Austenfeld, Thomas (Ed.). Robert Lowell in a New Century: European and American Perspectives. Suffolk: Camden House, 2019. ISBN 9781640140288. £71.65 (hardback). 206pp.

In his introduction to Robert Lowell in a New Century, Thomas Austenfeld notes that “Lowell’s work proves amenable to new forms of critical appreciation, which in turn produce fresh insights” (1). The variety of essays in this collection, ranging from pieces which focus on everything from the maritime to the marital, testifies to the truth of Austenfeld’s observation. In using new forms of critical appreciation to revisit Lowell’s oeuvre, the authors of these essays regularly reaffirm his status as a unique talent who appreciated the ambiguity of living and challenged the ability of language to represent the subtleties of existence. 

The first two essays in this volume vindicate the purpose of the book, which is embedded in its title: to consider Lowell in a “New Century.” Steven Gould Axelrod’s chapter on “Sensual Drift and Ethnic Longing” begins by looking at the fluidity of pronouns in Life Studies (25) and ends by considering how Lowell’s destabilisations of gender and ethnic identifications results in a “contemporary awareness of the ambiguities of embodiment” (35). This last point seems utterly relevant in terms of recent moves to provide more space in essay collections for considerations of diverse experiences and to revise our interpretations of texts – and the wider world – with a view to greater inclusivity. Axelrod draws attention to the ways in which Lowell appeared to have been exploring diversity of perspective all along by considering his articulation of ambiguities and confusion in both his poetry and his autobiographical writing. Although he does not refer to Lowell’s influence on Adrienne Rich, Axelrod makes a strong argument for Lowell as a poetic advocate for “destabilisations” which poets like Rich later embraced. 

Astrid Franke takes as her focus Lowell’s psychiatric “destabilisations” in her chapter on “Revisiting Robert Lowell’s Mental Hospital Poems.” Looking in detail at recent considerations of the influence of Lowell’s psychiatric condition on his poetry by Kay Redfield Jamison, Isabelle Travis, and Nikki Skillman, Franke argues convincingly that “we should pay attention to Lowell’s own engagement with his mental states” (15). Franke’s chapter will be of interest to scholars of mid-century poetics more broadly as she evaluates the experiences of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton alongside those of Lowell. Franke remarks that “the relation between patients, doctors, medicines, and institutions did not change much for Lowell over the course of his life since he always moved in quite privileged medical surroundings” (16). However, this experience was not that of Plath, for example, whom Heather Clark recently argues made her first suicide attempt in 1953 partly because of the fear of becoming a financial burden to her family as a result of being institutionalised (Clark 282). Indeed, Plath’s suicide in 1962 was prompted to some extent by her fear of returning to an institution and undergoing ECT again. Lowell, by contrast, Franke suggests, had the privilege of consistently good medical treatment throughout his life. Franke’s decision to revisit Lowell’s experience of psychiatry suggests a new line of inquiry in considering the inequities in the experiences of institutions by male and female poets of the mid-century. 

Lowell’s travels are well represented in the collection in essays by Jo Gill, Ian D. Copestake, and Diederik Oostdijk. Both Gill and Copestake consider Lowell’s links with the sea using new approaches based on medicine and aeronautics. Copestake writes that “the curative discourse of the sea and its constituent parts are a continual presence in Lowell’s life and the language of his poetry” (56) in his “Hippocratic” approach to Lowell’s poetry. Gill considers that Lowell’s many sea crossings, by both air and sea, resulted in a perpetual suspension between places and states, which allowed him to “rework” the “same water” in personal and poetic terms. Both Gill and Copestake engage with Lowell’s familial, New England heritage of seafaring through novel approaches to his oeuvre. Oostdijk, meanwhile, provides a fascinating history of the buildings near Lowell’s residence in Amsterdam in 1951. Ranging from a discussion of ekphrasis to Lowell’s retrospective consideration of paintings he saw while living in Amsterdam for a year, Oostdijk traces the influence of the paintings Lowell visited, and the intellectuals he socialised with, on Lowell’s poetry from then on. This essay provides a timely new consideration of Lowell and visual art which had been the topic of Helen Deese’s essay in Robert Lowell: Essays on the Poetry (1987). Oostdijk demonstrates that we must tread carefully on our travels with Lowell because of “how deceptive apparent titles and subjects may be in his poetry” (109). Not immediately influential, or obvious as influences, Oostdijk reveals that the traces of Lowell’s Dutch residence are visible as late as “Epilogue.” 

Engagement with other poets provides the focus for around a third of the chapters in the collection. Boris Vejdovsky’s chapter on “Correspondences between Lowell’s Poetics of History and Bishop’s Poetics of Space” entails a close look at Lowell’s alignment with history and Bishop’s affinity with geography. According to Vejdovsky, “History and geography are two ways of investigating an individual’s position in time and space and they need one another in order to develop, though their correspondences can only happen ‘in air’” (68). This fresh take on the Lowell and Bishop interdependency, but also the impossibility of any absolute confluence between their two states, is ingeniously framed by Vejdovsky. 

Both Grzegorz Kość and Massimo Bacigalupo approach Lowell’s relationship with Pound, but they do so from two very different directions. Kość considers Lowell’s interest in “Pound’s ideas about how to reform the public money and credit system,” positing that this impulse revealed “usurious desires” on Lowell’s part (82). Kość takes this idea further and characterises both Pound and Lowell as “hoarders” of “inner capital” and “money itself,” tracing examples of this in Lowell’s poetry (82). Bacigalupo’s chapter offers a nice counterpoint to Kość’s thesis when he quotes from Ieri a Rapallo, the memoir of his father, Dr Giuseppe Bacigalupo. Dr Bacigalupo recalled that, following Charlotte Winslow Lowell’s death at Rapallo, her son went to retrieve his mother’s jewellery from the bank but, upon departure, “we realised that the jewels I had secured had been forgotten by Lowell on the desk of the bank employee” (99). The anecdote somewhat resists Kość’s alternative definition of Lowell as a “hoarder.” Bacigalupo traces Lowell’s engagement with his poetic heritage as well as his familial inheritance in his chapter exploring Lowell’s early fascination with Pound and the older poet’s later efforts to keep on good terms with Lowell. The importance of Lowell’s endorsement of his poetic elders and his discomfort in this role is also explored by Francesco Rognoni in his chapter on Lowell and Ungaretti. The new approach to Lowell’s translations here, and in the chapter by Frank Kearful on Lowell’s translation of Rainer Maria Rilke, is suggestive and implies that his translations are fertile ground for future new explorations in studies of Lowell. 

The final chapters in the collection by Philip Coleman, Saskia Hamilton, and Thomas Travisano are bound by the common threads of influences and error. Coleman warns against the conflation of life and art in discussing Lowell’s poems about marriage, offering the alternative consideration of “proposals” in his work which facilitates new and nuanced readings of poems that can only ever appear to be based on real people and documentary evidence. For Coleman, the reader is invited to “propose” meaning as they read Lowell’s apparently personal poetry, which causes a destabilisation of the potentially factual in his work (149). Hamilton takes up this theme of distrust of the apparently factual when she traces various mistakes in Lowell’s writing. Hamilton encourages the reader to embrace these moments of slippage when she considers “how generative mistakes and mistaking were for Lowell” (158). Travisano engages similarly with “moments of imperfect closure” which results in “tonal and symbolic complexity” (176). It is this complexity which suggests that Lowell’s work remains relevant in the twenty-first century. 

Given Lowell’s stature in twentieth-century poetics, it is odd that there are not more collections of essays devoted to considering his work. Plath, Sexton, and John Berryman have all been the subjects of recently published essay collections reconsidering their oeuvres; with the possible exception of Berryman, these poets would have considered Lowell as a pre-eminent poet amongst them. Austenfeld’s collection redresses this imbalance, however, by bringing a new set of essays on Lowell into the new century. The collection should inspire both students and teachers to fall in love with the big gun from Boston once more. 

Gillian Groszewski


Works Cited

Clark, Heather. Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath. London: Jonathan Cape, 2020.


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