IAN HAMILTON opens his excellent biography of Robert Lowell with an autobiographical fragment written by the poet in 1956, when he was 39: "Like Henry Adams, I was born under the shadow of the Dome of the Boston State House, and under Pisces, the Fish, on the first of March, 1917. America was entering the First World War and was about to play her part in the downfall of five empires."

This has about it the ring of history and New England probity. The writer of these lines never forgot that he was a Lowell. He was perhaps the more conscious of the fact because he came from a less conspicuous branch of the family than its bankers and the president of Harvard. His father, Commander Lowell, was a naval officer, and his son, when a child, seems to have responded to the glamour of uniform and medals. But Commander Robert Lowell was weak, ineffective. His Aunt Beatrice summed up his character: "Bob hasn't a mean bone, an original bone, a funny bone in his body! That's why I can't get a word he says. If he were mine, I'd lobotomize him and stuff his brain with green peppers."

Charlotte, nee Winslow, Robert Lowell's mother, ruled the family in part by giving orders (commanding the commander to resign from the Navy), in part through her "fearfully important game of keeping the world guessing what was on her mind." Lowell came to hate her, but nevertheless "her constant tales of the exploits of Siegfried and Napoleon" must have influenced him in his later obsession with Hitler and Mussolini.

At school Lowell was a loner who, with fisticuffs and outbursts of violent rage, earned himself the nickname Caliban, abbreviated to "Cal," and subsequently equated with Caligula, the least popular of tyrannical Roman emperors. "Cal" remained the name by which his friends knew him.

At the age of 16 he directed his formidable will to the task of creating himself as mind, intellect. He showed a forcefulness which brings to mind Yeats' lines about man:

Death and life were not Till man made up the whole, Made lock, stock and barrel, Out of his bitter soul.

To make himself, he enlisted the support of two school-fellows at St. Mark's -- Blair Clark and Frank Parker. They were to remain his friends all his life. Lowell imposed on them a regime which consisted of the answers provided by him to the question -- "What do you do with yourself, how do you make yourself better?" As Blair Clark recalls:

"The compulsion was moral -- it wasn't literary or cultural. It was an entirely priestly thing. He was the leader -- and we were rather laggard acolytes in his view." Later, the poet Richard Eberhart came to teach at St. Mark's. Literature -- chiefly the Bible, Homer, Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Keats, now became their discipline. The trio went to Nantucket, living on a diet of health food prescribed by Lowell, who knocked Clark down when he refused to give up smoking. There was an element of religious fanaticism about all this, which comes out in the extreme Catholicism of Lowell's early poems.

After St. Mark's there followed a year at Harvard which Lowell did not like at all. He now willed himself to be a poet, a determination in which, for the rest of his life, he never flagged. He had been studying the poems of Ezra Pound and Allen Tate and was attracted by the critical ideas of the Southern Fugitive group of Vanderbilt University. Carrying only a suitcase "heavy with bad poetry," he betook himself to Clarksville, Tennessee, near Nashville, and (in his own words) "crashed the civilization of the South." Being a Lowell, he was received at Vanderbilt as a kind of tribute dispatched from the North. He wanted to live in a room in the house of Allen and Caroline Gordon Tate. When, with old-world Southern courtesy, Tate pointed out that the house was already so full of Southern Fugitive writers that there would be no room for him unless he chose to pitch his tent on the lawn, Lowell interpreted this quite literally, arriving the next week with an "olive Sears-Roebuck-Nashville umbrella tent" and stayed for three months in the Tates' garden.

He pursued the writers from whom he was convinced he could learn -- Ford Madox Ford to Boulder, Colorado, and, after that John Crowe Ransom, who had left Vanderbilt, to Kenyon College in Ohio. Two other students of Ransom were Randall Jarrell and Peter Taylor, both of whom became Lowell's friends. Under Ransom he acquired the technique to write proficient student verse. It was five years, though, before he found his own voice. He had to take the too-insistent willedness, which sometimes showed, out of his verse -- something in which he did not always succeed.

At this time his ideas about poetry were derived from the New Critics. They thought that a poem should be completely self-contained and in no way influencing or influenced by the public world outside it. In September 1943 something happened which made Lowell modify this idea in his own practice. Later he described this event as "the most decisive thing I ever did, just as a writer, although it was not intended to have anything to do with that."

This was his refusal to be drafted into the armed forces, a decision which he announced in a letter to President Roosevelt, enclosing what he titled "A Declaration of Personal Responsibility." In it he declared that although he had supported the war at the time of national danger following Pearl Harbor, in view of the recent bombing of Hamburg, and of the Allied policy of "unconditional surrender," for him to do so now would be "a betrayal of my country."

He made a similar gesture -- though with more obvious excuse -- in June 1965 when he released to The New York Times the letter he had written to President Johnson refusing an invitation to attend a White House festival of the arts (he had first accepted this), as a protest against America's involvement in the war in Vietnam. In some part of his mind Lowell was the moral conscience of the American presidency.

In the letter to President Johnson Lowell referred to himself as "conscience-bound" to refuse the invitation, and in that to President Roosevelt he referred to members of his family who had "served in all our wars since the Declaration of Independence." These public gestures had of course great personal significance for him. They were not so much actions which had an effect on politics as actions which made the public world one with his personal experience. The poetry he wrote after 1943 was, it has often been pointed out, autobiographical. But it was the autobiographical poetry of a poet who, in his own imagination, had made his personal experience coincide with the experience of his country. Private and public self met in the name Lowell.

The letter to President Roosevelt resulted in Lowell's arrest. After 10 days imprisonment in New York he was driven up to Connecticut "handcuffed to two Porto Rican draft-dodgers." There he began serving his sentence in the prison at Danbury.

Hamilton writes that Lowell believes there was some kind of generic curse on writers of his generation. A letter from Lowell to Theodore Roethke (July 10, 1963) confirms this:

"There's a strange fact about the poets of roughly our age... that to write we seem to have to go at it with such single-minded intensity that we are always on the point of drowning.... I feel it's something almost unavoidable, some flaw in the motor. There must be a kind of glory to it all that people coming later will wonder at. I can see us all being written up in some huge book of the age."

One is tempted to think that it was in some way the fault of America that Delmore Schwartz, Randall Jarrell, John Berryman and Lowell himself -- the poets he had in mind in this letter -- suffered so much mental disturbance in their lives, and that two of them committed suicide. It is more probable, though, that only writers already over-enthusiastic ("enthusiasm" was the word used by Lowell to describe the state of excitement which he got into, preceding a fit of mania) would make such demands on themselves in their work and their lives, and on the society around them. They felt themselves to be attacking in their poetry the whole American society. They were publicly ambitious and expected recognition far beyond the academic and literary circles which form the audience of the poet today. That they never attained this recognition was their tragedy.

There is, inevitably, much in this book about Lowell's madness. The symptoms preceding an attack were his talking obsessively about Hitler, falling in love with some girl with whom he planned to start an entirely new life, renouncing his past (by which he chiefly meant the person with whom he was at that time married), reckless extravagance, and staging an enormous party. The attacks following on these symptoms could be extremely violent, dangerous to others. On several occasions the police had to be called in to convey him to hospital.

If the attacks were terrible for Lowell, they were even worse for others, particularly for the women who most loved him -- his first wife, Jean Stafford, his second, Elizabeth Hardwick, and his third, Caroline Blackwood.

Hamilton seems very conscious of the fact that he is writing biography, not criticism, and he rarely states his own views about Lowell's work, citing instead the judgments of reviewers made at the time when the works appeared, which Lowell read and sometimes suffered from. All the same, in his restrained way, Hamilton shows consistently firm and clear judgment. He remarks that discerning readers of Lord Weary's Castle responded to a new voice in which there was "on the one hand, the learned, metrical ironic line of Eliot and Auden and, on the other, the fiery bardic line of Dylan Thomas." He admires most the poetry written between 1957 and 1962 in Life Studies and For the Union Dead. Commenting on "Skunk Hour," which he considers the best poem in Life Studies, he notes, "It is Lowell's wit, his delight in the barbarous and absurd, that rescues him from 'final darkness.'"

I might add that in his best poems Lowell has the greatness of just such a poet, who is able to bring up images from the darkest depths of his obsession and relate them to hallucinatory observations of everyday things. He wrote the greatest poems of the generation with which he identified himself. Whether he is great on the scale dictated by his intense ambition, Hamilton does not discuss.

In his biography, Hamilton presents evidence for or against the people involved in Lowell's affairs, with discerning sympathy for his subject and for nearly everyone concerned, but at the same time remaining very cool. Indeed a kind of quizzical coolness is the character of his writing. Some readers might find him chilling at moments.

As the book progresses, the sickness of Lowell seems more and more to predominate and to stifle his good qualities, his periods of happiness, his great achievements. I shall end then by trying to recall him as I knew him, that is to say, sane. My recollection is of a man who was immensely kind, deeply concerned with the state of the world (and in that sense "political"), insistently ambitious as a poet -- always wanting to be the greatest -- and forever working to achieve this. He was gossipy about friends and rival poets, but never malicious. There was something a bit oppressive, I thought, about his personality. He made me think of Keats' remark about his brother Tom, when Tom was dying of consumption, that his identity pressed upon Keats, so that when he was in the room, Keats could not get away from it. Lowell had oppressive identity.

If I were to compare him with a character in fiction it would be Pierre Bezukhov, in Tolstoy's War and Peace: a man who had the dedication of a saint, who scarcely recognized his own physical strength, was often rather oblivious of others, though well-disposed towards them, ungainly and uncaring of his appearance, yet with an inescapable quality of greatness about him.

Elizabeth Hardwick, who in her intelligence, love and understanding comes out the heroine in this book, wrote to Lowell: "Cal, my heart bleeds for you, but remember what greatness you have made of your life, what joy you have given to all of us."