Robert Traill Spence Lowell, Jr., the only child of Commander Robert Traill Spence Lowell, a naval officer, and Charlotte Winslow Lowell, was joined by birth to a number of figures variously prominent in the early history of Massachusetts Bay and in the cultural life of Boston. On his mother’s side, he was descended from Edward Winslow, who came to America on the Mayflower in 1620. His Lowell ancestors included a Harvard president, A. Lawrence Lowell, and the astronomer, Percival Lowell, as well as the poets James Russell Lowell and Amy Lowell. His ancestors’ prominent roles in the early history of Massachusetts and its culture made him feel implicated in the shameful events of that history—such as the massacre of the native Indians—and the failings of the Puritan culture that became the ground out of which a money-centered American industrial society grew. His sense of his family’s direct involvement in the shaping of American history and culture was conducive to the conflation of the personal and the public that is one of the distinguishing features of his poetry.
The poet had a childhood of outward gentility and inner turmoil. He attended Brimmer School in Boston and St. Mark’s Boarding School in Southborough, Massachusetts. His parents had limited means relative to their inherited social position, and his ineffectual father and domineering mother filled the home with their contention. Richard Eberhart, then at the beginning of his poetic career, was one of Lowell’s English teachers at St. Mark’s, and at Eberhart’s encouragement, Lowell began to write poetry, some of which was published in the school magazine. In 1935, Lowell entered Harvard, intent on preparing himself for a career as a poet. He was disheartened by the approach to poetry of his Harvard professors, however, and frustrated in his search for a mentor. He was at a nadir of confidence, thrashing about for direction and desperate for encouragement, when an invitation to visit Ford Madox Ford, whom he had met at a cocktail party at the Tennessee home of Allen Tate, brought him to Tate’s poetry and to Tate himself, who was to be a formative influence. Lowell was then torn between traditional metrical forms and free verse, and Tate brought him down, for the time being, on the side of the former. What Tate advocated was not bland mechanics but rather an intense struggle to apprehend and concentrate experience within the confines of form, depersonalizing and universalizing experience and revitalizing traditional forms.
His intimacy with Tate led to Lowell’s immersion in the world and values of the traditionalist Southern Agrarian poets who constituted the Fugitive group. After spending the summer of 1937 at the Tates’ home, Lowell transferred from Harvard to Kenyon College to study with John Crowe Ransom, who had just been hired at Kenyon, which he would turn into a center of the New Criticism. At Kenyon, Lowell met Randall Jarrell, with whom he began a personal and literary friendship that ended only with Jarrell’s suicide in 1965. While apprenticing himself as a poet, Lowell studied classics, graduating summa cum laude in 1940.
Also in that year, he married the young Catholic novelist Jean Stafford and converted to Roman Catholicism. He did a...
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