Last Updated on July 3, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3618
Lowell, Robert 1917–
A Pulitzer Prize-winning major American poet, Lowell is also a playwright and translator. His works include Lord Weary's Castle, The Mills of the Kavanaughs, For the Union Dead, and Imitations. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
Lowell … seems too unable or unwilling to let words create a basis of meaning by themselves, and his poems often feel more hewn out than inspired, as if very little in them ever surprised Lowell himself. And when the wrestle with words and meanings becomes as gladiatorial and unsubmissive as this there is a real threat to the kind of reflection-within-experience which provides the basic strength of poetry, and which governs the unity and self-containment of any single poem and the shape it will most naturally assume. This comes out, I think, in the shape Lowell's poems actually have.
Colin Falck, "Dreams and Responsibilities," in Review, No. 2, June/July, 1962, pp. 3-18.
The title of Robert Lowell's best-known book, Lord Weary's Castle was cleverly chosen. The ballad of Lambkin tells how Lord Weary hired a mason to build him a castle and, when the job was done, refused to pay him for it. The mason took his revenge by breaking into the castle and murdering Lord Weary's wife and child. Ingratitude, exploitation, the indefensible failure of obligation to God that man is guilty of and must be violently punished for, these are pervasively the concerns of Lowell's early verse….
Lowell's obscurity too rarely seems to be founded on long hard effort to be understood. It arises most often where his subject is explicitly Christian. It is not so much that there are recondite Christian references—though these are plentiful enough—but that the language at such points is at its most thoughtlessly vulgar and sensational….
His ear is no more faultless than his tact. His densely alliterative iambic line, its persistent enjambment blocked by compulsively heavy rhyming, too often solidifies into a monotonously high-pitched rhetoric of desperation which can be repellent, particularly where the sense is elusive…. Finally, the effect is of dullness and even staginess. The poet has put all his money on the individual distinctness and force of his tone of voice, he appears to have trusted that the compulsive pressure of what can be feebly described as "the personal note" (as opposed to, say, "the personal fact," "the personal situation") will suffice to particularise a traditionally "evocative" vocabulary and a crudely gratuitous alliterative tread. Now and again, in Lowell, this can seem to happen, but rarely without some supporting advance in concentration, clarity and particularisation….
The best of Lord Weary's Castle are those poems in which Lowell has attempted his figure of ultimate retribution and calamity with the controlling assistance of some local or literary anchor. Readers of his Imitations will not be surprised to find him here drawing liberally on various literary sources…. But by and large, Lowell's sources have been a help to him, demanding of him both passion and objectivity. They might also have led him to that increased respect for character and situation which marks the later poems in Lord Weary's Castle and persists through The Mills of the Kavanaughs … to Life Studies….
On the whole, the explicitly autobiographical poems in Life Studies add little except further information to the prose. It might ultimately be possible to see them as precisely the sort of low-pressure exploration of his Boston past that Lowell was in need of to lend some specific resonance to his discontent. Certainly, a recent poem like "For the Union Dead" is an encouraging sign in this direction: it shows Lowell returning to the Boston legend with an objective malice, a detail and variety of local reference and a sharpened sense of public responsibility.
Ian Hamilton, "Robert Lowell," in Review, No. 3, August/September, 1962, pp. 15-23.
Much of Lowell's best work is difficult. Many of his poems are interpretations of American history or speculations of a theological nature, but his treatment of these familiar themes often requires a knowledge both of his personal religious and intellectual career and of his topical allusions…. [His] diction appears conventional enough at first glance—drawn as it often is from the Bible or from his illustrious predecessors, but, like Eliot, Lowell has adapted traditional allusions to his own uses, so that their connotations take on unexpected meanings in context. His style is sometimes harsh, grating and monosyllabic, but he makes poetry out of it as an artisan fits particles of jagged glass into a beautiful mosaic.
Hugh B. Staples, "Beyond Charles River to the Acheron: An Introduction to the Poetry of Robert Lowell," in Poets in Progress, edited by Edward Hungerford, Northwestern University Press, 1962.
More than any other poet Robert Lowell is the poet of shock: his effects vary from crudity to magnificence, but they are always surprising and always his own—his style manages to make even quotations and historical facts a personal possession. His variant of Tolstoy's motto, "Make it strange," is "Make it grotesque"—largely grotesque, grandly incongruous. The vivid incongruity he gives the things or facts he uses is so decided that it amounts to a kind of wit; in his poetry fact is a live stumbling block that we fall over and feel to the bone….
Lowell has always had an astonishing ambition, a willingness to learn what past poetry was and to compete with it on its own terms. In many of his early poems his subjects have been rather monotonously wrenched into shape, organized under a terrific unvarying pressure; in the later poems they have been allowed, in comparison, to go on leading their own lives. (He bullied his early work, but his own vulnerable humanity has been forced in on him.) The particulars of all the poems keep to an extraordinary degree their stubborn toughness, their senseless originality and contingency; but the subject matter and peculiar circumstances of Lowell's best work … justify the harshness and violence, the barbarous immediacy, that seem arbitrary in many of the others. He is a poet of great originality and power who has, extraordinarily, developed instead of repeating himself. His poems have a wonderful largeness and grandeur, exist on a scale that is unique today. You feel before reading any new poem of his the uneasy expectation of perhaps encountering a masterpiece.
Randall Jarrell, "Fifty Years of American Poetry" (1962), in his The Third Book of Criticism (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1941, 1945, 1955, 1956, 1962, 1963, 1965 by Mrs. Randall Jarrell; © 1963, 1965 by Randall Jarrell), Farrar, Straus, 1969.
Lowell had always seemed more "baroque" than the other followers of Eliot, his verse more tautly drawn by the tension between his strict over-all form and his passionately centrifugal detail; but this seemed for a while irrelevant. Only in the past several years have we come to appreciate how little there is in him of symbolisme, and how much of a more native metaphysical strain, capable of providing those dissatisfied with suburban Eliotics deeper, if more disquieting pleasures.
It is, of course, to the Emersonian tradition that Lowell belongs, as is proper in a poet-whose name declares him native to New England, kin of James Russell Lowell and of Amy Lowell, but whose work reveals him as constantly at odds with that region and those relatives. To be of New England uncomfortably is precisely to be an Emersonian; and Lowell is uncomfortable enough with all he has inherited: at times embracing pacifism and Roman Catholicism, always committed to anti-Puritanism and the struggle against the complacencies of genteel Boston. Yet to Boston he has been drawn again and again, in search of themes and subjects as well as of a place to live. No ancestor worshiper, he has still had to endure being haunted by his forebears whose ghosts possess his verses as they must his life. From their allegiances and creeds he has struggled to be free, and out of that struggle has made his best poems.
Leslie A. Fiedler, in his Waiting for the End (copyright © 1964 by Leslie A. Fiedler; from the book Waiting for the End; reprinted with permission of Stein and Day, Publishers), Stein & Day, 1964, p. 230.
Of the poets who came into public notice in the years immediately after World War II, Robert Lowell has the most inclusive vision, encompassing both the terrors of responsibility and the terrors of alienation, and his career reflects most clearly two major trends in recent American poetry. These are the shift from "otherness" to the metaphysics and ethics of the individual imagination and the abandonment of the strict measures and dense phrasing of symbolist verse for the looser measures and simpler diction of a poetry responsive to the breath and cadence of contemporary reality.
Stephen Stepanchev, "Robert Lowell," in his American Poetry Since 1945 (copyright © 1965 by Stephen Stepanchev; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1965, pp. 17-36.
Near the Ocean … is both a synthesis of some of Lowell's constant themes and yet a new departure in his style. He is clearly mediating between the harsh formality of his earlier work and the contrary position, exhibited in Life Studies and For the Union Dead, of writing a determinedly anti-rhetorical, anti-metrical, prose-textured verse that chose the virtues of immediacy rather than those of tradition. The new work is a return to formality, but toward a formality that seems the very structure of naturalness. Yet its style, like its themes, has been long prepared for. Lowell has moved beyond the metrical repudiations he felt necessary in Life Studies, but he retains the conversational rhythm, the syntax of "ordinary" speech, in short the liberation from a constrained formality which the poems in that book made possible. It may be felt that he is now writing at a lower pitch of intensity than his earlier work has made us expect from him; if this is so, it makes possible a broader range of feeling and a less fractious, though not less tragic, view of experience. Never one to be reconciled with what is, Lowell has earned a hard-won tolerance of our world; the brunt of life, though still almost unbearable, compels us no longer toward apocalypse, but toward a tragic acceptance of our nature. Apocalypse awaits us still, but at a distance….
Each book of Lowell's has won him new laurels on which he has never been content to rest. His creative energy seems ever-renewing, and his poetic means have changed with the changes in his vision. His work thus far is the most authoritative and compelling body of verse by any living poet in English save Auden…. Lowell's poems begin in suffering, not, like Frost's, in delight, although like those they end in wisdom. It is Lowell's continuing triumph to have turned both suffering and wisdom into that delight which is achieved only by those few poets who have mastered experience through their art.
Daniel Hoffman, "The Greatness and Horror of Empire: Robert Lowell's Near the Ocean," in Hollins Critic, February, 1967, pp. 1-16.
Life Studies … is the volume in which [Lowell] at last 'finds himself.' He does so literally, for in most of the poems he himself and his family are at the center, and his object is to catch himself in process of becoming himself. Equally important, in fact more so, he finds himself as a stylist. For the first time he can be casual, simple, and direct throughout a poem, and at the same time he can strike home more tellingly than ever when he wishes. Or, if he desires, he can be transparently clear and gentle in his emotional realizations, as he could not have been before….
Looking back over Life Studies for its stylistic dynamics, we can see that Lowell has made sophisticated use of the whole modern tradition of the poetic sequence. This tradition includes as its main representatives Song of Myself, Spoon River Anthology, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley and the Cantos, The Waste Land and Four Quartets, The Bridge, and Paterson. Lowell has deliberately forgone certain rhetorical heights that his forerunners stormed, and some of their more obvious exploitation of myth (and myth-making) as well…. Nowhere in Life Studies is there eloquence for its own sake, or abstractly developed religious or philosophical symbolism. Lowell had displayed both in his earlier work, but this sequence is stripped down to the immediately relevant…. The 'myth' that Lowell creates is that of an America (and a contemporary civilization generally) whose history and present predicament are embodied in those of his own family and epitomized in his own psychological experience. It is easy to see how in so doing he parallels some of the important implications of Whitman, Pound, Eliot, Crane, and Williams, and also how he has received clues from these writers' most 'confessional' moments and from Masters's characters at their most disillusioned and nervously disturbed.
But though the stripped-down quality of the work limits its range in one sense, Lowell's virtuosity is such that we get a wide range indeed of effects, most of them functioning appropriately according to what is needed at the given point in the sequence….
Though Lord Weary's Castle received extravagant praise on its first appearance, it has become dated rather quickly through its 'literary' and 'complex' mannerisms after the example of such post-Eliot writers as Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren. Most of its poems that show the most passionate conviction are tendentious as well. They attempt heroically but also awkwardly to weld Christian symbolism, social criticism, and an anguished sense of life under unbearable pressure (sometimes deriving from an 'internalized' sense of the pervasive guilt and foulness of men, sometimes out of sheer horror at the war)….
[Lowell's poetic] evolution, it must be admitted, not only suggests that 'confessional' poetry was an impermanent but indispensable phase of Lowell's development, but indicates as well that only a comparable deployment of energies and resources would justify another poet's trying the same thing. Nothing could be more sterile and obviously self-deceptive than the use of a 'confessional' mannerism in a trivial or immature way. In other words, the method is so demanding, and must be so idiosyncratic in its execution, that its seductiveness may well turn out to be disastrous to others who lack Lowell's very great strengths.
M. L. Rosenthal, "Robert Lowell and 'Confessional' Poetry," in his The New Poets: American and British Poetry Since World War II (© 1967 by M. L. Rosenthal; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1967, pp. 25-78.
Complex and imperfect, like most of the accomplishments of serious men and women today, Robert Lowell's "Notebook 1967–68" is nevertheless a beautiful and major work. In what seems a propitiatory act to the modern god of chaos, the poet offers an account of his personal history as it has painstakingly ordered itself in images. It is the response of a racked but magnanimous mind, the response of a poet.
Lowell's work originally commanded attention because, among other virtues, it ranged over more human experience more generously than is common in modern poetry. Often the poet identified himself with people who had made historical errors, or with an artist who watched and understood such errors. His first major poem, "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket," goes beyond the conventional purposes of a wartime elegy for a dead sailor, to reckon up man's religious failures. Some years later when he made a secular reckoning in the title poem of "For the Union Dead" (1964), it was with the same sense of his own involvement.
In "Life Studies" (1959), the accounts of his family and of himself rise above the usual confessional poem in two respects. They are social criticism of the America they take place in, and they make serious moral judgments in which all the characters, including the speaker, share….
I suppose it is extravagant to speak of a book of poems as an act of propitiation. But when one of our best poets—only Pound, Auden and Berryman can be named in the company now, I think—writes down all the patterns of his mind, he seems to be saying they are fragments of order. The poet—in all modesty, in all vanity—creates order, if at all, by arrangement. Where human response is as accurate as this, it becomes a hopeful kind of human sacrifice….
William Meredith, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 15, 1969, pp. 1, 27.
Associative, unclouded, [Notebook 1967–68] resonates. The poems deal with life, rather than with a scholar's version of life. In Notebook 1967–68 Lowell manages to translate the intricacy of his mind's memory into lucidity on paper.
Lowell writes not only his own, but the common history. Places, events, times, persons are there. He ranges through his own life and into the intimacies of friendship, loves, and family life. At the same time the book deals with significant public events of the years concerned: the march on Washington, Columbia, the death of Robert Kennedy, the campaign and the Chicago convention, to name only a few. As in all of Lowell's work, there is the inexorable interweaving of public with private life….
There is hardly an interval, for Lowell, between the present meditation and its historical analogue. There are few poets who have this perception and range, let alone education. And yet, in the Notebook, associations occur without pretension, surely and effortlessly.
There is a feeling of urgency in these poems, written sometimes all at one sitting, sometimes slowly revised….
There is a grace about the poems; they flow easily, without hesitation. Lowell's technique, so fine he doesn't have to think about it, is calligraphy perfected by a lifetime of practice….
Lowell is, in poetry, the closest thing to an American Beethoven. He has egotism, impatience, grandeur, and courage, all of which press the work on to greatness.
Kathleen Spivack, "In the Midst of Life," in Poetry (© 1970 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), June, 1970, pp. 191-93.
From the nakedness of self-exposure and self-revelation in Life Studies it is hard to see how poetry could go further in the same mode. In his subsequent work what Lowell has done is to balance the personal and confessional aspect of the poetry by writing—deliberately, it would seem—in modes that take him far outside himself and into the City of culture…. No poet was ever farther from being a propagandist; but he has a powerful moral and political concern, a sense of responsibility for civilization, and specifically American civilization, that permeates his poetry. Certainly the wide and rapid acceptance of Lowell as the leading poet of his generation resulted in part from his commitment to the obligation of taking a public stand on politico-moral issues. But to return to the specific matter of the genres in which Lowell has written since Life Studies. The most striking of these is the imitation, which he has resurrected and which he employs very much as Pope or Johnson did: he writes, that is, poems that are somewhere between a very free translation of the original and a modern poem on the same theme. Lowell is, in fact, rather more strict than his eighteenth-century predecessors in that he never substitutes modern examples and allusions for the original ones….
Monroe K. Spears, in his Dionysus and the City: Modernism in Twentieth-Century Poetry (© 1970 by Monroe K. Spears; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1970, pp. 239-40.
Although the connection has been generally overlooked by literary critics, Charles Baudelaire plays an important role in the poetry of Robert Lowell as both influence and source, and it is a role which has expanded as Lowell's career has progressed. Lowell uses Baudelaire most explicitly, of course, in Imitations, a volume of free translations which includes fourteen of Baudelaire's poems. In retrospect, one can see that this volume constitutes a turning point in Lowell's poetry. In the poems published before Imitations, Lowell's reliance on Baudelaire is comparatively minor; but in the two volumes which follow, For the Union Dead and Near the Ocean, this reliance is crucial. In these volumes, Lowell perfectly assimilates Baudelaire's tone and subject matter into his own poetic voice….
Lowell's turning to Baudelaire underlines the ambiguity of his relationship to American literary tradition. Unlike Pound and Eliot in the early decades of this century, Lowell does not reject American tradition, finding nothing in it of use to the serious writer. On the contrary, much of his poetic career has been devoted to using and enlarging the resources of that tradition, as his various poems and plays on American themes testify. Although Lowell is far from rejecting his native heritage, he nevertheless finds it inadequate to his needs…. Lowell mines both European and American tradition, translating European poems and creating new poems on American themes, attempting to interweave and to some degree synthesize the two cultures. Without being in any sense a literary expatriate, Lowell performs the expatriate's function….
In Lowell's latest volume, Notebook (1969, 1970) Baudelaire continues to exert an influence, but it is a lesser one, secondary in importance to that of the later Symbolists and the Surrealists. Nevertheless, Lowell's career continues to prove that cosmopolitanism—so different from either the provinciality or the genteel Anglophilia of the nineteenth century—is the dominating tradition of twentieth-century American literature.
Steven Axelrod, "Baudelaire and the Poetry of Robert Lowell," in Twentieth Century Literature, October, 1971, pp. 257-74.
Lowell [is] certainly the most vigorously and variously resourceful of living American poets of his generation, a poet of brute or angelic intelligence, of almost unbelievable verbal and scholarly resource, taking, recently, every conceivable risk of a crash if he can keep the car on the road.
G. S. Fraser, "America's Lowell," in Partisan Review (copyright © 1972 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Fall, 1972, pp. 602-07.
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