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This article is taken from PN Review 237, Volume 44 Number 1, September - October 2017.

The Lives of Robert Lowell Tony Roberts
‘I can’t tell you how I dread the future with biographies and Lizzie, to say nothing of Cal,
who will never be even touched with the truth of his own being and nature.’
– Elizabeth Hardwick to Elizabeth Bishop (18 October, 1973)

In Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey (2001), Janet Malcolm wrote of ‘the inescapable triviality of biography’, since the artist’s doings are ‘the mere husk of the kernel of our essential life’. There may be all sorts of things wrong with this, though it also feels true in some way. Nonetheless biography can be a revealing, fascinating and potent force. It can illuminate the work of an artist, affect our perspective on it and, most worryingly, overwhelm what is supposedly its raison d’être.

All three outcomes have been the fate – to date – of the biographies and reminiscences of the American poet Robert Lowell (1917–77), once the premier poet in the English speaking world. First came the brilliant but severe Robert Lowell: A Biography (1982) by Ian Hamilton, which effectively tarred its subject. Then came Paul Mariani’s admiring Lost Puritan: A Life of Robert Lowell (1994) – honest and informative, but insufficient to redress the balance. There followed Collected Poems (2003), The Letters of Robert Lowell (2005) and Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell (2008), all of which have done something for the reputation, along with a host of other studies and essays over the years, notably by Helen Vendler, Richard Tillinghast, ...


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