives us the poet's life through a lens that focuses our understanding of his intense discipline, courage, and commitment to his art. Jamison had unprecedented access to Lowell's medical records, as well as to previously unpublished drafts and fragments of poems, and she is the first biographer to have spoken with his daughter, Harriet Lowell. With this new material and a psychologist's deep insight, Jamison delivers 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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Excerpts-
  • From the book 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...
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 coauthor of the standard medical text on manic-depressive illness, Manic-Depressive Illness: Bipolar Disorders and Recurrent Depression. Dr. Jamison is a recipient of the Lewis Thomas Prize, the Rhoda and Barnard Sarnat International Prize in Mental Health from the National Academy of Medicine, and a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship.
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    November 28, 2016
    Jamison (An Unquiet Mind), a psychologist and honorary professor of English at St. Andrew’s University, is uniquely qualified to pursue the connections between creativity and mania—in this case, through the brilliant example of American poet Robert Lowell (1917–1977). He was born into a prominent New England family from which he inherited both deep Puritan roots and a legacy of manic depression. Jamison’s study is a “narrative” of his illness. She is not interested in biography per se, but does place Lowell’s mental health in the context of his life and show his illness’s influence on his poems. Jamison paints a sympathetic but brutally honest portrait of what manic depressive disorder can do to both sufferers and the people around them—her depiction of Lowell’s second wife, critic and fiction author Elizabeth Hardwick, is especially compelling. She is able to draw on medical records from his various hospitalizations, released by Lowell’s family to Jamison, and bring her own medical expertise to bear. Some judicious editing would not go amiss—this is a long read with some repetition—but Jamison has constructed a novel and rewarding way to view Lowell’s life and output.

  • Dan Chiasson, The New Yorker "Groundbreaking . . . A real contribution to the literary history of New England . . . A case study of what a person with an extraordinary will, an unwavering sense of vocation, and a huge talent . . . could and could not do about the fact that the defining feature of his gift was also the source of his suffering."
  • Andrew Solomon "[A] journey into and alongside the mind and poetry of the American poet Robert Lowell . . . An illuminating and, at times, heartbreaking account . . . Jamison does not dilute art to adorn science or try to bend science to art. Instead, she unites scientific and artistic sensibilities in an ambitious and honest effort to understand human experience."
  • Jonathan Galassi "Kay Jamison brings together meticulous research into the factual narrative of Lowell's life, an immensely sophisticated ability to interpret his poetry, and a profound understanding of his mental illness and its effect on everything else about him. Written in prose that is often poetic and always acute, it is a poignant, terrifying, and thrilling examination of the complex relationship between genius and madness. It captures Lowell's electrifying charm, his persistent elegance of thought, and the consuming chaos of his despair. It is one of the finest biographies I have read."
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Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire
Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire
A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character
Kay Redfield Jamison
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