Amy Lowell didn’t become a poet until she was years into her adulthood; then,
when she died early, her poetry (and life) were nearly forgotten — until gender
studies as a discipline began to look at women like Lowell as illustrative of an
earlier lesbianism. She lived her later years in a “Boston marriage” and
wrote erotic love poems addressed to a woman.
T. S. Eliot called her the “demon saleswoman of poetry.” Of herself, she said,
“God made me a businesswoman and I made myself a poet.”
Amy Lowell was born to wealth and prominence. Her paternal grandfather, John
Amory Lowell, developed the cotton industry of Massachusetts with her maternal
grandfather, Abbott Lawrence. The towns of Lowell and Lawrence,
Massachusetts, are named for the families. John Amory Lowell’s cousin was
the poet James Russell Lowell.
Amy was the youngest
child of five. Her eldest brother, Percival Lowell, became an astronomer
in his late 30’s and founded Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. He
discovered the “canals” of Mars. Earlier he’d written two
books inspired by his travels to Japan and the Far East. Amy Lowell’s other brother, Abbott
Lawrence Lowell, became president of Harvard University.
The family home was called “Sevenels” for the “Seven L’s” or
Lowells. Amy Lawrence was educated there by an English governess until 1883,
when she was sent to a series of private schools. She was far from a model
student. During vacations, she traveled with her family to Europe and to
In 1891, as a proper young lady from a
wealthy family, she had her debut. She was invited to numerous parties, but did
not get the marriage proposal that the year was supposed to produce. A
university education was out of the question for a Lowell daughter, although not
for the sons. So Amy Lowell set about educating herself, reading from the
7,000 volume library of her father and also taking advantage of the Boston
Mostly she lived the life of a wealthy
socialite. She began a lifelong habit of book collecting. She accepted a
marriage proposal, but the young man changed his mind and set his heart on
another woman. Amy Lowell went to Europe and Egypt in 1897-98 to recover,
living on a severe diet that was supposed to improve her health (and help with
her increasing weight problem). Instead, the diet nearly ruined her health.
In 1900, after her parents had both died, she bought the family
home, Sevenels. Her life as a socialite continued, with parties and
entertaining. She also took up the civic involvement of her father, especially
in supporting education and libraries.
Amy had enjoyed
writing, but her efforts at writing plays didn’t meet with her own satisfaction.
She was fascinated by the theater. In 1893 and 1896, she had seen
performances by the actress Eleanora Duse. In 1902, after seeing Duse on
another tour, Amy went home and wrote a tribute to her in blank verse — and, as
she later said, “I found out where my true function lay.” She became a
poet — or, as she also later said, “made myself a poet.”
By 1910, her first poem was published in Atlantic Monthly,
and three others were accepted there for publication. In 1912 — a year that
also saw the first books published by Robert Frost and Edna St. Vincent Millay
— she published her first collection of poetry, A Dome of Many-Coloured
It was also in 1912 that Amy Lowell met
actress Ada Dwyer Russell. From about 1914 on, Russell, a widow who was 11
years older than Lowell, became Amy’s traveling and living companion and
secretary. They lived together in a “Boston
marriage” until Amy’s death. Whether the relationship was platonic or
sexual is not certain — Ada burned all personal correspondence as executrix for
Amy after her death — but poems which Amy clearly directed towards Ada are
sometimes erotic and full of suggestive imagery.
January 1913 issue of Poetry, Amy read a poem signed by “H.D.,
Imagiste.” With a sense of recognition, she decided that she,
too, was an Imagist, and by summer had gone to London to meet Ezra Pound and
other Imagist poets, armed with a letter of introduction from Poetry
editor Harriet Monroe.
She returned to England again the
next summer — this time bringing her maroon auto and maroon-coated chauffeur,
part of her eccentric persona. She returned to America just as World War I
began, having sent that maroon auto on ahead of her.
was already by that time feuding with Pound, who termed her version of Imagism “Amygism.”
She focused herself on writing poetry in the new style, and also on promoting
and sometimes literally supporting other poets who were also part of the Imagist
In 1914, she published her second book of
poetry, Sword Blades and
Poppy Seeds. Many of the poems were in vers libre (free verse), which
she renamed “unrhymed cadence.” A few were in a form she invented, which she
called “polyphonic prose.”
In 1915, Amy Lowell published
an anthology of Imagist verse, followed by new volumes in 1916 and 1917.
Her own lecture tours began in 1915, as she talked of poetry and also read her
own works. She was a popular speaker, often speaking to overflow crowds.
Perhaps the novelty of the Imagist poetry drew people; perhaps they were drawn
to the performances in part because she was a Lowell; in part her reputation for
eccentricities helped bring in the people.
She slept until three in the afternoon and worked through the night. She was
overweight, and a glandular condition was diagnosed which caused her to continue
to gain. (Ezra Pound called her “hippopoetess.”) She was operated on
several times for persistent hernia problems.
She dressed mannishly, in severe
suits and men’s shirts. She wore a pince nez and had her hair done — usually by
Ada Russell — in a pompadour that added a bit of height to her five feet. She
slept on a custom-made bed with exactly sixteen pillows. She kept
sheepdogs — at least until World War I’s meat rationing made her give them up
— and had to give guests towels to put in their laps to protect them from the
dogs’ affectionate habits. She draped mirrors and stopped clocks. And,
perhaps most famously, she smoked cigars — not “big, black” ones as was
sometimes reported, but small cigars, which she claimed were less distracting to
her work than cigarettes, because they lasted longer.
she also ventured into criticism with Six French Poets, featuring
Symbolist poets little known in America. In 1916, she published another volume
of her own verse, Men,
Women and Ghosts. A book derived from her lectures, Tendencies in
Modern American Poetry followed in 1917, then another poetry collection in
1918, Can Grande’s Castle and Pictures of the Floating World in
1919 and adaptations of myths and legends in 1921 in Legends.
During an illness in 1922 she wrote and published A Critical
Fable – anonymously. For some months she denied that she’d written it. Her
relative, James Russell Lowell, had published in his generation A Fable for
Critics, witty and pointed verse analyzing poets who were his
contemporaries. Amy Lowell’s A Critical Fable likewise skewered her
own poetic contemporaries.
She worked for the next few years on a
massive biography of John Keats,
whose works she’d been collecting since 1905.
Almost a day-by-day account of his life, the book also recognized Fanny Brawne
for the first time as a positive influence on him.
This work was
taxing on Lowell’s health, though. She nearly ruined her eyesight, and her
hernias continued to cause her trouble. In May of 1925, she was advised to
remain in bed with a troublesome hernia. On May 12 she got out of bed anyway,
and was struck with a massive cerebral hemorrhage. She died hours later.
Ada Russell, her executrix, not only burned all personal correspondence, as
directed by Amy Lowell, but also published three more volumes of Lowell’s poems
posthumously. These included some late sonnets to Eleanora Duse, who had
died in 1912 herself, and other poems considered too controversial for Lowell to
publish during her lifetime. Lowell left her fortune and Sevenels in trust to
The Imagist movement didn’t outlive Amy Lowell for
long. Her poems didn’t withstand the test of time well, and while a few of her
poems (“Patterns” and
“Lilacs” especially) were still studied and anthologized, she was nearly
Then, Lillian Faderman and others rediscovered Amy
Lowell as an example of poets and others whose same-sex relationships had been
important to them in their lives, but who had — for obvious social reasons —
not been explicit and open about those relationships. Faderman and others
re-examined poems like “Clear,
With Light Variable Winds” or “Venus
Transiens” or “Taxi”
or “A Lady” and found the theme — barely concealed — of the love of women.
Decade,” which had been written as a celebration of the ten year anniversary of
Ada and Amy’s relationship, and the “Two Speak Together” section of Pictures
of the Floating World was recognized for the love poetry that it is.
The theme was not completely concealed, of course, especially to those who knew
the couple well. John Livingston Lowes, a friend of Amy Lowell’s, had recognized
Ada as the object of one of her poems, and Lowell wrote back to him, “I am very
glad indeed that you liked ‘Madonna of the Evening Flowers.’ How could so exact
a portrait remain unrecognized?”
And so, too, the portrait of the
committed relationship and love of Amy Lowell and Ada Dwyer Russell was largely
unrecognized until recently.
Her “Sisters” — alluding to the sisterhood that included Lowell, Elizabeth
Barrett Browning and Emily Dickinson — makes it clear that Amy Lowell saw
herself as part of a continuing tradition of women poets.