Robert Lowell's painful and glorious autobiography in verse, unfolding these many years in more than a dozen books that brought him fame and honors as the foremost American poet of his time, was concluded yesterday at a funeral in a church in Boston, the city where he was born 60 years ago, and in a graveyard in Dunbarton, N.H., where his forebears rest.
"It was," said a friend, "like a poem by Cal - only he's not here to write it." It was indeed rich in the symbol and ceremony, family and friends he incorporated into his verse in a life-long attempt to say "what happened." As he wrote in the poem that ends his last book: "We are poor passing facts/warned by that to give/each figure in the photograph/his living name."
The figures in the "photograph" - the survivors and shards of his often tumultuous life - were in the Church of the Advent at the foot of Beacon Hill yesterday, where the Episcopal requiem mass was sung.
There were faces with the unmistakable look of a Boston Lowell; more or less familiar faces from the literary world: his close friend Peter Taylor, who read Lowell's "Where the Rainbow Ends" at the service, and Saul Bellow and William Styron; and a host of poets - Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Wilbur, Frank Bidart.
There were also the editors, critics, publishers and friends - not widely known, most of them - who breathe life into American letters: Roger Straus and Robert Giroux from Lowell's publishing house: John S. Thompson, Blair Clark. William Alfred and Philip Booth; Susan Sontag and Barbara Epstein. The people, in short, to whom Robert Traill Spence Lowell Jr. was simply "Cal."
It was a restrained and solem occas-hundred people filled the church - and private sorrows. There was his second wife, the distinguished writer and chritic Elizabeth hardwick, who was his strong support during the 25 years of their marriage and beyond, and their daughter Harriet, 20. There too was his widow Caroline Blackwood the English novelist, with their 5-year-old son Robert Sheridan. The poet had just left Ireland from visiting his wife and son and was returning to Hardwick's apartment in New York when he was stricken last Monday, in a taxicab from Kennedy Airport.
"Under New York's celluar facades clothed with vitreous indifference. I dwindle . . . dynamite no more," he wrote in his last book. "Day by Day," published just 10 days ago. "I ask for a natural death, no teeth on the ground, no blood about the place . . . It's not death I fear, but unspecified, unlimited pain."
The Rev. G. Harris Collingwood, who gave the funeral homily, spoke from the Book of Genesis of the Creation. "In the heart of chaos, God makes form and order," he said. "Out of the chaos he draws forth a cosmos." The chaos is not destroyed thereby, merely held at bay, transformed into form and order by God in his Creation, by the poet in his. "Robert Lowell knew those dark chaotic forces intimately, but let us gather to give thanks for the light the kindled, and to pray for him and for ourselves, knowling that one day we too shall enter into death."
"In life," Lowell said many years ago, "we speak with many false voices; occasionally, if we are lucky, we find a true one in our poems. A poem needs to include a man's contradictions . . . It may be that some people have turned to my poems because of the very things that are wrong with me. I mean the difficulty I have with ordinary living, the impracticability, the myopia."
Earlier this year, in a special issue of the quarterly Salmagundi devoted to his work. Lowell continued that thought: "I pary that my progress has been more than recoiling with satiation and disgust from one style to another, a series of rebuffs. I hope that there has been increase of beauty, wisdom, tragedy, and all the blesings of this consuming chance."
There has been all of that and more.
The coffin was carried from the church, followed by the two wives, the two children, to the [WORD ILLEGIBLE] sung by the church choir.
"Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word . . ."
The closest survivors accompanied the body to Dunbarton, where last summer he had told Elizabeth Hardwick he wished to be buried. Many of his friends and admirers gathered at post Elizabeth Bishop's apartment for refreshments, where they spoke of many things but little of Lowell, as seemed natural on such an occasion. Lowell himself wrote."Sometimes what is closest to the heart has no words but stereotypes. Stereotypes are usually true, but never art."