Authors: Amy Lowell

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American Imagist poet, lecturer, and critic.

February 9, 1874

Brookline, Massachusetts

May 12, 1925

Brookline, Massachusetts

Biography

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

(Library of Congress)

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.

Author Works Poetry: A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass, 1912 Sword Blades and Poppy Seed, 1914 Men, Women, and Ghosts, 1916 Can Grande’s Castle, 1918 Pictures of the Floating World, 1919 Legends, 1921 A Critical Fable, 1922 What’s O’Clock, 1925 East Wind, 1926 Ballads for Sale, 1927 Selected Poems of Amy Lowell, 1928 (John Livingston Lowes, editor) The Complete Poetical Works of Amy Lowell, 1955 (Louis Untermeyer, editor) A Shard of Silence: Selected Poems of Amy Lowell, 1957 (G. R. Ruihley, editor) Nonfiction: Six French Poets: Studies in Contemporary Literature, 1915 Tendencies in Modern American Poetry, 1917 John Keats, 1925 Poetry and Poets, 1930 Florence Ayscough and Amy Lowell: Correspondence of a Friendship, 1946 The Letters of D. H. Lawrence and Amy Lowell, 1914-1925, 1985 Translation: Fir-Flower Tablets, 1921 (with Florence Ayscough) Edited Text: Some Imagist Poets, 1915–1917 (3 volumes) Bibliography Benvenuto, Richard. Amy Lowell. Boston: Twayne, 1985. Aims to give a fair and detailed reading of Lowell’s poetry in order to suggest the strengths and limitations of her art as well as to acquaint the reader with poems that, in Benvenuto’s opinion, should not be neglected any longer. Besides being an erratic and uneven writer, Lowell was, Benvenuto argues, one of the most important literary figures of her time. Includes an annotated bibliography. Flint, F. Cudworth. Amy Lowell. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1969. This brief pamphlet devoted to Lowell’s life and work contains useful information about her participation in the Imagist movement. Addresses the question of how Lowell was able to achieve what Flint calls a "para-literary" eminence so quickly. Contains a bibliography. Galvin, Mary E. Queer Poetics: Five Modernist Women Writers. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. In an exploration of the relationship between poetics and queer theory, Galvin presents a theoretical framework that can illuminate the reading of the specific poetic innovations of the writers in this study by placing them in a different social and epistemological context—that of "queer" existence. Gould, Jean. Amy: The World of Amy Lowell and the Imagist Movement. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1975. This lengthy volume views Lowell’s work in its historical context. Gould asserts that Lowell was one of the outstanding influences in the literary art of her time and focuses his discussion on her role in creating the Imagist movement. In her campaign for modern freedom of expression in poetry, Gould portrays Lowell as a vociferous advocate of revolutionary rhythms and free verse. Includes a bibliography. Hughes, Glenn. "Amy Lowell: ‘The Success."’ In Imagism and the Imagists: A Study in Modern Poetry. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1931. In this dated but excellent study of Lowell’s life and work, Hughes, interested in the new effects of Lowell’s work, discusses the polyphonic aspects of her poetry. Examines both her contribution to American poetry and her influence on it. Passages from individual poems are analyzed. Munich, Adrienne and Melissa Bradshaw, eds. Amy Lowell, American Modern. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004. This scholarly collection of essays by various critics and scholars is an invaluable complement to the study of Lowell’s work. Ruihley, Glenn R. The Thorn of a Rose: Amy Lowell Reconsidered. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1975. One of the most useful critical studies on Lowell, this book assesses Lowell’s rightful place in American literature. In attempting to redress the balance of critical opinion in her favor, the author argues that it is necessary to understand the inner character of Lowell’s life and work—for example, the philosophical framework of her poetry. Focuses on the art of Lowell’s middle and late periods. Contains a bibliography.

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