Most Loving Force


Robert Lowell at the Grolier Bookshop in Harvard Square in the 1960s. Photograph by Elsa Dorfman.

From The New York Times:

In 1934, when he was 17, Lowell determined to be a poet; by the end of that year he had written 30 poems. Such productivity can be a symptom of mania, as Jamison notes elsewhere, though of course it can also just be a sign of ambition. (Lowell, the biographer Richard Ellmann once surmised, “was determined to be at the center of his age as he thought Hart Crane had been.”) By the early 1940s, however, he showed real evidence of the illness even as it remained undiagnosed. Lowell was then married to his first wife, the gifted young novelist Jean Stafford. They had an intense, tortured relationship, punctuated by heavy drinking and quarrels. When Lowell crashed their car into a wall, Stafford broke her nose and had to have several painful operations. Lowell survived unscathed, but the accident unhinged him and threw him “almost into a psychosis,” one doctor noted.

In 1949 he had his first full-blown manic attack in Chicago, where he supposedly dangled a friend out the window while shouting poetry. Later, when he was screaming obscenities through the open window, it took four police officers to handcuff him. “I was completely out of my head,” Lowell wrote. “Strange physical sensations — I was a prophet and everything was a symbol; then in the hospital: shouting, singing, tearing things up.” Provided at last with a diagnosis of acute mania, he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. He remained for three months. After electroshock treatments he was released, but soon had another attack.

By that time he’d divorced Stafford and married the critic Elizabeth Hardwick, who proved to be the strongest, most loving force in his life — always standing by him even as the attacks kept coming. For the next decade Lowell was hospitalized again and again. “I didn’t know what I was getting into,” Hardwick later told an interviewer, “but even if I had, I still would have married him. He was not crazy all the time — most of the time he was wonderful.”

“A Poet’s Pathologies: Inside Robert Lowell’s Restless Mind”, Patricia Bosworth, The New York Times