Hamilton’s volume is perfection of its kind. Her choice of letters is deft, her sensibility is delicate and readers will quiver at the intensity of the exchanges. ‘Whatever choice I might make,’ Lowell tells Hardwick in one of his wobbles, ‘I am walking off the third storey of an unfinished building to the ground.’ So gripping are the clutches of The Dolphin Letters that readers smash at the bottom beside him.
In her introduction, the book’s editor Saskia Hamilton explains: “Letters both real and fictional are a formal device in Lowell’s poetry of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and in Hardwick’s prose.” The pair filled their letters with literary references and Hamilton traces every allusion. The same commitment was palpable when Hamilton co-edited Words In Air (2008) — four decades’ worth of letters between Lowell and the poet Elizabeth Bishop, which I didn’t so much read as feel I was living in for 800 pages, so rich was it in artistic insight and social history.
Graham Greene famously declared that a writer needs a splinter of ice in his heart when using real-life models in art. But what if the splinter turns out to be an ice-pick? The Lowell half of this compelling epistolary back-and-forth is dismayingly depressive, almost (in the words of his one-time mentor Ford Madox Ford) ‘the saddest story I have ever heard’. Fortunately, the Hardwick half is both more stoical and more uplifting.
Now that a decade of agitated correspondence about the case has been reassembled by Saskia Hamilton, it’s clear that Lowell’s ethical lapse was aggravated by his aesthetic meddling. Often he helped himself to Hardwick’s words verbatim, but when he changed them, sometimes for metrical convenience, he cruelly misrepresented her. Hardwick, for instance, wrote “I don’t entirely wish you well”; Lowell changed that to “not that I wish you entirely well”. Her wry phrase acknowledged the muddled state of her feelings. Lowell transferred the emphasis to his own physical and mental health, which she now seems to be wishfully harming. In another letter, Hardwick spoke of herself as “a wife” who did “everything for the man she loves”. Lowell, with a sadistic smirk, appropriated the sentence and made her call herself “a slave”, content to “kneel and wait upon you hand and foot”.