“Solid with Yearning”: Lowelling and Laureling in Day by Day

  • Barbara L. Estrin


Robert Lowell’s last book of poems, Day by Day, parallels the anamorphism of Sidney Nolan’s cover portrait for the July 2, 1967, issue of Time magazine. Around Lowell’s disembodied head in that portrait is a zig-zagging laurel wreath that looks at any moment as if it might turn into a gauntlet of snakes. At first glance, Lowell appears to be wearing the crown of the American poet laureate. But, from another angle, the disembodied snaky head seems to be that of the Gorgon. It’s the look that’s disturbing. The portrait bears little resemblance to the kindly, benign Lowell we see in the photographs accompanying the cover story. Inside the magazine, he appears quizzically tenuous, puzzled by all the fuss about him or philosophically gentle, wondering about the nature of existence. The cover uncovers a poet barely suppressing his rage, not just dreamily out of things but potentially a subway bomber, as if he were waiting merely to lift his eyes and turn a nation of Time readers to stone. Eyed awry, Nolan’s image of Time’s anointed Petrarch conflates the poet with Medusa.2


Full Moon Biological Mother Truth Teller Lunar Tide Cleaning House 
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  1. 1.
    Peter Shaffer, The Gift of the Gorgon (London: Viking, 1993), p. 84.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    On the contrast between the “laurel-wreathed Lowell as a bodiless iconic head” in the cover portrait and the “out-of-date” male dominated tribute to Lowell in the actual story, see William Doreski, Robert Lowell’s Shifting Colors: The Poetics of the Public and the Personal (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1999), p. xiii.Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    Ian hamilton’s Robert Lowell: A Biography (New York: Random house, 1982) is mostly a record of Lowell’s psychic and amorous escapades. While claiming that the purpose of his biography is to “recognize Lowell as a major poet at every step of his development” (Lost Puritan: A Life of Robert Lowell [New York: Norton, 1994], p.13), Paul Mariani similarly spares us no detail of Lowell’s struggles as a “thorazined fixture” (p. 19). M. L. Rosenthal writes that Lowell encourages the biographers as he “becomes one of those candid-camera figures … treating himself and his parents and the women he has loved and married and divorced and his children in the same way … a kind of diabolism in a minor key.” See “Our Neurotic Angel,” Agenda 18. 3 (1980): 35. Even the defenders of Lowell’s poetry can’t resist dragging in the biography. Anthony Hecht agrees that Lowell’s manic cycles almost always “involved episodes of sexual adventurism,” but maintains that the poetry must be separated out from the life and that the critical task is to “guard against the difficulty of confusing celebrity with achievement” See Robert Lowell (Washington: Library of Congress, 1983), pp. 7, 9. The strongest anti-biography critic is Steven Gould Axelrod who argues: “hamilton’s ‘Lowell’ is a problem child who never grows up, never can keep himself out of scrapes, never accomplishes anything of lasting value…. his book reads less like a literary biography than a probation report.” (“Lowell’s Living Name: An Introduction,” Robert Lowell: Essays on the Poetry, ed. Steven Gould Axelrod and Helen Deese [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986], p. 15.)Google Scholar
  4. 7.
    Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (New York: Routledge, 1993), pp. 7–8.Google Scholar
  5. 8.
    Frank Bidart argues that re-writing was an ingrained habit in Lowell: “from the very beginning until the end … [It] proceeded very deeply from the nature of what he was doing as a writer, what he imagined his work as a writer to be.” See “You Didn’t Write, You Rewrote,” The Kenyon Review New Series 22.1 (2000): 206.Google Scholar
  6. 9.
    “Afterthought,” Notebook (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970), p. 263.Google Scholar
  7. 10.
    “Antebellum Boston,” Collected Prose, ed. Robert Giroux (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1987), p. 292.Google Scholar
  8. 11.
    In a letter to Blair Clark, Lowell speaks of the “downlook” as an inward feeling of depression (the aftermath of manic attack): I’ve been home a month now, rather down looking at first, then thawing, all the while writing with furious persistence. Ian Hamilton, Robert Lowell: A Biography, p. 453. Helen Vendler (“Lowell’s Persistence: The Forms Depression Makes,” The Kenyon Review, New Series 22.1 [2000]: 217) writes of Lowell’s depression and the way in which he “persist[ed] in writing poetry concerning, and enacting, crushing depression”Google Scholar
  9. 12.
    Antony and Cleopatra, ed. M. R. Ridley (London: Routledge, 1988), p. 201–202.Google Scholar
  10. 13.
    “Last Days and Last Poems,” Part of Nature, Part of Us: Modern American Poets (Cambridge: harvard University Press, 1980), pp. 165–166. Reprinted from Robert Lowell: A Tribute, ed. Rolando Anzilotti (Piza: Nistri-Lischi Editori, 1974).Google Scholar
  11. 14.
    Collected Prose, ed. Robert Giroux (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1987), pp. 37–38.Google Scholar
  12. 15.
    King henry V, ed. J. H. Walter (London: Routledge, 1987), p. 141.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Barbara L. Estrin 2001

Authors and Affiliations

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

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