American poet Robert Trail Spence Lowell, Jr. (1917-1977) was one of the most highly esteemed and honored poets of his day. Many still acclaim his work for its mastery of diverse literary form, intense expression of personal concern, and candid commentary on social and moral issues.
Robert Lowell, winner of three Pulitzer Prizes, was the only child of Commander R.T.S. Lowell, U.S. Navy, and Charlotte Winslow Lowell, born on March 1, 1917, in Boston, Massachusetts. His was a famous family, including James Russell Lowell, 19th-century poet and ambassador to England; Amy Lowell, another notable New England poet; and A. Lawrence Lowell, president of Harvard. On his mother's side, Robert was descended from early New England colonists, including Edward Winslow, one of the Pilgrim Fathers; the key masculine figure in young Lowell's life was his maternal grandfather, Arthur Winslow. His troubled childhood is candidly pictured in "91 Revere Street," an autobiographical prose memoir included in Life Studies (1959).
Following graduation from the St. Mark preparatory school, he attended Harvard for two years, where he encountered the poetry of William Carlos Williams, which later influenced his switch in the 1950s to what critics refer to as his confessional verse (his friend Elizabeth Bishop once called him the leading poet of the "anguish school"). His passion for poetry took him to Kenyon College, where poet John Crowe Ransom was teaching a generation of critics and creators. Lowell studied classics, graduated summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, and class valedictorian. He had just married Jean Stafford, a novelist and short-story writer.
For a while Lowell supported himself by teaching and then working in publishing in New York City. Throughout 1942, he attempted to enlist, hoping to go officer's school, but when he was drafted in September of 1943, he "regretfully declined to serve," writing to President Roosevelt about how painful it was "for an American whose family traditions, like your own, have always found their fulfillment in maintainin…. our country's freedom and honor." Lowell was sentenced to a year in prison, five months of which were spent in Danbury, Connecticut and the rest on work-release parole.
Lowell's first book, Land of Unlikeness, was published in 1944. Some of these poems were included in his second volume, Lord Weary's Castle (1946), which won him, at the age of 29, the Pulitzer Prize. It was immediately apparent that a poet of unusual stature had emerged, one who combined rebellion and tradition, formalism and experiment, to achieve what some called "a disciplined wildness." Poet and critic Randall Jarrell said that "the degree of intensity of his poems is equalled by their degree of organization…. It is hard to exaggerate the strength and life, the constant richness and surprise of metaphor, and sound and motion, of the language itself. It is impossible not to notice the weight and power of his lines…. One or two of these poems, I think, will be read as long as men remember English."
With succeeding volumes Lowell became widely regarded as the most important poet of the period. Before he turned 30, he had won a Guggenheim fellowship and a grant from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He also received the Bollingen Prize. In 1947-1948 he was consultant in poetry at the Library of Congress.
The title poem of The Mills of the Kavanaughs (1951) consisted of long, dramatic monologues, which most critics regarded as convoluted and burdensome. In Life Studies (1959), Lowell turned to free verse in the confessional manner; it became one of the most influential volumes of post-World War II poetry, and won the National Book Award for the best book of poetry published that year. One of the poems, "Skunk Hour," is perhaps Lowell's best known.
In his forties, Lowell began writing for the theater; The Old Glory (1965), which was successfully produced off-Broadway, consisted of three one-act plays based on stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville. He also made a free adaptation of Jean Racine's Phèdre and an even more individualistic rendering of Aeschylus's tragedy Prometheus Bound (1969). In addition, he wrote critical essays.
But it was Lowell's poetry that made the deepest impression. Imitations (1961) was a book of free translations ranging from the classic Greek of Homer to the modern Russian of Boris Pasternak translations that are re-created poems rather than literal renderings. For the Union Dead (1964), has been considered the most powerful and direct of Lowell's books. Near the Ocean (1967) contained, among its 13 poems, some of his darker meditations. Notebooks, 1967-68 (1969) consists of some 260 conversational sonnets (some polished verse, some unrhymed), presenting pictures of himself and his family, private associations, and social criticism. Lowell revised and expanded much of this material into three separate volumes of unrhymed sonnets, published in 1973 as For Lizzie and Harriet, The Dolphin, and History.
Lowell had great powers of concentration, closeting himself in New York or Maine for ten-and twelve-hour stretches of reading and writing. He taught intermittently at Harvard, Cambridge, and several other American colleges. He suffered numerous severe breakdowns from a bipolar disorder and was hospitalized frequently. In his school days his nickname was "Cal," after the infamous Roman emperor, because of his manic behavior. For much of his adult life Lowell was subjected to electroshock therapy, psychotherapy, and chemical therapy, although sometimes he added alcohol to the mix and couldn't remember to take his drugs. His personal and family relations were often turbulent. His marriage to Jean Stafford ended in 1948; he was then married to the writer and critic Elizabeth Hardwick for over 20 years, and then to Lady Caroline Blackwood, a writer as well, for four. There were also numerous other women in his life. A mercurial person, he once declined President Lyndon Johnson's invitation to the White House Festival of the Arts in 1965, after having agreed to attend. He then agreed not to publicize his refusal to attend, but changed his mind and sent his letter of refusal to the New York Times, which made it into a front page story. Among other problemmatic traits, Lowell had a capacity for cruelty. In The Dolphin, he quoted directly from letters Elizabeth Hardwick had written him as he was leaving her for Caroline Blackwood. Some notable poets agreed that this use of personal material was in poor taste. W.H. Auden threatened to not speak to Lowell again because of the book, and Elizabeth Bishop pled with him to forego publication. Poet and critic Adrienne Rich, an old friend, told Lowell it was "a poor excuse for a cruel and shallow book," and Miss Hardwick herself called it "inane, empty, unnecessar…. so many fatuities, indiscretions, bad lines still there on the page." One critic noted that The Dolphinis a self-conscious depiction of the poet ordering material and trying to come to terms with his actions, a process reflecting Lowell's emotional candor and "the confessional nature of his verse." Despite these criticisms, Lowell was awarded his third Pulitzer Prize for this work.
By his late fifties, Lowell was a sickly man with a weakened heart. In his last book of poems, Day by Day, Lowell adds up the sadness of a painful life coming to its close. He died of a heart attack at age 60, in a New York taxi cab, on his way to see Elizabeth Hardwick. To a friend, Lowell had written, "I think in the end, there is no end, the thread frays rather than is cut," and to another he said he never quite comprehended his own life: "it is addition not to be understood, just completed."
Further Reading on Robert Trail Spence Lowell Jr
For a brief view of Lowell's life and work, see Joseph Epstein, "Mistah Lowell He Dead" The Hudson Review (September 1996), pp. 185-202. For fuller treatments, see Ian Hamilton, Robert Lowell: A Biography (1982); Paul Mariani Lost Puritan: A Life of Robert Lowell (1994); Richard Tillinghast, Damaged Grandeur (1995). See also William Doreski, The Years of Our Friendship: Robert Lowell and Allen Tate (1990); Patrick K. Miehe (comp.), The Robert Lowell Papers at the Houghton Library, Harvard University: A Guide to the Collection (1991).