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
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 duty in the strictest sense.
I do not purpose to ridicule Amy Lowell in these paragraphs, nor to belittle her literary powers. Any one so vital as she is, so tremendously active, gives broad chance for the cheap journalist and punster to indulge himself in comic regard. All her life she has been subject for such attacks; but those who have attacked her have not retired unscathed. In 1914 she was limned by Town Topics which said, among other vicious things: "It is reported that the Macmillans will publish a book of Miss Lowell's verses. Poor Old Boston." F.P.A., from his scornful heights of columny, parodied her again and again and even resorted to personal jibes. It was not the real poets, however, nor the real critics who bombarded her with criticism. It was the little versifiers and wits, who found the marching cadences of Miss Lowell's verses and the virile rush of her imagination easy to parody and to criticize. The firm quality of her work can be judged easily from the list of her critics. Radicals like Max Eastman attacked her, yet in 1915 W. D. Howells gave her high praise. Professor John Erskine and J. C. Squire still look askance at her, yet in 1921 even H. L. Mencken admitted grudgingly that she had "undoubted talents." Clement Shorter compared her to Dr. Johnson as the "unacknowledged head of Literary America." In 1913 Louis Untermeyer referred to her slightingly, but he has since paid her many glowing tributes. Her championship of the imagists brought down showers of controversy about her, which she weathered with little apparent effort. That she actually likes a good argument there is no doubt; but her hates are more intellectual than personal, and her raillery is most often leveled at dunderheads and dodos. She is forever sweeping out dusty minds, and her broom is more vigorous than cruel.
Miss Lowell has published six volumes of her own poetry. Two critical books, adaptations of Chinese translations and of two French operettas, critical pieces, and essays form the enormous body of her work. Before me now, in uniform size and with bright gemlike bindings, lies the complete set of her poems. After rereading them all I confess myself thoroughly humbled. There has never lived a woman poet of such range, versatility, and power. She reminds one of Byron or Browning. I am convinced that future time will find in her one of the literary giants of our time, and that, in spite of her overpowering personality, she will be known for her poetry. I know of only one way of phrasing my belief. She is a great poet.
Consider the poems. They range from the delicate, sometimes trite lyrics of A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass to the passionate virtuosity of Can Grande's Castle and the more closely knit dramas of Legends. There are pieces as fragile and as finely wrought as Italian glass. Pieces like the serene and musical "Patience" or "Madonna of the Evening Flowers" or "White and Green":
Hey! My daffodil-crowned;
Slim and without sandals!
As the sudden spurt of flame upon darkness
So my eyeballs are startled with you,
Supple-limbed youth among the fruit-trees,
Light runner through tasselled orchards.
You are an almond flower unsheathed,
Leaping and flickering between the budding branches.
There are pieces of atmospheric description that startle by their trueness and glow with imagery. Turn to "Motor Lights on a Hill Road," or "Before the Storm." There is humor, even in such grim New England tragedies as those Yankee dialect poems in "The Overgrown Pasture." There is the perhaps more characteristic drama of "Patterns," of "The Cremona Violin," or The Cross Roads"; and, most important of all, Miss Lowell's imaginative grasp of historical events, her linking of them to human passion as in the epical "Bronze Horses" or that great portrait of Lady Hamilton, "Sea-Blue and Blood-Red." She sees often not one country but several, and their contrasted events of the same epoch.
Are these six books, these hundreds of poems, and the many others known to be in existence but still unpublished, the unrelated effusions of a vigorous mind and a prolific pen, or are they related by some deep philosophy of life? To me Miss Lowell, in even firmer accents than Robert Frost or than Stuart Pratt Sherman, is preaching the philosophy of Puritanism and is at the same time, especially in her earlier volumes, longing to escape from it. This regard for morality, this stern preaching of duty, this conviction that moral laws infringed lead only to punishment by nature or by God, is evident in every one of her books. I do not think that she has been unaware of her doctrines; but I fancy she has not realized how much of a propagandist for them she is. In her early work she was quite unashamed. She spoke occasionally almost with the accents of Gipsy Smith or Billy Sunday. In "Azure and Gold" we find a trite stanza that might come almost from a Y. M. C. A. hymn book:
Here is philosophy concealed by no Maeterlinckian gauzes. Again we have it in "Fatigue":
Dower me with strength and curb all foolish eagerness—
The law exacts obedience. Instruct, I will conform.
She doesn't particularly wish to conform, mind you; but she will!
Over and over in the dramatic poems the story reiterates this idea of retribution for sin or dalliance. "The Great Adventure of Max Breuck" has it—Max loses all that is best to him in life because he tarries a moment by the way. Paul Jannes in "The Shadow" is turned from the pathway of sanity by his absorption in a shadow on his wall, the image of his own desire, the image from which he cannot escape. Lady Hamilton and Nelson are victims of their passion. Their tragedy is the most moving in "Can Grande's Castle." In "Guns as Keys: and the Great Gate Swings" Admiral Perry seizes on and opens to the world the mysteries of Japan—but what will be the consequences, Miss Lowell asks:
Occident—Orient—after fifty years.
In "A Tale of Starvation" the old man gives up life in his quest for the beautiful and, as he finds, the foolish. Napoleon is a figure which appeals to Miss Lowell as a symbol of lofty ambition brought low. In "Hammers" she paints him magnificently....
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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...
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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...
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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.]
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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...
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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...
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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.
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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...
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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...
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