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This article is taken from PN Review 33, Volume 10 Number 1, September - October 1983.

Lowell Peter Levi

THE reviews of Ian Hamilton's Life of Robert Lowell have been far wilder than the book itself. Hugo Williams wrote that Ian Hamilton was the poet's closest English literary friend, one from whose style he learnt as a poet and whose criticisms he would instantly obey. An American Professor hired by the Times Literary Supplement declared that 'Every friend is willing to talk' in this book, and 'every mistress describes our hero's performance in bed', which I have not found to be true. More than one reviewer spoke with assurance of the utter misery of Lowell's last years, which is balderdash, and an English Professor, with the scarcely hidden envy and effrontery of his kind, exclaimed how much this excellent biography made him hate Robert Lowell. Anthony Thwaite thought it well entrusted to Ian Hamilton, because of Hamilton's own experience (about which I know nothing) of mental breakdown; I am dubious about that. The Observer writer Michael Davie took the gleeful line that now we might look forward to a similar treatment of T. S. Eliot, who of course forbade any such book. All these reactions I find distressing. They, far more than the book itself, recall what Mary Lefkowitz wrote recently of the Lives of the ancient Greek poets: those biographies in their final form use the evidence of derision and point out human failure, they are demeaning and simplified, and they represent the unconscious wish of generations to explain away great poets, to cut them down to ...


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