It would be hard to overstate Robert Lowell's contribution to 20th-century poetry. His Life Studies (1959) has arguably been the most influential collection of the past 50 years, helping to define an epoch and spawning the so-called "confessional" school of poetry (a term that Lowell, incidentally, rejected).
The madness, too, helped shape the legend. He was born into a minor branch of a blue-blooded Bostonian dynasty (through which he was also related to the poets Amy Lowell and James Russell Lowell). His uneasiness about his heritage led him to move to the Deep South for a while and to convert to Catholicism, rejecting the Protestant faith of his forefathers. The manic depression that afflicted him throughout his life provided both subject and lens for his introspections.
But the myth of "mad Cal" does not tell the whole story. For a start, the nickname, bestowed on him by schoolmates, referred not - as Lowell himself liked to say - to the power-crazed Caligula, but rather to poor, misbegotten Caliban. And far from being narrowly introspective, much of his work has the grand historical sweep of the public poet. Even the "confessional" poems are artfully shaped devices, as much concerned with interrogating the poetic impulse as they are with revelation for its own sake.
At the start of his career, he became identified with the New Critical movement, working with Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, who helped get his formal early work noticed. The rhetorical self-confidence and stringent intellect in collections such as Lord Weary's Castle (1946) proclaimed the arrival of a major talent. In "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket" - dedicated to a cousin killed at sea during the Second World War - Lowell confronts his family legacy and engages with the myth of America itself. The poem is unabashedly Melvillean; Lowell later wrote of Captain Ahab as one of the "two great symbolic figures that stand behind America's ambition and culture" (the other being Milton's Lucifer).
The emotional keynote of Lowell's work is rage: against complacency, the mediocrity of Boston society and, later, American consumerism. In the intensely wrought early poems, his mastery of form just enables him to contain his violent images and raw linguistic energy. His next collection, The Mills of the Kavanaughs (1951), is dense with classical allusion and, despite its formal brilliance, the yomping pentameters can become wearisome. Stylistically, the echoes of Eliot are still audible in "Falling Asleep Over the Aeneid":
The sword that Dido used. It tries
A bird with Dido's sworded
breast. Its beak
Clangs and ejaculates the Punic word
I hear the bird-priest chirping
like a bird.
Compared with this, Life Studies was an extraordinary departure. Lowell's adoption of free verse was inspired, in part, by the Beat poets, especially Ginsberg's "Howl". The more personal style of his great friend Elizabeth Bishop was also an influence, as was Philip Larkin. But though the lines are freer of the earlier metrical constraints, these poems by no means signal a recantation of form. The sinuous syncopations and delicate rhymes of "Skunk Hour" are handled as rigorously as anything in the earlier books. Nor is there any retreat from the persona of public poet. "Memories of West Street and Lepke", which recalls Lowell's spell in prison as a conscientious objector, is also a miniature State of the Nation address. What has changed is the voice, which has been stripped of its high-handed allusiveness, its somewhat self-conscious Europeanism, to adopt, like Whitman or Williams (whom Lowell greatly admired), a more comfortably American accent.
If this was the high point for Lowell, it wasn't quite all downhill from here. His next book, Imitations (1961), a series of "versions and loose translations" of European poets, is outstanding. The title poem of For the Union Dead (1964) is among the very finest he wrote, a bitter commentary on a country where "giant finned cars nose forward like fish;/a savage servility/slides by on grease". But with Notebook: 1967-68 Lowell's artistic grasp was palpably slipping. This long series of loose 14-liners lacks the acuity of the earlier work and by plunging more deeply into the "confessional" mode he often becomes frustratingly obscure. The free use he made of letters written by his second wife during the break-up of their marriage greatly perturbed Bishop. "Is art worth this?" she baldly asked him. Lowell seemed to think so, because he reworked and expanded the Notebook poems into three themed collections, published in 1973.
Despite the late decline, his reputation is surely unassailable. His editors have done an impeccable job of ordering and annotating an immense body of work, combing through the tangled personal references and allusions and providing useful appendices and commentaries. Lowell's shade owes them a bow of thanks, for with this magnificent brick of a book, they have made a fitting monument to the man.
Adam Newey is the NS poetry editor