Last reviewed: June 2018
March 1, 1917
September 12, 1977
New York, New York
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.
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.