In 1917, Robert Lowell was born into one of Boston’s most prominent families, his relatives including the well-established Winslows and the famous poets James Russell Lowell and Amy Lowell. Robert Lowell’s rigorous academic training included two years at Harvard; a transfer to Kenyon College, where he studied under poet-critic John Crowe Ransom; and postgraduate work at Louisiana State University under the tutelage of Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren. The formalist influence of Ransom, Warren, Brooks, and their colleague Allen Tate shaped the style of Lowell’s early poetry: Land of Unlikeness (1944) and Lord Weary’s Castle (1946). These volumes were widely praised by critics for the masterful use of formal meter and rhyme and for their intellectual intensity.
Lowell’s conversion from an Episcopalian to a devout Catholic was another significant influence on his early poetry. The friendship between Warren and Lowell, their mutual appreciation for Italian Renaissance poet Dante Alighieri, and Lowell’s admiration for Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins ultimately led to Lowell’s conversion and baptism on the campus of Louisiana State University in 1941. Lowell practiced the Catholic faith strictly: He attended Mass each morning, read only religious books, and talked endlessly about the existence of God. Despite this initial passion, Lowell left the Catholic Church in 1946, simultaneously obtaining a divorce from his first wife of eight years, writer Jean Stafford. He returned to the Episcopal Church in November, 1955, but traces of Catholicism remained in his poetry.
Lowell was a victim of manic depression (bipolar disorder) and frequently experienced breakdowns but continued to write...
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