Life Studies

How do our life experiences shape and define us? How do our relationships as children influence who we become as adults? And how can mental illness be used as source material for a poet struggling with bipolar disorder? The award-winning Life Studies poetry collection (1959) by Robert Lowell (1917-1977) strives to answer these questions and more with its intimately striking depictions of family life and mental illness.

Life Studies Life Studies

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Table of contents

    Robert Lowell and Life Studies

    Originally published in 1959, Life Studies was Robert Lowell's fourth collection of poetry. It was also the collection that established him as one of the first confessional poets. Life Studies was based largely on Lowell's life and his struggle with mental illness.

    Lowell was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1917. Coming from a high-class, deeply Protestant family whose ancestors could be traced back to the Mayflower, Lowell had a difficult relationship with his parents. His long prose piece in Life Studies depicts his childhood growing up in Boston and his relationship with his family. It also offers an intimate depiction of his parents' marriage and family issues. Some readers have criticized Lowell for his unsympathetic portrayal of his family and for profiting from exposing them in his writing.

    What do you think about the line between poetry and personal experience? Should some things be off-limits in art? Or does Lowell have every right to write about what he experienced?

    Life Studies also reveals Lowell's struggles with mental health issues and bipolar disorder. From his thirties on, Lowell struggled with debilitating cycles of mania and depression, which often led to months of hospitalization. Lowell used his experience with depression and stays at the psychiatric hospital as source material for his poetry, which was virtually unheard of at the time. These vulnerable, real depictions of mental illness came to characterize Confessionalism.

    Confessional poetry is a form of poetry in which the poet is reflected in the speaker, allowing the poet to work through intimate details of their life. It is important to note that the speaker and the poet are not one and the same, even though the poem might be directly influenced by the poet's life, as in the case in much of Lowell's work.

    Confessional poetry is characterized by its extremely personal, individual subject matter. Rather than writing about grand ideas that are applicable to many different people, confessional poets drew from their own personal experiences.

    Other confessional poets include Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and John Berryman. Lowell is often considered the first confessional poet.

    Life Studies Summary

    The Life Studies collection is broken into four distinct parts. Parts one through three are untitled, while the fourth part is entitled "Life Studies."

    The first part contains four poems, which critics have read as marking Lowell's transition away from the Catholic Church. This section contains the poem "Beyond the Alps," "The Banker's Daughter," "Inauguration Day: January 1953," and "A Mad Negro Soldier Confined at Munich," which were all similar in style and content to his previous poetry collections.

    Life Studies, The Vatican at night, StudySmarterFig. 1 - After converting to Catholocism in 1941, Lowell broke away from the Church by the late 1940s.

    Part two is a prose piece entitled "91 Revere Street." It is the longest piece in the book and the only significant prose piece to appear in any of Lowell's collections. The short story focuses on Lowell's childhood home at 91 Revere Street in Boston's Beacon Hill neighborhood. It delves into his relationship with his parents, other members of his family, and his peers when he was a child.

    Part three celebrates the lives of four of the most important mentors Lowell had in the literary world. These odes are entitled "Ford Madox Ford," "For George Santanya," "To Delmore Schwartz," and "Words for Hart Crane," each memorializing their titular writer. Only Schwartz was alive to see her dedication in the collection.

    The final part of the collection has been arguably the most influential in the literary world. It was "Life Studies" that established Lowell as a confessional poet and set the stage for Confessionalism in the 20th century. Written largely in response to Lowell's struggle with mental illness, this section contains 15 poems, including some of Lowell's most famous. Although not every poem in "Life Studies" is confessional in nature, this section offers an intimate look at some of Lowell's inner struggles, characteristic of confessional poetry.

    Life Studies Content: Major Poems

    Some of the major poems in Life Studies include "Skunk Hour," "Home After Three Months Away," and "Waking in the Blue." These poems helped to define the confessional poetry style.

    "Skunk Hour"

    "Skunk Hour" was the first poem Lowell completed for Life Studies and the ultimate poem in the collection. "Skunk Hour" is set in an old, run-down town in Maine. The speaker discusses the various occupants who live in the town, from the reclusive heiress to the poorly-paid decorator. He watches these people from afar and has intimate knowledge of their lives, but he remains separate and isolated from them. He reveals that he suffers from mental illness after watching young couples having sex in their "love-cars." He feels trapped in his own mind and his aimless life. He finds some hope in the form of a skunk digging through trash. Although she is disgusting, she lives intently and does not care about others' opinions of her.

    Life Studies, Skunk in straw, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The speaker in "Skunk Hour" finds comfort in the unflinching, determined nature of the skunk.

    "Home After Three Months Away"

    "Home After Three Months Away" is another of Lowell's early confessional poems. The poem depicts his return home after being gone for an extended period of time. Although the poem doesn't explicitly say where the speaker has been, Lowell wrote this poem after spending many months in a psychiatric hospital in Boston. Although he returned on the weekends, he spent almost the entire year of 1958 until June 1959 in McLean Hospital. The poem centers around the speaker's relationship with his daughter as she grows during his absence. He also feels his mental state weaken and worries if his time in the hospital has done him more harm than good.

    "Waking in the Blue"

    A distinctly confessional poem, "Waking in the Blue" is told from the perspective of a man in a mental hospital. It begins with a student at Boston University making his rounds and checking on all the patients in the hospital. The sight of the young student makes the speaker even more depressed.

    The speaker then begins to describe various residents who stay at the psychiatric hospital: there's Stanley, a man in his sixties who still thinks he is a young boy playing football at Harvard and maintaining his physique. Then he sees Bobbie, who also went to Harvard, but now gets naked every chance he can and looks like King Louis XVI.

    The speaker says the patients in the mental hospital haven't failed, they've simply gotten stuck in life. Meanwhile, the Catholic attendants at the hospital are too strict and old-fashioned to help. The speaker himself now weighs 200 pounds and sees his future in the faces of the mentally ill people around him. He feels a sense of unity with all of the patients in the mental hospital, as reflected in the final two lines:

    We are all old-timers,

    each of us holds a locked razor" (49-50)

    Life Studies, Abandoned mental hospital, StudySmarterFig. 3 - "Waking in the Blue" centers around the speaker's life in a mental hospital and the other patients in the asylum.

    Life Studies Analysis

    Life Studies signified a shift in Lowell's literary career. Before Life Studies, his earlier collections were much more conventional and impersonal. They were full of traditional rhyme and meter. His early poetry had overt themes of Christianity and was influenced by the New Critics movement.

    The New Criticism movement was characterized by an emphasis on close reading and finding meaning in the text itself instead of in the poet's life or elsewhere. Prominent New Critics included Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom, both of who were Lowell's professors and influenced his relationship with literature.

    Life Studies, however, introduced this new shift towards the personal, intimate, and often startling. Lowell began to write about deeply private details of his life using a variety of forms and meter. In Life Studies, Lowell wrote about his struggle to connect with his daughter after long stays in the mental hospital, problems in his marriage, generational issues passed down through a prominent family, and searching for normalcy in a vicious cycle of depression and mania.

    Life Studies also examines how one's family and upbringing has a large impact on their adult life. Both of Lowell's parents came from wealthy, famous families. Because of the formality of his youth and the authoritarian role of his mother, Lowell often rebelled against his family. He was a bully in his youth and found great satisfaction in being mean to other children. He also converted to Catholicism as a means of rebellion. The stress of his childhood had a large impact on his adult life and the way he viewed the world.

    Life Studies, Drawing of a family on concrete, StudySmarterFig. 4 - Life Studies reveals how Lowell's relationship with his family influenced his poetry and prose.

    Life Studies Criticism

    Although Life Studies was instantly successful (it won the National Book Award for Poetry in 1960) and is Lowell's most famous work, it has also been met with negative criticism. From the time of its publication, some critics have deemed his portrayal of his family distasteful and argued that he overstepped the boundaries between private and public life. Other prominent critics, such as poet Stanley Kunitz hailed Life Studies as revolutionary. Kunitz said Life Studies was

    perhaps the most influential book of modern verse since [T.S. Eliot’s] The Waste Land.”1

    Perhaps the most influential criticism of Life Studies was Macha Louis Rosenthal's review, entitled "Poetry as Confession." Rosenthal was the first to link Lowell's intimate examination of his own life in his poetry to the word "confession."2 The term "confessional poetry" stuck and became a school of poetry that dominated the literary world in the mid-20th century. Lowell's Life Studies also paved the way for generations of poets to write personal, unflinching autobiographical accounts of their lives.

    Life Studies - Key takeaways

    • Life Studies was written by American poet Robert Lowell and published in 1959.
    • Much of the material in the collection comes from Lowell's personal life, including his childhood, marital issues, and struggle with mental illness.
    • The collection is broken into four parts, with part four being entitled "Skunk Hour" and containing some of the most famous poems from the collection.
    • Some of the most famous poems in Life Studies are "Skunk Hour," "Home After Three Months Away," and "Waking in the Blue."
    • In a review of this collection, critic Macha Louis Rosenthal penned the term "confessional" to describe an intimately personal form of poetry. This term would spread to encompass an entire school of poetry.


    1. Kunitz, Stanley. Next-to-Last Things: New Poems and Essays. Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1985.
    2. Rosenthal, M. L. "Poetry as Confession." Our Life in Poetry: Selected Essays and Reviews. Persea Books: New York, 1991.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Life Studies

    When was Life Studies written?

    Robert Lowell began writing Life Studies in the mid 1950s, and it was published in 1959. 

    What was Robert Lowell known for?

    Lowell was known for his instrumental role in the Confessional style of poetry.

    What is Life Studies about?

    Life Studies is about Lowell's family, faith, and mental illness. 

    What mental illness did Robert Lowell have?

    Lowell had bipolar disorder.

    When was Lowell born?

    Lowell was born in 1917. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    True or false: Life Studies marked a shift in Lowell's writing style? 

    Which of these poets was NOT included in part three of Life Studies? 

    What critic labelled this collection as "confessional"? 

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