“Infinite Mischief”: Robert Lowell’s Fiction of Desire in The Dolphin

  • Barbara L. Estrin


Like Wallace Stevens in stanza XII of “An Ordinary Evening in New haven”—with his flying statues and newspapers—Robert Lowell resorts to a surrealistic anti-logic to characterize the inexorability of poetic love. In the 1972 The Dolphin, Lowell strategically “places” himself as a poet devoured by his own appetite: “the insatiable fiction of desire” (p. 35). he is overwhelmed by an historically laden form (the culturally predetermined and deindividualizing fantasy of Petrarchism) and victimized by a never satisfied and self-consuming sexuality (what Shakespeare calls the “perjured … extreme[s]”2 of carnality). In the sonnet series at the middle of the book, “Winter and London,” and one at the end of the book, “Flight to New York,” Lowell puts into practice the strange emanations of lyric desire he defined in the “Afterthought” of his 1970 Notebook.


Mass Grave Pearl Harbor Christmas Tree London Series Ritual Murder 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    “On Robert Lowell,” Salmagundi 37 (1977): 54–55.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Shakespeare’s Sonnets, The Arden Shakespeare, Third Series, ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones (London: Thomas Nelson, 1997), p. 373.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Notebook 1967–1968 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969), p. 16Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    “Afterthought,” Notebook (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970), p. 263.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    “Courtly Love as Anamorphosis,” The Ethics of Psychoanalysis 1959–60: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book VII, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Dennis Porter (London: Tavistock/Routledge, 1991), p. 140.Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    Discours, figure (Paris: Klincksieck, 1971), p. 378 [trans. Bill Readings, Introducing Lyotard (London: Routledge, 1991), p. 26.Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    Despite her reservations about the wisdom of publishing The Dolphin, Bishop praises its poetry three more times in the letter, calling it alternately “magnificent,” “honest, almost” and a “great poem” See One Art: Letters, selected and edited by Robert Giroux (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1994), p. 561.Google Scholar
  8. 9.
    In an essay largely critical of Lowell’s “naming names” in The Dolphin, John Ward writes, “I infer that [Lowell] finally decided that in disembowelling himself it was acceptable, even unavoidable, to disembowel others, as long as he did so within the confines of the honourable sonnet form” See “‘Not Avoiding Injury’: Robert Lowell,” American Declarations of Love, ed. Ann Massa (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990), p. 53. Steven Gould Axelrod views this fusion positively: “Lowell sees that his life and his art have a coextensive existence. The life gives birth to the art and the art completes the life for it culminates his consciousness of that life.” Robert Lowell: Life and Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), p. 25.Google Scholar
  9. 10.
    Paul Mariani quotes Ian Hamilton on Lowell’s odd comment to Jonathan Miller when he met him at Idlewild Airport and saw four Hassidic rabbis walk by. “Cal winked and told Miller that it was not the Germans who had been responsible for World War II.” Lost Puritan (New York: Norton, 1994), p. 329–330. See also Hamilton, Robert Lowell: A Biography (New York: Random house, 1982), pp. 314–315. About Lowell’s hitler fantasies, see Hamilton, pp. 209–212.Google Scholar
  10. 12.
    Steven Gould Axelrod writes of Lowell’s obsession with the mixture of “self and trope” as typically American and argues that Lowell’s sense of poetic prerogatives—his feeling that poetry mattered more than life—renders Ian hamilton’s failure to talk about poetry in his biography a critical shortcoming (Robert Lowell: Essays on Poetry, ed. Steven Gould Axelrod and Helen Deese [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986], pp. 14–25). The same shortcomings are true of the most recent biography, Paul Mari-ani’s Lost Puritan (New York: Norton, 1994). Though reviewers note that the biographers “haven’t shown us the depths of the poetry,” they seem equally drawn in by the poet’s life. In a review of Lost Puritan, David Bromwich projects a collection of letters: “Lowell’s collected letters ought to prove enormously interesting to judge by the samples quoted by Mr. Mariani.” See “I Myself Am hell.” New York Times Book Review November 20, 1994: 41. Bromwich fails to note that thus far there is no Collected Poems. In his review of Lost Puritan, Michael Hofman anticipates the rumored arrival of a Collected Poems in “two or three years.” See “Rescuing a Reputation from Poetic Injustice,” The London Times, January 19, 1995: 40. On the reasons for the delay and the problems of editing Lowell, Geoffrey Lindsay writes, “Pity the poor editor entrusted with putting together Lowell’s poems.” “Drama and Dramatic Strategies in Robert Lowell’s Notebook 1967–68,” Twentieth-Century Literature 44.1 (1998): 53. Harold Bloom, however, assumes in the Bibliography to The Western Canon that a Collected Lowell already exists. The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1994), p. 563. On the question of the biographical in Lowell’s work, Frank Bidart (who is working on The Collected Poems), quotes the famous passage from “To Speak of the Woe that is in Marriage” of Life Studies where the wife voices her desperation to keep her husband from driving drunk: “Each night now I tie / ten dollars and his car key to my thy.” Bidart writes, “I once brought this passage up with Lowell. he smiled rather sheepishly and said that his wife had never done that, that it was told to him by the wife of Delmore Schwartz.” See “Panel: Lowell on the Page,” The Kenyon Review, New Series 22.1 (2000): 239.Google Scholar
  11. 13.
    The Good Soldier (New York: Signet, 1991), pp. 221, 223.Google Scholar
  12. 14.
    As David S. Gewanter writes: “Lowell’s ambivalence about his wives reflects finally on his own self-doubt” “Child of Collaboration: Robert Lowell’s Dolphin,” Modern Philology 93.2 (1995): 183.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. 15.
    Moses and Monotheism, trans. Katherine Jones (New York: Knopf, 1939), pp. 128–129.Google Scholar
  14. 16.
    “The Laugh of the Medusa,” trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, New French Feminisms, ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron (New York: Schoken, 1981), p. 254.Google Scholar
  15. 17.
    For the connections between Athena and Medusa, see Tobin Siebers, The Mirror of Medusa (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), p. 14 and Roberto Calasso, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, trans. Tim Parks (London: Jonathan Cape, 1993), p. 228.Google Scholar
  16. 18.
    The Merchant of Venice, ed. John Russell Brown (London: Methuen, 1961), p. 73.Google Scholar
  17. 19.
    The Poems and Letters of Andrew Marvell, Third Edition, ed. H. M. Margoliouth, rev. Pierre Legouis and E. E. Duncan-Jones (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), p. 28.Google Scholar
  18. 20.
    Collected Prose, ed. Robert Giroux (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1987), pp. 37–38.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Barbara L. Estrin 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  • Barbara L. Estrin
    • 1
  1. 1.Stonehill CollegeUSA

Personalised recommendations