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date: 21 September 2020

Lowell, Robertfree

(01 March 1917–12 September 1977)
  • Steven Gould Axelrod

Robert Lowell.

Gelatin silver print, 1977 (printed c. 1993), by Judith Aronson.

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Lowell, Robert (01 March 1917–12 September 1977), poet, was born Robert Traill Spence Lowell IV in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of Robert Traill Spence Lowell III, an engineer in the U.S. Navy, and Charlotte Winslow. Lowell’s ancestors on his father’s side included poets James Russell Lowell and Amy Lowell as well as Civil War colonel Charles Russell Lowell, Harvard president Abbott Lawrence Lowell, and astronomer Percival Lowell. On his mother’s side, he counted as ancestors colonial patriarchs Edward Winslow and Josiah Winslow and revolutionary war general John Stark. Robert Lowell felt these ancestors to be as much a moral burden as a point of pride. He wrote numerous poems expressing guilt for his ancestors’ crusades against various opponents including Native Americans, political dissidents, and the natural environment. He even expressed disdain for his poetic forerunners, calling James Russell Lowell a poet “pedestalled for oblivion” and Amy Lowell “a scandal, as if Mae West were a cousin.”

The Lowell family’s notable, if often guilty, past collided with its present straightened and conflicted obscurity. Despite benefiting from a sizable inheritance, Lowell’s father failed in both his naval career and his subsequent attempts to establish himself as a stockbroker. Moreover, Lowell’s mother and father perpetually quarreled. Young Lowell endured the irony of possessing a celebrated family name but a pedestrian and even tortured and ignominious family reality. He grew up haunted and repelled by his familial and cultural history, as works such as “At the Indian Killer’s Grave,” “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” “Salem,” “Mr. Edwards and the Spider,” “Charles Russell Lowell,” and his dramatic trilogy, The Old Glory, attest. He was equally obsessed and horrified by his experience of family and national life. His witty, pained, and revealing autobiographical lyrics—appearing most memorably in his 1959 “Life Studies” sequence—formed the spine of his poetic identity and achievement.

Lowell grew up in Boston after spending brief, unsettled periods in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. In Boston he attended the Episcopalian prep school St. Mark’s, where his antisocial behavior earned him the sobriquet of “Cal,” short for both “Caligula,” the Roman tyrant, and “Caliban,” the beast-man of Shakespeare’s Tempest. Lowell then studied for two years at Harvard (1935–1937), where his incipient poetic gifts went unrecognized and where his sullenness and anger only grew. After a violent quarrel with his father—memorialized in a series of guilt-ridden poems written throughout his career—Lowell drove to Clarksville, Tennessee, to introduce himself to the Fugitive poet and critic Allen Tate. Tate became Lowell’s first and most important poetic mentor, changing and perhaps saving Lowell’s life.

Tate recognized Lowell’s talent and gave that talent direction. After buying a tent at a local department store, Lowell camped out on Tate’s lawn for a summer, spending his days composing poems and talking poetry with Tate. In fall 1937 Lowell enrolled at Kenyon College in Ohio to study with Tate’s friend and fellow poet John Crowe Ransom. Among the other students at Kenyon, Lowell met a lifelong friend, Randall Jarrell, who eventually became another prominent member of Lowell’s “Middle Generation” of poets. Lowell excelled in his classes, wrote impassioned poems on classical and Christian themes that were published in the school literary journal Hika, and graduated summa cum laude in classics in 1940.

Soon after graduation Lowell married his first wife, Jean Stafford, who was just beginning her illustrious career as a writer of fiction. They had no children. He then commenced graduate study at Louisiana State University with two of the most prominent New Critics, Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren. Lowell at that time converted to Roman Catholicism, influenced by Gerard Manley Hopkins, Etienne Gilson, and other Catholic writers and philosophers and impelled as well by his dark moods and what his wife termed “fire-breathing righteousness.” This religious conversion strongly shaped the character of his first two books of poetry. Lowell left graduate school in September 1941 to work briefly at the New York publishing house Sheed and Ward. His poetic career resumed when he returned with Stafford for a year’s stay with Tate and his wife, novelist Caroline Gordon, in Monteagle, Tennessee. There Lowell wrote most of the highly rhetorical religious and social poems that appeared in his first published book, the privately printed Land of Unlikeness (1944).

Although Lowell had volunteered and been rejected for military service in the Second World War, when he was inducted in 1943, he refused to serve. He based his refusal partly on a newfound but principled pacifism, partly on political opposition to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s demand for Germany’s unconditional surrender, partly on a congenital rebelliousness, and perhaps partly on barely conscious fascist sympathies he had acquired both from his upbringing and as a self-conceived inheritor of a certain variety of high Modernism. His mentors Tate and Ransom also opposed U.S. participation in the war, as did such Modernist luminaries as Ezra Pound and, to a lesser extent, Wallace Stevens. As a conscientious objector, Lowell served five months in West Street Jail in New York City and in federal prison at Danbury, Connecticut, an experience he later represented in poems such as “In the Cage” and “Memories of West Street and Lepke.” Upon release, Lowell returned, with renewed inspiration and dedication, to his poetic vocation. He composed thirty-two new poems, revised ten previously published poems, and published them all in the book that made him famous, Lord Weary’s Castle (1946). This volume won rave reviews by many of the most prominent poets and critics of the time, and it won the first of Lowell’s two Pulitzer Prizes. His friend Randall Jarrell, the nation’s leading poetry reviewer at the time, wrote in the Nation,

When I reviewed Mr. Lowell’s first book I finished by saying, “Some of the best poems of the next years ought to be written by him.” The appearance of Lord Weary’s Castle makes me feel less like Adams or Leverrier than like a rain-maker who predicts rain and gets a flood which drowns everyone in the country. (18 Jan. 1947, p. 77)

Lord Weary’s Castle, moderating and perfecting the rhetoric of Lowell’s first book, lambastes the violence, opportunism, greed, and egotism that Lowell saw pervading the American past and present. According to “Children of Light,” our Puritan ancestors “fenced their gardens with the red man’s bones.” In “At the Indian Killer’s Grave,” Lowell has the murdered Indian King Philip arise to condemn the Puritan elders to hell for having “hurled / Anathemas at nature and the land.” In “Concord,” Lowell scorns twentieth-century Americans who have replaced the Puritans’ religious zealotry with consumerist conformity: “Ten thousand Fords are idle here in search of a tradition.” The volume’s longest and most harrowing poem, “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” laments all that American seamen of the nineteenth century “lost / In the mad scramble of their lives.” The poem even more intensely mourns present-day losses, implicitly those resulting from World War II, in imagery that echoes and alters that of Moby-Dick (among other texts): “The bones cry for the blood of the white whale.” Throughout “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” and Lord Weary’s Castle, Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary are presented as the sources of salvation. But it is the prolonged anguish of the narrating subject rather than his occasional half-vision of redemption that governs this poetic discourse: “I am a red arrow on this graph / Of Revelations.” Moving American poetry to a new plateau of linguistic energy and complexity, Lord Weary’s Castle brings to a triumphant climax one variety of poetic Modernism, especially as constructed by New Critical reading strategies. The volume also culminates a tradition of apocalyptic cultural critique that may be traced back through T. S. Eliot, Pound, William Butler Yeats, and Hopkins to Matthew Arnold, Robert Browning, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Milton.

For all its impact, Lord Weary’s Castle was more an ending than a beginning. Lowell’s Modernist and Christian loyalties consumed themselves in the process of articulation, leaving Lowell’s career momentarily in ashes. American poetry, of which his work seemed to some exemplary, found itself at a confused moment as well. Lowell’s poetic drive sputtered on, producing one additional volume, The Mills of the Kavanaughs (1951). Although this volume included several interesting narrative poems, it was pervaded by a sense of anticlimax, devitalization, and even indifference.

Then followed a thundering silence, a period of transition marked by few poems and tumultuous personal changes. Lowell had divorced Jean Stafford in 1948 and married essayist and novelist Elizabeth Hardwick the following year. The couple had one child. He had also lost his Roman Catholic faith; he had acquired a politics Stanley Kunitz characterized as “conventionally liberal” (though it was striated with conservative and radically leftist strands); and he began to experience a series of manic-depressive episodes that left him periodically disabled, hospitalized, and medicated throughout the rest of his life. Moreover, this was a period in which both of Lowell’s parents died. His ineffectual, ambivalently loved father died in 1950, and his demanding, frustrated, brilliant, and even more ambivalently loved mother died in 1954. Lowell spent much of 1955 in mental hospitals. By 1957 he was back in Boston, living with Hardwick and their newborn daughter and teaching poetry part-time at Boston University. He was attempting to write a prose autobiography, and he was publishing nothing. On a West Coast reading tour, he thought that his old poems “seemed like prehistoric monsters dragged down by their ponderous armor” (Prose, p. 227). Feeling that most of what he knew about writing poetry was a hindrance, he determined to start over.

Influenced by the friendship and poetic examples of William Carlos Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, and W. D. Snodgrass—and perhaps, though he denied it, by the popular success of Allen Ginsberg—Lowell began writing autobiographical and domestic poems that were elegiac and self-deprecating, painful and comic. In these poems about his parents, his upbringing, his marriage, and his mental breakdown, Lowell came down off his rhetorical stilts and pondered, in Yeats’s phrase, “old bones, old rags.” He wanted to see “how much of my personal story and memories I could get into poetry” (Meyers, p. 85). He hoped that “each poem might seem as open and single-surfaced as a photograph” (Meyers, p. 158). Gone was the prophetic, intricately crafted discourse of Lord Weary’s Castle. In its place were free-verse lyrics that adopted a tone “that sounded a little like conversation” (Meyers, p. 79). The poems were written “rather directly with hidden artifice” (Meyers, p. 75), forging a dialectic of “actual experience” and “something invented” (Meyers, p. 94). Including both a fullness of human representation and a maximum of linguistic ingenuity, these were poems in which characters spoke, felt, and acted and in which language self-reflexively played.

Chronicling a family’s decline while commenting ironically on class, race, gender, sexuality, and American nationality from the 1920s to the end of the Dwight Eisenhower era, Life Studies (1959) was Lowell’s second great success. The volume won wide notice, impressive reviews, and the 1960 National Book Award for poetry. It changed the course of poetry in the United States, ushering out what Lowell called the “symbol hanging on a hatrack” (Meyers, p. 169) and ushering in the family plot. The book’s key “Life Studies” sequence commences with memory poems about growing up in a family whose dominant notes were conflict, failure, separation, loss, and death. The sequence concludes with poems depicting the narrator’s own discordant marriage, his descent into mental illness, and his partial and perhaps temporary recovery. The final poem, “Skunk Hour,” breaks irretrievably with the Modernist principles of objectivity, unity, and impersonality: “I myself am hell; nobody’s here.” The ambiguous concluding lines depict a mother skunk who, implicitly like the narrating subject himself, “will not scare.” Brilliantly deploying the signs of his own life and those of his culture, Lowell accomplished a memorable and influential de-idealization and de-centering of personal being, family, nation, and poetic language itself.

In the years that followed, Lowell modified and expanded the personal lyric without ever quite abandoning it. He felt that after Life Studies, “continuous autobiography was impossible” (Meyers, p. 156). He and his family moved from Boston to New York, and he began to focus more on his nation’s intellectual and historical life and less on his family relationships. He published a volume of creative translations, Imitations (1960), and then a volume of new poems, For the Union Dead (1964). Although not as cohesive or compulsively readable as Life Studies, the latter volume concludes with one of Lowell’s most justly celebrated poems, “For the Union Dead.” Employing an astonishing array of echoing images and words, this poem moves effortlessly between personal-seeming memory and cultural critique. It juxtaposes a heroic black Union army regiment with the integration battles of African Americans in the 1950s, and it counterpoises Hiroshima with parking structures, advertising, TV news, and societal amnesia. On the basis of this poem, Richard Poirier labeled Lowell “our truest historian.”

Lowell continued to write poems of political resistance and historical memory throughout the rest of the 1960s. His dramatic trilogy, The Old Glory (1965), reimagines stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville in order to critique the uneasy alliance of idealism and violence in the American past and present. Regarding violence as “the hellfire” (Meyers, p. 164), Lowell dramatizes crucial moments in seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century America as filtered through an awareness of twentieth-century racism and imperialism.

In 1965 Lowell protested the Vietnam War by publicly declining President Lyndon Johnson’s invitation to a White House arts festival. This controversial act plunged him into active politics for the first time since he had refused the draft twenty-two years before. The connecting thread between these acts of resistance was his horror of war. He spent the last half of the 1960s participating in antiwar demonstrations and Senator Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 presidential campaign. Lowell’s retelling of Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound (1969) and especially his brief collection of poems titled Near the Ocean (1967) reflect and extend this political engagement. Both books question the kind of patriarchal authority that precipitates war abroad and inequity at home. “Central Park,” in Near the Ocean, portrays an America wracked by poverty, crime, class distinction, and brutality. “Waking Early Sunday Morning,” in the same volume, represents President Johnson justifying international violence yet secretly “sick / of his ghost-written rhetoric!” This poem concludes with an eloquent lament for a human race made abject by its own violent desires: “Pity the planet.”

Lowell’s political and moral concerns reached a climax in an experimental volume of sonnetlike poems that attempted to mix “the day-to-day with the history.” Initially titled Notebook 1967–68 (1969), it was revised and republished twice, first as an expanded Notebook (1970) and then as a much-altered History (1973). History removes the personal sonnets from Notebook, adds some additional sonnets about history and politics, and arranges the whole chronologically. It plunges readers into a verbal labyrinth of tyrants, heroes, artists, wars, artworks, and quotations, all tied together with bent epigrams and accompanied by the insistent sounds of death. The book sums up the poet’s obsession with the public life and cultural past—and perhaps liberates him from it.

Lowell rearranged and republished the more personal sonnets of Notebook in For Lizzie and Harriet (1973). As a counterpoint to that book, which focuses on his second marriage, Lowell also wrote The Dolphin (1973), which constructs a fissured narrative of his 1972 divorce from Hardwick, his marriage later that year to his third wife, Caroline Blackwood, and the birth of their son. Perhaps more importantly, the volume creates a space in which to chart the interactions of love and art, of human experience and poetic language. The “dolphin” of the title is alternatively erotic love and poetic voice and vocation. Thus, if History forms the capstone of Lowell’s public meditations, The Dolphin culminates his domestic and aesthetic ones. Although attacked by some readers for violating privacies as well as venerated notions of poetic language and form, The Dolphin earned Lowell his second Pulitzer Prize.

In his final years Lowell was plagued by worsening physical and psychological debilities. His heart was failing, his third marriage was dissolving, and his depression grew increasingly constant. In 1970 Lowell had moved to England, where he fell in love with Blackwood, but in 1977 the marriage failed and he returned to Elizabeth Hardwick in the United States. Lowell died of congestive heart failure in a New York City taxi on his way back from a last, unhappy visit with Blackwood in Ireland. Weeks earlier his final book of poetry, Day by Day (1977), had appeared. It included a complex Homeric narrative of domestic tension called “Ulysses and Circe”; a final political poem, juxtaposing Richard Nixon with mad King George, called “George III”; and a poignant sequence of autobiographical poems haltingly describing a downward descent. In almost his last composed poem, an ars poetica called “Epilogue,” Lowell wrote, “Pray for the grace of accuracy.” The poet, who had devoted his life to exploring the uncertain borders dividing the literary and the lived, left as his final words an evocation of that quest in the form of a prayer.

Bibliography

Lowell’s papers are collected at Harvard University. A second major collection is housed at the University of Texas, Austin. Other papers are at Yale University; Princeton University; the University of California, Riverside; the University at Buffalo; Kenyon College; and Washington University. A well-chosen but ultimately inadequate selection of Lowell’s poems appears in Selected Poems, rev. ed. (1977). His essays and autobiographies have been collected in Collected Prose, ed. Robert Giroux (1987). Lowell’s major interviews appear in Robert Lowell: Interviews and Memoirs, ed. Jeffrey Meyers (1988). A bibliography of primary works is the very early Jerome Mazzaro, The Achievement of Robert Lowell, 1939–1959 (1960). The most complete bibliography of secondary materials is Steven Gould Axelrod and Helen Deese, Robert Lowell: A Reference Guide (1982). Major biographies are Ian Hamilton, Robert Lowell (1982), which focuses on misdeeds and scandals in an often superficial manner; Paul Mariani, Lost Puritan: A Life of Robert Lowell (1994), which provides the best and most complete life history to date; and Richard Tillinghast, Robert Lowell’s Life and Work: Damaged Grandeur (1995), a revealing critical memoir. Early critical studies of Lowell include the following works, all published while Lowell was in mid-career: Hugh Staples, Robert Lowell: The First Twenty Years (1962), which takes a New Critical stance; Jerome Mazzaro, The Poetic Themes of Robert Lowell (1965), which provides multiple cultural and literary contexts for reading the early volumes; Richard J. Fein, Robert Lowell (1970; rev. ed., 1979), which explicates the poems in terms of both a private and a common world; Marjorie Perloff, The Poetic Art of Robert Lowell (1973), which provides an essential starting point for theoretically sophisticated readings of Lowell; Alan Williamson, Pity the Monsters: The Political Vision of Robert Lowell (1974), which initiates both a psychoanalytical and a cultural studies approach to Lowell; and Stephen Yenser, Circle to Circle: The Poetry of Robert Lowell (1975), which gives Lowell’s poetry intensive aesthetic scrutiny. Since 1977, critical books have been able to consider Lowell’s career in its entirety. Steven Gould Axelrod, Robert Lowell: Life and Art (1978), provides a biography of Lowell’s imagination as well as sustained readings of all of his major poems and a positioning of his work within a fabric of influences that includes Allen Tate and William Carlos Williams. Vereen Bell, Robert Lowell: Nihilist as Hero (1983), presses the case for Lowell’s chronic pessimism. Katharine Wallingford, Robert Lowell’s Language of the Self (1988), offers a reading of Lowell’s oeuvre in terms of the process of Freudian psychoanalysis. Terry Witek, Robert Lowell and “Life Studies”: Revising the Self (1993), offers an intensive reading of Lowell’s autobiographical volume. Henry Hart, Robert Lowell and the Sublime (1995), provides multiple perspectives on Lowell’s tropes of sublimity. Two notable collections of essays are Steven Gould Axelrod and Helen Deese, eds., Robert Lowell: Essays on the Poetry (1986), and Harold Bloom, ed., Robert Lowell (1987). Obituaries are in the New York Times, 13 Sept. 1977, and The Times (London), 14 Sept. 1977.