Amy Lowell’s Loves
Lawrence’s letters to Lowell have been published and, among other things, they reveal that Lawrence thought Lowell was at her creative best when she was drawing on her own American identity, rather than on historical epics and French, Japanese, and Chinese poetry. I think he failed to see that in those works, too, she was assimilating the foreign so as to make it familiarly American. To put it another way, Lowell wanted Americans to treasure their experience, to understand that it is suffused with the lives and history of other peoples.
To this missionary desire, Lowell added her own eroticism, born of a sensual nature that her critics and biographers have refused to acknowledge on its own terms. Although her first biographer, the hostile Clement Wood, exiled her as a “singer of Lesbos,” her subsequent biographers and critics deprived Lowell of even that island of love—either ignoring her sexuality altogether, like her authorized biographer, S. Foster Damon, or suggesting, like Glenn Ruilhey and Richard Benvenuto, that Lowell’s love poetry reflects an unconsummated pretend romance, not a physical union with her beloved Ada Russell (1863–1952), who lived with the poet and was a part of every intimate moment in her life. These male critics and biographers could not envision a physical relationship between the corpulent Lowell and Russell, a decade older and middle aged when the women began living together. Only Jean Gould, in her 1975 biography, gingerly introduced the lesbian nature of Lowell’s love poetry—but without quite comprehending the central role Lowell’s sexuality played in her work.
Until now, it has been supposed by Gould and subsequent generations of feminist critics that Lowell had no more than one great love. In fact, before Russell, there was Elizabeth Seccombe, whose very existence is unrecorded in Lowell’s massive Houghton Library archive, and whose crucial role in Lowell’s life has only recently been discovered in the papers of Robert Grosvenor Valentine. Valentine, who became President Taft’s commissioner of Indian affairs, at one time played a pivotal role in a small group of amateur poets who sought in one another the approval and criticism that might one day result in superior work. Only Lowell emerged from this group, grieving over her breakup with Seccombe, and vouchsafing her heartache in a letter to Valentine and then in her first published book of poetry, A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass (1912), which appeared three years after the breakup with Seccombe. Lowell’s earliest published poems express not only dread that she cannot fulfill her dreams of poetic greatness, but also fear she will never be able to share that achievement with the one she loves. And yet, previous biographers never considered such poems confessional.