Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire

  • by Kay Redfield Jamison
  • Narrated by Jefferson Mays
  • 17 hrs and 59 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

In this magisterial study of the relationship between illness and art, the best-selling author of An Unquiet Mind, Kay Redfield Jamison, brings an entirely fresh understanding to the work and life of Robert Lowell (1917-1977), whose intense, complex, and personal verse left a lasting mark on the English language and changed the public discourse about private matters.
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry, Robert Lowell put his manic-depressive illness (now known as bipolar disorder) into the public domain, creating a language for madness that was new and arresting. As Dr. Jamison brings her expertise in mood disorders to bear on Lowell's story, she illuminates not only the relationships among mania, depression, and creativity but also the details of Lowell's treatment and how illness and treatment influenced the great work that he produced (and often became its subject). Lowell's New England roots, early breakdowns, marriages to three eminent writers, friendships with other poets such as Elizabeth Bishop, many hospitalizations, vivid presence as both a teacher and a maker of poems - Jamison gives us the poet's life through a lens that focuses our understanding of his intense discipline, courage, and commitment to his art. Jamison had unprecedented access to Lowell's medical records as well as to previously unpublished drafts and fragments of poems, and she is the first biographer to have spoken with his daughter, Harriet Lowell. With this new material and a psychologist's deep insight, Jamison delivers a bold, sympathetic account of a poet who was - both despite and because of mental illness - a passionate, original observer of the human condition.

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What the Critics Say

"Kay Jamison brings together meticulous research into the factual narrative of Lowell's life, an immensely sophisticated ability to interpret his poetry, and a profound understanding of his mental illness and its effect on everything else about him. Written in prose that is often poetic and always acute, it is a poignant, terrifying, and thrilling examination of the complex relationship between genius and madness. It captures Lowell's electrifying charm, his persistent elegance of thought, and the consuming chaos of his despair. It is one of the finest biographies I have read." (Andrew Solomon)
"Jamison has constructed a novel and rewarding way to view Lowell's life and output." (Publishers Weekly)
"An intimate, sensitive, and perceptive account of the illness from which poet Robert Lowell suffered most of his life." (Kirkus Reviews)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

Review of Robert Lowell by Kay Jamison

Powerful, tragic, and elegiac. Mr. Lowell was a genius with great pain and great courage ( although he often sounded like a nightmare you were literally screaming to wake up from). Dr. Jamison writes with understanding and warmth and is a poet in her own right. One can only hope that Mr. Lowell has found peace.
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- Margaret C. Neumann

The Perfect Combination

Would you listen to Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire again? Why?

Yes. The story itself is remarkable, and the poetry that is woven through the story is enhanced by the reading of it.


What was one of the most memorable moments of Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire?

The numerous examples of Lowell's courage "under fire"...that is, his ability to repeatedly return to his creative self after multiple attacks of mania and depression.


What about Jefferson Mays’s performance did you like?

His reading of Lowell's poetry was superb!


Did you have an extreme reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?

It made me realize what those with bipolar psychosis must deal with and what courage it takes to know that, even under therapy, this disease can come back into their lives without warning.


Any additional comments?

This was a tour de force by Dr. Jamison! She captured Robert Lowell's life, his creativity, his mental illness and his courage in one complex portrait. No biography that I have read has ever so accurately portrayed the essence of the two elements of creativity and mental illness in terms that a layperson or a medical professional could understand. Her feat was likely facilitated by her own experience with manic depressive disease. Her creative and empathetic writing is exhibited for all to enjoy in this amazing book!

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- Michael J. Kelley

Book Details

  • Release Date: 02-28-2017
  • Publisher: Random House Audio