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This article is taken from PN Review 253, Volume 46 Number 5, May - June 2020.

Of Lizzie, Cal & Dolphin Tony Roberts
'Surely good writers write all possible wrong’
     – ‘Summer Between Terms’

‘It is far more difficult to live one’s life than to write about it’, remarked Nadezhda Mandelstam in a letter to Robert Lowell. This observation was perhaps least appropriate to Lowell, for whom the life and the work were largely synonymous. Over his last seven years – the English years – that life and the poetry clashed head on.

Greatly influential through his career, and often depicted, were his three marriages: to writers Jean Stafford (from 1940 to 1948), to Elizabeth Hardwick, ‘Lizzie’ (1949 to 1972) and to Lowell’s ‘dolphin’, Lady Caroline Blackwood (1972 to 1977). All three marriages had floundered, undermined by the bipolar disorder that dogged Lowell’s life. The first ended in drink and infidelity after Lowell’s bout of Catholic zealotry.

The second marriage has been regarded by biographers – ever since Ian Hamilton’s brilliant but tart Robert Lowell: A Biography in 1982 – as offering a stabilising relationship with the supportive, exploited Hardwick. There are dissenting opinions. Her ‘New York Times’ obituary in 2007 referred to the marriage as ‘restless and emotionally harrowing,’ while Lowell’s friend and collaborator Frank Bidart (whom Hardwick could be hostile toward) has been at pains to suggest that ‘Lizzie was supportive but she could be incredibly difficult too’. Bidart said of his time with them during the editing of Lowell’s Notebook: ‘They absolutely did not know how to talk to each other.’ Lowell’s third marriage, to Blackwood, intense and ...

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