Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire

by Kay Redfield Jamison
reviewed by Heather Clark
July 28, 2017

In June 1959, Elizabeth Hardwick wrote to Allen Tate about her husband Robert Lowell’s recent breakdown: “I do not know the answer to the moral problems posed by a deranged person, but the dreadful fact is that in purely personal terms this deranged person does a lot of harm.” Hardwick’s dilemma stands at the heart of Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire, Kay Redfield Jamison’s passionate rebuttal of Ian Hamilton’s 1982 biography of Lowell, which cast a cold eye on the poet’s manic depression. Jamison, an esteemed psychiatrist who has written about her own struggles with mental illness, insists her book is “not a biography” but “a psychological account of the life and mind of Robert Lowell.” The distinction is astute. Jamison had unprecedented access to Lowell’s medical records, and has written a scorching, blow-by-blow account of his lifelong struggle with mania and depression. This is the story of his illness.

“Madness is easy to overdramatize and thereby underestimate,” Jamison writes. “The real horror of madness is more subtle and corrosive than its caricature.” Jamison defuses the drama of Lowell's manic depression. She argues, with deep sympathy, that he was a man possessed by forces beyond his control, whose psychological life was marked by cycles of destructive mania followed by remorse. When manic, he held Allen Tate out a second-story window, declared himself Christ, and cut down his walls in search of Etruscan treasure. Sane, he was a loving husband and father who contemplated Maine’s summer wind. Jamison’s Lowell is kinder, gentler, and more self-aware than Hamilton’s. “It’s a little painful prodding the formless, embarrassed mind to pick up the pieces,” Lowell wrote to Mary McCarthy after a 1964 breakdown. “These things can come from the air. The stir of a feather can start them, though no doubt I would be immune if I had a different soul.” Jamison’s mission is to separate—and exonerate—the sane Lowell from the mad.

Helen Vendler remembered Lowell joking about “all the hours he had spent in therapists’ offices, which never cured him. But I think he recognized that he would never have written Life Studies without those hours.” Jamison has spent much of her career studying the relationship between mania and creativity, and she supports Vendler’s claim with hard psychiatric research. In an early chapter she writes of how mental illness presented in Lowell’s New England forebears and influenced the region’s literature. Later, she describes how Lowell’s mania increased his flow of ideas, range of intellectual connections, and access to rhyme. She even claims that Lowell’s static depressions influenced his revision process. (“The depressed mind criticizes, revises, prunes, censors, improves.”) All of this—especially the genealogical material—is fascinating and new, while her close readings of Lowell’s poems are elegant and lucid.

But there seems to be no room for criticism. Lowell is valorized throughout, compared to Odysseus navigating his way through storm-tossed currents. Jamison perhaps overstates her claim that Lowell helped and respected women writers. Kathleen Spivack remembered that in the late fifties he chose his female writing students on the basis of their looks, and referred in class to all female poets, including Elizabeth Bishop, as “minor.” He more or less dismissed Sylvia Plath’s poems when she took his writing seminar in 1959. Jamison also congratulates Lowell for not committing suicide like many other poets of his generation: “he did not fold,” she writes. She suggests his “granite will” and “character,” plus lithium, saved him. Did Plath and Berryman, then, have worse characters? Or was Lowell, with his family connections and self-sacrificing wife, simply luckier? “The blow always falls upon me,” Elizabeth Hardwick wrote. Jamison gives Hardwick her due, yet in this book she is Lowell’s caretaker rather than his literary partner. Indeed, we learn little about Lowell’s “sane” engagements with current events, friends, fellow writers, wives, or ex-wives; his life and poems are always refracted through the prism of mental illness. But such are the limits of medical biography, and it is hard to imagine a better “psychological study” of Lowell than this. Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire is a groundbreaking work of science and scholarship that will change our understanding of Robert Lowell. It is a necessary corrective. But as Elizabeth Hardwick once wrote, “He was not crazy all the time—most of the time he was wonderful. The breakdowns were not the whole story.”