Borrowing Dread: How Robert Lowell Inspired Mr. Stone

Robert Stone is coming to town to read, and I’m feeling a little apprehensive already. If Auden was the avatar of the previous Age of Anxiety, is not Robert Stone the poet of the current Age of Dread? While Mr. Stone’s seductively sinister novels ( Dog Soldiers , Children of Light , Damascus Gate , etc.) are like daggers to the heart, the distilled chill of his short stories are like scalpels that carve it up. There’s one called “Absence of Mercy,” and one of the things that distinguishes Mr. Stone’s work is that it’s virtually merciless-relentless in its dissection of weakness, pretense and, worst of all, hope. His works are very hard on hope, allowing it to flourish a brief “flag for sunrise” and then crushing it, well, without mercy.

Perhaps that’s why, while he deserves mention in the first rank of American novelists with the Roths and Bellows and Pynchons-the usual suspects-to some he’s just a bit too scary in a disturbing way. The dread he conjures up is not a horror of what’s out there so much as the terror of what is within.

So the prospect of a Stone reading (he’s appearing on Sept. 27 at the Bitter End as part of the New Yorker Festival) is a bit bracing, to say the least. The short-story form is somewhat new to him, but on the evidence of Bear and His Daughter , his 1997 collection, it gives him a way of distilling, almost fiendishly, the dread that lurks luxuriantly in the longer form.

And then there’s this thing that’s come up, that I noticed as I was preparing to write this appreciation of his work, this thing about Stone and a Robert Lowell poem that seemed like a genuinely interesting literary mystery. It’s the stunning Lowell poem called “Children of Light.” A poem that has given Mr. Stone the titles for two of his novels- Children of Light , his fourth novel, and Hall of Mirrors , his first. Or has it really?

I came upon the mystery when I decided to risk rereading Children of Light , one of Mr. Stone’s most relentlessly bleak-hearted and lacerating books, filled with smart people saying incredibly cruel things to each other. And also one of his most underrated, because on the surface it’s a Hollywood novel, although anti-Hollywood novel might be more accurate. (Think of Mailer’s Deer Park .) The phrase “children of light” is, in one sense, a metaphor for those luminous figures on the screen, creations of light. But there’s much more-a meditation on madness and art and other intensities, among them guilt and self-loathing. And it contains a figure of speech that is also a figure of Dread, a phrase used by an actress teetering on the edge of madness. It’s her name for the hallucinatory figures whose voices she hears: “the Long Friends.” I don’t want to even talk about the Long Friends: I don’t want them to overhear me.

But I do want to talk about the title, Children of Light , and the Lowell poem from which it’s derived. Of course, Lowell got the phrase from the New Testament, from Ephesians: “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light.”

“Children of Light.” That’s how the Pilgrim fathers-Lowell’s forefathers-thought of themselves: as seeds of light escaping the darkness of Europe to bring the light and the Lord (properly understood, of course) to the New World. I was reminded of Lowell’s astonishing “Children of Light” by reading the Paris Review “Writers at Work” interview with Mr. Stone, in which the epigraphs to his novels-including the Lowell poem-were alluded to. This led me to seek out Hall of Mirrors , Mr. Stone’s first novel, the one for which “Children of Light” is the epigraph.

Fortunately, there’s a great new paperback edition of Stone’s works (from Houghton Mifflin’s Mariner Books), so I was able to check out the Lowell poem: a brief 10 lines of some of the most intense verse of the 20th century. Ten lines that turn America’s founding vision inside out. This is exactly how it appears in the epigraph to Hall of Mirrors :

Our Fathers wrung their bread from stocks and stones And fenced their gardens with the Redman’s bones; Embarking from the Nether Land of Holland, Pilgrims unhouseled by Geneva’s night, You planted here the Serpent’s seeds of light; And here the pivoting searchlights probe to shock The riotous glass houses built on rock, And candles gutter in a hall of mirrors, And light is where the ancient blood of Cain Is burning burning the unburied grain .

It’s a poem for an age in which we have felt the dread of people who feel they can kill in the name of God.

So Robert Stone appears to have gotten two novel titles from this single poem: Children of Light from the title, obviously, and Hall of Mirrors from the third-to-last line. Or did he? This is where the mystery comes in.

But before getting deeper into it, can we just stand in awe for a moment before the satanic majesty of Lowell’s poem? The beauty of the formal rhetoric, the fury of the infernal imagery, “burning, burning” with “the ancient blood of Cain.” I said satanic and infernal because it suggests that the Pilgrim fathers, self-proclaimed “children of light,” were actually the spawn of the devil turning the New World into an irredeemable hell.

But there’s another, less irredeemable way of looking at it. It all turns on that rare and unfamiliar word “unhouseled,” a word some might recall from Hamlet , from the Ghost’s cry to Hamlet that he was sent to his death “unhousel’d”-that is, without the chance to partake of the Eucharist in a Final Mass.

And so Lowell’s vision of “Pilgrims unhouseled by Geneva’s night” (by Calvin’s Geneva-based prohibitions against the Eucharist ritual of the Mass) displaces a bit the Serpentine seeds from the deluded Pilgrims to the more culpable prohibition of the Catholic rite of transubstantiation by the Reformation.

One doesn’t need to believe that the Pilgrims-”Our fathers,” those lovable figures from sentimental Thanksgiving pageants-were in fact conscious emissaries of Satan (a possibility suggested by Hawthorne in “Young Goodman Brown”) who “planted here the Serpent’s seeds of light;” or that there is a curse-”the ancient blood of Cain”-within human nature. But it’s a chilling vision, one with an unforgettable final image: that “ancient blood of Cain … burning, burning the unburied grain.” That’s us , dude, that “unburied grain,” those scattered kernels of lost souls, Serpent’s seed.

It’s a poem at the heart of Lowell’s vision, one I didn’t really understand until that moment. As an epigraph, it made sense as the heart of Mr. Stone’s vision as well.

But it wasn’t clear to me from the 10 lines of “Children of Light” in the epigraph whether those 10 lines were an extract, or the whole poem, so I consulted my erudite friend Daniel Kunitz, who was not only a Lowell aficionado but had actually edited Mr. Stone at the Paris Review , and now writes a weekly arts column for The Sun . He was as much an enthusiast of Mr. Stone’s work as I was.

As I recall, Mr. Kunitz and I discovered our mutual enthusiasm for Robert Stone in a conversation that began with a discussion of that inimitable Hollywood and publishing-world phrase, “fuck-you money.” You’re probably familiar with the concept: someone who doesn’t have to take a role, a job, a path in life because they have “fuck-you money.” And then we came up with the question, “Who has fuck-you talent?” And the first name that came into both our minds was Robert Stone.

Anyway, I wanted to know if Stone’s 10-line epigraph from Lowell was the complete poem, and Mr. Kunitz was in possession of a first edition of Lowell’s Lord Weary’s Castle . And as he was carefully counting the lines in “Children of Light” therein (it turned out to be 10; Stone used the whole poem), I mentioned something about Stone getting two book titles from the poem: Children of Light , of course, and Hall of Mirrors . And then suddenly-a Twilight Zone moment-Mr. Kunitz said, “Wait a minute … ‘hall of mirrors’ isn’t here .”

“What do you mean, it isn’t there? It’s right here ,” I said, pointing to the third-from-last line of Mr. Stone’s epigraph:

And candles gutter in a hall of

mirrors ….

“No, what do you mean?” Mr. Kunitz said, pointing to the third-from-last line in the poem as printed in Lord Weary’s Castle :

And candles gutter by an empty

altar ….

Hall of mirrors. Empty altar. Two very different takes on emptiness, aren’t they? With “empty altar,” there is a sense of something abandoned , fled, an almost unmistakable allusion to the “bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang” in Shakespeare’s sonnet-itself often taken to be, at least in part, an allusion to the stripping of the Catholic monasteries and choristries by Henry VIII’s draconian Reformation, part of the extinction of Catholic rituals by “Geneva’s night.”

With “hall of mirrors” as opposed to “empty altar,” there’s a sense that there was never anything real there-existence is a flickering void from the get-go. And that just scratched the surface of the difference.

Mr. Kunitz pointed out that Lowell was known for revising his work. He had on hand a more recent 1977 paperback edition of Lord Weary’s Castle , so he checked the version of the poem there to see if Lowell himself had changed “empty altar” to “hall of mirrors” later on.

No, it was “empty altar” there, too. This was getting a little strange. Would Robert Stone substitute his own phrase for Lowell’s and then use it as the title for his novel, thus casting a “pivoting searchlight” on the choice? And yet no one seemed to have noticed -not that we knew of.

Could it have been a legacy from Mr. Stone’s years with Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, whom he met while he was studying with Wallace Stegner at Stanford? Could it be, in short, an inspired literary prank? I’m kind of fond of inspired literary pranks myself, having been the first to point out in print the parody of New Historicism printed in Raritan a few years ago, a parody (by Yale’s David Bromwich, writing under a pseudonym) which had been taken seriously by sedulous, humorless theory-victims and entered into several scholarly bibliographies.

Then we decided to see if there had been any further alterations or “revisions,” either by Lowell or Stone, so I read aloud from the Hall of Mirrors version of “Children of Light” while Mr. Kunitz followed in Lord Weary’s Castle -and we discovered two more changes!

The Lowell version has:

They [i.e., our Pilgrim fathers] planted

here the Serpent’s seeds of light ….

The Stone version, on the other hand, has:

You planted here the Serpent’s seeds

of light

-the latter a bit more embittered and accusatory, both toward the Pilgrim fathers and perhaps toward the reader himself, if you choose to take the “You” of “You planted” as you-the-reader. You were there , implicated somehow in that original sin. In Adam’s fall / We sinned All.

And then another curious change. The “empty altar” Lowell version has:

And light is where the landless blood

of Cain

Is burning, burning the unburied

grain ….

While the Stone “hall of mirrors” version has:

And light is where the ancient blood

of Cain

Is burning, burning the unburied


Again, it’s an odd change: “landless” to “ancient,” or vice versa. On the one hand, “ancient” sounds a bit more numinous and spooky, but it’s redundant as well, isn’t it? We already know Cain is ancient, but “landless” gives us a little more of the primal ancient curse that made Cain wander the earth without rest. “Landless” gives us something exilic as well as old.

But what was going on in the larger sense- had Lowell revised himself, or had Stone revised Lowell? And if the latter, why?

Mr. Kunitz, who (unlike me) knew Mr. Stone a bit, suggested calling him up and asking him. I was reluctant, for a couple reasons. First, I almost preferred the numinous mystery, the correction/connection between two great writers. George Steiner once wrote, apropos the Jewish refusal to accept Jesus as the Messiah, that “Jews are the children of Eve”-a people who savor curiosity rather than finality and certainty.

There’s another reason I was reluctant to call Mr. Stone, and here is where I should disclose the fact that a dozen years ago, he gave a quote for one of my books (I consider it my “fuck-you blurb,” you might say), and I hated to disturb him with a question he might be reluctant to have raised. But it’s such an interesting question. If I don’t have an answer by the time this column goes to press, perhaps he’ll address it at his reading. I plan to be there, though not without a good bit of dread.

Wait! Stop the presses! Mystery solved! The good people at Farrar, Straus and Giroux (which is bringing out the complete edition of Lowell’s poetry next year) put me in touch with the man who has devoted years to this much-anticipated definitive collection. His name is Frank Bidart, and he’s a onetime graduate student of Lowell’s who has undertaken the Herculean task of producing the edition-Herculean precisely because Lowell’s habit of serial revision has often made establishing the definitive text of any one poem difficult. When I told Mr. Bidart about the Stone “hall of mirrors” version of “Children of Light,” he said he thought it might be possible that it represented an earlier version of the poem as it had first appeared in a periodical, or that it might have appeared in that form in Lowell’s little-known first book-not Lord Weary’s Castle , which is usually accorded that honor, but a chapbook with a very limited circulation called The Land of Unlikeness (after a line in Augustine’s Confessions ). And after graciously taking the time to retrieve his copy of The Land of Unlikeness , Mr. Bidart reported that it did contain the “hall of mirrors” variant, along with the other two.

It’s rather remarkable that Mr. Stone would have been aware of the variant version of “Children of Light” in The Land of Unlikeness , since even his publisher, Houghton Mifflin, said on the permissions page of Hall of Mirrors that “Robert Lowell’s poem ‘Children of Light’ … is taken from his book Lord Weary’s Castle ,” when it was most likely taken from the Cummington Press’ The Land of Unlikeness . (Literary historians, please take note).

It’s remarkable as well that Lowell made those three changes (not all of them necessarily improvements), which no one might have noticed if Mr. Stone hadn’t used the earlier version of the poem for his epigraph, and if Mr. Kunitz and I hadn’t finally noticed them 40 years later.

According to Lowell’s editor, Mr. Bidart, this sort of thing has been a major headache for someone like him-conscientiously trying to reflect Lowell’s wishes when those wishes often changed. He cited an exchange he had with Lowell over another famous poem, “Waking Early Sunday Morning,” which first appeared in The New York Review of Books with what Mr. Bidart called “two especially beautiful Lowell stanzas” that were then omitted when Lowell “reorganized” the poem and found no way to fit them back in.

When Mr. Bidart asked Lowell what he thought about the two versions, Lowell told him something to the effect that ” both versions deserved to exist.” And Mr. Bidart plans to print the original version with the “two especially beautiful” stanzas in an appendix.

This is somewhat similar to the stance taken by the Shakespearean textual scholars editing the new Arden edition of Hamlet , whose dilemmas I wrote of recently in The New Yorker (“Shakespeare in Rewrite,” May 13, 2002). The Arden editors decided that, confronted with three subtly and crudely differing Hamlet texts from Shakespeare’s time and no authorial direction, they would print all three versions rather than “conflate” the texts-the traditional practice of including some lines from each version.

But every once in a while, you have to choose in the literary “land of unlikeness.” Mr. Stone couldn’t use both versions for his epigraph, and we owe him a debt of gratitude for rescuing a memorable Robert Lowell phrase from oblivion: “And candles gutter in a hall of mirrors …. ”