Robert Lowell, Setting the River on FireReview - Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire
A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character
by Kay Redfield Jamison
Knopf, 2017
Review by Jennifer Radden
Feb 28th 2017 (Volume 21, Issue 9)

Kay Jamison's interest in mania is well known from her acclaimed memoir An Unquiet Mind; and she has previously explored the link with mania and creative genius (Touched with Fire).  But her magisterial new study of the New England literary figure Robert Lowell goes beyond these previous books, first in its explication of the subjective and personal experience of manic-depressive illness for its subjects, and its effect on those around them, and second for a persuasive demonstration of the way mania can interrupt, and yet contribute to, imaginative endeavor.

Setting the River on Fire is in many ways a work by, as well as about, Robert Lowell -- a collaboration between him, his friends and Jamison. The autobiographical nature of Lowell's writing, his ability with language, and what has been described as his hawk's eye on immortality, trained on himself, are elements that leave this volume so valuable for the study of madness, creativity and character. It is Lowell who gives us the unmatched personal descriptions of his rages, for example: "I have stood too long on a chair or ladder,/ branch-lightening forking through my thoughts and veins;" or "I climb the spiral stairs to my own music,/ each step more poignantly oracular,/something inhuman always rising in me;" "our hallucinatory, the disenchantress." From him we hear the form of his subsequent shame and depression: "my antics/ and insupportable, trespassing tongue/gone astray"; "dust in the blood," "During all that blind mole's time -- the fascinated spirit watching the holocaust of irrationality, apathy tormenting apathy…"

Such telling lines and powerful phrases are offered again and again to amplify Jamison's own observations, and we hear as well from those surrounding the poet. No ordinary friends and loved ones, either: these are people of letters, skilled in observation, alive to nuance and meaning, in the thrall of invisible worlds beyond what can be observed, measured and replicated, and possessed of a rare ability with language. They are not content with simplistic biological reductions, or intimidated by clinical knowhow. (It must be added that the depictions of Lowell's many clinical encounters and in-patient stays reflect well on the psychiatric care he received over these many years of breakdowns and arduous, sad recoveries.) His literary loves, including his wife of many years, Elizabeth Hardwick; long-suffering and sympathetic friends; and fellow poets, all amply quoted by Jamison to complete her picture, are equally enlightening, as well as a pleasure to read, in their subtle, generous and observant appreciation of this literary lion. Together with carefully assembled historical, biographical and medical facts about Lowell's life, work and illness, these evocative and moving voices added to Jamison's own contribute immeasurably to the impact of the book. Indeed, in comparison to Jamison's 'collective' enterprise in Setting the River on Fire, the frequent self-indulgence of memoirs, and the impersonal dryness of academic research and statistics, seem wanting.  This one case study, so amply developed and framed, tells us more than either can, and the book is a ringing endorsement of "qualitative research" (if we can rightly call it that) into psychopathology and its effect on human life.

Ordered chronologically, Setting the River on Fire begins with Robert Lowell's ancestry, both his Mayflower-descended, illustrious, proper Bostonian antecedents, and those who succumbed to a madness so recurrent through the generations, and so like his own, as to appear a familial trait. From there we are introduced to his difficult mothering, the classical education that enriched his writing, his literary successes and accolades, his sixteen breakdowns, his marriages and affairs, and finally to his early death, from heart attack, the burial among ancestors' graves, and memorial service, with many fine words of praise. "You drank America/ like the heart's iron vodka," wrote Seamus Heaney;  "You are…the most American of souls" said his second wife,"the most gifted in finding the symbolic meaning of this strange place;" "a force to be reckoned with, a supreme artist who leaves work that will endure as long as the American language lives." Likening the poet's "civic valor" (the expression comes from William James) to the military valor shown by a kinsman Charles Russell Lowell in the Union army, or that of Robert Gould Shaw and his Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Regiment, our author ends with her own eloquent summation: Robert Lowell had "lived with iron, and often with grace. He kept always in the front of his mind what he thought he ought to be, even when he couldn't be it; believed in what his country could be, even if it wasn't. He worked hard at his art."

Through this chronology, Jamison assembles her case: the mania was a high and painful price to pay, but along with the fortitude, humility, and talent, and a deep sense of place - historical/familial (among the Lowells), and geographical (New England) -  it contributed to the works of genius that ensued.

Jamison accepts the assessment of the literary world on both sides of the Atlantic: Lowell was a great poet. Although Setting the River on Fire is interspersed throughout with quoted passages, even whole poems, and accompanied by frequently insightful psychological analyses of particular lines and progressions in relation to Lowell's life, no independent literary assessment is proffered. Nor are others' reasons for his literary greatness represented in any depth. The imprimatur of a literary prize; a fellowship at All Souls, Oxford; teaching positions at great universities, are taken as sufficient. In this respect, perhaps, the work falls somewhat short as a biography of a literary figure.

Setting the River on Fire contains three themes, genius, madness, and moral character. The status of Lowell as a man of literary genius is assumed, and his mania is amply and revealingly demonstrated. What then of his character? As a way of showing how the man's background, gifts and frailties combined to make the persona of the poetic genius and man of letters, Jamison's efforts succeed: as the literary lion and mad poet Robert Lowell comes to life in these pages. But the outsized reputation aside, here  is a person who, although he continually left distress and chaos in his wake, our author asks us to not only forgive but love, and even revere. Despite her best efforts, the sheer amplitude of Lowell's personality and that persona, the force of his ambition, and distinctiveness of his muse, leave it difficult to assess the underlying moral character of the man, and the reader may be left, as I was, less than entirely sharing Jamison's admiring assessment.

The genetics of bipolar disorder (as of the suicidality that often accompanies it), have been a focus of Jamison's past work, and she frames her story around the way the traits characterizing Robert Lowell re-appear in the Lowell family tree. Compared with her earlier work, the interpretation of heritable disorder in Setting the River on Fire is muted, apparently acknowledging that 'heritability' knows many forms. The complex merging of genes and experience in any given individual must always discourage leaning too heavily on solely genetic explanations of psychological conditions and responses. But for Jamison's subject, where the influence of cultural traditions linking madness to genius and imaginative achievement are also co-mingled with something close to ancestor-and-place-worship (of past Lowells and New England), this is especially true, and the heritability of Lowell's madness and genius must elude dissection into its elements. Only possible is to make the case that some sort, and perhaps several sorts, of heritability were powerfully at work in the forming of her subject. Jamison does that, and does it well.


© 2017 Jennifer Radden


Jennifer Radden, previously of University of Massachusetts, Boston, has recently published Melancholic Habits: Burton's Anatomy & the Mind Sciences (Oxford University Press, 2016)