Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, their Letters to Each Other

Words in Air” – The Complete Correspondence between Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop  edited by Thomas Travisand with Saskia Hamilton  (2008) – 877 pages

 “I think of you daily and feel anxious lest we lose our old backward and forward flow that always seems to open me up and bring color and peace. ”      Robert Lowell

 “Please never stop writing me letters – they always manage to make me feel like my higher self (I’ve been re-reading Emerson) for several days…”    Elizabeth Bishop

The letters exchanged between Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop form one of  the great poetic correspondences of the twentieth century.  They met at a dinner party hosted by poet and critic Randall Jarrell in 1947, and they continued to exchange 459 letters for the next 30 years.  At the beginning they were somewhat romantically involved, though Elizabeth Bishop was rightfully cautious, for Robert Lowell was a severely bipolar manic depressive (in Lowell’s own word, ‘over-exuberance’) who was confined to mental hospitals five times during the 1950s alone.  It is amazing how sane Lowell comes across in these letters.  In fact when Lowell and Bishop met, he was getting divorced from his first wife, fiction writer Jean Stafford, who had sued him for her facial disfigurement which resulted from a car accident that had occurred before they were married when Lowell was in one of his manic phases.

        “I’m tired.  Everybody’s tired of my turmoil.” – Robert Lowell. “Eye and Tooth”

In 1950 Robert Lowell married Elizabeth Hardwick, and in 1951 Elizabeth Bishop left for Brazil where she met and lived with female architect Lota de Macedo Soares.  Elizabeth Bishop stayed in Brazil for 16 years, and on the day Bishop and Soares returned to New York City in 1967, Soares committed suicide by overdosing on tranquilizers.

 All my life I have lived and behaved very much like [the] sandpiper–just running down the edges of different countries and continents, ‘looking for something’, having spent most of my life timorously seeking for subsistence along the coastlines of the world.  -  Elizabeth Bishop 

Although Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop were very compatible in their letters critiquing each other’s poems and relating humorous gossip about their mutual literary friends, they did not see that much of each other, which is probably fortunate, because it probably would have been much more turbulent if they had physically gotten together.

“We seem attached to each other by some stiff piece of wire, so that each time one moves, the other moves in another direction.”   - Robert Lowell, in the correspondence

 In a later reminiscence of Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop writes the following.

 “He has a way in conversation, sometimes in prose writing or letters (I might quote from a letter or two to show what I mean here) of prefacing a name with adjective piled on adjective – I like this very much; sometimes I disagree with an adjective or two, but usually the others will be accurate, surprising, maybe, but suddenly new and absolutely right – you can take your choice – “

 In their correspondence Lowell usually addresses Bishop as “Dearest Elizabeth” and Bishop addresses Lowell as “Dearest Cal”.  Both Lowell and Bishop usually ended their letters with “With much love”, although in one letter Bishop ends with “with much love always and congratulations and everything”.

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