Reimagining Robert Lowell - Seton Shrine

Reimagining Robert Lowell

The saint Elizabeth Seton and the poet Robert Lowell took divergent paths through the storm clouds of their lives, each seeking shelter under God’s immense umbrella of grace.

It’s sixty years now that I first encountered the poems of Robert Lowell. I was studying for my Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and was already caught up in the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, busy researching his life for my doctoral thesis. That Hopkins was a Catholic poet made all the difference for me in terms of models to emulate in my own life as a teacher and writer. But who else could I find comfort and wisdom in? Were there other poets who had learned from the example of Hopkins? Yes, there was T.S. Eliot, but Eliot had already established his own distinctive voice by the time Robert Bridges published Hopkins’s work—some thirty to forty years after the poems themselves had been written. Then too there was the poetry of David Jones and W.H. Auden.

But the poet who seemed most deeply influenced by Hopkins’s example—and an American poet to boot—was the young Robert Lowell, whose “Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” especially spoke to me back then. This was Lowell back in the 1940s, a Catholic conscientious objector and firebrand who’d spent half a year in a Federal prison in Connecticut during the war rather than bear arms after he learned of the Allied bombings of German civilians in the Ruhr Valley.

My bride and I visited that same Quaker graveyard during our New England honeymoon, for that’s how much Lowell’s words meant to me then. The place was mostly flat and bare, with a few gravestones here and there. These were the fighting Quakers, as Melville memorialized them in Moby Dick, members of a peace-loving sect who by the early nineteenth century had turned to the sea to make their fortunes by slaughtering whales for their oil and spermaceti, thus following in the American tradition of capitalism.

The bombing of civilians went against everything that Lowell, Catholic C.O. and convert—Thou shalt not kill—needed to believe in to help maintain his fragile sanity. Among the war dead—like Ahab and the crew of the Pequod who had perished in their attempt to kill the white whale not for the sake of business, but out of Ahab’s quest to avenge the beast that had taken his leg—was Lowell’s cousin, naval officer Warren Winslow, who had perished when the ammunition on his ship blew up in the straits between the Brooklyn Navy Yard and New Jersey, his body never recovered. And as for the promise of the resurrection? A corpse recovered in the netting, accounted for, only to be returned once more into the depths of the Atlantic.

Where then was the comfort Lowell needed now, in the storm of it all? He offered what he could in the sixth movement of his poem, lines dedicated to Our Lady of Walsingham in northern England, an ancient pilgrimage site destroyed by Henry VIII, where once pilgrims had walked barefoot the final mile to reach the site where the Holy Mother had once appeared, there to offer such peace and comfort as could be had. It was there—and not here in Nantucket—that Lowell invoked the quiet, expressionless face of Our Lady, unveiling in glimpses the mystery of God’s presence even as it watched over Cain’s sin endlessly repeated—brother killing brother, brother killing sister. And if the poet at twenty-nine could not yet comprehend the reality of the Incarnation or the ultimate sacrifice of the Cross, still, he pled, that “the world shall come to Walsingham.”

Like Elizabeth Ann Seton, Lowell came from old Episcopalian stock, though in his case it was the Boston Brahmin Lowell variety, rather than Seton’s New York blueblood stock. Like Mother Seton, and like Thomas Merton, Lowell too became a convert to Catholicism in a troubled time. And his example meant everything for me as I entered an academic milieu where being a practicing albeit imperfect Catholic brought with it its own difficulties. But then there was Hopkins, John Henry Newman and Lowell and—as I would later learn—the example of Flannery O’Connor, a Catholic from Georgia and the Protestant South. You learn to carry your models close to you, like medals tucked inside your shirt, if you’re lucky enough to have them.

Still, here’s the irony. By the time I discovered Lowell’s Catholic poems, he’d already moved on—crossing the Alps, as it were, from Pius XII’s Rome to the dark Paris of Baudelaire and then on to Maine and the world of “Skunk Hour.” By 1950, he’d divorced his first wife, Jean Stafford, and married his second, Elizabeth Hardwick. He’d already spent months in various psychiatric wards, including McLain’s outside Boston, trying to recover from schizophrenia and manic depression. And though a Catholic convert, he’d still remained a puritan in many of his practices, throwing out a meal during Lent his wife had prepared if he suspected there was even a whiff of meat broth in it. For a time, he attended daily Mass. But he soon found that his new faith—such as he understood it—was more than he could deal with. He could be violent, and smashed his first wife’s face at least twice—once in a car accident, and once with his fist.

By the early ‘50s, he’d left Jean Stafford and his Catholic faith behind.

And when Pope Pius XII declared the Assumption of Our Blessed Mother into heaven, body and soul, as Catholic dogma in November 1950, that was it as far as Lowell was concerned. And so, in “Beyond the Alps,” the opening salvo of Life Studies, a poem composed in 1952, the poet recalls traveling by Pullman train from Rome through the grandeur of the Alps and on to that black classic, Paris. “When the Vatican made Mary’s Assumption dogma,” he wrote, “the crowds at San Pietro screamed Papa.”. What Lowell meant here—darkly enough—was that the crowds cheered on the Pope much as they had cheered on Mussolini in the eternal city a decade earlier:

The lights of science couldn’t hold a candle
to Mary risen—at one miraculous stroke,
angel-wing’d, gorgeous as a jungle bird!

For Lowell, the Queen of Heaven, like the goddess Minerva, had by then morphed into one more imaginary goddess, one more “miscarriage of the brain.” And there it was: the Church, the Pope, the Blessed Mother, all left behind now, as Lowell went on to look for other answers, struggling all the while with his manic-depressive episodes like the one he records with that skunk in Castine, Maine, slinking in the garbage, the poem he would close Life Studies with. Call it the sad alpha and omega of things for him. For now, instead of finding himself (or losing himself) atop the majestic Alps, he stands on the back steps of his porch, breathing in the rich air as another mother—this one a mother skunk—swills through a garbage pail in a nightmarish sexual scene, jabbing “her wedge-head in a cup/ of sour cream,” before settling in like a parasite and refusing to scare.

And so it went for the next two decades, until his death at sixty of a heart attack in the back seat of a taxi as he returned to his ex-wife’s apartment on West 68th Street. He was just back from Ireland, having visited his estranged third wife as he returned—shattered—to his second.

Earlier in his career, he’d recalled Dante’s stanzas in his Purgatorio about the death of Buonconte da Montefeltro, fatally wounded in the fighting at Compaldino in 1289, and whose body was never recovered. In that passage, Dante, a young soldier then who’d fought on the opposing side, imagined Buonconte calling out to the Blessed Mother as he bled out, and how he imagined that—in her mercy—she’d heard that cry and rescued him. “I’ll tell you the truth,” Lowell wrote, imitating Dante’s voice there,

            tell it to the living,
an angel and devil fought with claws for my soul:
You angel, why do you rob me for his last word?
The rain fell, then the hail, my body froze,
until the raging Archiano snatched me,
and loosened my arms I’d folded like the cross.

“Less than ever I expect to be alive,” Lowell wrote eighteen months before his death at sixty. The lines are from a poem he called—fittingly enough— “Home.” Now, like Dante’s Buonconte, he too called out to Mary, a mother he could trust—unlike his own mother—in lines which can still break the heart. “The Queen of Heaven,” he sighed,

            I miss her,
we were divorced. She never doubted
the divided, stricken soul
could call her Maria
And rob the devil with a word.

Which brings us back again to that strong woman, Mother Seton, who, in the midst of her own turmoils and struggles with her own beloved son who had drifted away from so much that she held dear. “The black clouds I foresee,” she wrote, “may pass by harmless, or if in Providence of grace they fall on me, Providence has an immense umbrella to hinder or break the force of the storm.” That, she added, was what gave her—and myself, and I hope and pray, my early mentor, Robert Lowell—comfort in a dark time.

PAUL MARIANI is University Professor of English emeritus at Boston College. He is the author of nineteen books, including biographies of, among others, William Carlos Williams, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Wallace Stevens. His previous volumes of poetry include Epitaphs for the Journey, The Great Wheel, and Salvage Operations. He is also the author of Thirty Days: On Retreat with the Exercises of St. Ignatius and The Mystery of It All: The Vocation of Poetry in the Twilight of Modernity.

Image: CC BY-SA 3.0

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