Last reviewed: June 2018
American Imagist poet, lecturer, and critic.
February 9, 1874
May 12, 1925
Born into an aristocratic family, the female members of which never spoke in public, Amy Lowell distinguished herself as a poet, literary critic, biographer, and vocal advocate of modern poetry. She was the youngest child of Augustus and Katherine Lawrence Lowell, both of whom had inherited fortunes from textile manufacturing. Augustus was descended from Percival Lowle, who had immigrated to America in 1639 and established one of the most distinguished families in New England. Amy Lowell’s ancestors had helped to found the Boston Athenaeum and the Lowell Institute and served as fellows at Harvard College. The poet James Russell Lowell was a distant cousin, and Amy’s brother Lawrence became Harvard’s president. Amy Lowell
Because her brothers and sisters were almost a generation older and because her mother was an invalid, Lowell’s childhood was frequently solitary. She rode horses, played Robin Hood around the family estate, and lamented the fact that she was not a boy. She received instruction from a governess at age five and attended private school at eight. Lowell was a mediocre student, but she educated herself through voracious reading of Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, and many others. She began to write at the age of nine, and a collection of her juvenile stories was published privately in 1887.
In 1891 Lowell ended her formal schooling and became a debutante. She attended sixty parties in her honor, even though she was painfully self-conscious because of her obesity. In 1897 she went to Egypt, hoping that the rigors of travel would help her lose weight. When this effort failed, she returned home and suffered a nervous breakdown that made her an invalid for the next two years.
Upon the death of her father in 1900, Lowell inherited the family estate and became modestly involved in the civic affairs of Brookline. In 1902 she attended a performance by the Italian actress Eleonora Duse and discovered a new direction for her life. Duse’s passionate acting inspired Lowell to write poetry, and she began serious study of the work of other poets. Her first serious poem, "Fixed Idea," appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in August, 1910, and two years later she published her first collection, A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass. In 1912 Lowell met Ada Dwyer, an actress and lover of poetry who became her companion for the rest of her life.
Lowell’s poems so far were traditional in their prosody, but the musician Carl Engel introduced her to the free verse of the French Symbolists. In 1913 Lowell met Harriet Monroe and became a supporter of the newly established Poetry magazine. In that publication Lowell read startling new poems by H. D. (Hilda Doolittle) and an essay by Ezra Pound outlining the principles of Imagism. These pieces convinced Lowell that she too was an Imagist, and she went to London to learn more about the movement from Pound and John Gould Fletcher. Under the Imagists’ influence she wrote several new pictorial poems which would appear in Sword Blades and Poppy Seed, the book that really began her career.
Meanwhile, Lowell emerged as a powerful defender of the new poetry in numerous essays, reviews, and speeches. She traveled throughout the United States reading her own work and that of other writers such as H. D., Carl Sandburg, and D. H. Lawrence. In promoting an anthology of Imagist poetry, she became a leader of the movement and began to quarrel with Pound. Their philosophical and personal differences led to a total break, and Pound referred disparagingly to her writing as "amygism."
In 1916 Lowell published Men, Women, and Ghosts, which began with her best-known poem, "Patterns." This collection of narrative verse and dramatic monologues displayed much experimentation with metrical forms, and her next volume, Can Grande’s Castle, was even more unconventional in its extensive use of polyphonic prose. Lowell continued to promote her fellow poets in Tendencies in Modern American Poetry. This seminal study of Edwin Arlington Robinson, Robert Frost, Edgar Lee Masters, and others earned praise as a major contribution to literary criticism.
In spite of poor health and numerous hernia operations, Lowell continued to work energetically. In 1919 she became the first woman to lecture at Harvard University. Since childhood Lowell had been interested in the Far East, partly because of her brother Percival’s long residence in Japan. With the assistance of Florence Ayscough, she began to write free-verse translations of Chinese lyrics. She published one volume titled Fir-Flower Tablets and worked on a second. In 1922 she published anonymously the long poem A Critical Fable. Based loosely on A Fable for Critics by her cousin James Russell Lowell, this work offered, in old-fashioned rhymed couplets, a humorous survey of contemporary poets, including herself. Lowell’s final work was a comprehensive biography of John Keats, which earned her a place on the cover of Time magazine. Exhausted by her work on the biography, Lowell died of a stroke. She left behind enough poems for three posthumous volumes, edited by Ada Dwyer.