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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.
I wasn't a child at all –
unseen and all-seeing, I was Agrippina
in the Golden House of Nero...
Near me was the white measuring-door
My Grandfather had penciled with my Uncle's heights.
In 1911, he had stopped growing at just six feet.

(from 'My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow', 1959)

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 was 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 paper. Despite the clumsy effort, Frost recognized Lowell's talent, and helped him on a number of occasions. Lowell became Frost's closest friend among the younger poets. Frost also visited Lowell in a mental hospital in 1949.

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. Lowell fantasized marrying her and dedicated to Bishop his poem 'Skunk Hour' in Life Studies (1959): "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 met his lifelong friends 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 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 & South (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).

In 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. "Every serious artist knows that he cannot enjoy public celebration without making public commitments," he once said. From 1963 to 1970 he was a teacher at Harvard.

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 fulfillment."

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)  - See also: Wole Soyinka

Selected works:

  • Land of Unlikeness, 1944
  • Lord Weary's Castle, 1946 (Pulitzer Prize)
  • Poems: 1938-1949, 1950
  • The Mills of The Kavanaughs, 1951
  • Life Studies, 1959 (National Book Award)
  • Imitations, 1961 (translator)
  • Phaedra / Racine, 1963 (translator)
  • For the Union Dead, 1964
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1804-1864, 1964
  • Selected Poems, 1964
  • The Old Glory, 1965
  • The Achievement of Robert Lowell: A Comprehensive Selection of His Poems, 1966 (edited by William J. Martz)
  • Near the Ocean, 1967
  • Randall Jarrell, 1914-1965, 1967 (editor, with P. Taylor and R.P. Warren)
  • The Voyage / Baudelaire, 1968 (translator)
  • Prometheus Bound / Aeschylus, 1969 (translator)
  • Notebook 1967-68, 1969
  • R.F.K., 1925-1968, 1969
  • The Voyage & Other Versions of Poems of Baudelaire, 1968 (translator
  • The Dolphin, 1973 (Pulitzer Prize)
  • History, 1973
  • For Lizzie and Harriet, 1973
  • Robert Lowell's Poems, 1974
  • Selected Poems, 1976
  • Day by Day, 1977
  • The Oresteia / Aeschylus, 1978 (Agamemnon, Orestes, The Furies; translator)
  • Collected Prose, 1987
  • Collected Poems, 2003 (edited by Frank Bidart and David Gewanter)
  • The Letters of Robert Lowell, 2005 (edited by Saskia Hamilton)
  • Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, 2008 (edited by Thomas Travisano with Saskia Hamilton)

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