Robert Lowell

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Robert Lowell (March 1, 1917–September 12, 1977), born Robert Traill Spence Lowell, IV, was an American poet whose works, confessional in nature, engaged with the questions of history and probed the dark recesses of the self. He is generally considered to be among the greatest American poets of the twentieth century.


  • 1 Life
  • 2 Writing
  • 3 Works
  • 4 Trivia
  • 5 External links


Robert Lowell was born into a Boston Brahmin family that included the poets Amy Lowell and James Russell Lowell. His mother, Charlotte Winslow, was a direct descendant of William Samuel Johnson, a signer of the United States Constitution, Jonathan Edwards, the famed philosopher, Anne Hutchinson, the Puritan preacher and healer, Robert Livingston the Elder, Thomas Dudley, the second governor of Massachusetts, and Mayflower passengers James Chilton and his daughter Mary Chilton. He attended Harvard College but transferred to Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, to study under John Crowe Ransom. He was a Roman Catholic from 1940 to 1946, which influenced his first two books, Land of Unlikeness (1944) and the Pulitzer Prize winning Lord Weary's Castle (1946). In 1950, Lowell was included in the influential anthology Mid-Century American Poets as one of the key literary figures of his generation. Among his contemporaries who also appeared in that book were Muriel Rukeyser, Karl Shapiro, Elizabeth Bishop, Theodore Roethke, Randall Jarrell, and John Ciardi, all poets who came into prominence in the 1940s.

Lowell was a conscientious objector during World War II and served several months at the federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut. He was married to novelist Jean Stafford from 1940 to 1948. In 1949 he married the writer Elizabeth Hardwick.

Lowell was hospitalized approximately twenty times for a bipolar disorder that had been diagnosed at one point as "acute schizophrenia" and was later identified as "manic depression." He was treated with Thorazine through most of the 1950s and 1960s until it was shown to be ineffective, and in 1967, he began taking lithium, which, with psychiatric therapy sessions added, gradually enabled him to achieve a measure of peace, although he was never entirely free of the symptoms that caused erratic behavior all through his life.

In 1970 he left Elizabeth Hardwick for the British author, Lady Caroline Blackwood. He spent many of his last years in England. Lowell died in 1977, suffering a heart attack in a cab in New York City, and is buried in Stark Cemetery, Dunbarton, New Hampshire.

Lowell's collected poems were published in 2003 and his letters in 2005, leading to a renewed interest in his work.


Lowell reached wide acclaim for his 1946 book, Lord Weary's Castle, which included ten poems slightly revised from his earlier Land of Unlikeness, and thirty new poems. Among the better known poems in the volume are "Mr Edwards and the Spider" and "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket." Lord Weary's Castle was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1947. Lowell's early poems are formal, ornate, and concerned with violence and theology; a typical example is the close of "The Quaker Graveyard" -- "You could cut the brackish winds with a knife / Here in Nantucket and cast up the time / When the Lord God formed man from the sea's slime / And breathed into his face the breath of life, / And the blue-lung'd combers lumbered to the kill. / The Lord survives the rainbow of His will."

The Mills of the Kavanaughs (1951) did not receive a similar acclaim, but Lowell was able to revive his reputation with Life Studies (1959). This book included a prose memoir, "91 Revere Street," and poems like "Crossing the Alps" that were not in the confessional mode, but it is best known for the series of poems in which Lowell confronts his life and his episodes of madness. These poems were written in free (or loosely metrical) verse, in a much more direct and informal language than his earlier work.

Lowell followed Life Studies with Imitations, a volume of loose translations of poems by classical and modern European poets, including Rilke, Montale, Baudelaire, Pasternak, and Rimbaud, for which he received the 1962 Bollingen Poetry Translation Prize.

His next book For the Union Dead, 1964, was also widely praised, particularly for its title poem, which invokes Allen Tate's "Ode to the Confederate Dead." In Near the Ocean, which followed a couple of years later, Lowell had returned to stanzaic forms. The best known poem in this volume, "Waking Early Sunday Morning," is written in eight-line stanzas borrowed from Andrew Marvell's poem "Upon Appleton House."

During 1967 and 1968 he experimented with a verse journal, published as Notebook, 1967-68. These fourteen-line poems loosely based on the sonnet form were reworked into three volumes. History deals with public history from antiquity onwards, and with modern poets Lowell had known; For Lizzie and Harriet describes the breakdown of his second marriage; and The Dolphin, which won the 1974 Pulitzer Prize, includes poems about his marriage to Caroline Blackwood and their life in England.

A minor controversy erupted when he incorporated private letters from his second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick into For Lizzie and Harriet. He was particularly criticized for this by his friends Adrienne Rich and Elizabeth Bishop.


  • Land of Unlikeness (1944)
  • Lord Weary's Castle (1946)
  • The Mills of The Kavanaughs (1951)
  • Life Studies (1959)
  • Phaedra (translation) (1961)
  • Imitations (1961)
  • For the Union Dead (1964)
  • The Old Glory (1965)
  • Near the Ocean (1967)
  • The Voyage & other versions of poems of Baudelaire (1969)
  • Prometheus Bound (1969)
  • Notebook (1969) (Revised and Expanded Edition, 1970)
  • For Lizzie and Harriet (1973)
  • History (1973)
  • The Dolphin (1973)
  • Selected Poems (1976) (Revised Edition, 1977)
  • Day by Day (1977)
  • The Oresteia of Aeschylus (1978)[1]
  • Collected Poems (2003)


  • The lyrics of the They Might Be Giants song "Robert Lowell" are taken entirely from the poem "Memories of West Street and Lepke" by Robert Lowell (although they have been "recontextualized" by They Might Be Giants for rock music purposes). The song was featured on a CD accompanying issue #6 of Timothy McSweeney's Quarterly Concern featuring letters from a young Robert Lowell.
  • John Vanderslice, too, used the Lowell poem 'My Old Flame' in his song by the same name from the album 'Time Travel is Lonely'. Vanderslice also made some minor changes in the lyrics for his version.
  • Robert Lowell is a central figure in Norman Mailer's 1968 nonfiction novel Armies of the Night.
  • One of the tracks of Len Sousa's Poetry Meets Music album has a mash-up of Lowell reading "For The Union Dead" over music by Philip Glass.
  • 1982 Audio Interview with Ian Hamilton, author of the biography, Robert Lowell - RealAudio
  • Lowell's interview with The Paris Review
  • Robert Lowell bio and poetry. Part of a series of poets.
  • Lost Puritan: A Life of Robert Lowell
  • Literary Criticism on Robert Lowell
  • Lowell: Spanish Translation.Raúl Racedo. Argentina

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