Amy Lowell 1874–1925
American poet, critic, biographer, and essayist.
The leading proponent of Imagism in American poetry, Lowell is remembered for her forceful theorizing on poetics, her eccentric, outspoken personality, and her iconoclastic approach to poetic form. Her experimentation led her to create what she called polyphonic prose, a form similar to free verse that employs intermittent rhyme, changing points of view, and the repetition of images or ideas. Although she was Ezra Pound's successor as chief advocate of Imagism—a movement that stressed clarity and succinctness in presenting the poetic image—Lowell is herself generally categorized as a minor, though versatile, poet, whose work displays occasional bursts of brilliance. Influenced in both style and theme by her studies of Far Eastern verse, she also sought to liberate poetry from the strictures of meter, using as her vehicles free verse, polyphonic prose, and haiku in such volumes as Sword Blades and Poppy Seed, Pictures of the Floating World, and What's O'Clock. This last volume, containing the best of Lowell's late work, was posthumously published and awarded the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1926.
Lowell was born of a distinguished New England family whose wealth and position provided her with opportunities for a good education and travel in Europe. In later years, the proper, conservative values Lowell acquired in her youth clashed with her naturally independent and domineering personality, creating an unresolved conflict that is reflected in her life and work. In her late twenties Lowell decided to become a poet, and during the next few years she used her wealth, industry, and intimidating personality to accomplish that end. Her first volume (except for an early vanity press publication) appeared in 1912. A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass is conventional and undistinguished, exhibiting nothing of the experimental form that characterizes Lowell's later volumes. In 1913 she met Pound and immediately embraced Imagism, a style applied successfully in her next collection, Sword Blades and Poppy Seed. With this widely acclaimed work, Lowell moved to the forefront of American poetry, a position from which she lent support to other writers, among them D. H. Lawrence. During the next decade, she wrote several books of criticism and over six hundred poems, edited three Imagist anthologies, and became a popular speaker at American universities. Accompanying Lowell during her last years was Ada Russell, a former actress who became Lowell's secretary, close friend and inspiration for several love poems. Lowell died in 1925, shortly after completing her John Keats, a biography of the poet whom she saw as her greatest influence.
While A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass was the first published of her serious poetry, Lowell's adoption of the Imagist precepts in 1913 marks a dramatic change from the conventional poetry of this early volume. Sword Blades and Poppy Seed is characteristic of this new poetry, which abounds in sensuous imagery, a precise economy of words, and a delight in texture and color. The collection also represents Lowell's first experiments with polyphonic prose, a form that she used to its greatest effect in the dramatic monologues in rustic New England vernacular of Men, Women and Ghosts and the historical narratives of Can Grande's Castle. The former work contains "Patterns"—a dramatic monologue that examines the clash between duty and desire—which is considered one of Lowell's most important poem. In the latter, the theme of civilization at war, exemplified in the acclaimed "Bronze Horses," predominates. Lowell's interest in Asian literature is evident throughout her canon, reaching its height in the "Lacquer Prints" of Pictures of the Floating World and in the interpolated Chinese poetry of Fir-Flower Tablets, written with the aid of translator Florence Ayscough. In Legends, she returns to the mythical-historical vein of Can Grande's Castle by exploring the poetic possibilities of folklore, while A Critical Fable, which was published anonymously in 1922, is Lowell's satirical look at twentyone poets: herself and twenty of her contemporaries. The poetry of What's O'Clock, East Wind, and Ballads for Sale, although uneven in places, contains some of her most accomplished lyrics. Among Lowell's critical works, poetry is the dominant concern. Six French Poets introduced American audiences to the chief post-symbolist artists. Tendencies in Modern American Poetry is, likewise, less a critical study than an introduction to a larger public of several American poets, including the Imagists H. D. and John Gould Fletcher. Her biography John Keats is valued as a landmark work for its wealth of previously unpublished material gathered from Lowell's private collection on the Romantic poet.
Overall, the reaction to Lowell's poetry has been decidedly mixed. Many of her works, including Sword Blades and Poppy Seed, Can Grande's Castle, and What's O'Clock, met with great success upon publication, but this acclaim soon faded. In addition, Lowell's works have consistently elicited negative responses from several critics, who have seen her poetry as lacking in depth, originality, and genuineness. Others have admired her range and technical skill, but have continued to see her work as superficial. In 1975 Glenn Richard Ruihley pushed for a reconsideration of her work that emphasizes the significance of her poetic voice; still, while contemporary commentators have acknowledged her importance as the innovator of polyphonic prose and as a spokesperson for the Imagist movement, most limit her lasting contribution to a handful of poems.
Dream Drops: or, Stories from Fairy Land, by a Dreamer 1887
A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass 1912
Sword Blades and Poppy Seed 1914
Men, Women and Ghosts 1916
Can Grande's Castle 1918
Pictures of the Floating World 1919
Fir-Flower Tablets 1921
A Critical Fable 1922
What's O'Clock 1925
East Wind 1926
Ballads for Sale 1927
Fool o' the Moon 1927
Other Major Works
Six French Poets (criticism) 1915
Tendencies in Modern American Poetry (criticism) 1917
John Keats (biography) 1925
Poetry and Poets (essays) 1930
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SOURCE: "Amy Lowell," in The Literary Spotlight, edited by John Farrar, George H. Doran Company, 1924, pp. 51-64.
[In the following essay, the anonymous critic studies Lowell's works, focusing on the themes characteristic of her poetry.]
Amy Lowell towers above most contemporary versifiers like a sort of nineteenth century Savonarola, exhorting them to beware the pitfalls of sin and the ways of the devil. She is the sternest of Puritans; but over her gray sense of duty she wears a multitude of jewels. She wreathes herself in flowers, exotic colors flame from her hair, and while she consigns lust to the bonfire she makes sure that both lust and the bonfire are attractively tricked out with pretty words. Probably no great woman ever so successfully concealed herself by elaborate trappings. The poetical Miss Lowell reminds me occasionally of a wholehearted and beautiful dowager who, afraid that her own person will fail to charm, hedges herself about with silks and satins, perfumes, flowers, jewels, and clanking metals, until she seems a veritable museum of objets d'art, and the real woman beneath, fine and true as she is, becomes discernible only to those who are patient enough to look and to wait. The genius of Miss Lowell is based on a conflict—it is the quarrel of New England conservatism with an almost pagan love of the beautiful—and the result is, naturally enough, a firm code of denial, of...
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SOURCE: "The Poetry of Amy Lowell," in Essays in Appreciation, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1936, pp. 157—74.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1925, Lowes describes Lowell's enduring contribution to English poetry.]
We are still far too close to the brilliant and arresting personality which was Amy Lowell for a dispassionate appraisal of the one thing for which above all else she cared—her poetry. She was herself, through her vividness and force, the most disturbing factor in our judgment, and no one who knew her can write with entire detachment about her work. One can only speak with sincerity, and trust that one's opinions are not too far from the truth. What, then, accepting once for all these limitations, has she left which has enduring value? All else is after all of secondary moment, and for our purpose we may disregard it here.
When an eager intellectual curiosity is coupled with a spirit of adventure and an indomitable will, things will happen. And when with these qualities there is conjoined a no less eager sense of beauty as revealed in line and light and colour and the potentialities of words and rhythms, the thing that happens will be poetry. And the poetry so engendered will be apt to add to the sum of beauty and to enrich our sense of it in unexpected and sometimes disconcerting ways. And it will also inevitably, in common with all adventuring (and with...
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SOURCE: "Why We Should Read Poetry," in Poetry and Poets, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1930, pp. 1-9.
[In the following essay, Lowell delivers her thoughts on the value of poetry.]
Why should one read Poetry? That seems to me a good deal like asking: Why should one eat? One eats because one has to, to support life, but every time one sits down to dinner one does not say, 'I must eat this meal so that I may not die.' On the contrary, we eat because we are hungry, and so eating appears to us as a pleasant and desirable thing to do.
The necessity for poetry is one of the most fundamental traits of the human race. But naturally we do not take that into account, any more than we take into account that dinner, and the next day again, dinner, is the condition of our remaining alive. Without poetry the soul and heart of man starves and dies. The only difference between them is that all men know, if they turn their minds to it, that without food they would die, and comparatively few people know that without poetry they would die.
When trying to explain anything, I usually find that the Bible, that great collection of magnificent and varied poetry, has said it before in the best possible way. Now the Bible says that 'man shall not live by bread alone.' Which, in modern words, means—cannot live on the purely material things. It is true, he cannot, and he never does. If he did,...
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SOURCE: "Amy Lowell: The Success," in Imagism & the Imagists: A Study in Modern Poetry, 1931. Reprint by The Humanities Press, 1960, pp. 197-223.
[In the following essay, Hughes surveys Lowell's literary career, evaluating each of her poetry collections and critical works.]
Amy Lowell was born at Brookline, Massachusetts, February 9, 1874, the descendant of a long line of well-bred New Englanders, several of whom were men of letters. Her mother's father was Minister to England, and her paternal...
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SOURCE: "Men, Women and Ghosts," and "Can Grande's Castle," in Amy Lowell: A Chronicle, with Extracts from Her Correspondence, 1935. Reprinted by Archon Books, 1966, pp. 375-83, 467-80.
[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1935, Damon examines Lowell's narrative poetry of the years 1914-1918, collected in Men, Women and Ghosts and Can Grande's Castle.]
[Men, Women and Ghosts] is a collection of the narrative poems which Amy Lowell had written since she sent off the manuscript of Sword Blades and Poppy Seed. The earliest was probably 'The Allies,' which is dated August 14, 1914; the last were written while she was assembling the book. All lyrics were purposely excluded, as being out of key. Already there were enough of them for a volume by themselves, but Miss Lowell was more interested in acquainting the public with the larger forms she was developing. A half of her new book was in free verse; a third was in rhymed meter; and the rest was polyphonic prose.
Of the thirty titles, twelve deal with war, including the four 'Bronze Tablets' about Napoleon and the five contemporary 'War Pictures.' Three of these, and five others, are studies of love and passion. Except for the ghoststory, 'Cross-Roads,' love is treated exclusively from the woman's point of view.
'Patterns,' the first poem in the book, and the first of her poems...
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SOURCE: "The Range of Symbolism in Poetry," in The South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 3, July, 1949, pp. 442-51.
[In the following excerpt, Carlson discusses Lowell's varied use of symbolism in her poetry.]
Taken as a whole, Amy Lowell's verse represents the rich and significant variety of symbolism in modern poetry. In some, especially the early derivative pieces like "Before the Altar" and "Fool o' the Moon," the symbols are conventional and allegorical; the same is true of the short symbolical tales like "The Fool Errant," "On the Mantelpiece," "The Shadow," and "The Way." More frequently, however, conventional and creative symbols are interwoven, as in "In a Time of Dearth," where sand, caravan, Arab horses, and mirage suggest lack of inspiration, romantic splendor, free abandon, and illusion respectively; and the matches and newspapers signify artifical stimulation and the attempt to shut out the fact that the creative springs have dried up. "The Poem" illustrates the same dramatic interplay of conventional and realistic symbols: the twig, a literary symbol of the poem properly nourished, and the nail, an original symbol of poetic stimulus neglected and withered. "Pyrotechnics" contrasts natural, ideal beauty—stars, rockets—and the display of the tawdry and the artificial—the set pieces, King, Queen, Generals. "The Precinct. Rochester" also, for purposes of contrast and irony, combines...
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SOURCE: "John Keats and High Noon—Last Poems: 1922-1925," in The Thorn of a Rose: Amy Lowell Reconsidered, Archon Books, 1975, pp. 139-75
[In the following excerpt, Ruihley analyzes Lowell's later poetry, describing developments of form, style, and theme.]
In the years which immediately followed [Amy Lowell's] death, three new volumes were issued, What's O'clock, 1925, East Wind, 1926, and Ballads For Sale, 1927, all taken from her bulging folders of unpublished material. Though they varied a great deal in quality, each gave evidence of the new powers of expression which the poet had acquired in the last few years of her life.
The poems of East Wind were the first in order of time, the poet having worked on this manuscript as early as 1921. A collection of tales of rural New England life, the thirteen poems continue the vein of gloom begun in "The Overgrown Pasture" sequence of Men, Women, and Ghosts. The peculiarity of these compositions is the lack of poetic quality in their form. In her zeal for innovation, Amy Lowell had devised a flat, free verse monologue whose jaggedness and use of dialect she hoped to turn to expressive account. The form justifies itself to a certain extent in "Off The Turnpike" and "Number Three On The Docket" from the earlier book. Both of these poems are studies of mental derangement produced by loneliness and emotional...
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SOURCE: "Imagist and Impassionist: The Major Lyrics," in Amy Lowell, Twayne Publishers, 1985, pp. 120-39.
[In the following essay, Benvenuto examines the stylistic and thematic aspects of Lowell's lyrical poetry in the collections, Pictures of the Floating World and What's O'Clock.]
While [Amy] Lowell was writing the dramatic and narrative poems of Men, Women and Ghosts, Can Grande's Castle, and Legends, she was developing steadily as a lyric poet as well…. [Her] discovery of imagism resulted in such finely wrought lyrics as "Taxi" and "Aubade" in Sword Blades and Poppy Seed. And although she often wrote with other ends in mind than those of imagism, the imagist principles taught her to focus on relevant detail and on sensory, nondiscursive language, and to value such qualities as concision and vividness as the identifying traits of modern poetry. Pictures of the Floating World, published in 1919, and What's O'Clock, published posthumously in 1925, show her often achieving these effects in her major lyrics—both in the shorter, suggestive picture poems most often associated with imagism, and in her longer lyrical meditations. By 1919, moreover, Lowell had begun to study seriously Japanese and Chinese poetry, a lifelong interest that would culminate in the collaborative translation with Florence Ayscough of Chinese lyrics in Fir-Flower Tablets (1921)....
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Gould, Jean. Amy: The World of Amy Lowell and the Imagist Movement. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1975, 372 p.
Biography of Lowell that emphasizes her role as a leading figure among the Imagist poets.
Sprague, Rosemary. "Amy Lowell." In Imaginary Gardens: A Study of Five American Poets, pp. 49-96. Philadelphia: Chilton Book Company, 1969.
Largely biographical exploration of Lowell's career that highlights her efforts as a poetic innovator and experimenter.
Aiken, Conrad. "The Technique of Polyphonic Prose: Amy Lowell." In Scepticisms: Notes on Contemporary Poetry, pp. 115-25. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1919.
Outlines the artistic limitations of Lowell's Can Grande's Castle.
Ambrose, Jane P. "Amy Lowell and the Music of Her Poetry." The New England Quarterly LXII, No. 1 (March 1989): 45-62.
Analysis of musical elements in Lowell's poetry.
Ayscough, Florence. "Amy Lowell and the Far East." The Bookman LXIII, No. 1 (March 1926): 11-18.
Overview of Lowell's Oriental poems in which Ayscough recounts the experiments in...
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