A LONG CHAPTER in the ruinous saga of American poetry is now before us in this account of three Lowells. C. David Heymann, who has already written a biography of Ezra Pound, has taken on James Russell, Amy and Robert in a single volume that has, for a thematic center, a running conflict between artistic temperaments and a clan with "Seize the Opportunity" (in Latin, of course) topping the family crest. The Lowells became very rich very early in New England history, and thereby hangs our tale.

James Russell Lowell was acritic-poet, editor-poet and journalist-poet, fond of dialect and couplets, and given to dealing in verse with political, social and literary issues. He offended family conservatives early in his career by being more vociferously opposed to slavery and the Mexican war than seemed proper and safe, but as he grew older his radicalism evaported and he became a solid Lowell, so solid that he is now grouped amond the "fireside poet" with Longfellow, Whittier, Holmes and Bryant, and so conservative that, when he became American ambassador to England, he assiduously cultivated dukes and duchesses, and was described by one journalist as "the arch-devil of Anglo-American aristocracy."

Amy Lowell's political interests were largely restricted to poetry. She loved her money, lived well, entertained lavishly, pretty much bought her way into artistic prominence and, in Heymann's words, remained "deeply rooted to the conventions and social code of her heritage." She did, however, have her quota of rebellious impulses as well, and, with her cigars and great bulk (she described herself as "a walking sideshow") she succeeded in becoming one of the country's most amusing eccentrics. She converted the dim art of poetry-readings into show biz, and wowed them in Peoria. She lived in suspicious intimacy with another woman and (mildly) shocked Boston. Most of all she fostered, with a propagandist's enthusiasm, two radical causes in the days of early modernism: free verse and imagism. (Ezra Pound remarked that she converted the latter to amygism.)

It remained for Robert Lowell, however, to take on the family heritage as a thoroughgoing dissenter. He was assisted here by his father, who had not been anything like the financial success that a Lowell was expected to be, disappointing his wife and himself thereby, slowly building up in his son a massive resistance to Lowelldom. Robert made it to Harvard through the conventional prep school channel but then, shortly after the Harvard Advocate rejected a group of his poems, quit the place. At the same time he told his father that he was going to elope to Europe. The father's response was to compose a revelatory letter to the girl's parents. Robert's response was to knock the father down. That event -- a "primal crime" that hung over him for the rest of his life -- triggered Robert's escape not to Europe, nor to the girl, but to the literary agrarians.

Befriended by Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom, Robert abandoned Boston and lived in relative poverty for some years, first as a student at Kenyon College, and then as a seemingly rootless young writer moving about, scraping for dollars. He affirmed his exile by becoming a Roman Catholic, and then a conscientious objector, serving a term in jail for his performance as a c.o.; and it was only when his parents died in the early '50s that Lowell money began to flow again. It was also only then that the predictable, but only partial, return to the Lowell fold occurred, with the purchase of a house in Boston near where he had been brought up. From that time on Robert lived in something of the style expected of a Lowell, but he continued to make much of his unhappiness with that style, adding his unhappiness with himself and producing as a result his mid-career "confessional" poems. These, together with the fine autobiographical prose in Life Studies, are probably his best work.

Heymann devotes twice as many pages to Robert as to the others, and traces with sometimes fatiguing care the shift in Robert's art from the highly compressed, figurative elegance of the volumes produced under the influence of Allen Tate, to the looser, easier manner of Life Studies . It is Heymann's opinion that Robert achieved greater eminence as a poet than his predecessors, and that his achievement is largely founded in his revelatory, antagonistic passions: "his gestures of defiance, of anger, of pain, coupled with his determination to live his art, bore witness to the poet's condition of being present in our time," that is, gave him the crucial vitality missing in James Russell's and Amy's work. I think this is probably so.

If it is, Robert owed much to his unhappy parents, for it was they who first bred those passions in him and kept him from subsiding into the kind of conformity expected of Lowells by Lowells. Certainly the strength of such poems as "Skunk Hour" and "Sailing Home from Rapallo" is in the pain and trouble behind them. It might be said cynically that Robert was a true Lowell in his capacity to seize opportunities capitalize upon even his troubles (like Amy and James Russell he was a most successful literary politician), but even a cynic must acknowledge that by his indecorousness he displayed the Lowell soul to a depth not reached by his prdecessors.

And in the end paid dearly for his accomplishment. His last years and writings were so marred by drink and general debility that they are best forgotten. Heymann is too kind about the late work, but his description of Robert's physical decline is thorough and frightening. Indeed the strength of this volume seems to me to be in such reporting, rather than in the literary assessments, which tend toward the mild and pedantic. As an expositor Heymann moves surely and with no wasted motion through these complicated and intriguing lives.