Morbidly compulsive reading: the sad, exhausting, often grimly amusing life of a great poet who was also a terribly ill man--in a powerfully cumulative biography that chooses, perhaps wisely, to view Lowell's tangles from a crisp, breezy distance. Why tan poet/ critic Hamilton afford to maintain such an unsurprised, unprobing, curious-bystander demeanor? Because he has received an almost unprecedented degree of cooperation from Lowell's heirs and intimates: there is rich interview material from nearly every living source; there is Lowell's own unfinished ""draft autobiography""; there are letters and working notes. And so Hamilton offers a wry observation here, a sure critical appreciation there, allowing the story to be told largely through its excerpts--from Boston-Brahmin childhood with a spineless father and a powerful, cutting mother (""Lowell became a keen student of enslavement"") to combative years at prep school and Harvard; from unique tutorships down south and at Kenyon (the Tates, E M. Ford, J. C. Ransom, Randall Jarrell above all) to the stormy courtship/marriage with Jean Stafford. (Hamilton, however, encourages ""caution when it comes to construing real-life agonies"" from Stafford's fiction.) This approach, of course, does have its limitations: Lowell's early fanaticisms (Catholic, anti-Communist) come too much out of the blue; Hamilton's slippery unwillingness to grapple with the actual nature of Lowell's manic-depressive illness becomes increasingly annoying. But, if weak on causes and connections, Hamilton's narrative is gruelingly strong on texture and drama: the near-annual breakdowns (with manic infidelities); the wayward public displays; the locked wards, jolting recuperations, constant homecomings; the remarkable marriage to long-suffering Elizabeth Hardwick; the half-inspired, half-idiotic forays into political statement; the almost unbearable final years--when, somewhat improved thanks to lithium, he embarked on a serious infidelity (Caroline Blackwood), while relentlessly turning the stuff of private hurt into published poetry. And Hamilton's assessments of the Lowell canon--with a shrewd decision to refrain from making all the possible autobiographical connections--is sound and unworshipful. Less a great biography, then, than a great documentary: vividly peopled, bulging with first-person impacts, and--despite the massively depressing material--weirdly, dreadfully entertaining.