Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop: “Together till life’s end”
It must be almost five years ago that I read Robert Lowell’s letters, and ever since then I have been meaning to read his complete correspondence with Elizabeth Bishop. I was given Words in Air several years ago for my birthday and only just recently finished the colossal tome. It is now impossible, at least for me, to think of one poet without the other, or write about them in that vein, as their friendship, which lasted three decades, survived wars, revolutions, failed marriages, breakdowns and supernumerary love affairs and influenced both their lives and their work more than any of the other tribulations. The two were bound by an ineffaceable connection fortified by a “love that was more than love”, which Lowell once surmised in a letter by saying: “You and I are simply one”. Albeit their love never took form in a physical sense, Bishop was the only constant female fixture throughout Lowell’s life, and for his part, he envisaged the two of them together, “till life’s end”.
Many have viewed Bishop’s life and career, independently of Lowell, through her longstanding relationship with Lota Soares, her “secret problem” with drink, and “the smallest of oeuvres”, a mere 70 poems which saw her status elevated to one of the greatest “20th-century poets” on par with the likes of “T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Wallace Stevens and W.H. Auden”. Even more ascribed this framework of interpretation to Lowell, whose canon burgeoned with fervid alacrity and gathered readership with every volume while Bishop’s remained exclusive compendious and obscure. But for me the two poets have almost always been intrinsically linked together, not only through a lifetime of letters and personal histories but also by an incomparable “conjunction of the minds,” parallel and infinite. Bishop was an alcoholic, Lowell a manic depressive; both were consumed by their craft and an unshakable “dry loneliness,” often finding solace in one another and the thought of freeing themselves from the manacles of social-reality and people’s “universal good-will” by fleeing to Paris or Italy to spend their “declining years”.
The two wrote to one another with great verbal finesse and enthusiasm, whether about their mutual friends, commenting on the deeds and misdeeds of Marianne Moore, Randall Jarrell, Ezra Pound, Allan Tate, Robert Frost, Dylan Thomas and many others; their work and intertwining artistic endeavours; their lives tinctured by disorder and early sorrows, and everything from the profound to the everyday. Lowell always had the capacity to incite antagonism in orthodox strongholds but was a brilliant, indefatigable, talker and incredibly amusing despite his obdurate frankness. His letters are full of incisive wit, elation, ecstasy, disillusionment, despair, sympathies and admonitions, genuinely vernal raptures, occasional bouts of malice and capricious episodic ellipses, transections, changes of tempo and grammatical errors. Lowell begins one letter with the following: “I was just making my bed (if you could call it “making”) when I became aware of a dull burning smell. ‘God, I must have left a cigarette burning.’ I rush into my other room; no cigarette. Absentmindedly I feel in my pocket. There, a lighted cigarette in holder consuming a damp piece of Kleenex. The pocket was also stuffed with kitchen matches. Oh my!” To which Bishop replies in her customary linguistic lambency and unique vernacular of jocularity: “I am mailing you a SAFE if not particularly aesthetic ashtray – I got two of them a while ago. They’re the only ones I’ve ever found that will really hold the cigarette while you write or scratch your head, and yet if you forget it, the cigarette automatically goes out…I was going to give one to Lloyd Frankenberg for Christmas, but they didn’t come in time and now you’re going to get it instead.”
Elizabeth Bishop was introduced to Robert Lowell in January 1947, at dinner party in New York hosted by Randall Jarrell. An exceptionally reticent woman with a, “round face and very thick, unruly, greying hair,” Bishop felt immediately at ease in Lowell’s company and the “backward and forward flow” of supererogatory correspondence commenced immediately, ending only with Lowell’s death in the late 70s. When Bishop wrote the innate shyness which beset her in public was cast aside and thus Lowell was one of very few people cordially inaugurated into this very private woman’s inner life and imagination. Shortly before his passing Lowell wrote to Bishop, “you [have] always been my favourite poet and favourite friend,” and the feeling was wholly mutual. Reminiscing about Lowell looking a “bit rumpled and unkept” with a “large smear of ink across his chin,” Bishop simply concluded that she “loved him at first sight”. In the early years of their friendship the two passed through a shifting and ambiguous phase of mutual attraction, which never developed into anything other than a near proposal of marriage on Lowell’s part during a “long swimming and sunning Stonington [Maine] day” in 1948 when Bishop disclosed to Lowell otherwise uncharted key aspects of her early life.
Almost a decade later, after a manic “harsh frenzy”, Lowell recalls that day, saying: “…our relations seemed to have reached a new place. I assumed that it would be just a matter of time before I proposed and I half believed that you would accept. Yet I wanted it all to have the right build-up. Well, I didn’t say anything then…I was so drunk that my hands turned cold and I felt half-dying and held your hand. And nothing was said…I wanted time and space, and went on assuming, and when I was to have joined you at Key West I was determined to ask you. Really for so callous (I fear) a man, I was fearfully shy and scared of spoiling things…Let me say this though and then leave the matter forever; I do think free will is sewn into everything we do; you can’t cross a street, light a cigarette, drop saccharine in your coffee without really doing it. Yet the possible alternatives that life allows us are very few, often there must be none. I’ve never thought there was any choice for me about writing poetry. No doubt if I had used my head better, ordered my life better, worked harder etc., the poetry would be improved, and there must be many lost poems, innumerable accidents and ill-done actions. But asking you is the might-have-been for me, the one towering change, the other life that might have been had.”
Neither Bishop nor Lowell mentioned the matter again, but their correspondence moved forward year by year. Lowell would send fresh batches of poems in wait of critique from his “unerring Muse,” but the letters were equally and mutually influential in both their individual artistic development and their personal lives. They emerge in a swirl of vividly-recorded quotidian experiences, full of impromptu snapshots drawn from the casual, peculiar, maudlin and happy domestic moments. Such moments punctuate the letters throughout, their tone often wry and witty but always and consistently sympathetic and longing, and of a literary genre in themselves. The interchange records an unfolding intimacy, a colloquial brilliance and a wealth of literary and social history of the American poetry scene and its outstandingly talented mid-century generation. But above all, they unveil a remarkable connection between two lives inexorably linked together till death, which came to Lowell in a form of a heart attack in a New York taxi in 1977 and two years later for Bishop who died of a cerebral aneurysm. Their legacy remains characterised by two people who wrote exclusively to and for one another until the “imperfect end”.