Robert Lowell

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With reference to the traditional ballad of Lord Weary, what makes Lord Weary’s Castle an appropriate title for Robert Lowell’s book?

What aspects of the New England past provided Lowell with material for his poems and plays?

What is the theme or cluster of themes in the poem “For the Union Dead”?

How does Lowell unite the diverse images of “For the Union Dead”?

How do the formal aspects of Lowell’s poetry change over the course of his writing career?

What is confessional poetry? What are Lowell’s principal achievements in this mode?

What insights into other creative spirits of Lowell’s time do you find in Life Studies?

Other literary forms

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Robert Lowell made free translations of poems by writers from Homer to Boris Pasternak, which constitute Imitations and the similar translations of Roman poems in Near the Ocean. In addition, he wrote Phaedra, a translation of Jean Racine’s play (published in 1961, premiered at Wesleyan University in 1965), and The Oresteia of Aeschylus, a translation of Aeschylus’s play (published posthumously in 1979). The Old Glory, a group of plays (Endecott and the Red Cross, My Kinsman, Major Molineux, and Benito Cereno) based on stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, was originally published in 1965; the latter two plays were premiered at the American Place Theater in 1964, winning for Lowell an Obie Award. A revised edition, with an expanded version of Endecott and the Red Cross, was issued in 1968, and Endecott and the Red Cross had its first performance at the American Place Theater in the same year. Prometheus Bound, Lowell’s only other dramatic work, was presented at Yale in 1967 and published in 1969. Lowell also published a number of reviews and appreciations of writers; his Collected Prose was published in 1987.


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Robert Lowell’s poetry gives uniquely full expression to the painful experience of living in modern America; he speaks personally of his own experience as son, husband, lover, father, and mentally troubled individual human being, and publicly of American policy and society as a morally and spiritually troubled inheritor of Western cultural and Christian spiritual values. All the diverse kinds of poetry that Lowell wrote over a career in which he repeatedly transformed his art—religious, confessional, public—share a high degree of formal interest, whether written in traditional metrical forms or in free verse. Indeed, it was Lowell’s ceaseless formal invention that enabled him to articulate, in so many different voices, the experience of modernity.

The poet was honored for his work on several occasions in his lifetime. He was twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize—in 1947 for Lord Weary’s Castle and in 1974 for The Dolphin. He served as consultant in poetry (poet laureate) to the Library of Congress from 1947 to 1948. He won an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1947), the National Book Award in Poetry in 1960 for Life Studies, the Levinson Prize in 1963, the Copernicus Award in 1974, the National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry in 1977 for Day by Day, and the Ambassador Book Award in 2004 for Collected Poems. He became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1954 and served as chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1962 to 1977.


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Axelrod, Steven Gould, ed. The Critical Response to Robert Lowell. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. A collection of critical essays covering the full spectrum of debate and response to Lowell’s work. Prefaced with a survey of Lowell’s life and his involvement in politics and literary movements and concludes with a bibliography and chronology.

Bishop, Elizabeth and Robert Lowell. Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth...

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Bishop and Robert Lowell. Edited by Thomas Travisano and Saskia Hamilton. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008. Contained here are the letters that Bishop and Lowell wrote to each other from 1947 until Lowell’s death in 1977. Their discussions involve poetry, politics, and their feelings for one another. Essential for anyone interested in these poets.

Cosgrave, Patrick. The Public Poetry of Robert Lowell. New York: Taplinger, 1970. While Lowell is usually seen as a “confessional” poet, many of his greatest poems were on public issues. Cosgrave brings out that dimension in his poetry and locates it in the traditions of public poetry and modernism. Unfortunately, the book was published in 1970 and does not discuss Lowell’s Notebook, a central text of Lowell’s politics.

Hamilton, Ian. Robert Lowell: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1982. This book is occasionally sensational, but it is the best biography available. It traces Lowell’s fascinating life in great detail and provides the contexts and occasions for many of his poems, which help readers understand them better.

Mariani, Paul L. Lost Puritan: A Life of Robert Lowell. New York: W. W. Norton, 1994. Mariani, a biographer specializing in the lives of poets and a poet himself, provides insights into Lowell’s poetry with anecdotes from his crisis-filled life. Includes extensive bibliography.

Perloff, Marjorie G. The Poetic Art of Robert Lowell. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1973. One of the best books available on the specifics of Lowell’s art. Perloff investigates with acuteness the images and syntax of many of Lowell’s poems. She is especially helpful on the Winslow elegies and the sound patterns of the poems.

Wallingford, Katherine. Robert Lowell’s Language of the Self. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988. Wallingford uses psychoanalytic criticism to investigate the poems. She finds that Lowell knew Sigmund Freud and applied many of his analytic methods in his poems. Lowell’s poetry invites this type of criticism, and this is the fullest use of it available.

Williamson, Alan. Pity the Monsters: The Political Vision of Robert Lowell. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1974. Williamson discusses the violence as well as the political vision of Lowell. He is one of few critics to fully discuss Near the Ocean and Notebook (later published as History).


Critical Essays