Robert Lowell knew civic valor. Sixteen times and more he had been down on his knees in madness, he said. Sixteen times and more he had gotten up. He had gone back to his work, entered back into life. He had faced down uncertainty and madness, had created new forms when pushed to stay with the old, had brought back imaginative order from chaos. It was a different kind of courage, this civic courage, and the rules of engagement were unclear. Lowell’s life, as his daughter observed, was a messy one, difficult for him and for those who knew him. But it was lived with iron, and often with grace. He kept always in the front of his mind what he thought he ought to be, even when he couldn’t be it; he believed in what his country could be, even if it wasn’t. He worked hard at his art.
–Kay Redfield Jamison, PhD, in “Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character” (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017).
Dr. Kay Jamison starts her newest book by telling the reader, up front, this is not a biography of the great poet, Robert Lowell. It is, instead, a psychological account of his life and of his mind. Her magnificent study is an unconventional way of approaching the life of another human being, taken in the context of both Lowell’s personal struggle with mental illness and as the culmination of generations of genius and mania in a long and complicated family history. There have been many reviews of Jamison’s book, and, for the reader who is interested in a more conventional read, I will steer you to Elizabeth Bosworth’s review in The New York Times (“A poet’s pathologies: Inside Robert Lowell’s restless mind,” March 1, 2017), or Helen Vendler’s review in The New York Review of Books (“The two Robert Lowells,” April 20, 2017). Instead, of a review, per se, I’d like to recount what I thought about as I read “Setting The River On Fire.”
Lowell, who lived from 1917 to 1977, was a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, deemed to be the greatest American poet of his time. He studied the classics and was obsessed with Napoleon as a child, and he drew on the work of other great poets and classicists as influences for his own work. I must confess, I came to this psychological study having never read the work of Robert Lowell. My only familiarity with the poet came directly from the author. I heard Dr. Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, speak several years ago at the Johns Hopkins Annual Mood Disorders Symposium about her, then, work-in-progress as she was researching this book. What I heard was intriguing enough that I was eager to read and review a long and solid book about a great poet whose work I had never read.
As I began “Setting The River On Fire,” my first thought was that the writing itself was astounding. Dr. Jamison’s words flow, her metaphors never fall flat or feel artificial, the ride itself is lovely. I looked for a few lines to quote as an example, and I was left at a standstill. One line was more gracious than the next. I finally settled on the quote I used at the beginning of this piece, benignly chosen from page 403 because it encapsulated not just the beautiful writing but a synopsis of who Lowell was and what he had achieved, set in the context of attempted differentiation between the man, the madness, and the interplay of the two.
Dr. Jamison’s research on Lowell’s life is nothing short of astounding and was clearly a labor that took both sustained passion and years of her time. Dr. Jamison quoted the poet at length. She is an expert on his many volumes of poetry and prose, as well as his life and loves – three marriages and many intimate friendships – documented through letters and conversations. In addition, she quoted many other poets as examples of how their work influenced Lowell. Beyond the literature and correspondence, Dr. Jamison interviewed those who knew Lowell well. She unearthed his medical and psychiatric records, and she plotted out the course of his life in an uncanny way, linking so much of his work to the ebbs and flows of his illness. My only “criticism” of the book would be in how extensive it is. She sometimes makes a point by quoting several sources, each of whom drive at the same idea. It makes for very strong rhetoric.
Lowell lived through the heyday of psychoanalysis, a time when psychiatry focused on the idea that mental aberration was a result of unconscious conflicts and issues left unaddressed from childhood. Lowell’s life was certainly ripe for the psychoanalyst, as Dr. Jamison documented his mother’s psychopathology and his father’s passive distance from his own emotions . In fact, Robert Lowell was treated at some of the great institutions steeped in psychoanalytic learning: Payne Whitney Clinic , McLean Hospital , and Massachusetts Mental Health Center (formerly Boston Psychopathic Hospital), where his treatments included electroconvulsive therapy, chlorpromazine, and eventually lithium.
His second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick , had a striking understanding of his illness as a biological disorder beyond his control. Her sympathy for his behavior as a product of illness allowed her to tolerate actions that many people would not, even with our current day emphasis on disease states, including sexual indiscretions. His friends, too, saw the uncharacteristic chaos of his manias as the result of a state of illness, and, as such, as forgivable. These were often not subtle indiscretions: Jamison describes intense delusional states, combative behavior, police with straightjackets, often at very public and professional events worldwide. If psychoanalytic thinking weighed in on an understanding of Lowell’s motivations, Dr. Jamison did not include it in her study of Lowell, and she makes a point at the end of saying that she focused on his illness and did not include the content of psychotherapy notes. Still, I was struck by the understanding of his depressions and manias as a state of illness by lay people in his life and thought that, given the time period, it was noteworthy.
On a similar vein, I wondered if Lowell could live his life now as he lived his life then. A crucial arena for his career was Harvard College, where he returned over and over to teach. Dr. Jamison says that Lowell lectured in an acutely psychotic and disorganized state. She says that, while students clamored to take his classes, so, too, they were afraid of him. I cannot quite imagine that, in our world of “trigger warnings,” microaggressions, and college safe spaces, we might ever allow an openly ill genius to reign in a classroom of students. I am never certain if we are aimed forward or backward in our struggle against stigma, and “Setting The River On Fire” may be one more example in which we have lost ground in a quest for tolerance.
Once again, Dr. Jamison pulled me into her world. “Setting The River On Fire” is no one’s version of a light or happy read, it is a serious study of an intensely brilliant and often desperately ill poet – and it does not disappoint.
Dr. Miller, who practices in Baltimore, is coauthor with Annette Hanson, MD, of “Committed: The Battle Over Involuntary Psychiatric Care,” (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016).