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Widely considered the most influential American poet of the mid-twentieth century, Robert Lowell is acclaimed for his mastery of diverse forms, intense expression of personal concerns, and candid commentary on social and moral issues. Lowell’s verse reflects his knowledge of European literary traditions as well as the social and literary history of his native New England. His efforts to express his own personal torment, and the contemporary and historical struggles of the nation, fuse in his poetry, resulting in a coherent and distinguished body of work.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Rebellious Child of Privilege
Robert Traill Spence Lowell was born on March 1, 1917, into a prominent Boston family. Among his ancestors were literary figures James Russell Lowell and Amy Lowell. His home was dominated by incessant tension between his parents. Lowell attended St. Mark’s School in Massachusetts, where he began writing poetry under the guidance of academic poet Richard Eberhart. In 1935, he went to Harvard, like all Lowells before him, but he left after two years, following a physical fight with his father.
Lowell went south in 1937 to the Tennessee home of Allen Tate, a distinguished poet who proved to be an important influence on the young writer. He pitched a tent in the Tates’ front yard and spent the summer there, writing poetry in an almost obsessive way. In the fall, he went to Kenyon College in Ohio, and remained there until 1940, when he graduated summa cum laude with a degree in classics. Also in 1940, he converted to Roman Catholicism and married a young novelist, Jean Stafford.
Lowell and Stafford spent 1942-1943 in Tennessee, sharing a house with the Tates. Here Lowell wrote many of the poems that would appear in his first book. The United States had entered World War II; many adult men were required to report for military service under the draft. Lowell refused induction into the armed forces as protest against the Allied bombing of German civilians and served five months in jail as a conscientious objector.
Against the ”Cake of Custom”
The poems in Lowell’s first collection, Land of Unlikeness (1944), reflect the turbulence of the war years as well as the poet’s conversion to Catholicism and his reaction to his Protestant heritage. In his introduction to the volume, Allen Tate distinguished between its religious poems, which depict the decline of Christianity in the modern world, and a few more dramatic poems concerning personal experience in the contemporary historical context. Tate had foretold the outline of Lowell’s career; his work would ultimately move in the latter direction.
His next publication, Lord Weary’s Castle (1946), was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and firmly established Lowell’s presence in American literature. It was an anguished cry of opposition to war, materialism, and the Puritan ethic. Poet and critic Randall Jarrell, writing in The Nation, declared that these poems
understand the world as a sort of conflict of opposites. In this struggle one opposite is that cake of custom in which all of us lie embedded…. But struggling within this like leaven, falling to it like light, is everything that is free or open, that grows or is willing to change.
Lowell’s poetry developed as Tate had predicted, growing more dramatic as it depended less on Christian symbolism. Seven dramatic monologues made up his next
volume, The Mills of the Kavanaughs (1951). Most critics considered this an unsuccessful attempt to explore new poetic techniques. By the time of its publication, Lowell had left the Catholic church, divorced Stafford, married the writer Elizabeth Hardwick, and suffered the first serious attack of the manic-depressive illness that would plague him throughout his life, leading repeatedly to hospitalization.
Life Studies and the 1960s
A great change came over Lowell’s poetry in the late 1950s. He had encountered the revolutionary poetry of Allen Ginsberg and the “Beat” writers; he also revived a friendship with the innovative poet William Carlos Williams, who was a mentor to Ginsberg as well. Lowell began a shift away from conventional form and meter toward free verse and more colloquial language. In 1957 he was writing his autobiography in prose, and this became the source for a group of highly personal poems that resembled prose fragments. In his next publication, Life Studies (1959), Lowell found the voice of intense personal concentration that critics would call “confessional” poetry. Winner of the National Book Award in 1960, Life Studies was something new on the American literary scene, a breakthrough in both content and style.
Lowell spent the 1960s in New York, commuting to teach at Harvard and writing for the theater. He wrote several loose translations of (or variations on) classic plays, including Jean Racine’s Phaedra (1961) and Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound (1969). His most successful theatrical work was a group of short plays called The Old Glory (1965), adapted from stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville. Lowell also published Imitations (1961), which consists of reworked translations of poetry by several poets, such as Charles Baudelaire.
Lowell’s next book of new poetry, For the Union Dead (1964), continued in the confessional vein, but emphasized the interplay of personal and historical narratives. The title poem is suffused with references to period details—advertising slogans, television images, the civil rights struggle. The poet is confident that his private experiences of turmoil parallel his vision of societal decay and alienation. Near the Ocean (1967), published during Lowell’s most active involvement in national events, extends this concern with politics. In 1965, Lowell declined an invitation to a White House Festival of the Arts, as a protest against the war in Vietnam. Then in October 1967, he participated with several other literary figures in a highly publicized march on the Pentagon. Norman Mailer famously recorded this incident, in which Lowell plays a prominent part, in The Armies of the Night (1968).
The Notebook Sonnets
For several years starting in 1967, Lowell wrote primarily in unrhymed sonnets. In returning to a time-honored short verse format, Lowell sought a balance between order and spontaneity as a means to describe his moment-to-moment reflections. The first version of this project, published as Notebook 1967-1968 (1969), comments on contemporary politics while delving into the troubles in the poet’s marriage and private life. Lowell published a revised version of the Notebook a year later. In 1973, he brought out three volumes of sonnets simultaneously. History consists of public poems about literary and political figures past and present; For Lizzie and Harriet deals with Elizabeth Hardwick: and their daughter; and The Dolphin is mostly concerned with Lady Caroline Blackwood, the British author with whom he had another child out of wedlock. The Dolphin won the 1974 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.
In 1970 Lowell moved to England, where he spent most of his next six years. He divorced Hardwick and married Blackwood in 1972. He died of a heart attack on September 12, 1977, in a taxi in New York while on his way to see Hardwick. His last volume of new poetry, Day by Day (1977), appeared shortly before he died.
Works in Literary Context
Lowell’s elite education gave him a solid grounding in Western literature, and early in life he met and learned from distinguished poets such as Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom, with whom he studied at Kenyon. He situated himself within the literary tradition of his native New England; he was particularly fond of Herman Melville, to whom he dedicated his acclaimed poem ”The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” found in Lord Weary’s Castle. His poetry also reveals the influence of the high modern poets, especially Ezra Pound.
The sense of tension and vigor that distinguishes Lowell’s verse derives from his use of highly-charged, concentrated phrasing, sudden bold epigrams, and a profusion of thoughtfully-chosen details ranging from everyday objects to esoteric allusions. He makes skillful use of such poetic devices as assonance, alliteration, symbolism, and conventional verse structures. Throughout his career, Lowell experimented with verse forms and styles. In the 1940s he wrote intricate and tightly patterned poems with traditional meter and rhyme; in the late 1950s he began to write in much looser forms and meters; in the 1960s he wrote increasingly public poetry, and returned to conventional form with his sonnets; and finally, in the 1970s, his poems incorporated and extended elements of all the earlier poetry.
The poetry of William Carlos Williams, as noted above, influenced Lowell’s break in the 1950s from a conventional style to a confessional one— intense poems, open in form, that concentrate on personal conflicts and failings. The first poem Lowell wrote in this style, ”Skunk Hour,” is the last to appear in Life Studies but is one of his best-known verses. The poem begins with a description of a declining seaside town and its inhabitants, recognizable New England character types. The speaker arrives midway, voyeuristically watching the ”love-cars” from a hilltop. The poem ends with skunks searching for food in a garbage pail. These final images, arresting and ambiguous, seem to suggest a queasy metaphor for Lowell’s new artistic focus—the poet scavenging for truth in the refuse of psychic life. Hovering in the text is the fact of Lowell’s mental illness; the poet bluntly states, ”My mind’s not right.”
Numerous critics have lumped Lowell together with two of his students, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, under the ”confessional” label, though their poetry lacks the public dimension of Lowell’s. Lowell’s influence, however, extends far beyond this specific genre. For several decades in the middle of the twentieth century, he was America s leading poet, setting a standard to which nearly all aspired and by which nearly all were judged. Lowell’s bold transformations in style, and the conversational poetics he inaugurated with Life Studies, inspired and influenced countless American writers.
Works in Critical Context
For some readers and critics, Lowell stood at the center of his literary generation. He was associated with many of the important American poets of the early twentieth century, and seemed to be their heir. Several of his mentors, including John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren, were leading figures in the New Criticism, which became the prevailing critical school in mid-century America. Lowell’s early poetry, with its erudite intellectual sheen and formal virtuosity, squarely fit the aesthetic of the New Critics. He has remained in high critical regard; his final publication, Day by Day, won the National Book Critics Award in 1978. In the decades since his passing, scholarly interest in Lowell has dropped considerably, in favor of some of his colleagues such as Elizabeth Bishop. The introspective nature of his work, and the very public revisions he made to his Notebook series, have brought Lowell to the attention of postmodern literary critics.
Lord Weary’s Castle
Lowell’s friend Randall Jarrell, the noted poet and critic, wrote the most influential commentary on Lowell’s early work, a 1947 review of Lord Weary’s Castle in The Nation. Jarrell’s description of the work’s theme—the ”wintry, Calvinist, capitalist world against which the poet set himself—was the basis for much subsequent analysis.
Life Studies, more than a turning point in Lowell s career, is broadly considered a landmark in contemporary American poetry. Its prose-like voice and intensely personal subject matter seemed to represent a bold step toward authenticity and directness and a liberation from the artifice of high modernism. In an essay appearing in Next-to-Last Things: New Poems and Essays, Stanley Kunitz calls Life Studies ”perhaps the most influential book of modern verse since [T. S. Eliot’s] ‘The Waste Land.
- Axelrod, Steven Gould. Robert Lowell: Life and Art. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978.
- Bell, Vereen M. Robert Lowell: Nihilist as Hero. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983.
- Cooper, Philip. The Autobiographical Myth of Robert Lowell. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1970.
- Hamilton, Ian. Robert Lowell: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1982.
- Hart, Henry. Robert Lowell and the Sublime. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1995.
- Mailer, Norman. The Armies of the Night. New York: New American Library, 1968.
- Mariani, Paul. Lost Puritan: A Life of Robert Lowell. New York: Norton, 1994.
- Perloff, Marjorie. The Poetic Art of Robert Lowell. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1973.
- Price, Jonathan, ed. Critics on Robert Lowell. Miami, Fla.: University of Miami Press, 1972.
- Williamson, Alan. Pity the Monsters: The Political Vision of Robert Lowell. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1974.
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