Robert Trail Spence Lowell, Jr., was born into the well-known Lowell family of Boston. His father, however, was not a distinguished member of that family, being a commander in the United States Navy and later an unsuccessful businessman. At the time of Robert’s birth, his mother’s family, the Winslows, had more money and more prestige, and his mother smothered her son with affection, while denigrating her husband’s incompetence. Lowell’s memoir “91 Revere Street” in Life Studies (1959) shows a sensitive child caught in the perpetual conflict of his parents.
Lowell attended a fashionable prep school, St. Mark’s, from 1930 to 1935 and Harvard University until 1937. He rebelled against his respectable parents in 1937 and left Harvard to pursue a possible career as a poet by going to live with the established poet Allen Tate in Clarksville, Tennessee. In 1937, Lowell entered Kenyon College to study with the poet John Crowe Ransom; he graduated summa cum laude in 1940. Lowell also met such lifelong friends at Kenyon as Randall Jarrell and Peter Taylor; he would often write about them in his later poetry.
Lowell was attempting to become a modern American poet by absorbing the ideas and techniques of Tate and Ransom; both poets exemplified and supported the New Criticism. The New Criticism focused on the poem rather than the poet, and it used as models such seventeenth century poets as John Donne. A proper poem, in the New Critics’ view, was complex, with rich imagery, and filled with recondite allusions.
In 1940, Lowell married his first wife, the fiction writer Jean Stafford. The marriage was stormy. Each writer was producing significant work at the time, although Stafford was more financially successful than was Lowell. Lowell’s political beliefs added to the complexities of his life. He became a conscientious objector in the early 1940’s when he learned about the bombing of the civilian population in Germany. In 1943, he was sentenced to a year in prison for refusing to be inducted into the military. He wrote a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt stating his position, his “manic statement/ telling off the state and president.” During this period, Lowell converted to Catholicism; this provided the subject matter for many of his early poems. He was later to reject Catholicism as the answer to his quest for a higher authority.
In 1944, Lowell’s first book of poetry, Land of Unlikeness, was published. It was in the complex and allusive style that the New Critics favored, and the reviews, while not extensive, were favorable. The true breakthrough volume for Lowell was his next book of poetry, Lord Weary’s Castle, published in 1946. It was an advance in style and technique, and, while it was still complex, it was much more forceful than the earlier book, especially such poems as “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” and “After the Surprising Conversions.” In 1947, Lord Weary’s Castle was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in poetry.
Although Lowell was recognized as an important American poet at this time, his life was troubled. He was subject to manic-depressive episodes and regularly spent brief periods in mental hospitals. The manic periods were especially disturbing because Lowell would claim that he was an all-powerful ruler and refuse the reasoned appeals of those closest to him. These episodes were usually accompanied by Lowell’s acquiring a new girlfriend while he announced to whoever would listen that he meant to leave his wife. During one of these episodes he wrecked a car and seriously injured Stafford. He divorced her in 1948 and married another writer, Elizabeth Hardwick, in 1949. In 1951, Lowell’s...
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third book of poetry was published;The Mills of the Kavanaughs is a series of dramatic monologues and is perhaps the least representative book he ever published. Critically, it was also one of the least successful.
The Beat poets of the 1950’s and Lowell’s turning to William Carlos Williams as a model (rather than T. S. Eliot) led to a significant change in Lowell’s style. In 1959, he published Life Studies, his most important book. Life Studies was nothing less than a revolution in American poetry. It included poems about his troubled relationship with his parents (who had died in the 1950’s), his imprisonment for refusing induction into the military, and his confinement in mental institutions. It dealt with personal subjects—indeed, some believed that it was too personal. The style was no longer the complex style recommended by the New Critics but a simpler, much more direct and striking one. Life Studies won the National Book Award for 1959.
In 1964, Lowell published For the Union Dead: most of the poems in the book were in the “confessional” mode of Life Studies, but there was one exception—the title poem. “For the Union Dead” is a political poem, not a confessional one. It contrasts the integrity and dedication of the nineteenth century Bostonians who fought for the liberation of black people with the decadent and materialistic twentieth century. Appropriately, Lowell read the poem on the Boston Common at the Boston Arts Festival. Lowell’s interest in politics is also reflected in the publication, also in 1965, of The Old Glory; this is not a book of poems but dramatizations of Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno” (1856) and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” (1832). It later had a successful run on the New York stage.
In 1967, Lowell published Near the Ocean, which, with the exception of “Waking Early Sunday Morning,” is a forgettable book. In some passages Lowell attacks President Lyndon Johnson for his continuation of the Vietnam War; this clearly shows Lowell’s continuing interest in power and American politics. In 1968, he campaigned for and became very friendly with Eugene McCarthy in an attempt to defeat Johnson and end the Vietnam War. He was becoming a public figure. In 1969, Lowell published Notebook 1967-1968, later revised as Notebook (1970) and later still revised as History (1973) by excerpting the political poems. Some of the poems are about the private life of the poet, sometimes expressed in a very intimate manner, but the book also contains a number of poems on leaders and political subjects. Another innovation is that the poems are all written in a loose sonnet form.
In 1972, Lowell divorced Elizabeth Hardwick and married Caroline Blackwood. That divorce and the troubled and loving relationship between Lowell and Hardwick became the main subjects of The Dolphin (1973) and For Lizzie and Harriet (1973). Lowell even included letters from Hardwick in a nearly complete form in some poems. His last book of poems was Day by Day (1977); it dealt with the difficult marriage between Lowell and Caroline and their residence in England. He was visiting Elizabeth Hardwick and his daughter Harriet in 1977 when he had a heart attack; he died on September 12.
Lowell is perhaps the most important American poet of the last half of the twentieth century. He expanded the range and possibilities of poetry’s subject matter with his confessional and political poems; no longer would poets have to write in the prescribed New Critical fashion. He also altered the way in which readers look at such traditional forms as the elegy and the sonnet.
Lowell’s style was also innovative. Those “words meat-hooked from the living steer” in his later poems showed that letters, diaries, and advertisements could become forceful entities in poetry. Above all, Lowell’s voice added an intensity and power to American poetry that had been lacking.