The Silent Woman


Carl Rollyson

This is not another column about Sylvia Plath, or about Janet Malcolm. The woman in question is Ada Russell, a.k.a. Ada Dwyer, Amy Lowell’s companionate muse. No one knows exactly what to call this actress who gave up the stage to live with the “singer of Lesbos”—to use the epithet applied to the poet by her first derisive biographer, Clement Wood. He published his short, malicious book in 1926, less than a year after Lowell died. His reference to Lowell’s lesbianism went unremarked in subsequent biographies. Neither S. Foster Damon in his authorized adulatory book, published in 1935, nor Horace Gregory in his derogatory portrait, which appeared in 1958, comments on Wood’s treatment of Lowell’s sexuality, which was, quite literally, off the record. Not until the 1970s, after the success of Nancy Milford’s biography of Zelda Fitzgerald made the nature of women's lives a burning issue, did Jean Gould bring up the subject of Lowell's sexuality in Amy Lowell and the Imagist Movement (1975).

This biographical deficit—not just with regard to Amy Lowell, but concerning the capacity of the genre to deal honestly and directly with a whole biographical subject—rankled me, contributing to my decision to write about Lowell. Since Gould’s biography, several scholars, nearly all women, have tried to restore the role of the woman Lowell could not live without, who the poet took with her everywhere, and whose absence even for brief periods (to visit her children and grandchildren) drove Lowell to distraction and sometimes even to despair. In the course of a day, when the two women were together at home in Brookline, Massachusetts, Lowell sometimes panicked when she did not know exactly where to find her beloved Ada, a woman she worshipped, a lover who made the fretful poet—often unhappy with herself—feel complete.

I’ve spent the last four years reading through Lowell’s massive archive in the Houghton Library at Harvard. It is a long haul, since Lowell kept copies of her own letters as well as those written to her, together with other documents, diaries, and assorted papers. I usually can afford to spend no more than a few days perusing files in black boxes that contain everything except what I most want to know: what it was like for Amy and Ada, what they said to one another, and how they loved one another. Their correspondence was destroyed—by whom, I do not know. Ada was Amy’s literary executor, and she would have followed Lowell’s instructions to the letter. Clearly, neither women wanted posterity to pry into their relationship. But with the intrusiveness that befits a biographer, I have decided that Lowell did herself a disservice—not realizing, perhaps, how much the world would change, how much her life with Ada might mean to later generations, and how greatly her biographers’ obtuse handling of her private life would damage her own humanity. Or perhaps Lowell believed she had told us in her poetry, a point I will address momentarily.

Wood did not deign to mention Ada. Damon recites her theater resume. This is as close as he comes to describing the couple’s intimacy after Ada decided in 1914 to live with Amy: “At last Miss Lowell had found the friend who understood her thoroughly and whom she could trust utterly.” Gregory repeats Damon’s information, adding that Ada was “as much at home in a library or at a literary cocktail party as on the stage, and as securely at ease. She had an air of sparkling gently as she talked, as she inclined her head to listen to someone speaking to her, or as she raised a glass of water to her lips. Her easy alertness had the art of putting others, particularly the restless and unnerved, at perfect ease.” Ada, he adds, “gave her warm appreciation, but could and often did express intelligent, forceful adverse criticism of how poetry should be read.” And he concludes that Ada and Amy’s was a “friendship that was sustained to the end of Amy Lowell’s life.”

Friendship, ah, friendship. Is that what it was? For God's sake! In the midst of this male reticence, Jean Gould intruded, describing Ada’s “generous mouth and long upper lip . . . her graceful, rounded arms, and her hands, long and slender, the deep half-moons of her fingernails” that would become, as Gould notes, the “pivotal subject of more than one poem.” Indeed. Gould, perhaps wary of all that male precedent, could not quite come out with it, taking refuge instead with a Lowell friend, the publisher John Farrar, who remembered the poet saying there was nothing quite so exciting as a young girl’s naked body. As late as 1980, though, C. David Heymann, in a book on the Lowell family, tried to re-attach the veil, saying the Amy/Ada romance was “not necessarily sexual in nature.”

Well, what about this:

My cup is empty to-night.
Cold and dry are its sides . . . .
But the cup of the heart is still.
And cold, and empty.
When you come it brims
Red and trembling with blood.
Heart’s blood for your drinking;
To fill your mouth with love
And the bitter-sweet taste of a soul.

These were the lines D. H. Lawrence extolled when he expressed his affinity with Lowell, an affinity Lowell herself acknowledged when she quoted back to him his praise for her “insistence on things. My things are always, to my mind, more than themselves.”

Lowell begins with a cup that is always a cup but is also her heart and then her mouth, just as her lover’s coming is both a return and a climax; the literal, the sexual, and the symbolic merge.

Who wants to pass off such passionate lines as a testament to a friendship, especially since Lowell admitted to close friends that Ada was the subject of her love poems—in particular the incomparable “Madonna Among the Evening Flowers,” which Gould quotes in full and then scurries past, saluting it with a mere word: “lovely.” This poem is perhaps as close as Lowell came to outing herself, and a biographer ignores it at her peril. The first three lines express the poet’s raw need and her anxiety:

All day long I have been working.
Now I am tired.
I call: “Where are you?”

Lowell would sometimes spend all night in long writing jags, while Ada slept. Depleted after work, the panicky, anxious poet sought her lover, and even in the midst of her great personal wealth, felt desolate:

But there is only the oak-tree rustling in the wind.
The house is very quiet,
The sun shines on your book,
On your scissors and thimble just put down,
But you are not there.
Suddenly I am lonely:
Where are you?
I go about searching.

These lines are almost banal, with their expression of an obvious need. And yet, they signify the preciousness of those objects that Ada has just left behind, traces of herself. She cannot have gone far, and yet Lowell feels the urgency of her absence.

Then at the first sight of Ada in the garden—the garden that Lowell wrote about so lovingly in so many poems—the verse itself moves from the mundane to the magisterial:

Then I see you,
Standing under a spire of pale blue larkspur,
With a basket of roses on your arm.
You are cool, like silver,
And you smile.
I think the Canterbury bells are playing little tunes.

These last are flowers too, but they also stand in for a cathedral of love, with their tall pointed flower stalks like spires of a church.

The worshipful Amy (and surely she saw the humor of this) is taken to task by her beloved:

You tell me that the peonies need spraying,
That the combines have overrun all bounds,
That the pyres japonica should be cut back and rounded.
You tell me those things.

Carl Sandburg once said that arguing with Amy Lowell was like arguing with a “big blue wave.” She was an enormous woman, practically 5 X 5, weighing as much as 250 pounds in her prime, and yet she had delicate hands and fine features. And she needed someone to tell her a thing or two. As Ada instructs her, though, Amy is adoring:

But I look at you, heart of silver,
White heart-flame of polished silver,
Burning beneath the blue steeples of the larkspur,
And I long to kneel instantly at your feet,
While all about us peal the loud, sweet Te Deums of the
        Canterbury bells.

That mingling of heart and heat and cool silver, the amalgamation of this love-match that Lowell so loved to celebrate is surely a literature and a life worth knowing, worth exploring. The poem is, of course, wonderful without having to know anything about its maker, but isn’t it wonderful, too, to know where the poem comes from?


Carl Rollyson is Professor of Journalism at Baruch College, The City University of New York. He reviews biographies regularly for The Wall Street Journal, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and other newspapers and periodicals. Carl is the author of a dozen biographies, including Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress, Rebecca West: A Modern Sibyl, and with his wife, Lisa Paddock, Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon. His studies of biography include: A Higher Form of Cannibalism: Adventures in the Art and Politics of Biography and Biography: A User's Guide. More about Carl and his work can be found at his website. He is currently completing a biography of Dana Andrews and beginning work on a biography of Sylvia Plath. When not writing, he is playing with his three Scotties. Contact Carl.



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