Robert Traill Spence Lowell was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on 1 March 1917. His father, also Robert Traill Spence Lowell, was an officer in the United States Navy. Lowell’s mother, Charlotte Winslow Lowell, descended from an old New England family. Lowell was educated at private schools in Boston and, for two years, at St. Mark’s preparatory school. Even during his youth, and certainly by the time he studied at St.
Mark’s, Lowell had decided upon a career as a poet. He spent summers reading and studying the English literary tradition, imposing his reading lists on friends from school. Upon graduation from St. Mark’s, he attended Harvard (as men in his family had done for generations). After two years at Harvard, however, Lowell left. His departure was precipitated by his meeting, in 1937, with Allen Tate, a poet of the Fugitive group and a practitioner of the not-yet-institutionalized “New Criticism.” Lowell and Tate immediately took to one another and Lowell traveled to Tate’s Tennessee home during the summer of 1937; he camped out in Tate’s yard, writing poetry and studying at the feet of the older poet. Instead of returning to Harvard that fall, Lowell transferred to Kenyon
College, in Ohio, to study with John Crowe Ransom, Tate’s mentor. At Kenyon, Lowell befriended Randall Jarrell and Peter Taylor, both of whom went on to their own successful careers as writers.
Lowell graduated summa cum laude in Classics from Kenyon in 1940. He spent the next year studying with Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren at Louisiana State University. Before departing for Louisiana, Lowell married Jean Stafford, a writer of short stories and novels. 1940 also saw Lowell’s conversion to Roman Catholicism, a repudiation of his ancestors’ New England Protestantism as well as a dedication to what seemed to him the more authentic faith of the Roman Church. After a year at Louisiana State, Lowell and Stafford moved to Monteagle, Tennessee, where they shared a house with Allen Tate and his
wife, the writer Caroline Gordon.
When the Second World War began in 1941, Lowell had volunteered for military service. His poor eyesight led to his initial rejection from armed service. In 1943, however, Lowell received a conscription notice from the United States military. Shocked and dismayed by the Allied firebombing of civilians in German cities like Dresden, he declared himself at this time a conscientious objector. He served for several months in jail (his experiences form the basis of “Memories of West Street and Lepke”), and finished his sentence performing community service in Connecticut. During these months, he finished and published his first book, Land of Unlikeness. During the next year he revised the book and published the new version as Lord Weary’s Castle in 1946. This book found a warm critical reception, sparked in part by Jarrell’s appreciative review in The Nation, and it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1947. Lowell’s reputation as a leading poet of the new generation was consolidated.
In 1948, Lowell and Stafford divorced and in 1949 Lowell married Elizabeth Hardwick, a young writer from Kentucky who was already moving with ease among the New York community of writers and intellectuals. In 1950, Lowell’s father died after a long illness. Lowell published his next book, The Mills of the Kavanaughs, in 1951. The book was roundly criticized as inferior to Lord Weary’s Castle, and even Lowell recognized the stiffness of the new book’s dramatic monologues. He and Hardwick spent the next several years living largely in Europe, especially in Italy. These years saw Lowell suffering from a number of mental breakdowns, episodes of the manic-depressive disease that plagued him throughout his life. After his mother’s death in 1954, Lowell was hospitalized at McLean’s, a mental hospital in Massachusetts. During the years of suffering and sickness and despair of the middle 1950s, years also characterized by a political atmosphere Lowell depressing (the election of Dwight D. Eisenhower, a key moment for this political culture, is the subject of “Inauguration Day: January, 1953”). One source of poetic rejuvenation, though, was William Carlos Williams, whose work Lowell reviewed positively and whose example of looser poetic forms influenced Lowell to write himself out of the strictness of structure that characterizes the poems of Lord Weary’s Castle. At the same time, Lowell was urged by his psychiatrists to write about his childhood; these writings led finally to “91 Revere Street,” the prose memoir at the heart of Lowell’s 1959 book, Life Studies, as well as to the autobiographical poems of that book’s “Life Studies” section. Beginning with “Skunk Hour,” a poem Lowell wrote in 1957 in answer to Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Armadillo,” Lowell brought something of Williams’ prosodic relaxation (a very controlled relaxation,though, nothing like the formlessness of some subsequent free verse) to consideration of himself, his psyche, and his surroundings. The publication of Life Studies in 1959 renewed Lowell’s reputation; the book received the National Book Award in 1960. Though some readers, like Allen Tate, intensely disliked the new poems and found them both formally slack and personally embarrassing, many readers saw in the book nothing less than a shift in the American poetic landscape. Along with W.D. Snodgrass’ Heart’s Needle, published just before Life Studies, Lowell’s new book inaugurated the poetry that came to be called, in M.L. Rosenthal’s coinage, “Confessional.”
During the early 1960s, Lowell was energetically involved not only in poetic but also in political efforts. He befriended Robert Kennedy and Jaqueline Kennedy, as well as Senator Eugene McCarthy. He addressed, in such poems as “For the Union Dead,” the dreadful possibility of humanity’s nuclear annihilation and the miserable culture that endured and endorsed that possibility. “For the Union Dead,” commissioned for and first read at the Boston Arts Festival in 1960, became the title poem of Lowell’s next
collection of his own poems (For the Union Dead, 1964). The early sixties, though, found Lowell also publishing his collection of Imitations, loose translations of poems by Rilke, Rimbaud, and others (the book won the Bollingen Poetry Translation Prize
in 1962), and working on the plays that would, in 1965, be published and performed as The Old Glory, a trilogy based on works by Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
The historical interest evident in Lowell’s poetry and plays alike during the middle 1960s translated into a political activism of sorts. Invited to a White House Arts Festival in 1965, Lowell publicly refused Lyndon Johnson’s invitation as a statement of
his disagreement with American escalation of the war in Vietnam. In October, 1967, Lowell went further still, participating along with thousands of others in the March on the Pentagon (this March is the subject of “The March I” and “The March
II”). In 1967, Lowell published Near the Ocean, a collection of lyrics more formal than the work he had produced since Life Studies, and he saw his translation of Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound produced at Yale (the play was published two years later). But the work in which Lowell was most deeply immersed during that year was the verse journal published the next year as Notebook, 1967-68. In poems whose form is loosely based on the sonnet (each is fourteen lines, roughly iambic pentameter, though most are unrhymed), Lowell recorded his reactions to contemporary events in the world as well as his thoughts on American history and his family. The book clearly aspires to something like Ezra Pound’s “poem including history,” and has
moments of stunning success, though some of the poems seem overly constrained by the form Lowell has chosen and by the pressure to keep producing poems quickly. Notebook is the basis for the three books Lowell published at the same time in 1973: History, which includes some of the public-issue poems of the earlier book as well as a number of new poems, For Lizzie and Harriet, which includes some of the poems about his wife and daughter from Notebook and many new poems documenting the break-up of his marriage with Hardwick, and The Dolphin, which includes a number of poems about his marriage with Caroline Blackwood (they married in 1972). The Dolphin won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974.
Lowell spent much of his last years in England with Caroline Blackwood and the couple’s son. He was, however, on his way to see Hardwick in New York when he died of a heart attack on 12 September 1977. His last book, Day By Day, appeared in the year of his death.