Declan Ryan discusses The Dolphin Letters, 19701979: Elizabeth Hardwick, Robert Lowell, and Their Circle
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Portrait of Robert Lowell Elizabeth Hardwick from nineteen seventy to nineteen seventy seven which were the last seven years of goals. Life centered on the letters. They exchanged alongside those of the couple's mutual friends the book prince in full for the first time Hardwick side of the correspondence deadline. Thanks for joining us. Pleasure absolutely lovely things to be able to talk about. Maybe you can tell our listeners. A little bit of the story. Robert Lowell internationally. Only famous American poet. WHO's married to Elizabeth Hardwick? His wife of over twenty years. They've thirteen year old daughter. Harriet and in nineteen eighteen seventy. He goes over to Oxford for teaching appointment. And what else should we know. They're I suppose it's possible that there are listeners. Who Don't know a lot about Robert Robert Lowell? And Elizabeth Hardwick well of course especially especially now probably. He's fallen out with a circulation little. I think the main thing to know at this point is probably he had had to kind of bipolar disorder. So quite frequently he'd have periods of I think he's refers them as enthusiasm and that tended to coincide with him falling in love and leaving Elizabeth Forbid and going off and pledging to marry some women he'd met the hour before and that would often dissolve quickly and then he he took slink back to Lizzie but hardwick was a brilliant writer and critic in her own right and lulls sort of behavior was was extraordinarily but she stuck with him and when he wasn't ill he was. He's very charming. And and wonderful man by all accounts We often see in this in this book and so the book starts at a point where hardware can and low living. I've been in Europe traveling and and having a lovely time by by their own account and he stays on in England for a brief period of time party thrown by Faber for him in London that his his UK publishes he he meets Caroline Blackwood again. He knew when they were in New York together a few years before they used to run into each other but he sees her again and that night he moves in with her and so what follows in the early part of the book is is basically a correspondence from hardwick planning to come and visit him in the UK. Hey in spent some time there and and him deferring and not quite mentioning. What's going on until it becomes quite clear that he's got no intention of coming back to the states and a hardware coming his it from other people that he basically is being detained for for the old reasons? He's always let himself down in the past and so we see that. Play out kind of horribly terribly. There's a whole dramatic or to the correspondence of course because we know we know why he's not he's not really responding promptly hearts and she's meanwhile job in Bonn auden and planning to come over with Harriet for the for the summer and we know that she won't be making that journey but she doesn't at this point one of the things if lowells or his reputation have have fallen. A bit is Li- build to be in part because of the controversy at the heart of many of these letters as they unfold over time which relates to the fact that Lowell starts taking hard wicks phrases from her letters and working them into his poems at this point partly partly because he's in a certain sense at the peak of his powers in terms of poetry but also because there's a kind of manic aspect to this he's writing writing literally hundreds and hundreds of poems sonnets particularly that start to take phrases from hard wicks private private letters to him and reworked those phrases and reworked the ladders and even the idea of the letters into what becomes his own poetry and this results assaults in the publication of books that contain these quotations or modifications of her words and so when his book. The Dolphin appears atrean rich. Who is one of lowells friends? Really an publicly indicts Lowell. And the book for what. She calls his bullshit eloquence. She caused the dolphin a poor excuse for cruel and cello book and yet low wins his second Pulitzer Prize for the book. And Elizabeth Bishop ways in and in the book. Because it's not just the letters exchanged between the two the people in this couple but also it's their circle of friends the ripples widen and everybody's weighing in really you know important poets and all kinds of literary figures are weighing in on this and suddenly their anguish. Private personal life has become a kind of public literary debate. Eight in which Lowell remains unrelenting for the most part I guess leading to the question at last what I wonder is I think most people you know have been very hard on lowell for this behavior which can seem inexcusable. It can seem even a moral or unethical. It can seem like a terrible thing to do to somebody. You have a relationship with or did and one of the amazing things about reading reading this book. Is that in the end. What you come to realize is that hardwick is not a victim? When her voice comes through the latter's what you realize is is that in a way she kind of issues angry at him find his behavior on and off the page unforgivable and yet she's there for him until literally elite the very end of his life? Do you think this is a different twist to this plot and you know where we meant to go with this this new reading reading of the relationship. The first important thing to say is that that's absolutely right. I think in in this book is clear that she's not a victim. I mean we always probably suspect. Respect that because we've read a read her pros and we've read her criticism and we know that she's she's far from a kind of a victim figure and I. I think that was one of the things that she took exception to me. She took many things To heart that he done that. The betrayal that she saw I was one of them. I think was the it in ways. Twisted things that she'd saved or overemphasized. In of course naturally for the sake of his his plot if we can call it that he plucked you know her her most heartbroken over her most innovative and I think that was something that she was was really bothered by. And I think her daughter Harrier which is mentioned in the introduction but I think as well she said her concern about these letters being published restored by the end of the whole narrative element of it was that she didn't want it to seem like a victim of for much of the time that they were separated hard. We could never been you know. She'd never been happier. She there was the freedom to to having broken up with her Chica on with writing some brilliant work and brilliant essays and she wrote sleepless nights shortly afterwards and she he was thriving artistically in many ways it was a relief in some ways this breakup so it certainly isn't a kind of victim narrative and I think perhaps that leads into into into some of the rewriting of the lull element. I mean obviously as we see in the book she still loves him and she stands by him and they have a kind of a reunion of sorts toward at the end of the book and and I think even her most pains that there are very few times when she really wants to stick the knife into more she feels you know completely that she wants to him off. I think it happens only two or three times mostly. She's trying to be understanding and and I think some of his arguments are perhaps difficult to take but there is also an aspect which I think he the emphasis is is that you know as much as the her letters they. Are you know something that happened to him. And it's a it's a relationship that's breaking up. And I think he tries to rewrite some of the poems names of the bishops weighing in and various other people in and make it more into kind of internalized voice of hardwick rather than trying to make it seem like the verbatim which I'm not sure it gets the hook but you can understand a little bit more. Yeah it's interesting. Because in the book we get a portrait of Hardwick that's very very compelling and as you say that really reframe the narrative of Hardwick as lulls victim in sense but it also seems to me in reading your apiece to your grappling with how to think about Luol himself. It seems like there are some moments of strong critique of his self inflation in the work for example but you also right that it's too simplistic to just characterize lull as villainous this cat or an uncaring betrayer. And I find that interesting. So do you feel or do you believe that part of the role of these letters to is to to not exactly to rescue goal but to again kind of reframe his character in particular ways I think I think it is to an extent I think partly through the fact that we see hardwick reaction to him and I think I think what saves him as a character in this book perhaps is the fact that that she doesn't abandon abundant himself and that she can never really find in herself to to write him off and I think in some ways that sort of Levin's my reading of Him I may not feel a certain degree of affront certain I need to to what he does particularly. I love hard work. And there's that feeling of certainly trail but also in some ways is an autistic betrayal as well because some of the things he does else to hear writing diminishes il-il and he he makes some lines worse and that's a crime in itself. You say memorably in your piece that loule in this period like the Medieval Church seems to run on indulgences which is such a brilliant formulation of this and in her letters. There's Hardwick says I knew right now not to be nice. I would not be what. What do you think accounts for this strange loyalty to such such troubled troubling even terrible man? Yeah I think I think some of it must come back to to this thing which I think I tried to lead to in in the in the piece as well and I. It was something that came out in conversation when in Hamilton wrote the biography of golf years after he died a lot of laws of loyal friend. Said you know from this this book you would never know why this man had any friends at all nothing. I think that is the risk because I think obviously in something like this we see Lowell. His worst in many ways in terms of his behavior we see the letters when he's he's doing something pretty objectionable he's not only stealing from these words and things like that but he's also in the midst just at the beginning of any way of of betraying more active since he's living with blackwood she doesn't know about and so there are all sorts of layers of loss and betrayal going on in in this period so we we of course is worst but I think in that same way that we have to avoid always conflicting work with the person I think in this case we have to avoid conflicting everything he ever does all of his actions with this period of admittedly very terrible behavior. Because I mean in some of the letters hardwick sense him long after some of the worst things that he does hear her and Harry referring to the dearest man who ever lived and and there's a real desire for him to come home and again I mean. Of course yes you know. We're all these things in our own lives. We know was necessarily treat people according to how they deserve to be treated but at the same time there is something I think in him. That inspired spires this sort of devotion and love and and we don't necessarily see it here in these letters at the time because there are him is worst I think but there is a kind of implicit offstage goodness to him. I think that we have to at least be able to read into it. So we've quoted some interesting lines in in your apiece and there are also so many wonderful lines the letters themselves and I'm wondering do you have any favorite lines or moments in the letters that really kind of stick with you as being the highlights. Headlights I do. I mean there's lots of brilliant ones I think one of my one of my favorite ones is the one where he speaks to my my mobile he probably. But there's there's a lovely one somewhere hardwood writes about it feeling like he's a kind of in a holiday novel and feeling like in Honolulu all these closer lying around. and that's very touching but I I mean I think probably my favorite is the the two or three layers where she really lets him have him. Because I think you've been cheering around for awhile. There's a couple of when she lets steam of really quite satisfying. I think there's one where she she takes him to task and tells him that he's living. This degraded life and in his reply to to one of them he I think I think they let us cross occasionally and this is one those moments and I think he writes and says let's not speak of that letter. I think he tries to gloss over it but yeah she definitely she definitely gets a few stubs. Try then Eh yeah. Yeah don't think about that email and I it does seem like not only hardwick but so many of lowells famous poetry colleagues. Were very hard on the book. I mean in the end we have the poems and the books of poems and people were very hard on the Dolphin. You say yourself that Lowell. Once possessed a stately Simba's perfectionism which became an ice. It's chip or replaced with a chocolate found..