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Marriage, Betrayal, and the Letters Behind “The Dolphin”

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Marriage, Betrayal, and the Letters Behind “The Dolphin”

“How happy we’ll be together,” Robert Lowell wrote to Elizabeth Hardwick in July, 1949, weeks before their marriage. Thirty-two years old and divorced from the writer Jean Stafford, Lowell was finishing a stay at Baldpate Hospital, in Massachusetts, after his first serious mental breakdown. But he hopefully prophesied that he and Hardwick, whose romance had begun at Yaddo, the artists’ colony, would soon be “together writing the world’s masterpieces, swimming and washing dishes.”

Lowell’s bouts of mania periodically interrupted the literary and domestic success that the two of them managed to create during the next two decades. The cozily titled poem “Man and Wife,” in his landmark confessional volume “Life Studies” (1959), describes the times that Hardwick

   faced the kingdom of the mad—
its hackneyed speech, its homicidal eye—
and dragged me home alive.

In the spring of 1970, not long after their twentieth anniversary, the Lowells vacationed in Italy with their only child, Harriet, then thirteen. After his wife and daughter returned home to New York, Lowell went by himself to Oxford, in order to take up a fellowship at All Souls College. He also took up, almost immediately, with Lady Caroline Blackwood, who soon enough became the third writer he married.

Lowell’s desertion of Hardwick was for a while masked by his deceptions, and by the simple bewilderment engendered, in those days, by transatlantic letters crossing in the mail. Early in May, Hardwick writes, “Darling, I’m so happy you’re having such a nice time,” and apologizes for the quotidian dullness back home: “all these book-keeping and housekeeping and child-raising details” that she includes, as she continues to get “the taxes, insurances, houses, studies, papers, schools organized, mail answered.” Within weeks, however, she has become exasperated with the infrequency of Lowell’s communications (“I guess we’ll never hear from you”), telling him it “would be decent” if he at least kept in touch with his daughter. But, even before Lowell counter-complains about “such boiling messages, all as public as possible on cables and uninclosed postcards,” Hardwick retreats toward contrition: “Darling I didn’t know you were in London working on the galleys of your wonderful book. . . . Sorry I complained about your not writing.”

What she still doesn’t know is that he has been working on those proofs with Blackwood, a thirty-eight-year-old heir to the Guinness brewing fortune and a writer of social criticism for English magazines. When Lowell cables that unspecified “personal difficulties” will keep him from making a promised visit, late in June, to New York, Hardwick responds, “I must say I feel rather like a widow.” To a reader, she appears more like a secretary or a literary agent:

I sit here answering your mail, saying “my husband is away and will be so indefinitely. I do not think he would like to write on his concept of style, since this isn’t exactly what he likes to do, but I will send along your kind letter.” And so it goes. Anthologies pile up, telephones ring.

She wonders about next year—“if you are leaving us or if I am leaving you”—and sends off a letter, on June 23rd, “with my love if you want it.” During the next couple of days, while Lowell’s publisher tries to track him down, Hardwick’s pleading breaks through attempts to remain calm: “Don’t forget us! There was a life here and there still is. ”

On June 25th, Hardwick learns the truth, which she passes on in a letter to her close friend Mary McCarthy: “I knew Cal”—whose nickname derived from both Caligula and Shakespeare’s Caliban—“had a girl and had been distressed for some time, but it was just this afternoon that I knew it was Caroline. I felt such relief I burst out laughing! I called him immediately at her house and he talked as if he were talking to me from his studio, for an hour, laughing and joking and saying you are spending all your alimony on this call.” Hardwick insists to McCarthy that she “cannot take [Caroline] seriously for Cal.” That her displacer should be the titled, unfocussed Blackwood—the ex-wife of the painter Lucian Freud, the estranged spouse of the composer Israel Citkowitz, and the former lover of Robert Silvers, the editor of The New York Review of Books—lends, for Hardwick, a “comic element” to the whole matter. She concedes that Lowell’s affair may be more serious than the infatuations that often accompanied his breakdowns, but she is certain that it “will not last,” even if it destroys her own marriage.

A years-long epistolary drama lay ahead. Lowell would graft parts of it onto “The Dolphin,” a sonnet sequence that he published in 1973, chronicling the unresolved tumult of his relations with Hardwick and Blackwood. Paraphrased and versified, some of Hardwick’s letters, along with her spoken words from that supposedly merry phone call of June 25, 1970, would find their way into the book, without her permission. The ensuing scandal is by now firmly part of American literary history, fleshed out by various Lowell biographies and studies; by the publication of his letters, in 2005; and by the appearance, in 2008, of his correspondence with Elizabeth Bishop, who, with blunt eloquence, tried to dissuade him from the appropriation of his wife’s words. “Art just isn’t worth that much,” Bishop wrote, in uncharacteristic italics, after reading drafts of the poems.

But “The Dolphin Letters, 1970-1979” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), edited by Saskia Hamilton and published this month, will be the essential volume for any understanding of what actually went on. A sort of casebook, it assembles material from all the participants in the turmoil, including Elizabeth Hardwick, whose letters from this period appear in full for the first time. With “Lizzie” as its principal author, “The Dolphin Letters” turns out to be a better and a more important book than “The Dolphin.”

The assembled correspondence takes readers through the birth of Lowell and Blackwood’s son, Sheridan; Lowell and Hardwick’s divorce, in October, 1972; his immediate remarriage; Hardwick’s continuing claims of his inattentiveness toward Harriet; and the crisis brought on by the publication of “The Dolphin.” Hardwick’s alternations of mood, between forbearance and anger, are not the manic kind that Lowell suffered. They reflect a fluctuating, improvised rebuilding, more suited to prose than to self-mythologizing poetry. She conveys to Lowell her “contempt for your present situation” as well as “love for you.” When she signs off as “Your loving wife,” the envoi is simultaneously sarcastic and true.

“Sure, he’s ascended to a godlike state. But, from what I hear, he’s still on his family’s cell-phone plan.”
Cartoon by Joseph Dottino

There are times when she appears overly grateful for crumbs of recognition—“your kind note to me meant a lot, more than a lot”—and needlessly (if cuttingly) generous toward Blackwood, whom she writes directly with regard to Harriet. Her daughter, she explains, “does not imagine very much of Cal but I feel that I must make definite arrangements for at least a few days with him each year and I hope you won’t mind these brief and rare occasions.” In the first months after the marriage’s collapse, Hardwick muses, tentatively, to Mary McCarthy, upon “that strange thing that happens to you when you know you don’t want it any longer.” But her emotional liberation is fragile and intermittent. More than a year after writing this to McCarthy, she tells Lowell, “I miss you terribly and always will until I die,” and well after that she is still seeing to his literary business and issuing commands that hover tenderly between the wifely and the maternal: “Keep your pills straight and all will be well.” A pledge she makes early in their estrangement remains in force throughout: “If you need me I’ll always be there, and if you don’t need me I’ll always not be there.”

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