Robert Lowell's Language of the Self

Robert Lowell's Language of the Self

Robert Lowell's Language of the Self

Robert Lowell's Language of the Self

Synopsis

Katharine Wallingford's incisive study treats Robert Lowell's work as a poetry of self-examination and explores the ways in which he used methods common to psychoanalysis and other forms of psychotherapy in his poetry. Although he was never psychoanalyzed in a strictly Freudian sense, Lowell spent many years in psychotherapy. Wallingford stresses not the pathological aspects of Lowell's work, however, but rather his lifelong process of self-examination, a process with ethical as well as psychological dimensions. She links this process to the tradition of self-scrutiny that Lowell inherited from his New England Puritan ancestors.

Through close readings of the poetry and of unpublished drafts of several poems as well as letters from Lowell to George Santayana, Allen Tate, and his cousin Harriet Winslow, Wallingford treats Lowell's use of specific psychoanalytic techniques: free association, repetition, concentration on the relation between the poet and the "other" to whom he addresses himself, and the use of memory to probe the past. The book considers as well the role the narrative plays in these psychoanalytic and poetic techniques.

Lowell believed firmly in the identity of self and language -- "one life, one writing" -- and this study brings us closer to an understanding both of the poet and of his dense and moving poetry. It enriches our reading of Lowell's poetry by calling attention to the ways in which his poetic techniques are analogous to and to some extent derived from psychoanalytic techniques -- techniques that have in our time become integrated into our culture as a whole.

Originally published in 1988.
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