Authors: Robert Lowell

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American poet.

March 1, 1917

Boston, Massachusetts

September 12, 1977

New York, New York

Biography

Robert Lowell is among the most important American poets of the post-World War II period. He grew up in Boston as a member of the famous Lowell family. He attended St. Marks preparatory school and began his university studies at Harvard University. After a bitter quarrel with his parents, he left Harvard and followed John Crowe Ransom from Vanderbilt University to Kenyon University.

Robert Lowell.

By Elsadorfman, CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

In 1943, he produced an early book of poems, Land of Unlikeness. However, the first important book of poems by Lowell was Lord Weary’s Castle, published in 1946, which received the Pulitzer Prize in poetry. Lowell’s next book of poems, The Mills of the Kavanaughs, was a mistaken attempt to write a long narrative poem about a Catholic mill family using the dramatic monologue. In addition, Lowell’s life was disturbed by increasing manic-depressive episodes and his divorce from his first wife. His volume Life Studies was published in 1959. In that book Lowell made use of his manic-depressive illness and his family troubles by turning them into intense poetry. This style was soon to be called "confessional" poetry and became a dominant mode in American poetry.

Lowell continued to write confessional poetry throughout his career; however, he never allowed that one mode to dominate his poetry. Lowell’s following book, For the Union Dead, added a political dimension to his poetry. In the title poem he used the Civil War sacrifice of Colonel Robert G. Shaw to criticize the corruption of the modern world. Lowell’s interest in political and social issues continued in his next book, Near the Ocean. In this volume he attacked the Vietnam War and the social and moral decay of the United States.

In 1969 Lowell changed his poetic style and subject matter once more. In Notebook 1967-68 and History he used the sonnet form to explore history, power, and the role of the artist.

In 1973 Lowell published For Lizzie and Harriet and The Dolphin. Both books revealed intimate details about his troubled marriage to Elizabeth Hardwick, his divorce from her, and his marriage to Lady Caroline Blackwood. In his last volume of poetry, Day by Day, he used narrative and mythic elements combined with free verse. He died of a heart attack in 1977.

Author Works Poetry: Land of Unlikeness, 1944 Lord Weary’s Castle, 1946 Poems, 1938–1949, 1950 The Mills of the Kavanaughs, 1951 Life Studies, 1959 Imitations, 1961 For the Union Dead, 1964 Selected Poems, 1965 Near the Ocean, 1967 Notebook, 1967–68, 1969 Notebook, 1970 The Dolphin, 1973 History, 1973 For Lizzie and Harriet, 1973 Selected Poems, 1976, revised 1977 Day by Day, 1977 Collected Poems, 1997 Drama: The Old Glory, pb. 1965 (includes Endecott and the Red Cross, My Kinsman, Major Molineux, and Benito Cereno) Prometheus Bound, pr. 1967 Endecott and the Red Cross, 1968 Benito Cereno, 1969 Translations: Imitations, 1961 Phaedra, 1961 (of Jean Baptiste Racine) The Voyage, and Other Versions of Poems by Baudelaire, 1968 The Oresteia of Aeschylus, 1979 Nonfiction: Collected Prose, 1987 Bibliography Axelrod, Steven Gould, ed. The Critical Response to Robert Lowell. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. A collection of critical essays covering the full spectrum of debate and response to Lowell’s work. Prefaced with a survey of Lowell’s life and his involvement in politics and literary movements and concludes with a bibliography and chronology. Bishop, Elizabeth and Robert Lowell. Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. Edited by Thomas Travisano and Saskia Hamilton. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008. Contained here are the letters that Bishop and Lowell wrote to each other from 1947 until Lowell’s death in 1977. Their discussions involve poetry, politics, and their feelings for one another. Essential for anyone interested in these poets. Cosgrave, Patrick. The Public Poetry of Robert Lowell. New York: Taplinger, 1970. While Lowell is usually seen as a "confessional" poet, many of his greatest poems were on public issues. Cosgrave brings out that dimension in his poetry and locates it in the traditions of public poetry and modernism. Unfortunately, the book was published in 1970 and does not discuss Lowell’s Notebook, a central text of Lowell’s politics. Hamilton, Ian. Robert Lowell: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1982. This book is occasionally sensational, but it is the best biography available. It traces Lowell’s fascinating life in great detail and provides the contexts and occasions for many of his poems, which help readers understand them better. Jamison, Kay Redfield. Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character. Alfred A. Knopf, 2017. This book, more a case study than a biography, focuses on Lowell's mental character, including the line between his manic episodes and his art. Mariani, Paul L. Lost Puritan: A Life of Robert Lowell. New York: W. W. Norton, 1994. Mariani, a biographer specializing in the lives of poets and a poet himself, provides insights into Lowell’s poetry with anecdotes from his crisis-filled life. Includes extensive bibliography. Perloff, Marjorie G. The Poetic Art of Robert Lowell. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1973. One of the best books available on the specifics of Lowell’s art. Perloff investigates with acuteness the images and syntax of many of Lowell’s poems. She is especially helpful on the Winslow elegies and the sound patterns of the poems. Wallingford, Katherine. Robert Lowell’s Language of the Self. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988. Wallingford uses psychoanalytic criticism to investigate the poems. She finds that Lowell knew Sigmund Freud and applied many of his analytic methods in his poems. Lowell’s poetry invites this type of criticism, and this is the fullest use of it available. Williamson, Alan. Pity the Monsters: The Political Vision of Robert Lowell. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1974. Williamson discusses the violence as well as the political vision of Lowell. He is one of few critics to fully discuss Near the Ocean and Notebook (later published as History).

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