A poet's contradictory life; Robert Lowell, by Ian Hamilton. New York: Random House. 527 pp. $19.95.
The poet Robert Lowell was a mass of contradictions. In World War II he was a conscientious objector who went to jail rather than serve in the armed forces. Against United States involvement in the Vietnam war he was one of the foremost protestors, taking part with Norman Mailer and Dr. Benjamin Spock in the speeches made at the time of the march on the Pentagon. He was a pacifist.
And yet he was fascinated by power. He kept a bust of Napoleon on his table. During a budding friendship with the former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, he sent her a life of Alexander the Great. He nourished a lifelong interest in a gallery of favorite ''despotic gangsters'' that included Attila, Caligula, Napoleon, and Hitler.
His comrades at St. Mark's uppercrust Episcopal boarding school nicknamed him ''Cal'' for Caligula, or Caliban, and the name stuck to him for life.
He was a poet of extraordinary range, subtlety, and sensitivity, a brilliant talker, given to ''dazzling'' monologues, a teacher who made the great poets come to life ''as if they were friends or acquaintances'' - and three times a husband to women whom he loved, infuriated, and left. One marriage he compared to ''simmering like wasps in our tent.''
He was a poet who at 19 could punch his father in the jaw over an offense given to the current financee. He was a poet who at 57 could, in the words of one irate reviewer, ''appropriate his ex-wife's letters written in the stress and pain of desertion, into a book nominally addressed to the new wife.''
In Ian Hamilton's biography we find the all-too-painful account of Lowell's tormented, gifted life - the crackups, the recoveries, the friendships, the love affairs, the quarrels, the reconciliations, the losses, the rivalries, the intimacies and the injuries, the taste for vitriol and violence, and the marvelous gift for the telling phrase, the significant symbol.
Robert Lowell knew everyone worth knowing in the poetry world, including Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, John Berryman, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop. Two of his wives were successful writers: Jean Stafford , Elizabeth Hardwick.
He emerges as a somewhat larger-than-life figure. The handsome head, the football player's build, the artist's slouch, chain-smoking, vodka-and-milk drinking, vibrant, artistocratic, flaky. A cross between a master and a monster.
Reading this first full-length biography of the Boston Brahmin, Harvard teacher, public figure is both compelling and repelling. Poets' biographies in our time may be the highbrow equivalent of ''The Amityville Horror,'' or ''Halloween III.'' Especially the biographies of confessional poets - harrowing, unnerving, melodramatic. One might call this book, in Lowell's own words, ''a jerky graph of the heart.''