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From 1913 until her death in 1925, Amy Lowell of Boston was a formidable force on the literary scene. She helped bring about the emergence of modern American poetry in the early twentieth century, particularly through the brief but influential phenomenon called imagism. She wrote and published over six hundred and fifty poems herself, but she is remembered more for her contributions as an editor, critic, patron, spokesperson, and popularizer of modern poetry.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
The Mistress of Sevenels
Amy Lowell was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, on February 9, 1874, the youngest of five children of Augustus and Katherine Bigelow Lawrence Lowell. She descended from a prominent, aristocratic clan with New England roots dating to the seventeenth century; her brother, Abbott Lawrence Lowell, went on to become president of Harvard College. Raised in a stately mansion on the family’s ten-acre estate, Sevenels (so named because it housed seven Lowells), she was tutored by governesses and attended private schools in between sojourns to Europe with her family. From an early age, she was encouraged to write. Her first publication was a volume of stories, privately printed, called Dream Drops or Stories from Fairy Land by a Dreamer (1887), by Lowell, her sister Elizabeth, and their mother.
She was one of Boston’s most popular debutantes in the 1891 season, but no marriage proposal was forthcoming. Her family did not think college education was appropriate for a young woman; instead she diligently educated herself in the huge library at Sevenels, and became, like her father, a fanatical book collector. Lowell continued to live at Sevenels for the rest of her life, purchasing it after her father’s death in 1900. For most of that time she lived with her devoted secretary and companion, Ada Dwyer Russell.
One book among the seven thousand in her father’s library, a volume of British poetry, struck her deeply, especially the selections by John Keats. She began acquiring books and materials related to the poet until she had amassed a world-famous collection of Keats artifacts and memorabilia. Watching a performance by the famous actress Eleonora Duse in the fall of 1902 inspired to write her first adult poem. Afterwards, she felt that poetry was her calling.
Discovering the Imagists
It was not until 1910, at the age of thirty-six, that Lowell saw the publication of her first poem, ”Fixed Idea,” in the Atlantic. Other poems appeared in various periodicals over the next several years. In 1912, Houghton Mifflin published her first collection, A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass; the title was a reference to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s elegy to Keats. The book was neither a popular nor a critical success.
The beginning of Lowell’s public literary career came at an exciting and complex time for American poetry—the cusp of the high modern era. In 1912, Harriet Monroe founded Poetry magazine, which first exposed Lowell to the new departures in contemporary poetry and provided a catalyst for her own writing. Lowell grew interested in several progressive young poets known as imagists, whose strikingly original work honed poetic expression down to its purest, most direct form. Reading some of Hilda Doo-little’s poems in the magazine, signed ”H. D. Imagiste,” Lowell recognized a kinship, and was struck by the realization that she, too, was an imagist.
Spurred by curiosity and a desire to join this new movement, Lowell obtained a letter of introduction to the leader of the imagists, Ezra Pound, from Harriet Monroe, and set out for London early in the summer of 1913. Lowell and Pound became friends, and she also became acquainted with other writers such as John Gould Fletcher and Henry James. Before long, she had met all the major imagists, including Doolittle and Ford Madox Hueffer (who later changed his name to Ford Madox Ford).
Lowell returned to Boston prepared to campaign for imagism, which she was sure would spark a renaissance in American poetry. She began crisscrossing the country on tour, interpreting the new modern verse in lectures and readings before increasingly large crowds. As a self-appointed propagandist, Lowell was convinced that her mission was not only to advance the poetic enterprise in America but to help refine the taste of the American public. In reviews and critical writing, she praised and encouraged other poets, not only imagists but popular poets like Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg; she also supported several institutions and individuals financially. One of the leading modernists, T. S. Eliot, called her a ”demon saleswoman of poetry.”
Ezra Pound had included a poem of Lowell’s in his 1914 anthology Des Imagistes, intended to be the first of an annual series. Later that year, Pound and Lowell had a falling out over the financing of a new periodical and the broader direction of the movement. Pound then abandoned imagism, and Lowell took over editing the annual anthology from 1915 to 1917. Pound subsequently disparaged her as a wealthy dilettante and interloper and derided the movement as ”Amygism.”
In addition to editing and contributing to the three volumes of Some Imagist Poets (1915-1917), Lowell also penned two books of literary criticism, Six French Poets: Studies in Contemporary Literature (1915) and Tendencies in Modern American Poetry (1917), based on her lectures. She also continued to publish her own poetry in book form. Sword Blades and Poppy Seed (1914) was immediately successful, and several more volumes followed.
Biography of Keats
Through Pound, Lowell became interested and subsequently influenced by the culture of the Far East. She wrote haikus and other “chinoiseries,” poems fashioned after the languages of the Orient. The title of her collection Pictures of the Floating World (1919) comes from the Japanese name for a certain style of painting. Some of the short, free-verse lyrics in this collection are highly erotic, with overtones of lesbianism. Lowell also adapted Chinese poems, with translator Florence Ayscough, in the book Fir-Flower Tablets (1921).
Lowell’s book A Critical Fable (1922) was a literary answer to A Fable for Critics (1848), a famous satire by her cousin James Russell Lowell. Like the earlier volume, Amy Lowell’s Fable uses rhymed couplets to poke fun at her fellow poets and the literary profession generally. She also followed her cousin’s lead by first publishing her literary joke anonymously.
In the early 1920s, Lowell penned a biography of John Keats, which received enthusiastic reviews at its publication in 1925. Through the wealth of Keats artifacts she had amassed over the years, her biography managed to clarify some issues about the poet’s personal life. At thirteen hundred pages, John Keats probed the minute details of the poet’s life and attempted to depict him as the spiritual antecedent of modern poetry. Lowell’s exhaustive scholarship took a toll on her health. She was already plagued by hernia problems. After a severe hernia attack in 1925, she defied doctors’ orders and got out of bed. As a result, she was felled by a stroke that took her life. Ada Dwyer Russell edited three posthumous collections of Lowell’s poetry, one of which, What’s O’Clock (1925), won the 1926 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.
Works in Literary Context
Above all other literary influences on Amy Lowell was that of Keats, with whom she had been fascinated since her youth. Not only does the title of A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass obliquely invoke Keats, but the book’s elegant design emulates the first edition of Keats’s Lamia (1820). Lowell’s longtime interest in the French novelist Joris Karl Huysmans and her discovery of French vers libre (free verse) also influenced various poems in her first collection. Subsequently, the work of her contemporaries, especially the imagists Ezra Pound and H. D., was a decisive influence and a confirmation of the direction her work was taking.
Imagism Imagism was noted as the first modernist movement of English-language writers circulating in the avant-garde before World War I. Its practitioners, in London and the United States, reacted against the sentimental moralism, rigid formats, and ornamental or excessive language of the prevailing Victorian poetry. Imagism aimed to distill poetry to its essence: precise imagery and sharp, clear expression. Its aesthetic was aligned with that of many modern visual artists, notably the cubists. Lowell’s own verse headed toward what the French call verslibre, but what she termed “unrhymed cadence,” a non-metrical style she felt well-suited for the English language and based on the natural rhythms of speech. With her friend John Gould Fletcher, Lowell is credited with bringing this verse style, also called polyphonic prose, into American poetry—a style closer to the rhythms of prose than of verse. Indeed, many of Lowell’s poems lack line breaks and thus appear like paragraphs of prose on the page.
Lowell’s approach to life and art was intuitive and mystical. The imagistic mode in which she cast her poems was the one best suited to her gifts and the visionary character of her poetry. In her vision, a transcendent power permeates the world and invests all created things with divinity. Her great sensitivity to sensual impressions, which she used to express this luminous quality of physical objects, gives her poetry a striking visceral impact. Lowell’s love poetry similarly depicts the achievement of love as a sacred rite. As a poet her contribution is a rebirth of the human sense of the beauties and mysteries of existence.
The imagist movement, although shortlived, was highly influential as an early expression of the modern currents in poetry. Its principles represented a point of embarkation for high modernists such as T. S. Eliot, and even later avant-garde movements such as that of the Beats. Lowell, through her efforts as a promoter, helped to enliven the literary scene and expand the audience for serious poetry in America.
Works in Critical Context
A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass found few sympathetic reviewers; in the Chicago Evening Post, Louis Untermeyer wrote that the collection ”can never rouse one’s anger…. it cannot rouse one at all.” Sword Blades and Poppy Seed and her later efforts fared better. Some critics tended to admire her poetry for its beauty, and its vivid descriptions of sights, sounds, and smells. D. H. Lawrence, who corresponded with the Bostonian for more than a decade until her death, was impressed with how she captured ”the last stages of human apprehension of physicosensational world.” Others scathingly attacked both Lowell’s literary work and Lowell herself; her outsized personality, lesbianism, and masculine affectations such as cigar smoking were offensive to conservative sensibilities.
Surface and Depth
Few readers, friendly or critical, have deeply understood the nature of Lowell’s verse. Because the language of her most characteristic poetry is chiefly pictorial and descriptive, many dismissed her as a writer who touched only the physical surfaces of the world, failing to comprehend the spiritual vision that lay beneath her richly described imagery. The ”New Critics” of the mid-twentieth century perpetuated this misunderstanding. They valued poetry rich in cultural allusions and ironic wit, such as that of Eliot and the later Pound; Lowell’s body of work fell outside these aesthetic parameters. Since the rise of feminism and women’s studies in the 1970s, scholars have taken another look at Lowell, especially studying her romantic and erotic lesbian love poetry. Recognition of her cultural importance, however, has tended to outshine the lasting literary value of her writing.
- Benvenuto, Richard. Amy Lowell. Boston: Twayne, 1985.
- Damon, S. Foster. Amy Lowell: A Chronicle. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1935.
- Galvin, Mary E. Queer Poetics: Five Modernist Women Writers. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1998.
- Gould, Jean. Amy: The World of Amy Lowell and The Imagist Movement. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1975.
- Heymann, C. David. American Aristocracy: The Lives and Times of James Russell, Amy and Robert Lowell. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1980.
- Ruihley, Glenn Richard. The Thorn of a Rose: Amy Lowell Reconsidered. Hamden, Conn: Archon Books, 1975.
- Faderman, Lillian. ”Cigar-Smoking Sappho: Lesbian Laureate Amy Lowell Took her World by Storm.” Advocate (February 1990).
- Francis, Lesley Lee. ”A Decade of ‘Stirring Times’: Robert Frost and Amy Lowell.” New England Quarterly 59 (December 1986): 508-522.
- Healey, Claire. ”Amy Lowell Visits London.” New England Quarterly 46 (September 1973): 439-453.
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