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4 - “Sweet salt embalms me”: A Hippocratic Approach to the Role of the Sea in the Poetry of Robert Lowell

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 June 2019

Ian D. Copestake
Affiliation:
founding editor of the Lowell/Bishop Journal, editor of the William Carlos Williams Review, and author of The Ethics of William Carlos Williams's Poetry (Camden House, 2010).
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Summary

IN HER RECENT BIOGRAPHY of the mind of Robert Lowell, Kay Redfield Jamison traces the hereditary path of the poet's mania and depression. Here I want to suggest ways in which it is not just illness that can be inherited, whether through genes or a conscious awareness of one's past—as heavy as fate, informing one's future—but that modes of cure, therapy, or relief can also be discursively passed down through the generations. For parallel to the largely familiar tale of mania and depression that Jamison traces among Lowell's forebears is the less heralded but no less present therapeutic role that the sea plays in Lowell's life and work.

Jamison notes the effect on Lowell's father of his wife's insistence that her own nervous condition rendered her unfit for the mobile life of a navy wife and that he must give up his promising naval career. Jamison imagines how “Lowell watched his mother hollow out his father's will, cringed as she demanded that he leave the navy. His father became, as his son would later describe him, an albatross on land: ‘city bound, a stranger to the sea, a stockbroker with few clients and fewer assets.’” The father's subsequent decline into depression seemed inevitable. The need for the ocean in the case of Lowell's father was both practical and self-sustaining and without it he cut a lost figure. Historically the attraction to the sea or a sea longing seemingly has its birth throes in the experience of sublimity in the face of natural elements, be they mountains or bodies of water. But as I have argued elsewhere, in relation to the work, among others, of Herman Melville—a figure hugely influential to Lowell—a Hippocratic medical discourse is at the heart of the growing popularity after the Renaissance of what Alain Corbin calls “the lure of the sea.”

The predominant medieval, Old Testament, and Stoic imagining of the sea as inhuman, evil, chaotic, and a realm to be shunned by all but hairy-aped sailors remains an implicit part of the sublime experience. The emergence into prominence after the Renaissance of a more positive aspect to the oceanic experience was accelerated by its perceived therapeutic utility, specifically through sea journeys or exposure to its air, and as a treatment for melancholia, the early modern blanket term for a range of aberrant mental states.

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Robert Lowell in a New Century
European and American Perspectives
, pp. 54 - 66
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2019

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