The Dolphin Letters
Revisiting Robert Lowell’s infamous book
Poet Robert Lowell (Photo by Steve Schapiro/Corbis via Getty Images)
The Dolphin Letters, 1970–1979 collects the bulk of the correspondence between Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick during the torturous years when the writers separated, divorced, and briefly reunited, before Lowell died suddenly in 1977. A subtitle, “Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Their Circle,” is printed at the bottom of the cover, under a photograph of the two writers sharing an apparently happy moment. “Their circle” included such writers as Elizabeth Bishop, Adrienne Rich, Frank Bidart, Stanley Kunitz, and Mary McCarthy, as well as Lowell’s publishers on both sides of the Atlantic and other assorted confidants. There are sweet and beautiful letters and cables and postcards between Lowell and his teenage daughter Harriet, whose life Lowell cast into upheaval. There are also a few letters written by Caroline Blackwood, Lowell’s new wife, whose London apartment and broken-down country estate in Kent, Milgate Park, Lowell shared off and on throughout the period. Blackwood and her three daughters, along with Lowell and Blackwood’s son, Robert Sheridan Lowell, born in 1971, are on everyone’s minds, but remain mostly offstage.
Nothing here is simple. The Dolphin is the name of a book of unrhymed sonnets, published by Lowell in 1973, chronicling the end of his twenty-one-year marriage to Hardwick, the affair that precipitated its dissolution, and his new life with Blackwood. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974. The title of this book—The Dolphin Letters—refers in part to the network of anguished correspondence from the period, including some famous letters about the poems in The Dolphin. But it also refers to a notorious and controversial feature of the original book: Lowell’s incorporation into his poems of quotations from Hardwick’s private letters—communication forged in distress during their separation and divorce. This is “Records” as it appeared in the 1973 Dolphin:
“… I was playing records on Sunday,
arranging all my records, and I came
on some of your voice, and started to suggest
that Harriet listen: then immediately
we both shook our heads. It was like hearing
the voice of the beloved who had died.
All this is a new feeling … I got the letter
this morning, the letter you wrote me Saturday.
I thought my heart would break a thousand times,
but I would rather have read it a thousand times
than the detached unreal ones you wrote before—
you doomed to know what I have known with you,
lying with someone fighting unreality—
love vanquished by his mysterious carelessness.”
These “letter poems”—which often alter Hardwick’s words, and sometimes attribute whole quotations from others to her—puncture the fantasy of the new life otherwise indulged in The Dolphin, in ways so devastating to Lowell and Caroline Blackwood that they constitute a raid on the entire project of the book. With their evidence of contemporaneous emotional crisis and their unflinching documentary reality, they seem to shatter its frame. And yet The Dolphin eddies around them: The “letter poems” are the project’s distinct compositional feature. Without Hardwick’s voice breaking in, Lowell has no book.
But there is a larger frame that must be drawn around The Dolphin. With the publication of Life Studies in 1959, Lowell was regarded as among the most daring of American poets, since in defiance of the Modernist creed of “impersonality” that had informed his early work, he had begun to raid his own autobiography for material. (The term “confessional poetry” was coined by the critic M.L. Rosenthal to disparage this kind of project—an implied “merely” should be heard before his use of the term.) But even as an insult the label shed some light on what gave Lowell’s poetry its power. Its scale was intimate, confiding; to cast its spell it had to feel absolutely authentic, which often meant it had to be costly to those involved. It cut through the ego’s static. It broadcast, almost lawlessly, from a part of the psyche otherwise unexplored. It is easy to see the prohibition on personal material which Lowell overcame as a relic of the age, but what makes Lowell’s brand of confessional poetry still so troubling is its tendency to “confess” not merely his private shame but his ways of injuring others. Lowell’s poems are at their most unsettling when they disclose his own moral recklessness, offering only themselves—the fact of art—as recompense. The Dolphin would seem to present a different kind of case: its letter poems are not a confession of injury, but an injury in and of themselves.
And yet this too had a precedent in Lowell’s work, though it is disguised. One of the least-discussed poems in Life Studies is “To Speak of Woe That Is in Marriage,” a sonnet so blistering that Lowell, seeming to want to deflect its force, appends to it a generalizing epigraph from Schopenhauer. But there is no mistaking this poem for a philosophical treatise on marriage in general. These are versions of words Elizabeth Hardwick almost surely spoke in distress, and they paint her husband in the worst light imaginable:
“The hot night makes us keep our bedroom windows open.
Our magnolia blossoms. Life begins to happen.
My hopped up husband drops his home disputes,
and hits the streets to cruise for prostitutes,
free-lancing out along the razor’s edge.
This screwball might kill his wife, then take the pledge.
Oh the monotonous meanness of his lust …
It’s the injustice … he is so unjust—
whiskey-blind, swaggering home at five.
My only thought is how to keep alive.
What makes him tick? Each night now I tie
ten dollars and his car key to my thigh ….
Gored by the climacteric of his want,
he stalls above me like an elephant.”
The rhymed couplets are there as a firewall, but the quotation marks give the poem its documentary power. Lowell returns again and again to scenarios like this one, where he appears in others’ eyes as capable of the very worst. “Skunk Hour,” the best-known poem from Life Studies, is in part the self-portrait of a man who fears he might be homicidal. In the late poem “Ulysses and Circe,” the Lowell-Ulysses figure, returned to his Penelope in a mood of vengeance, “circles as a shark circles / visibly behind the window—”:
flesh-proud, sore-eyed, scar-proud,
a vocational killer
in the machismo of senility,
foretasting the apogee of mayhem—
breaking water to destroy his wake.
Lowell’s fear of his own murderousness is, for me, a central but hidden fact of his moral life. A poem like “To Speak of the Woe that Is In Marriage” provides, not merely a “confession” of this terrifying state, but also documentation of it. With the letter-poems in The Dolphin, Lowell often provides just this kind of evidence. They constitute his most troubling examination of—as he puts it in “Symptoms”—“what I really have against myself.”
Some of the most powerful and upsetting letters in The Dolphin Letters are about those “Dolphin letters”—the correspondence from Hardwick that Lowell turned into poems. At least one letter about the letters, from Elizabeth Bishop to Lowell, has become canonical. Because “I love you so much,” Bishop wrote, “I can’t bear to have you publish something that I regret and that you might live to regret, too”:
Here is a quotation from dear little Hardy that I copied out years ago—long before DOLPHIN, or even the Notebooks, were thought of. It’s from a letter written in 1911, referring to “an abuse which was said to have occurred—that of publishing details of a lately deceased man’s life under the guise of a novel, with assurances of truth scattered in the newspapers.” (Not exactly the same situation as DOLPHIN, but fairly close.)
“What should certainly be protested against, in cases where there is no authorization, is the mixing of fact and fiction in unknown proportions. Infinite mischief would lie in that. If any statements in the dress of fiction are covertly hinted to be fact, all must be fact, and nothing else but fact, for obvious reasons. The power of getting lies believed about people through that channel after they are dead, by stirring in a few truths, is a horror to contemplate.”
I’m sure my point is only too plain … Lizzie is not dead, etc.—but there is “a mixture of fact and fiction,” and you have changed her letters. That is “infinite mischief,” I think […] One can use one’s life as material—one does, anyway—but those letters—aren’t you violating a trust? IF you were given permission—IF you hadn’t changed them … etc. But art just isn’t worth that much.
This is an appeal to Lowell’s morality, but also to his vanity: Hardy was one of his masters. As was Hopkins, whose “marvelous letter to [Robert] Bridges” Bishop cites, about “the idea of a ‘gentleman’ being the highest thing ever conceived, higher than a ‘Christian,’ even, certainly than a poet.”
Bishop’s letter argues that genius must exist on a continuum of decency. Lowell was understood by almost everyone he met in this period to be not merely a great writer but also a providential figure, bound by fate to change American poetry. He shared this view—though, consistent with it, he did so a little helplessly, with some detachment and even embarrassment. Throughout this volume of letters, Hardwick, even at her most hurt and offended, calls him back to precisely this grandiose but widely shared image of himself as a man whose primary allegiance to American Literature therefore required him to honor secondary allegiances to friends and family. His gift, which by the seventies was acknowledged across the American and English literary scenes, sometimes functioned as a strange, almost alien force, like the prevailing winds or the will of the gods. In Lowell’s marriage and private life he could employ it in myriad ways: he used it variously as a compass or a shield, to buy time, and to barter for forgiveness. Others, too, hid behind it or navigated by it as necessity demanded. An extra piece on the chessboard, it forced everyone in his intimate life to strategize around it.
Lowell’s gift was further distanced and impersonalized by its having been tied up with his bipolar disorder. After decades of recurring breakdowns and grueling hospitalizations, he began treating his condition in 1967 with Lithium, a drug so new to the market that it hadn’t yet been approved by the FDA. It was difficult for everyone around Lowell to distinguish among three things—his genius, his suffering, and his cruelty. They seemed linked to one another, like magician’s rings. Hardwick understood that each one of the three could, at any moment, present as either of the others. She had developed tactics over the years for waiting the situation out: they included forms of self-negation beyond what most of us can even contemplate. She seems to have come to accept, for example, that, even in health, her husband often “had a girl,” as she put it. (Lowell was terrified of spending a night alone; he tended to be “huggy” rather than ardent in bed, as one of his lovers reported.) Hardwick assumed the role of minding Lowell’s seriousness and goodness when he misplaced it, and to try by some alloy of patience, ire, flattery, and shame to bring him back in line with the person he’d temporarily forgotten he was.
These methods had to be deployed even while Hardwick was managing her own abandonment by her husband, his neglect of their one child, and his inability to aid her in any way, despite her repeated pleas, in certain sub-mental tasks like paying taxes. (Another task he could not be bothered to attend to was the sale of his own papers to support his family, despite Hardwick’s work on his behalf.) But in previous cycles, Hardwick could claim that she was acting as a faithful steward of Lowell’s long-term and authentic happiness. This time seemed different. Despite worrying effects on Lowell’s temperament—he had begun drinking more, for example—the unofficial consensus and party line was that the Lithium was working. And yet, in June of 1970, Hardwick, who for weeks had been sending letters and postcards from New York into the transatlantic void, had learned that her husband was already living with Blackwood, the thirty-eight-year-old socialite and writer, an heir to the Guinness fortune, who had been married first to the painter Lucian Freud and then to the composer Israel Citkowitz, the father of her three young daughters. “You must give up Essex [University of Essex, where Lowell was soon to begin teaching] and come back in September,” Hardwick writes. “Harriet is destroyed.” She then veers in a curious direction:
You are a great American writer. You have told us what we are, like Melville, you have brought all the culture of England … to bear on us, on our land, on your past, your people, your family. You are not an English writer, but the most American of souls, the most gifted in finding the symbolic meaning of this strange place. You are a loss to our culture, hanging about after [a] squalid spoiled, selfish life.
Hardwick, like Bishop later, knew how to play to the literary ramifications of moral irresponsibility: “You cannot leave your responsibilities to your daughter without moral decay,” she writes. “I feel you are a loss to American literature … as well as to us.” The surprising order of those two items would seem to rank the loss to literature above the personal loss, which makes the personal loss, in fact, seem all the more grievous.
The Dolphin: Two Versions, a new edition of Lowell’s collection, has been published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux to coincide with the appearance of The Dolphin Letters. The books illuminate each other. Passages in the letters are cued, for example, to footnotes citing their later use in poems. Strikingly, a consciousness that posterity is reading over everyone’s shoulders neuters any fatuous distinction we might draw between candor and posturing. Most of the correspondents try at times to elevate the discourse by literary examples and quotations. Their editor, Saskia Hamilton—who worked for Hardwick before her death in 2007—fills in the gaps and fleshes out the allusions: when Lowell can’t quite recall who wrote “Death isn’t an event in life, it isn’t lived,” Hamilton provides the exact quotation from Wittgenstein. The existence of these two books, published side by side, suggests that Lowell’s accomplishment in The Dolphin has stood the test of time, but does not stand entirely on its own.
In an ideal world, a third book, Hardwick’s autobiographical novel Sleepless Nights, published in 1979—Lowell was dead when it appeared—would share the nightstand with these two books. It is not lurid, but it tells, in its way, Hardwick’s own version of these years, and seems to have been written to go alongside it in a casebook of the controversy. At the very least, it tells us that her own relationship to autobiographical propriety was nuanced. She was a writer whose brilliance rivaled anyone’s, and she seemed to know precisely what her own gifts asked of her. It is hard to imagine a figure less in need of a third-party savior or champion.
The current volumes propose to document the sprawling “case” of The Dolphin, and yet—as though afflicted by some intergenerational curse handed down to Lowell and Hardwick’s heirs—they are themselves unwitting documents in that case. The predicament is addressed from inside of The Dolphin, in one of many Möbius-strip-like passages in the volume which take their own entanglement in life as a given:
Should revelation be sealed like private letters,
till all the beneficiaries are dead,
and our proper names become improper Lives?
It’s a strange passage. Lowell seems to be imagining a kind of Masterpiece Theater plot in which, after all involved have passed, their cursed inheritance is at last revealed to the world. The fantasy skips over the much more pedestrian problem of his wife and daughter’s “privacy,” and of the fate of a body of work which has seemed to many to rely for its power on his trampling upon it.
Many of Lowell’s contributions to The Dolphin Letters have appeared: they were excerpted in two biographies, Robert Lowell: A Biography, by Ian Hamilton (no relation to Saskia), and Lost Puritan: A Life of Robert Lowell, by Paul Mariani, as well as in The Letters of Robert Lowell, which also was edited by Saskia Hamilton, and Words In Air: The Complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, which she co-edited with Thomas Travisano.
Hardwick’s letters are another matter. “Until the end of her life,” Hamilton writes in her introduction, “Elizabeth Hardwick wondered what had happened to the letters she wrote to Robert Lowell during the 1970’s”:
They “are lost or gone,” she said to Lowell’s biographer and, referring to use Lowell had made of her letters in his book The Dolphin, she added, “I suppose he was so busy cutting them up!” (laughter).
And Hardwick had petitioned Lowell directly to have her letters returned:
“At one time I said to him, ‘Well I would like, for history, to see those letters you say are mine. And that you put in my voice. Because I can’t remember and just want to see how they went.”
In response, Lowell gave her, as she put it, “three worthless little letters” and claimed that he couldn’t find the others. Hardwick, for her part, put the three letters in an envelope, and, according to a footnote, “subsequently lost it.”
But the letters written by Hardwick that remained with Lowell were not lost. “What actually happened,” Hamilton writes, “was that in April 1978, seven months after Lowell’s death, Blackwood had put 102 letters and postcards written by Hardwick in a large envelope and mailed them to Bidart for safekeeping.” The poet Frank Bidart, who “believed himself to be acting not only as Blackwood wished but as Lowell did,” stored the letters “under his bed,” and later turned them over to Houghton Library, Harvard, where most of Lowell’s papers are kept, with a note: “This packet of letters belongs to the Estate of Robert Lowell, not to me … they are to be kept here at the Houghton Library until the death of Elizabeth Hardwick.”
The current edition is therefore published with the apparently somewhat reluctant cooperation of Harriet Lowell, the legatee of her mother’s estate, on the grounds that otherwise Hardwick’s letters might be “open to quotation, paraphrase, or sensation without context.” But the legal framework pertaining to letters stipulates that the receiver owns the actual thing, the ink and paper, while copyright on the contents, the writing itself, remains with the author. (If Hardwick had wished to assert a copyright claim over the use of her words in The Dolphin, she might have had a case. Lowell’s publisher expresses fear, in one letter to Lowell, that she might “be building up” to a “legal position.”) For that reason it seems unlikely that quotations of any length or substance would have appeared “without context” unless Harriet Lowell gave her permission. (There are exceptions for fair use, but they are restrictive.)
The confusing situation might therefore be summarized as follows. Caroline Blackwood, the subject of some of the most scathing criticism in the letters, apparently acting according to Lowell’s wishes after his sudden death, entrusted them to Frank Bidart, who was by Lowell’s side when he assembled the poems in The Dolphin. Bidart, as Lowell’s literary executor, felt he was bound ethically to act in the interests of Lowell’s work. Though it is unlikely that Hardwick would have pursued legal avenues to get them back, she might have; had she gotten them back, given the regret she often expresses in the letters for things said in prior letters, she might well have destroyed or mislaid them, as she did with the “three worthless little letters” Lowell did turn over to her. Harriet, according to Hamilton, “regrets not being given a chance to ask Hardwick about her wishes for these letters,” since Bidart kept their existence a secret during Hardwick’s life.
It is possible, then, that the current edition may owe its existence to Blackwood and Bidart for preserving these letters by misleading Hardwick. Hamilton doesn’t condemn that choice, but the tenor of her introduction leaves little doubt about her misgivings, and the detail about Bidart keeping the letters “under his bed” is a strange, significant tell. Though Hamilton and Bidart worked together to “catalogue its contents for the Lowell estate,” it was Hardwick’s estate that had to sign off on its publication. Harriet’s cooperation appears to have been secured on the grounds that, according to Hamilton, “some brief passages” pertaining to “some others, still living, whose family and private lives are taken up intimately in the correspondence” be left out.
Not left out of this edition, however, is a letter from Hardwick to Lowell, excoriating Bidart (whom Hardwick ran into at a reading by James Merrill and Bishop, full of “aging fag poets”) in homophobic language: “the flagrant Frank Bidart, atremble, but ever obsequious.” The letter gets significantly harsher from there. A note refers to a letter not included in this book from Bidart to Lowell which describes a wrathful telephone conversation. “It’s terrible to be the object of [Hardwick’s] anger,” Bidart writes. “She had heard from Bob Silvers that ‘Dolphin’ was going to be published in a year; perhaps she blames me for that.”
I am not merely on the sidelines here. Bidart and I speak regularly; he had told me to watch out for the letter, which Caroline Blackwood had warned him he would find in the packet she entrusted to him. Bidart, for his part, insisted the letter be included in the book. When I came to it, I was surprised by the homophobia. (Lowell could be casually homophobic, but Hardwick’s letter, written in distress, is of another order.) But what struck me most powerfully was her preemptive strike against Bidart’s literary judgment and stewardship: “I hope he understands your work better than he does mine,” Hardwick writes, “but I doubt it.” In an email to Bidart, I asked about the letter and what it conveyed about Hardwick’s “distrust of you as Lowell’s reader.” Bidart wrote back:
… I don’t think she ever trusted anyone—certainly not Bishop. She must always have known that she had this brilliance for invective. Terrifying brilliance. I think it’s one of the things that Lowell wanted to capture in the original Dolphin—“your clowning makes us want to vomit.” “You bore, / bore, bore the friends who want to save your image / from this genteel, disgraceful hospital.” Did she really think that the friends who were distressed that Lowell was in the hospital again after three years of being well, were distressed because they thought the English hospital that he was in was “genteel” and somehow “disgraceful”? She’s just throwing any ammunition at him that she can think of. The point isn’t whether she really said this in a letter; the point is that this is the portrait of her that he is painting.
The word “invective” is Lowell’s own. “Man and Wife,” another poem about their marriage from Life Studies, praises “the shrill verve / of your invective,” as well as Hardwick’s “old-fashioned tirade—/ loving, rapid, merciless—” which “breaks like the Atlantic Ocean on my head.” There is, therefore, a tradition in place for curating Hardwick’s expressions of anger for their literary force. Bidart’s response suggests that a person on the receiving end of Hardwick’s “invective” can still appreciate its brilliance and “verve.”
This is the very quality of voice that Lowell wanted in The Dolphin. He needed it so badly in that book that he bracketed the moral considerations; or, more likely, he wanted a book where the troubling moral position he occupied was not merely described in the poems, but embodied by their existence and publication. He wanted a book to cause a crisis, as part of its very logic. And yet it was Hardwick, who understood Bidart to be entirely sympathetic with Lowell’s project in The Dolphin—Bidart played a key role in helping Lowell write and revise the book—who chose him as Lowell’s literary executor after his death, and played an important role in bringing out Bidart’s edition of Lowell’s Collected Poems, published in 1997. The whole matter of Lowell’s appropriation would now seem to be water over the dam. Does that blunt the power of these poems?
“Publication is an intricate action,” Hardwick wrote to Robert Giroux, Lowell’s American publisher, after The Dolphin appeared in July of 1973. “I do hold you and Mr. Monteith [Charles Montieth, of Faber and Faber], as distinguished publishers, in dismay for your heartlessness in concealing this from me.” Much intricacy as yet remains to be untangled with the publication of The Dolphin: Two Versions. The 1973 edition of the book has been long out of print (though Lowell’s Collected Poems, edited by Bidart, is widely available.) This edition puts it side by side with a facsimile of Lowell’s typescript of his original version, assembled from copies held at the University of Texas and in Bidart’s possession. This is the version which Bidart hand-carried from England and passed out among Lowell’s friends in early 1972. When they responded with alarm, Lowell altered the book, as he put it, “both for art and kindness.” Lowell’s accommodations seem slight and mainly for the record, but one change—the decision to move a poem about the birth of Lowell and Blackwood’s son, “Robert Sheridan Lowell,” to the middle of a book otherwise strictly chronological—upsets the narrative logic in ways Lowell refused to consider, even when Bidart pointed these flaws out in a candid letter. The 1973 Dolphin is therefore an amalgam, a creature of its moment. Its original form has been passed around as a kind of samizdat ever since. I saw the first version of The Dolphin nearly twenty years ago, when Bidart ran off a photocopy for me. He has long included this early unpublished draft as part of his seminar at Wellesley on Lowell and Bishop. It struck me then, as it has struck many others, as the better book. The hope was that someday it would see the light of day.
Yet the inclusion of this original draft of The Dolphin at the back of the new book, in a facsimile of Lowell’s typescript, seems in conflict with the suggestion of parity between versions expressed in its title. If there really are “two versions” of the The Dolphin, two equal things whose merits readers can compare and judge for themselves, why not present them that way? Significant differences between the two versions are printed on the left-hand side of the page, facing the facsimile typescript; but to compare the early poems to the corresponding lines in the published Dolphin, you must juggle three things: the printed poem, a facsimile, and the variants. The deficiencies of this new edition do at least suggest some of the chaos of the period, when Lowell was careening, pinball-like, between wives and families on both sides of the Atlantic, moving among several addresses and teaching jobs in both countries.
Lowell’s poetry in the early 1970s was driven by two compulsions in apparent conflict. The first was to document his lived experience in its entirety, in a shaky-cam, off-the-cuff-style that itself seemed to reflect the ups and downs of real-time living. The second was to change that point-blank record of his experience by near-constant rewriting. The violent see-sawing of these two imperatives—towards raw data, on the one hand, and towards aesthetic transformation, on the other—gives his work of this period much of its power. He took both impulses to extremes. Sometime around 1967, Lowell began vacuuming into unrhymed sonnets just about everything that crossed his mind. He began compulsively revising those poems almost immediately. They eventually filled several books: Notebook 1967-68, published in 1969; a revision of that volume, Notebook, published a year later; and two books created by dividing the revised Notebook poems into shorter books: the mainly personal poems became For Lizzie and Harriet, while the poems about Roman emperors, US presidents, and Napoleonic generals went into History. Both volumes were published in 1973, to coincide with the publication of The Dolphin, and perhaps to deflect the scandal everyone feared might come.
The strategy failed. “I am near breakdown and also paranoid and frightened about what you might next have in store, such as madly using this letter,” Hardwick wrote to Lowell, once she had read The Dolphin—which she’d heard about from friends, but had never asked to see, since “it was undignified for me to insist.” Hardwick seemed especially stung by a review, now infamous, by Marjorie Perloff (“an instructor or young professor,” as Lowell put it to Hardwick, “too stiff to be much of a critic”). Perloff wrote, “it is Lizzie who becomes the dominant figure in the sonnets … as Dark-Lady or Super-Bitch par excellence.” As for “poor Harriet,” Perloff wrote, she “emerges as one of the most unpleasant child figures in poetry.” Hardwick, writing to Giroux, reports: “I have since the publication been analyzed under my own name in print, given some good marks as a wife and person by some readings, general rebuke and disparagement” by others. Harriet, “my young and shy daughter” has been “spoken of in a most unnerving way.” Word reached Lowell in England, through his cousins, that “Lizzie is suicidal.”
“The facts are not in the nature of facts,” Hardwick wrote to Giroux, “because of the disguise as poetry and so cannot be answered.” Everyone in this period fixated on the moral harm of changing Hardwick’s letters, but it was Lowell who accurately summarized the injury he had caused: “The terrible thing isn’t the mixing of fact and fiction, but the wife pleading to her husband to return—this backed by ‘documents.’” He was correct, and his commitment to a structure that memorialized his own cruelty meant that his book, one of his greatest, would forever be taught and read in terms of the crisis it engendered.
On September 10, 1977, Lowell flew back to New York from England, one of many tentative gestures towards reconciliation with Hardwick which he seems to have been testing out in his final months. Hardwick was called down from their apartment on West 67th Street to meet Lowell’s arriving taxi. She found him dead in the back, clutching a portrait of Blackwood painted by her first husband, Lucian Freud, which Lowell was having appraised by a New York art dealer. Lowell’s new book, Day by Day, had just been published. Its “Epilogue” can be read as a melancholy summary of everything he’d been through, and everything he’d put others through. It is one of his most beautiful poems, and eerily prophetic of his sudden death. After lamenting the inability to write “something imagined, not recalled,” the poem proposes a truce with untransformed fact:
Yet why not say what happened?
Pray for the grace of accuracy
Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination
stealing like the tide across a map
to his girl solid with yearning.
We are poor passing facts,
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name.
Dan Chiasson is the author of six books, including The Math Campers, which will be published in 2020. He is the poetry critic for The New Yorker, and teaches at Wellesley College.