Biography of Robert Lowell
Robert Traill Spence Lowell IV (March 1, 1917 – September 12, 1977) was an American poet, considered the founder of the confessional poetry movement. He was appointed the sixth Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress where he served from 1947 until 1948. He won the Pulitzer Prize in both 1947 and 1974, the National Book Award in 1960, and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977.
Lowell was born in Boston, Massachusetts to a Boston Brahmin family that included poets Amy Lowell and James Russell Lowell. His mother, Charlotte Winslow, was a descendant of William Samuel Johnson, a signer of the United States Constitution, along with Jonathan Edwards, the famed Calvinist theologian, Anne Hutchinson, the Puritan preacher and healer, Robert Livingston the Elder, Thomas Dudley, the second governor of Massachusetts, and Mayflower passengers James Chilton and his daughter Mary Chilton.
He received his high school education at St. Mark's School, a prominent prep-school in Southborough, Massachusetts, where he met and was influenced by the poet Richard Eberhart who taught at the school. Then Lowell attended Harvard College for two years before transferring to Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, to study under John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate.
There is a well-known anecdote about where Lowell lived when he first arrived at Kenyon. Before arriving at the school, he asked Allen Tate if he could live with him, and Tate joked that if Lowell wanted to, he could pitch a tent on his lawn; this is exactly what Lowell did. In an interview for The Paris Review, Lowell stated that he went to Sears, Roebuck to purchase the "pup tent" that he set up on Tate's lawn and lived in for two months Lowell called the act "a terrible piece of youthful callousness." Fortunately for Tate and his wife, Lowell soon settled into the so-called "writer's house" (a dorm that received its nickname after it had accrued a number of ambitious young writers) with fellow students Peter Taylor, Robie Macauley and Randall Jarrell.
Partly in rebellion against his parents, he converted from Episcopalianism to Catholicism (however, by the end of the forties, he would end up leaving the Catholic Church). After Lowell graduated from Kenyon in 1940 with a degree in Classics, he worked on a Masters degree in English literature at Louisiana State University for one year before World War II broke out.
Lowell was a conscientious objector during World War II and served several months at the federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut. He explained his decision not to serve in World War II in a letter addressed to President Franklin Roosevelt on September 7, 1943, stating, "Dear Mr President: I very much regret that I must refuse the opportunity you offer me in your communication of August 6, 1943 for service in the Armed Force." In the letter, he goes on to explain that after the bombing at Pearl Harbor, he was prepared to fight in the war until he read about the United States' terms of unconditional surrender which he feared would lead to the "permanent destruction of Germany and Japan." Before Lowell was transferred to the prison in Connecticut, he was held in a prison in New York City which he later wrote about in the poem "Memories of West Street and Lepke" from his book Life Studies.
In 1950, Lowell was included in the influential anthology Mid-Century American Poets as one of the key literary figures of his generation. Among his contemporaries who also appeared in that book were Muriel Rukeyser, Karl Shapiro, Elizabeth Bishop, Theodore Roethke, Randall Jarrell, and John Ciardi, all poets who came into prominence in the 1940s. From 1950 to 1953, Lowell taught in the well-reputed Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa, together with Paul Engle, Robie Macauley, and Anthony Hecht. Later, Donald James Winslow hired Lowell to teach at Boston University, where his students included the poets Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. Over the years, he taught at a number of other universities including the University of Cincinnati, Yale University, Harvard University, and the New School for Social Research.
During the late 1960s Lowell was active in the civil rights movement and opposed the US involvement in Vietnam. His participation in the October 1967 peace march in Washington, DC and his subsequent arrest would be described in the early sections of Norman Mailer's The Armies of the Night. In that book, Mailer wrote, "[Lowell spoke] in his fine stammering voice which gave the impression that life rushed at him in a series of hurdles and some he succeeded in jumping and some he did not." He also wrote that "all flaws considered, Lowell was still a fine, good, and honorable man."
In 1964, Lowell stated, "The poets who most directly influenced me . . .were Allen Tate, Elizabeth Bishop, and William Carlos Williams. An unlikely combination!. . .but you can see that Bishop is a sort of bridge between Tate's formalism and Williams's informal art."
By 1967, he was the most public, well-known American poet; in June, he appeared on the cover of Time magazine as part of a lengthy cover story on American poetry in which he was praised as "the best American poet of his generation." Although the article gave a general overview of modern American poetry (mentioning Lowell's contemporaries like John Berryman and Elizabeth Bishop), Lowell's life, career, and place in the American literary canon remained the article's focus.
Lowell married the novelist Jean Stafford in 1940. Before their marriage, in 1938, Lowell and Stafford got into a serious car accident, in which Lowell was at the wheel, that left Stafford permanently scarred, while Lowell walked away unscathed. The couple had a tumultuous marriage that ended in 1948. The poet Anthony Hecht characterized the marriage as "a tormented and tormenting one." Then, shortly thereafter, in 1949 Lowell married the writer Elizabeth Hardwick with whom he had a daughter, Harriet, in 1957. Later, the press would characterize their marriage as "restless and emotionally harrowing." After 23 years of marriage to Elizabeth Hardwick, in 1970, Lowell left her for the British author Lady Caroline Blackwood. Blackwood and Lowell were married in 1972 in England where they decided to settle and where they raised their son, Sheridan.
Lowell had a close friendship with the poet Elizabeth Bishop that lasted from 1947 until Lowell's death in 1977. Both writers relied upon one another for feedback on their poetry (which is in evidence in their voluminous correspondence, published in the book Words in Air: the Complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell in 2008) and thereby influenced one another's work. Bishop's influence over Lowell can be seen at work in at least two of Lowell's poems: "The Scream" (inspired by Bishop's short story "In the Village") and "Skunk Hour" (inspired by Bishop's poem "The Armadillo").
Lowell suffered from manic depression and was hospitalized many times throughout his adult life for this mental illness. Although his manic depression was often a great burden (for himself and his family), the subject of that mental illness led to some of his most important poetry, particularly as it manifested itself in his book Life Studies. When he was fifty, Lowell began taking lithium to treat his mental illness. The editor of Lowell's Letters, Saskia Hamilton notes, "Lithium treatment relieved him from suffering the idea that he was morally and emotionally responsible for the fact that he relapsed. However, it did not entirely prevent relapses. . .And he was troubled and anxious about the impact of his relapses on his family and friends until the end of his life."
Lowell died in 1977, having suffered a heart attack in a cab in New York City on his way to see his ex-wife, Elizabeth Hardwick. He was buried in Stark Cemetery, Dunbarton, New Hampshire.
Lowell's first book of poems, Land of Unlikeness (1944), did not receive much attention. In 1946, Lowell received wide acclaim for his next book, Lord Weary's Castle, which included five poems slightly revised from Land of Unlikeness, plus thirty new poems. Among the better known poems in the volume are "Mr Edwards and the Spider" and "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket." Lord Weary's Castle was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1947. Randall Jarrell praised the book, writing, "It is unusually difficult to say which are the best poems in Lord Weary's Castle: several are realized past changing, successes that vary only in scope and intensity--others are poems that almost any living poet would be pleased to have written. . .[and] one or two of these poems, I think, will be read as long as men remember English."
Lowell's early poems were formal, ornate, and concerned with violence and theology; a typical example is the close of "The Quaker Graveyard" -- "You could cut the brackish winds with a knife / Here in Nantucket and cast up the time / When the Lord God formed man from the sea's slime / And breathed into his face the breath of life, / And the blue-lung'd combers lumbered to the kill. / The Lord survives the rainbow of His will." He was Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 1947-1948 (a position now known as the U.S. Poet Laureate).
The Mills of the Kavanaughs (1951), a book that centered on its epic title poem, did not receive the praise that his previous book did, but Lowell was able to revive his reputation with Life Studies which was published in 1959 and won the National Book Award for poetry in 1960. In his acceptance speech for the award, Lowell famously divided American poetry into two camps: the "cooked" and the "raw." This commentary by Lowell was made in reference to the popularity of Allen Ginsberg and the Beat Generation poets and was a signal from Lowell that he was trying to incorporate some of their "raw" energy into his own poetry.
The poems in Life Studies were written in a mix of free and metered verse, with much more informal language than he had used in his first two books. It marked both a big turning point in Lowell's career, and a turning point for American poetry in general. Because many of the poems documented details from Lowell's family life and personal problems, one critic, M.L. Rosenthal, labeled these poems "confessional." Lowell's editor and friend Frank Bidart notes in his afterword to Lowell's Collected Poems, "Lowell is widely, perhaps indelibly associated with the term 'confessional,'" though Bidart questions the accuracy of this label. But for better or worse, this label stuck and led to Lowell being grouped together with other influential confessional poets like Lowell's former students W. D. Snodgrass, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton.
Lowell followed Life Studies with Imitations (1961), a volume of loose translations of poems by classical and modern European poets, including Rilke, Montale, Baudelaire, Pasternak, and Rimbaud, for which he received the 1962 Bollingen Poetry Translation Prize. However, critical response to Imitations was mixed and sometimes hostile (as was the case with Vladimir Nabokov's public response to Lowell's Mandelstam translations). In the book's introduction, Lowell explained that his idiosyncratic translations should be thought of as "imitations" rather than strict translations since he took many liberties with the originals, trying to "do what [his] authors might have done if they were writing their poems now and in America."
His next book For the Union Dead (1964) was widely praised, particularly for its title poem, which invokes Allen Tate's "Ode to the Confederate Dead." For the Union Dead was Lowell's first book since Life Studies to contain all original verse (since it did not include any translations), and in writing the poems in this volume, Lowell built upon the looser, more personal style of writing that he'd established in the final section of Life Studies. However, none of the poems in For the Union Dead explicitly addressed the taboo subject of Lowell's mental illness (like some of the poems in Life Studies did) and were, therefore, not notably "confessional." The subject matter in For the Union Dead was also much broader than it was in Life Studies. For instance, Lowell wrote about a number of world historical figures in poems like "Caligula," "Jonathan Edwards in Western Massachusetts," and "Lady Raleigh's Lament."
In 1964, Lowell also tried his hand at playwrighting with three, one-act plays that were meant to be performed together as a trilogy, titled The Old Glory. The first two parts, "Endecott the Red Cross" and "My Kinsman, Major Molineux" were stage adaptations of short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the third part, "Benito Cereno," was a stage adaptation of a novella by Herman Melville. The Old Glory was produced off-Broadway in New York City in 1964 and won five Obie Awards in 1965 including an award for "Best American Play." The play was published in its first printing in 1965 (with a revised edition following in 1968).
In 1967, Lowell published his next book of poems, Near the Ocean. With this volume, Lowell returned to writing more formal, metered verse. The second half of the book also shows Lowell returning once again to writing loose translations (including verse approximations of Dante, Juvenal, and Horace). The best known poem in this volume is "Waking Early Sunday Morning," which was written in eight-line tetrameter stanzas (borrowed from Andrew Marvell's poem "Upon Appleton House") and showed contemporary American politics overtly entering into Lowell's work.
During 1967 and 1968 he experimented with a verse journal, published as Notebook 1967-68 (and later republished in a revised edition, titled Notebook). Lowell referred to these fourteen-line poems as sonnets although they sometimes failed to incorporate regular meter and never incorporated rhyme (both of which are defining features of the sonnet form); however, some of Lowell's sonnets (particularly the ones in Notebook 1967-1968) were written in blank verse with a definitive pentameter. In the flyleaf to Notebook 1967-1968, Lowell explained the timeline of the book:
The time is a summer, an autumn, a winter, a spring, another summer; here the poem ends, except for turned-back bits of fall and winter 1968. . .My plot rolls with the seasons. The separate poems and section are opportunist and inspired by impulse. Accident threw up subjects, and the plot swallowed them--famished for human chances.
Steven Gould Axelrod wrote that, "[Lowell's concept behind the sonnet form] was to achieve the balance of freedom and order, discontinuity and continuity, that he [had] observed in [Wallace] Stevens's late long poems and in John Berryman's Dream Songs, then nearing completion. He hoped that his form . . . would enable him 'to describe the immediate instant,' an instant in which political and personal happenings interacted with a lifetime's accumulation of memories, dreams, and knowledge." Lowell liked the new form so much that he reworked and revised many of the poems from Notebook and used them as the foundation for his next three volumes of verse, all of which employed the same loose, fourteen-line sonnet form.
1970s to the present
The first book in Lowell's Notebook-derived trilogy was History (1973) which primarily dealt with world history from antiquity up to the mid-20th century (although the book does not always follow a linear or logical path and contains many poems about Lowell's friends, peers, and family). The second book, For Lizzie and Harriet (1973), describes the breakdown of his second marriage and contains poems that are supposed to be in the voice of his daughter, Harriet, and his second wife, Elizabeth. Finally, the last work in Lowell's sonnet sequence, The Dolphin (1973), which won the 1974 Pulitzer Prize, includes poems about his daughter, his ex-wife, and his new wife Caroline Blackwood whom he had affectionately nicknamed "Dolphin." Notably, the book only contained new poems, making it the only book in Lowell's sonnet trilogy not to include revised poems from Notebook.
A minor controversy erupted when Lowell admitted to having incorporated (and altered) private letters from his ex-wife, Elizabeth Hardwick into poems for The Dolphin. He was particularly criticized for this by his friends, fellow-poets Adrienne Rich and Elizabeth Bishop. Bishop made an eloquent and thoughtful argument to Lowell against publishing The Dolphin. In a letter to Lowell regarding The Dolphin, dated March 21, 1972, before he'd published the book, Bishop praises the writing, saying, "Please believe that I think it is wonderful poetry." But then she states, "I'm sure my point is only too plain. . .Lizzie [Hardwick] is not dead, etc.--but there is a 'mixture of fact & fiction' [in the book], and you have changed [Hardwick's] letters. That is 'infinite mischief,' I think. . .One can use one's life as material--one does anyway--but these letters--aren't you violating a trust? IF you were given permission--IF you hadn't changed them. . .etc. But art just isn't worth that much."
Lowell published his last volume of poetry, Day by Day, in 1977, the year of his death. In May 1977, Lowell won the $10,000 National Medal for Literature awarded by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and Day by Day was awarded that year's National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry. In a PBS documentary on Lowell, Anthony Hecht said that "[Day by Day was] a very touching, moving, gentle book, tinged with a sense of [Lowell's] own pain and the pain [he'd] given to others." It was Lowell's only volume to contain nothing but free verse, and for fans of Lowell's work who were disappointed by the uneven "sonnets" that Lowell had been re-writing and re-packaging in volume after volume since 1967, Day by Day marked a return to form. In many of the poems, Lowell reflects on his life, his past relationships, and his own mortality. The best-known poem from this collection is the last one, titled "Epilogue," in which Lowell reflects upon the "confessional" school of poetry with which his work was associated. In this poem he wrote,
But sometimes everything I write
with the threadbare art of my eye
seems a snapshot,
lurid, rapid, garish, grouped,
heightened from life,
yet paralyzed by fact.
Yet why not say what happened?
Lowell's Collected Poems, edited by Frank Bidart and David Gewanter, was published in 2003. The Collected Poems is a very comprehensive volume that includes all of Lowell's major works with the exception of Notebook 1967-1968 and Notebook. However, many of the poems from these volumes were republished, in revised forms, in History and For Lizzie and Harriet. On the heels of the publication of The Collected Poems, The Letters of Robert Lowell, edited by Saskia Hamilton, was published in 2005. Both Lowell's Collected Poems and his Letters received overwhelmingly positive critical responses from the mainstream press, and their publication has since led to a renewed interest in Lowell's writing.
Robert Lowell's Works:
Land of Unlikeness (1944)
Lord Weary's Castle (1946)
The Mills of The Kavanaughs (1951)
Life Studies (1959)
Phaedra (translation) (1961)
For the Union Dead (1964)
The Old Glory (1965)
Near the Ocean (1967)
Notebook 1967-1968 (1969) (Revised and Expanded as Notebook, 1970)
The Voyage & other versions of poems of Baudelaire (1969)
Prometheus Bound (translation) (1969)
For Lizzie and Harriet (1973)
The Dolphin (1973)
Selected Poems (1976) (Revised Edition, 1977)
Day by Day (1977)
The Oresteia of Aeschylus (1978)
Collected Prose (1987)
Collected Poems (2003)
Selected Poems (2006) (Expanded Edition)
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- The Old Flame
- Children of Light
- Skunk Hour
- Memories of West Street and Lepke
- "To Speak of Woe That Is in Marriag...
- For the Union Dead
- Man and Wife
- The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket
- Waking in the Blue
- The Drunken Fisherman
The Old Flame
My old flame, my wife!
Remember our lists of birds?
One morning last summer, I drove
by our house in Maine. It was still
on top of its hill -
Now a red ear of Indian maize
was splashed on the door.
Old Glory with thirteen stripes