The Troubled Genius of Robert Lowell


Robert Lowell, American Poet


By Robin Lindley / 11.10.2017

I believe that mania and genius not uncommonly exist

together, that suffering can be brought to some good, that the fast

swither of mania can fire ambition, steel the nerve, and give

high wind to imagination. If checked by discipline, and made

flesh and blood by experience, doubt, and despair, they can forge

great art. They did this in the work of Robert Lowell.

Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison,

Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire

r. Kay Redfield Jamison, a clinical psychologist and renowned authority on mood disorders, may be best known for her candid and intimate memoir of her own struggle with manic depressive illness, An Unquiet Mind. That 1995 volume is considered a classic work of autobiography and a major contribution to the understanding and destigmatizing of mental illness from the unique perspective of a person living with illness who is also a healer.

Now Dr. Jamison turns her expert focus on bipolar illness and the artistic temperament to the life of a prominent American poet in her new book, Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire—A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character (Alfred A. Knopf).

Lowell is remembered as one of the most important post-Second World War American poets for his complex, haunting, and intensely personal poetry. He was also a gifted teacher and his novel vision and form of expression inspired many writers. His work ranged from formal sonnets to free verse autobiographical reflections and responses to political and historic events. He was America’s “poet-historian,” ever attentive to the past, to the story of darkness in the American dream.

Lowell also famously suffered a severe bipolar disorder characterized by extreme manic episodes and bouts of depression. His poetry reflected his psychological struggles, and vividly depicted the chaotic reality of mental illness for a wide audience.

For the first time, Dr. Jamison had access to Lowell’s medical records thanks Lowell’s daughter, Harriet Winslow Lowell. Dr. Jamison’s magisterial study is based on those records and her extensive research including numerous interviews of Lowell’s contemporaries and scholars of his work as well as letters, diaries, papers, and poems—many of which had never been published.

With this wealth of evidence on Lowell’s illness and his art, Dr. Jamison has created a groundbreaking work of literary history. Bringing her perspective as a psychologist to bear, she chronicles how his episodic illness and his treatment affected his work as she traces the history of his mental health from his childhood to his early death at age 60 in 1977.

As in a careful medical report, Dr. Jamison also traces the long history of the Lowell family in New England back to the days of the Mayflower with special attention to the pathology of Lowell’s forebears. She adds depth to her study by discussing the influence of New England’s nature and history on his work. And she deftly interprets his innovative poetry in terms of the state of his mental health.

The vivid book provides the grim details of Lowell’s often terrifying manic episodes—the grandiosity, agitation, episodes of violence, impaired judgment, loss of touch with reality, risky sexual behavior —and his treatment from hospitalization and rest and a wide variety of medications to electroconvulsive therapy and eventually lithium. Dr. Jamison also explores how his illness affected his personal relationships, particularly his three marriages to fellow writers Jean Stafford, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Caroline Blackwood

Dr. Jamison’s book has been praised widely and recognized for its original research and unique understanding of Lowell’s life and work. For example, eminent author Jonathan Raban, a friend of Lowell, remarked: “Reading Setting the River on Fire, I felt I was keeping company with the man I knew, yet seeing him bathed in so many new lights that I realized how little I had actually known him. In this astonishingly multidimensional portrait of Robert Lowell, Jamison makes him live and breathe, and restores to him the grandeur he deserves.”

Dr. Jamison is the Dalio Professor in Mood Disorders and a professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, as well as an honorary professor of English at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Her other books include Touched with Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament; Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide; Exuberance: The Passion for Life; Nothing was the Same: A Memoir; and she is coauthor of the definitive medical text on mood disorders, Manic-Depressive Illness: Bipolar Disorders and Recurrent Depression. Dr. Jamison has received numerous awards for her work, including the Lewis Thomas Prize; the Rhoda and Barnard Sarnat International Prize in Mental Health from the National Academy of Medicine; and a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship. TIME magazine named her a “hero of medicine.”

Dr. Jamison generously responded by email to a series of questions on her work and her study of Robert Lowell.

Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, Dalio Professor in Mood Disorders and a professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine

Robin Lindley: Congratulations Dr. Jamison on your groundbreaking study of Robert Lowell. Before getting to this new book, I wanted to ask about your own background. You’re a clinical psychologist who has been candid about your own mental health and you’re a noted expert on mental illness and the artistic temperament. What drew you to study artists and psychiatric disorders? Were you an aspiring artist yourself before you decided to study psychology?

Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison: My primary interest has been in the study and treatment of bipolar (manic–depressive) illness, with a particular focus on mania. I have studied mood disorders and creativity as well and have always been interested in the arts, particularly literature.

Robin Lindley: What inspired your ambitious book on Robert Lowell? Was it an incident or from your previous research on the arts and mental illness?

Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison: I think Lowell’s poetry and prose are beautiful, ambitious, and original. After I had a breakdown in high school, my English teacher gave me two volumes of Robert Lowell’s poetry. I was staggered by the force of his poetry and the art that contained it.

Robin Lindley: Although your book may differ from a traditional biography, it is seen by some critics as offering insights akin to a literary biography with new perspectives on Lowell and his work. You had access to a trove of material such as medical and hospital records and previously unpublished letters, notes, and diaries—gems that would be the envy of historians and biographers of other subjects. What were some of the new materials you uncovered about Lowell?

Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison: With the permission of his estate, I tracked down decades of medical records detailing his treatment and many hospitalizations for mania and depression; interviewed several of his doctors; and talked at length with his daughter, other family members, friends, and colleagues. I transcribed and studied a previously unexamined notebook of poems and miscellaneous writings. It was a great privilege.

Robin Lindley: You look at Lowell’s life through the lens of his manic-depressive illness. What are a few things readers should know about this serious mood disorder to understand Lowell’s situation?

Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison: Mania and depression are severe, complicated, and too often lethal disorders of mood, energy, thinking, sleep, and behavior. The many biographical and recent large–scale population studies that link an increased rate of creativity (particularly in poetry) and bipolar illness, and possible reasons for the link, are discussed extensively in my book. Lowell’s observations about his mania and his work, and those of his physicians and friends, are discussed in particular detail.

Robin Lindley: You detail Lowell’s family history back for generations. What did you learn about the history of mental illness in his family? Is it well established that there is a genetic component to mood disorders?

Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison: Bipolar illness is a genetic illness. Consistent with this, Robert Lowell had an extensive family history of mental illness.

Robin Lindley: You write that “Lowell saw his ancestors as part of both the corruption and courage in American history.” What are ways you saw that tendency in his life and work?

Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison: Lowell’s ancestors were an integral part of America’s history: in settling the country (he was a Mayflower descendent), in establishing its business, military, and educational and political roots, and in contributing to its arts and sciences. They were also a part of the very early killing of Native Americans. Lowell admired some of his ancestors a great deal; others he did not.

Robin Lindley: Lowell was an only child who saw his mother as distant and his father as a gentle but “dim” man. He saw himself as “of a different tribe” from his parents. How did that sense of his immediate family affect his emotional development?

Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison: Lowell learned early to resist and fight against forces he felt to be destructive. He also became an astute observer of family dynamics and learned how to use words to bind pain and control memory.

Robin Lindley: Did Lowell display signs of any mental health problems in his childhood or adolescence?

Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison: Lowell was never a “normal” child, according to his mother. He had attacks of rage and rebellion that went well beyond what was normal and was first seen by a psychiatrist when he was 15.

Robin Lindley: As you note, Lowell was strongly influenced by history, particularly the history of New England and the writing of his predecessors such as Melville, Hawthorne, Emerson, and Thoreau. What are some ways the Lowell displays his preoccupation with this often dark history and literature?

Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison: Lowell read and lived in history, knew the New England poets well and was, as he said, influenced and inspired by their intellectual toughness, courage, and comfort with allegory. He was writing about the New England writers a few months before his death in 1977.

Robin Lindley: In a way, it seems that Lowell’s history of hospitalizations and therapy reflect the history of treatment for mood disorders in his era. How do you see the evolution of his psychiatric care and treatment? Wasn’t he provided the best available treatments during his time?

Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison: Lowell received the treatments for manic–depressive illness that reflected his times: electroconvulsive therapy (“shock therapy”) in the 1940’s and 1950’s, the new antipsychotic medications in the 1950’s, lithium in the 1960’s and 1970’s, until he died. He also received psychotherapy for extended periods of times.

Robin Lindley: Was it at Kenyon College with teachers such as John Crowe Ransom and Allan Tate that Lowell decided to devote his life to poetry? Or did that happen at another time?

Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison: Lowell first committed himself to being a poet in his late adolescence.

Robin Lindley: Many people may not know that Lowell was a conscientious objector during World War II, “the Good War.” What did you learn about Lowell life and his mental health during this period?

Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison: Lowell’s first manic episode overlapped to a degree with his conversion to Catholicism and his conscientious objection to fighting in World War II.

Robin Lindley: What did Lowell do during his manic episodes? How did the mania influence his writing?

Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison: Lowell wrote much more, often at a frenetic pace, in the early stages of his manic attacks. He also slept less, talked more, drank more, and became generally more frenzied and, on occasion, violent.

He discarded much of what he wrote when he was manic but some of it contained kernels of what he regarded as essential breakthroughs in his poetry. He told several of his friends “I write when I’m manic and revise when I’m depressed.”

Robin Lindley: Was Lowell’s writing more subdued and perhaps more controlled when he was depressed?

Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison: Lowell did not write much poetry when he was depressed but he did revise his existing work a great deal during those times.

Robin Lindley: You write with great compassion about Lowell and his long-suffering wives: Jean Stafford, Elizabeth Hardwick and Caroline Blackwood. How did his severe manic episodes and his unpredictability affect them? Was he usually stable with brief outbursts of mania?

Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison: Lowell’s manic episodes were painful, humiliating and destructive to those closest to him. The striking thing was the degree to which he was able to keep his friendships despite this. He was well–loved by those who knew him well.

Robin Lindley: As you recount, Lowell had a special relationship with his fellow poet Elizabeth Bishop. Was Bishop a mentor to Lowell?

Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison: Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell were friends, intimate correspondents, and astute critics and supporters of one anther’s work. I would not say Bishop was a mentor to Lowell.

Robin Lindley: You came to know Lowell’s daughter Harriet. What are a few things you learned from her about her father?

Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison: Harriet Winslow Lowell was generous in giving me permission to track down and review her father’s medical and psychiatric records. She was also generous in sharing her memories of her father (and her mother, the writer Elizabeth Hardwick). She remembers him with great affection as a loving, kind, fun, and sensitive father who was direct with her about his mental illness.

Many of Lowell’s poems are marked by his love for Harriet and his wonder at her as a child growing into a young woman.

Robin Lindley: I realize that you decided not to disclose psychotherapy notes

in your book, but did you find that Lowell derived benefit from psychotherapy?

Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison: I think Lowell benefited from psychotherapy but lithium was the only thing that helped stop the relentless recurrence of mania.

Robin Lindley: At times, Lowell found that writing was his “life preserver.” Did his treating physicians encourage his writing?

Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison: Lowell’s doctors did encourage him to write although he was deeply committed to writing with or without their encouragement. Or the encouragement of anyone else.

Robin Lindley: It seems that Lowell was also very anxious, in addition to his episodes of mania and depression. Do you think he had symptoms akin to post traumatic stress disorder as the result of the extreme stress of his manic episodes?

Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison: I don’t think Lowell was anxious so much as deeply worried about the recurrence of his mania. I am not sure that PTSD adds to our understanding of Lowell’s suffering; his own writing and his doctors’ descriptions of his remorse and terror are explicit, and such feelings are almost always a part of the experience of recurrent mania.

Robin Lindley: In the last decade of his life, Lowell was involved politically in Vietnam war protests and he remarried and he traveled widely. Yet these years were fraught. Did lithium lose effectiveness in controlling his moods in his final decade? Was he suicidal at times? It’s amazing he could function at all during this time of declining health.

Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison: Lowell took lithium for the final ten years of his life. He credited it with giving him a level of psychological health he hadn’t had. He wrote some astonishing poetry and prose during these years but his personal life became, increasingly, a nightmare. He had a recurrence of mania after his lithium level was first too high and then too low. He wrote about suicide in his poetry and at times discussed it with his doctors.

Robin Lindley: A complex question, but what do you see as Lowell’s primary sources of inspiration?

Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison: I think Lowell was born with immense intelligence and poetic originality. He brought great discipline to his native genius and, at times, an additional disruptiveness and originality from his mania.

Robin Lindley: How do scholars and other poets view Lowell’s legacy today? How do you see his legacy?

Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison: I think Lowell has a mixed legacy at the moment—perhaps inevitable in someone who was for so long overwhelming in his influence and for someone who was born to privilege and WASP Establishment ancestry.

I think his reputation for reshaping the subject matter of poetry is quite well–accepted and I think his poetic reputation is re–emerging in the inevitable cyclic evaluations of creative influence. I hope so.

He was an extraordinary poet and prose writer, profoundly original, and a man of immense courage and discipline. He gave a great deal to his art and country.

Robin Lindley: Thank you for your thoughtful comments and insights Dr. Jamison. And congratulations on your magnificent new study of the life of Robert Lowell.

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