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||Robert Lowell (1917-1977)|
American poet, noted for his complex, oratorical poetry, and turbulent life. Lowell was called the father of the confessional poets, a term used to describe among others Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and John Berryman. Lowell's work grew from his own unhappiness and the social, political, and ideological movements in the U.S. during the Post World War II decades. He was a heavy drinker, and was married three times. From 1949 the manic-depressive Lowell spent periods in mental hospitals.
I cowered in terror.
Robert Lowell was born in Boston, the son of Robert Traill Spence Lowell, a naval officer, and Charlotte (Winslow) Lowell, the dominating figure in Robert's childhood. Other members of the distinguished, intellectual family included the poet and critic James Russell Lowell and the poet Amy Lowell. Robert was nicknamed Cal, partly after the Roman emperor Caligula, known for his cruelty, and Caliban, familiar from Shakespeare's play The Tempest.
Lowell began writing at St. Mark's School, where his teacher
Richard Eberhart. At school he penned an essay entitled 'War: A
Justification', foreshadowing his belligerent way of life. While
studying English literature at Harvard, Lowell
met Robert Frost, who was delivering the
Norton lectures there, and asked his opinion about a long poem (the
subject was the First Crusade) he had written in longhand on lined
Despite the clumsy effort, Frost recognized Lowell's
talent, and helped
him on a number of occasions. Among the younger poets, Lowell became
Frost's closest friend. Frost also visited Lowell in a mental hospital
in 1949. One of Lowell's great idols was Ezra Pound,
whom he visited at St. Elizabeths Hospital, where Pound was confined
for more than twelve years, from 1946-1958. In a letter to Pound in
March 1954, Lowell enclosed the poem 'Adolf Hitler vo Linz
(Siegfried).' Lowell believed that there is a deep interrelation
between fascism and modernism.
When Lowell's parents rejected the woman he proposed to marry, he broke from his family. On the advice of a psychiatrist, he transferred to Kenyon College (Ohio). There he studied poetry and criticism, graduating in 1940. His teachers included John Crowe Ransom (1888-1974), who was a member of the Agrarian Movement. In 1940 Lowell converted Roman Catholicism and married against his parents' will the writer Jean Stafford – they divorced eight years later. In 1949 Lowell married the novelist and critic Elisabeth Hardwick. However, two years earlier Lowell had met the poet Elizabet Bishop, who influenced deeply his work. The poem 'Skunk Hour' in Life Studies (1959) was dedicated to Bishop: "Thirsting for / the hierarchic privacy / of Queen Victoria's century, / she buys up all / the eyesores facing her shore, / and lets them fall."
At Kenyon College Lowell formed a friendship Peter Taylor and Randall Jarrell. After graduating, Lowell moved on a fellowship to Louisiana State University, where he worked with Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks. Although Lowell tried to enlist in the armed forces during WW II, he declared himself a conscientious objector by the time he was called for service. Lowell's decision was based on his religious beliefs; he had become a Catholic in 1941, and argued that by bombing German civilians, the United States had ceased to fight a defensive war and thus it could not be justified by the church. In 1943 Lowell served five months of a prison sentence for refusing the draft, first at the West Street Jail in New York City, then at the Federal Correctional Center in Danbury, Connecticut. After being granted parole, Lowell served in Bridgeport, CT, where he cleaned the nurses' quarters at St. Vincent's Hospital. It is possible that the experiences of imprisonment played some role when his mental health later collapsed. To his time in Danbury Lowell returned in such poems as 'In the Cage' (1946) and 'Rats'.
In his first collection of poetry, the autobiographical Land of Unlikeness (1944), Lowell used Christian symbolism and juxtaposed the world of grace to the urban life. His second book, Lord Weary's Castle (1946), which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, marked a return to the New England milieu. It included the famous 'The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket.' "This is the end of running on the waves; / We are poured out like water. Who will dance / The mast-lashed master of Leviathans / Up from this field of Quakers in their graves?" This poem referred to such sources as Henry David Thoreau's Cape Cod, Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, and the Bible. Captain Ahab and his pursuit of the great whale is a central image. Some poems had religious themes, such as 'The Holy Innocents' and 'Christmas in Black Rock'. he wrote a love poem, 'Walking in the Blue'. Upon hearing of the success of his protégé, Frost said: "Isn't it fine that the young promise I began to entertain hopes of when it visited me on Fayerweather Street Cambridge in 1936, should have come to so much and to so much promise for the future?"
These two early books are among Lowell's confessional works, others were Life Studies (1959), which won the National Book Award in 1960, and The Dolphin (1973). The Mills of The Kavanaughs (1949), which blended classical myths with New England landscape, contained a narrative poem of some 600 lines and five other pieces.
With Elizabeth Bishop, whose North
(1946) had been received with critical acclaim, Lowell kept up
correspondence from 1947 until his death. In 1949 Lowell was
hospitalized for mania at Baldpate Hospital in Georgetown,
Massachusetts. From his padded cell he wrote in a letter: "I'm in grand
shape.... The world is full of wonders." In McLean's Hospital, during
one of his periodic incarcerations, he composed his famous love poem
'Walking in the Blue' for Anne Adden, whom he met in the hospital.
Lowell, who suffered from bipolar disorder, was treated with
electroconvulsive therapy (also known as electroshock or ECT). In his
manic period he allegedly once held the poet Allen Tate out of a
second-storey window while reciting 'Ode to the Confederate Dead'.
Lowell received the Harriet Monroe Poetry award in 1952 and the Guinness Poetry Award (shared with W.H. Auden, Edith Sitwell, and Edwin Muir) in 1959. In the 1950s, Lowell spent a few years abroad. He settled in 1954 in Boston, where he worked as a teacher at the University of Boston (1955-60). While in Boston, Sylvia Plath attended a poetry seminar run by Lowell. During this decade he was a visiting lecturer at the University of Cincinnati and Harvard University. The 1950s saw also the emergence of the Beat Generation, but in Boston the influence of the movement was not earth-shattering.
Lowell's interest in the history led him to translate such writers as Racine, Sappho, Rilke, and Baudelaire. He also produced versions of poems by such Russian writers as Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam. The trio of plays entitled The Old Glory – adapted for the stage from the stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville – reflected Lowell's preoccupation with dilemmas of the American past. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Lowell wrote a number of unrhymed sonnets, in which he explored his own literary career. These works he published in Notebook 1967-68 (1969) and in revised form in Notebook (1970).
the 1960s Lowell was active in the civil-rights and antiwar
campaigns. He made a number of widely published political gestures,
refusing among others to attend the White House Festival of the Arts
because of opposition to the Vietnam war. On October 21, 1967, he took
part in the march on the Pentagon along with such prominent figures as
Norman Mailer, Paul Goodman, and Dr. Benjamin Spock. When Lowell met
Mailer at a party on the eve of the march, he said, ""Elizabeth and I
really think you're the finest journalist in America. . . ." "Well,
Cal." said Mailer, . . . "there are days when I think of myself as
being the best writer in America."" ('Notebook 1967-68: Writing the Process Poem' by Alex Calder, in Robert Lowell: Essays on the Poetry, edited by Steven Axelrod & Helen Deese, 1986, p. 126)
that he cannot enjoy public celebration without making public
commitments," Lowell once said. From 1963 to 1970 he was a teacher at
Harvard. His spech bore traces of a Southern accent, which was usually greeted at the university with incredulity of hostility. ('Robert Lowell in the Sixties' by Richard Tillinghast, in Robert Lowell, Interviews and Memoirs, edited by Jeffrey Meyers, 1988, p. 262) Being considered both chic and sophisticated, Lowell was
featured on the cover of Time.
In 1972 Lowell divorced from his second wife. During the 1970s
Lowell lived in England, where he was a visiting fellow at All Souls
College, Oxford (1970), and visiting lecturer at the University of
Essex (1970-72) and at the University of Kent (1970-1975). In 1973
Lowell published three collections of poetry. History recreated a host of
historical figures from biblical times to the present. In For Lizzie and Harriet
he talked about his second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, and his daughter.
In 'Harriet', Lowell kills a fly, whamming back and forth across the
nursery bed, "... and another instant's added / to the horrifying
mortmain of / ephemera: keys, drift, sea-urchin shells, / you packrat
off with joy... a dead fly swept / under the carpet, wrinkling to
The Dolphin dealt with the poet's move to England as he left one wife for another. The third collection brought him another Pulitzer Prize, but he reviewers criticized him for using excerpts from his wife letters. The title poem was a celebration of feelings of love – the person behind the collection was Lowell's third wife, the writer Caroline Blackwood, of England's Guinness family. They had one child. Caroline had divorced twice; her first husband was the painter Lucian Freud, and her second was the composer Israel Citkowitz.
Lowell died of heart failure in a taxi on September 12, 1977, in New York, clutching Lucian Freud's portrait of his wife, named 'Girl in Bed'. At the time of his death, he was returning to his former wife and his daughter, after breaking with Caroline. His last collection was Day by Day, in which he used free verse like he had done in his early works. Lowell's record of his domestic history received posthumously in 1978 the National Book Critics Circle Award.
For further reading: The Achievement of Robert Lowell by J. Mazzaro (1960); The Poetic Themes of Robert Lowell by J. Mazzaro (1965); Robert Lowell: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. by T. Parkinson (1968); Robert Lowell, ed. by R. Boyers and M. London (1970); Pity of the Monsters by A. Williamson (1972); Circle to Circle: The Poetry of Robert Lowell by S. Yenser (1974); Robert Lowell: Life and Art by S.G. Axelrod (1978); Robert Lowell by R.J. Fein (1979); Robert Lowell by Ian Hamilton (1982); Robert Lowell: Interviews and Memoirs by J. Meuers (1988); Lost Puritan: A Life of Robert Lowell by P. Mariani (1994); Robert Lowell and the Sublime by H. Hart (1995); My First Cousin Once Removed by Sarah Payne Stuart (1998); Robert Lowell: A Biography by Ian Hamilton (2011); With Robert Lowell and His Circle: Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Elizabeth Bishop, Stanley Kunitz & Others by Kathleen Spivack (2012); Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire: a Study of Genius, Mania, and Character by Kay Redfield Jamison (2017); The Dolphin Letters, 1970-1979: Elizabeth Hardwick, Robert Lowell and Their Circle, edited by Saskia Hamilton (2019) - The first selection of Lowell's poems in Finnish translation was published in 2019. - See also: Wole Soyinka