In a Dark Wood: An Anthology of Depression: Poem 2 – Robert Lowell

Hi all,

In case you missed it yesterday, find out more about my new project, an anthology of poetry about depression, here!

Today’s poem is from Robert Lowell. Within his lifetime, (1917-1977) Lowell was considered the best poet of his star-studded generation, and he attained a level of fame that is difficult to fathom today. He found himself on the cover of Time, and during the Vietnam War Lowell was that rare bird – a public, conscientious poet.

Today, Lowell’s reputation and stature as a poet is in something of dilapidation. Unfortunately, Lowell seems to be slowly becoming a poet who is more studied than read, which is a great shame. When the late and dearly missed Seamus Heaney was asked why Lowell’s reputation had shifted, he replied that “Lowell is taking the punishment that’s always handed out to the big guy eventually” – I hope that Heaney is right. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of all of his work, however the poems that I do like I intensely love.

I chose this poem today as it seems to be in dialogue with yesterday’s poem. Robert Lowell suffered from a manic-depressive illness, or what would today be called bipolar disorder, for the entirety of his adult life. This particular poem, ‘Robert Frost’, comes from a book of Lowell’s called Notebook 1967-68. It’s the final part of a sequence called ‘Writers’. Lowell later revised the poem, and included it in his collection, History (1973). The poem is utterly stupendous,  and is filled with the autobiographical poetics that made Lowell famous. The poem is an interesting one, as it catalogues a meeting of a depressive (Frost), and a Manic-Depressive (Lowell). The poem is tinged with themes that permeate all of Lowell’s work – personal responsibility, guilt, and what George Orwell would have called “the power of facing”. Indeed, in the power of facing Lowell never faltered.

In his life,  Lowell was hospitalised over twenty times for severe mania, and once for the depression that followed mania. Deftly, Lowell described mania as an illness for one’s friends, and depression as an illness for one’s self. Elsewhere, in his poetry, letters and diaries, Lowell described his mood states with a searing, awe-inspiring clarity and concision. Lowell described depression alternatively as “dust in the blood,” a “jaundice of the spirit,” and he described mania as his “pathological enthusiasms”, or as a “holocaust of irrationality”. Simply put, it’s some of the best descriptions of mood states that I have ever come across, and for this reason you’ll be seeing more of Lowell in this anthology, in various voices, forms and emotions.

For anyone interested in finding more of Lowell’s writings on his illness that aren’t his poetry, I can’t recommend two books highly enough. Firstly, seek out Lowell’s Selected Letters, which is edited by Saskia Hamilton, and published by FSG. It’s an astounding document of a life’s many pains and ecstasies. Secondly, seek out Kay Redfield Jamison’s recent book, Setting the River on Fire. It’s an utterly brilliant book, and it was the catalyst for me returning to Lowell’s work with new eyes. Quite simply, it’s one of the best biographies I’ve ever read. After reading the book, you will find yourself wishing that you had known ‘Cal’, as his friends called him. Anywho, I will leave you to mull over the poem…be sure to check back tomorrow for poem number three!IMG_7081


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