Robert Lowell by Jonathan Raban
'In his greatest poems he brilliantly fused the most intimate details of his own life with the public turmoil of his century'
was his fishing friend. In 1971, when Lowell was 54 and I was 28, he sent me a generous postcard after I'd talked on Radio 3 about Notebook, his epic sonnet sequence. We met for lunch at a crappy French restaurant on Old Brompton Road, near the house where he lived with Caroline Blackwood. We began with talk of poetry, then moved to fishing and the day-ticket trout streams in Kent and Hampshire where I was a frequent visitor. Four hours later we left the restaurant, having made a fishing date for the weekend.
From then until his sudden death in 1977, I was an immensely lucky recipient of Lowell's gift for friendship. I see him now, his grizzled hair, home-cut in the wild style of the later Beethoven; eyes enlarged by thick, black-framed glasses; cigarette never far from his lips; that Bostonian voice, tinged with the vowel-stretching accent of the old South. He was the most companionable man I've ever met, the most avid in his inexhaustible appetite for history, literature, politics, people, gossip, and one of the most funny. Conversation was for him a continuous experiment, in which he'd playfully draft phrases, similes and metaphors to fit the experience in hand, as if everything that happened might be a potential poem in the making. In his greatest poems, such as "Waking Early Sunday Morning", he brilliantly fused the most intimate details of his own life with the public turmoil of his century.
He was an afflicted hero. One month in every 12, he'd be cruelly humbled by a bout of mania, an event harrowing to witness as Lowell's furies took possession of him. I remember a visit to the hospital, the day after the people in white coats had come for him. Drugged, gentle, wanly smiling, Lowell introduced me to his fellow patients: "You see, I'm a freshman here." Wherever he was, whether sectioned in the madhouse, or home, sprawled on his red-velvet chaise longue, amid a blizzard of books, ash and paper, he was one of life's great learners, a modest student of the world he wrote about with such exhilarating power.