Robert Lowell (1917 - 1977)

Life and Works


Robert Lowell may be considered as the poet who raised the confessional I from the burial of dead, in reference both to the Second World War and Eliot's Waste Land. From Lowell's Life Studies on - or should we say Death Studies - what happens indoors becomes the main object of the "ache of looking". It may be affirmed that the poet-s word from roughly Lowell's generation - "the Wrecked Generation" or "the Children of Midas" - opened the door to the romantic confession hidden within the modernist impersonal existential search into the bust of Pallas. Therefore, it may be considered that since "confessional poetry" comes to terms with "the quag of the past" by delving into a day by day "despondency and madness", a deep redefinition of the relation between text-I-reader is foregrounded against the backdrop of the great modernist imagination.

Let us listen at poet Peter Davison's description of Lowell's roots, in short:

[...] This flawed titan of the famed Lowell family, with two poets in his father's ancestry, was born in his grandfather Winslow's (his mother's father's) house on March 1, 1917, on Chestnut Street, the most beautiful street in Boston, at number 18, near the top of Beacon Hill [...] one long block from where his great-granduncle James Russell Lowell had lived and from the former residence of Francis Parkman; and three blocks from the Massachusetts State House and the site, opposite, of Saint Gauden's noble monument to Robert Gould Shaw (another remote kinsman) and his Civil War Negro regiment. Lowell's mother, half northern, half southern, was the dominant, and baleful, influence on his early life.1

After elementary studies at the Brimmer Street School, Lowell studied at St. Mark's School to prepare for entrance into Harvard. In his second year of college, he eluded his father's control by transferring to Kenyon College. At Kenyon College he met his lifelong friends Peter Taylor and Randall Jarrell. He graduated summa cum laude in Classics from Kenyon in 1940, and spent the next year studying with Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren at Louisiana State University. Before departing for Louisiana, Lowell married Jean Stafford, a writer of short stories and novels. 1940 also saw his conversion to Roman Catholicism, apparently a repudiation of his ancestors' New England Protestantism as well as a dedication to what seemed to him the more authentic faith of the Roman Church. In 1941, the couple lived in Baton Rouge while he taught at Louisiana State University, then resettled in Boston. At the height of Second World War II, Lowell had volunteered for military service. His poor eyesight led to his initial rejection from armed service. In 1943, however, Lowell received a conscription notice from the United States military. Shocked and dismayed by the Allied firebombing of civilians in German cities like Dresden, he declared himself at this time a conscientious objector. He served for several months in jail (his experiences form the basis of poems such as "In the Cage" or "Memories of West Street and Lepke"), and finished his sentence performing community service in Connecticut. During these months, he finished and published his first book, Land of Unlikeness (1944), defined by Allen Tate as a "memory of the spiritual dignity of man now sacrificed to mere secularization and a craving for mechanical order"2. During the next year he revised the book and published the new version as Lord Weary's Castle in 1946. This book found a warm critical reception, sparked in part by Randal Jarrell's appreciative review in The Nation, and it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1947.

In 1948, Lowell and Stafford divorced and in 1949 Lowell married Elizabeth Hardwick, a young writer from Kentucky who was already moving with ease among the New York community of writers and intellectuals. This year 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 wrote the lines that would serve as a source for his famous poem "Walking in the Blue" (Life Studies, 1959).

In 1950, Lowell's father died after a long illness. Lowell published his next book, The Mills of the Kavanaughs, in 1951. The book was roundly criticized as inferior to Lord Weary's Castle, and even Lowell recognized the stiffness of the new book's dramatic monologues, blending classical myths with New England landscape and loaded with intertextual references such as Ovid's Metamorphosis.

He and Hardwick spent the next several years living largely in Europe, especially in Italy. These years saw Lowell suffering from a number of mental breakdowns, episodes of the manic-depressive disease that plagued him throughout his life. 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. During the years of suffering and sickness and despair of the middle 1950s, years also characterized by a political atmosphere (the election of Dwight D. Eisenhower, a key moment for this political culture, is the subject of "Inauguration Day: January, 1953"), Lowell seemed ironic with his own depression "and I am forty", emphasizing a strong feeling of social alienation. The 1950s saw also the emergence of the Beat Generation, but in the tradition-conscious Boston, the influence of the movement was not earth-shattering. He settled in 1954 in Boston, where he worked as a teacher at the University of Boston (1955-60). During this decade he was a visiting lecturer at the University of Cincinnati and Harvard University. After his mother's death in 1954, Lowell was hospitalized at McLean's, a mental hospital in Massachusetts.

One source of poetic rejuvenation, though, was William Carlos Williams, whose work Lowell reviewed positively and whose example of looser poetic forms influenced Lowell to write himself out of the strictness of structure that characterizes the poems of Lord Weary's Castle. At the same time, Lowell was urged by his psychiatrists to write about his childhood; these writings led finally to "91 Revere Street," the prose memoir at the heart of Lowell's 1959 book, Life Studies, as well as to the intimate, self-referential, confessional and autobiographical poems of this poetic sequence. The publication of Life Studies in 1959 renewed Lowell's reputation; the book received the National Book Award in 1960. Though some readers, like Allen Tate, intensely disliked the new poems and found them both formally slack and personally embarrassing, many readers saw in the book nothing less than a shift in the American poetic landscape. Along with W.D. Snodgrass' Heart's Needle, published just before Life Studies, Lowell's new book is considered to have inaugurated the poetry that came to be called, in M.L. Rosenthal's coinage, "Confessional." It may be affirmed that Life Studies was a poetic sequence that transformed American poetry. The poet dropped the pentameter line in favour of one that was shorter and more dynamic to express family conflicts, personal breakdowns and depressions, touching at the most intimate corners of the self, proceeding from relatives - and characteristically focused on his parents - down to the very self. Far now from the earlier Hopkins-inspired verse, topic and expression worked together impelling Lowell to an identification with a kind of mid-century everyman. From the distance and critical perspective, Life Studies should be considered as a kind of gravitational field in Lowell's imaginary system. Selfhood’s dregs are constantly being fermented within an imagination moving to and fro exploring the many possibilities of the symbolism of a journey downwards - to selfhood and down to earth - and the metaliterary levels of the poetic sequence: "Our mountain-climbing train had come to earth. / Tired of the querulous hush-hush of the wheels, / the blear-eyed ego kicking in my berth / lay still, and saw Apollo plant his heels / on terra firma through the morning's thigh - / each backward wasted Alp, a Parthenon, / fire-branded socket of the cyclops' eye_" ("Beyond the Alps").

Since Lowell's early poetic sequences, elegy and confession become appropriate frames to organize experience through imagination:

It was hardly self-evident that the elegy would be a proper vehicle fro an American poet's melancholic anger toward parents and ancestors [...] The sequence’s tendency toward reflective self-division manifests Lowell's pervasive ambivalence toward his paternal imagos, the poet separating himself into reflector and reflected, subjective mourner and object of mourning. Instead of re-creating his identity out of a normative process of inheriting parental imagos and the past, Lowell keeps his dead parents and his dead selves abjected, discrete, suspended outside himself.3

Obviously identity is a key word not only to Lowell's middle work, but to the evolution of his poetry as a whole. During the early 1960s, he was energetically involved not only in poetic but also in political efforts. He befriended Robert Kennedy and Jaqueline Kennedy, as well as Senator Eugene McCarthy. He addressed, in such poems as "For the Union Dead", the dreadful possibility of humanity's nuclear annihilation and the miserable culture that endured and endorsed that possibility. "For the Union Dead", commissioned for and first read at the Boston Arts Festival in 1960, became the title poem of Lowell's next collection of his own poems (For the Union Dead, 1964). The early sixties, though, found Lowell also publishing his collection of Imitations (the book won the Bollingen Poetry Translation Prize in 1962), and working on the plays that would, in 1965, be published and performed as The Old Glory, a trilogy based on works by Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Lowell's subjective choice of the poets he translates - and the way they are translated - in Imitations must not confuse our reading. It is a poetic sequence where the poet translates seventy poems originally belonging to five different languages. The poet talks about himself through the assimilation of other voices. The first poem of the sequence "The Killing of Lykaon" holds a similar role than, for instance, poems such as "The Exile's Return" (Lord Weary's Castle) or "Beyond the Alps" (Life Studies) within their own sequences. The subject of a war that affects a whole civilization strategically introduced in the first lines by an inscription of a redefinition of a lyrical I in close connection with the poet who, introducing a metapoetic level inspired by the Muse, will sing several levels of experience through a modulation of voice that shifts from a public frame into an intimate one. As readers, we shall find an essential undercurrent that shall rise to the superficial level for air to breathe like the cyclical diving of a dolphin. From this point of view, the poetic text may be interpreted as the sea (as in Melville's Moby Dick) that allows the cyclical movements of the dolphin, or namely, the voices of the lyrical I- intimate and public - in order to sing the war of Troy. This poetic process is designed under the idea of a homage and elegy to European poetry where the lyrical I is progressively objectified, defaced and refaced.

The historical interest evident in Lowell's poetry and plays alike during the middle 1960s translated into a political activism of sorts. Invited to a White House Arts Festival in 1965, Lowell publicly refused Lyndon Johnson's invitation as a statement of his disagreement with American escalation of the war in Vietnam. In October, 1967, Lowell went further still, participating along with thousands of others in the March on the Pentagon. Many poems of this period record a public voice merging experience and memory from a maturation of the 1959's lyrical I.

In 1967, Lowell published Near the Ocean, a collection of lyrics more formal than the work he had produced since Life Studies, and he saw his translation of Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound produced at Yale (the play was published two years later). Near the Ocean is a poetic sequence based on eight original poems and five Imitations, where the poet rewrites, reinvents and amplifies, the space of projection of selfhood, creating an elegy to the concept of the civilization of North America. It is an elegy formed in a poetic sequence that follows constant shifting perspectives and tones, modulating the message from lament to satire. This elegy to civilization searches for chronotopic references such as ancient Rome (past) and modern America (present), as the scenario for a personal and familiar projection: Harriet Winslow from whom Lowell inherited a house in Castine (Maine), and a universal projection: planet earth. Maine is, then, not a merely geographic reference, but essentially an imaginary projection. This poetic sequence is a continuation of the undercurrents that where activated in the earlier sequence For the Union Dead, and shall be continued in Notebook 1967-68.

During the 1970s the poet lived in England, where he was a visiting fellow at All Souls College, Oxford (1970), visiting lecturer at the University of Essex (1970-72) and at the University of Kent (1970-1975). Probably the work in which Lowell was most deeply immersed during 1967 was the verse journal published the next year as Notebook, 1967-68. In poems whose form is loosely based on the sonnet (each is fourteen lines, roughly iambic pentameter, though most are unrhymed), Lowell recorded his reactions to contemporary events in the world as well as his thoughts on American history and his family. Notebook is the basis for the three books Lowell published at the same time in 1973: History, which includes some of the public-issue poems of the earlier book as well as a number of new poems, For Lizzie and Harriet, which includes some of the poems about his wife and daughter from Notebook and many new poems documenting the break-up of his marriage with Hardwick, and The Dolphin, which includes a number of poems about his marriage with Caroline Blackwood (Lowell divorced from his second wife and married again in 1972). The Dolphin dealt with the poet's move to England as he left one wife for another. Lowell used in it excerpts from his wife letters, for which he was much criticized. The Dolphin won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974.

History recreated a host of historical figures from biblical times to the present merging with figures related to the poet's intimate world. It is a poetic sequence that tends to recover Emerson's concept of history through a poetic codification which simultaneously activates a multiplicity of cultural fields, the result being a great elegiac mosaic that refers back to the multiple subjects or contents that he wrote about in the sixties, apparently shifting from Pound's Cantos up to Berryman's.

Finally, Day by Day (1977) is a poetic sequence that recovers form and content from earlier poetic sequences:

Day by Day not only chronicles Lowell's most recent dramas. It also seems intent on some final settlement with the obsessions of a lifetime. Key chapters of the 'Lowell life' are resurrected: his parents, the schoolmates at St. Mark's who mocked him for his Caliban-like savagery [...]; his early treatment at the hands of Merrill Moore [...]. In other poems there are the years at Kenyon with Peter Taylor, at Baton Rouge with Robert Penn Warren; a 'Letter' to Jean Stafford with talk of her ‘novels more salable than my poems' and 'Our days of the great books, scraping and Roman mass'; and fond addresses to Cousin Harriet, William Meredith, Frank Parker. It is almost as if Lowell was anxious not to leave anybody out.4

In Day by Day the poet recreates the arts of photography and painting. For instance, the art of Jan Vermeer, Jan Van Eyck, or Rembrandt filter several materials that Lowell codifies within the poetic process redefining perspectives delving into a deep reflection on the importance of light in art. The aesthetics of guilt and pain assimilate the image of the other into a sophisticated view of existence, interpreting that art prefigures experience. Robert Lowell's poetic self seems to have shifted from a bellicose Achilles into a more reflexive Ulysses, who is now 'oversize' as said in a line in the first poem from this poetic sequence under the title "Ulysses and Circe".


Lowell died of heart failure in a taxi on September 12, 1977, in New York, carrying a portrait of Caroline by painter Lucian Freud. At the time of his death, he was returning to Elizabeth Hardwick and his daughter, after breaking with Caroline. Let us invoke here Lowell's words from a letter to Ted Roethke: "There's a strange fact about the poets of roughly our age, and one that doesn't exactly seem to have always been true. It's this, that to write we seem to have to go at it with such single-minded intensity that we are always at the point of drowning".

1Peter Davison. The Fading Smile: Poets in Boston from Robert Lowell to Sylvia Plath. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1994, p. 252.

2Tate, Allen. "Narcissus as Narcissus," Virginia Quaterly Review, xiv (1938), 108-22.

3Ramazani, Jahan. Poetry of Mourning: The Modern Elegy, from Hary to Heaney. Chicago: U.Chicago Press, 1994, pp. 226, 235.

4Ian Hamilton. Robert Lowell: A Biography. London: Faber and Faber, 1983, p. 470.


 Autor: Gabriel Torres Chalk (UNED)