Robert Lowell is considered by many to be the foremost American poet of the two decades following the mid-century. From a distinguished New England family, Lowell's subject was often his estrangement from the promise of comfort and security offered by this heritage, and a related subject was often the torments and anxieties of his own life - a life which in his poetry he paralleled to the larger history and events of his own time.
Lowell was related on his mother's side to the Winslows, who arrived in the Mayflower, and on his father's to the poet James Russell Lowell and to imagist poet Amy Lowell. Another relative, cousin A. Lawrence Lowell, was president of Harvard from 1909 to 1933 - Lowell entered the university in 1935. At St. Mark's School (where a tutor had been Richard Eberhart), and in his first months at Harvard, Lowell determined on a career as a poet. In 1937, after meeting Allen Tate, he transferred to Kenyon College to study with Tate's mentor John Crowe Ransom, and in his first year Randall Jarrell was a room-mate. At Kenyon, Lowell took Ransom's advice to study philosophy and the classics. Under the tutelage of Ransom, a pioneer of New Criticism - and later, upon graduation in 1940, of Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren in classes at Louisiana State University - his poetry developed the qualities of thematic complexity, compression, and ambiguity advocated by his teachers. Even Ransom found them rather too forbidding, and only accepted two of them for the Kenyon Review.
In 1940 Lowell married novelist Jean Stafford, the first of his three troubled marriages. In the spring of 1941 they remarried in a Catholic church, Lowell having converted to Catholicism in the previous months. This further rebellion against his family's Protestant roots lasted until 1947, by which time he was divorcing and had renounced Catholicism (although he would return to the faith with fervor from time to time for the next two or three years).
Lowell worked on the galleys of his first book, Land of Unlikeness (1944) while serving a prison sentence in Danbury, Connecticut, for declaring himself a conscientious objector to the world war when he had received his induction papers. The first ten days of his one year and one day sentence (of which he served six months in prison) was spent in New York City's West Street jail. That experience later formed the subject of his well-known poem "Memories of West Street and Lepke" in Life Studies (1959).
Land of Unlikeness met with mild critical success, but Lowell's second volume, Lord Weary's Castle (1946) received great acclaim, winning him a Pulitzer Prize, and leading to a Guggenheim Fellowship and an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In October 1947 he took up for a year the post of Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress.
Lord Weary's Castle contains many of the finest poems of Lowell's early style, poems marked by a vision of apocalypse and a plea for a deus ex machina resolution to the torment of human history. "I ask for bread, my father gives me mould" he records in "Christmas Eve Under Hooker's Statue," and the poem ends: "But we are old, our fields are running wild: / Till Christ again turn wanderer and child." Two other well-known poems, "Mr. Edwards and the Spider," and "After the Surprising Conversions," stem from Lowell's interest in the eighteenth-century divine Jonathan Edwards, while Lowell's continuing concern with integrating the rituals and images of
Catholicism into his own New England heritage are evident throughout the book, most vividly in "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket."
The same compressed, allusive style, developed from the poetry of Tate and, through T. S. Eliot, the seventeenth-century metaphysical poets, characterizes the poems in The Mills of the Kavanaughs (1951). Religious, classical, and personal themes run through the poems, most of them placed in the mouths of speakers set in historical or contemporary scenes. Reviews of this book were respectful but much less enthusiastic than for Lord Weary's Castle, and Randall Jarrell's view that "Falling Asleep Over the Aeneid" is the most successful poem, certainly more so than the long title poem, has generally been borne out by time.
Lowell did not publish another book until the ground-breaking Life Studies in 1959. Through that decade he continued to have bouts of hospitalization that had begun with a nervous breakdown in 1949, and the introspection occasioned by his treatments contributed to a growing dissatisfaction with the formal surface of his poetry. This dissatisfaction was compounded by a correspondence Lowell began with William Carlos Williams, and by his experience on a west coast reading tour in 1957 of hearing Allen Ginsberg reading "Howl." In Life Studies Lowell confronts much more directly than in his earlier work, and in a style much looser than he had written in before, his family background, and his own troubles as a writer and husband (in 1949 he had married writer Elizabeth Hardwick). But as well as this autobiographical element, which led M. L. Rosenthal to coin the term "Confessional" for such self-revealing poetry, Lowell successfully maintains the ambitious historical sweep that he had sought in his earlier books. The book is effectively a record of Lowell's shift in style. The first section is in the manner of his early 1950s work and includes "Beyond the Alps," his farewell to Catholicism.
The second section is a long prose account of his childhood, developed from a journal that he kept during a period of hospitalization. Section 3 presents four writers defeated and exiled in various ways, Ford Madox Ford, George Santayana, Delmore Schwartz, and Hart Crane. The final section describes a series of losses, family deaths and Lowell's own electric shock treatment, culminating in the poet's facing the Maine night watching skunks foraging and surviving. In Life Studies Lowell's father is presented as weak and ineffectual, his mother as oppressive, and the Boston hierarchy into which the poet was born as no more a preparation for the modern world than was his own education for Henry Adams. In such landmark poems as "My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow," "Waking in the Blue," "Memories of West Street and Lepke," and "Skunk Hour" a personal voice is heightened and modulated by the most delicate of formal restraints -
occasional rhyme, stanza forms and line lengths that are varied and open but not with the expansiveness of Ginsberg or the aggressiveness of Williams.
Lowell followed Life Studies with a volume of Imitations (1961) for which he was awarded the Bollingen Poetry Translation Prize. The original authors range from Homer to Boris Pasternak, and, as Lowell noted in his introduction, "my licenses have been many." The poems based on Pasternak's work, for example, come from other translations, while Lowell cuts or adapts the work of some other sources in various ways.
Imitations served as a stepping-stone for Lowell to his next volume. His achievement in Life Studies became something of a model for a number of poets, including Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Adrienne Rich, but although For the Union Dead (1964) kept many of his stylistic innovations, it was not so centrally autobiographical, and some poems come closer to his earlier formality. The title poem, one of his most admired, is a condemnation of a New England devoid of heroism or causes, and lacking any values beyond those behind building the underground car park that has displaced the aquarium of his childhood, and that threatens to topple "St. Gaudens' shaking Civil War relief," a memorial to Colonel Shaw and his black regiment. The poem concludes with an image conflating childhood memory and social criticism:
The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere, giant finned cars nose forward like fish; a savage servility slides by on grease.
The poems in this book, for many reviewers, confirmed Lowell's status as the most important poet of his generation.
Lowell strongly opposed the Vietnam War, and his stature ensured that his public protests for this cause made news. As one form of protest he publicly refused an invitation from President Johnson to participate in a White House Festival of the Arts, and in 1967 he participated in the massive march on the Pentagon to protest the war. In his The Armies of the Night Norman Mailer, a fellow participant, describes the audience applauding Lowell at a poetry reading that proceeded the march "for his talent, his modesty, his superiority, his melancholy, his petulance, his weakness, his painful, almost stammering shyness, his noble strength." The theme of rebellion, whether against a heritage that he saw as irrelevant or oppressive, or against an immoral war, has been noticed in the plays that he wrote at this time. A trilogy, The Old Glory (1965), based upon some short stories by Hawthorne and Melville, and a version of Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound (1967) are the most notable of his dramas.
The poems of Lowell's last decade are generally viewed as less of an achievement than his previous work. Near the Ocean (1967) opens with his important "Waking Early Sunday Morning," but on the whole the book, although thematically linked, is somewhat loosely written. Notebook 1967-68 (1969), revised and expanded in 1970, is Lowell's record of a tumultuous two years written in what he characterized in a note as "fourteen line unrhymed blank verse sections." Lowell wrote entirely in this unrhymed sonnet form for seven years, until 1973. The poems in the two Notebook volumes formed the basis of two books Lowell published in that year, History and For Lizzie and Harriet. The latter, like a third volume published at the same time, The Dolphin, contains a good deal of personal material, including quotations from Elizabeth Hardwick's letters. Lowell and Hardwick had divorced in 1972, and Lowell had subsequently married English novelist Lady Caroline Blackwood.
Lowell's attacks of manic depression, and his consequent hospitalization, continued through the 1960s and up to the end of his life. The attacks contributed to the failure of his third marriage, and memories of old and more recent personal troubles are the subject of his final volume, Day by Day (1977). On September 12 of the same year he suffered a fatal heart attack during a taxi-ride from New York's Kennedy Airport into the city, where he had planned to visit Elizabeth Hardwick.
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