Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop: Boston Marathons

April 17, 2013

He writes only about the Civil War dead: Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the soldiers from the all-black 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, captured in bronze by August Saint-Gaudens.

The sculpture isn’t all that close to the finish line of the Boston Marathon, but it is good to think of it still there, on the Boston Common, running a marathon of its own.

And the poet who writes about it is also still in a marathon.  I’m thinking of the not-quite finished March on the Pentagon of 1967.   But, right now, I’m thinking most of all of  the long correspondence he had with Elizabeth Bishop, begun shortly after they met at a party given by Randall Jarrell in 1947, and ending only with his fatal heart attack in 1977.   For 30 years the letters back and forth, from Lowell’s Boston or New York or Castine, Maine to Bishop’s Brazil.

They didn’t tell each other everything.   Horrendous ups and downs didn’t always get into these letters.  The comfort they gave each other seemed to come simply from the reliability of the marathon itself.  “[S]ince we do float on an unknown sea,” Bishop says, “I think we should examine the other floating things that come our way very carefully; who knows what might depend on it?”

Who knows, indeed?

About wcd2

Professor of English and American Studies
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