Robert Lowell

Robert Lowell’s poetry ushered in a new poetic era in American history and stands the test of time in terms of its depth, breadth, and quality. With a unique, personal writing style, Lowell’s individual poems, and collected books illustrate the endeavors, triumphs, and failures of an American poetic titan. 

Robert Lowell Robert Lowell

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    Robert Lowell Facts

    NameRobert Lowell (1917-1977)
    BirthplaceBoston, Massachusetts
    OccupationPoet
    Associated movementsConfessional poetry
    Awards received1947 & 1974 Pulitzer Prize, 1947-1948 U.S. Poet Laureate, 1960 National Book Award, 1977 National Medal for Literature, 1977 National Book Critics Circle Award

    Boston skyline, Robert Lowell, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The Boston skyline; the city was Lowell's birthplace and the inspiration for some of his poems—the Boston Commons park served as his inspiration for the poem "For the Union Dead."

    Biography of Robert Lowell

    Robert Lowell (1917-1977) is an American poet who was born in Boston, Massachusetts. His father was Navy Commander Robert Lowell and his mother was Charlotte Winslow. Lowell was able to trace his heritage to a passenger aboard the Mayflower; his parents were both descended from long lines of prominent New Englanders.

    Lowell often referred to his childhood self as a bully; he attended the Brimmer Street school in Boston and then graduated from high school at St. Mark’s School in Southborough. After high school, Lowell attended Harvard University for two years. He was unhappy at Harvard, and, following a fight with his father, he left the school. Lowell spent time living in a tent on the lawn in front of American poet Allen Tate’s house; Tate would become an important influence on Lowell’s poetic career.

    The story goes that Lowell asked if he could live with Tate and his wife and they replied that they had no room in their house but he was welcome to pitch a tent in the yard—meant as a joke. Lowell took it seriously and lived in a tent in Tate's yard for two months.

    Lowell eventually attended his final two years at Kenyon College in Ohio, where Tate taught. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Classic Studies. During this period in which Lowell was focused on the idea of rebellion, he also converted to Catholicism from Protestantism.

    Following his graduation from Kenyon College, Lowell taught English for one year. He married his first wife, short story writer Jean Stafford, in 1940. At the beginning of World War II, Lowell was a conscientious objector and refused to fight in the U.S. Army. As a result, he spent five months in jail. During this time period, Lowell wrote many poems that would be included in his first poetry collections, Land of Unlikeness (1944) and Lord Weary’s Castle (1946).

    These first two collections made Lowell a major figure in American poetry, and he was awarded the 1947 Pulitzer Prize for Lord Weary’s Castle. Following its publication, he met the poet Elizabeth Bishop, with whom he would have a lifelong friendship that strongly impacted his writing. Lowell taught poetry at various colleges and universities throughout his lifetime, Lowell married twice more, in 1948 and 1972 to Elizabeth Hardwick, a writer, and Lady Caroline Blackwood, a novelist.

    Lowell's conscientious objection to serving in the Second World War was just the beginning of his lifelong political activism. Lowell was staunchly anti-war and held that position for many years. He attended the March on the Pentagon in 1967 in opposition to the Vietnam War, and he penned letters and essays to the U.S. government to express his disapproval of the war and his request that the U.S. cease all involvement. In addition to his anti-war positions, Lowell also became involved in the Red Scare in the United States during the Cold War. He was responsible for accusing an American director, Elizabeth Ames, of being a communist sympathizer.

    Robert Lowell, Ukrainian War protestors, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Lowell (not pictured) was an anti-war activist for much of his adult life.

    Throughout his lifetime, Lowell suffered from problems in his personal relationships (his first two marriages were considered tumultuous) as well as with his mental health. He was hospitalized for bipolar disorder multiple times; his experience with his mental illness provided inspiration for many of his poems and collections.

    In 1977, at the age of 60, Lowell died of a heart attack in New York City. His grave is located in New Hampshire. In his later years, Lowell had moved to England with his wife Caroline, he was back in the United States to visit Elizabeth Hardwick, his ex-wife.

    Robert Lowell Books

    Lowell’s first two poetry collections, Land of Unlikeness (1944) and Lord Weary’s Castle (1946), were published following his graduation from college and his imprisonment for his conscientious objection to fighting in World War II. Both collections see Lowell grappling with his need for rebellion from the proper New England world he was raised in. He later published The Mills of the Kavanaughs (1951) and then took time to spend teaching and writing before publishing Life Studies (1959), considered one of his finest works. It introduced a new style of poetry that would become majorly influential in America, confessional poetry.

    Lowell also published a few works of translation, including Phaedra (1961), a tragic play by 17th-century French author Jean Racine and Italian poetry by Eugenio Montale.

    Robert Lowell Poems

    Some of Lowell’s best-known poems include “For the Union Dead” (1964) which was published in a collection of the same name. In it, he reflects on his childhood, the American Civil War, and the Civil Rights movement. “Skunk Hour” (1958) was included in his collection Life Studies. The poem is a prime example of confessional poetry. His poetry evolved throughout his lifetime, going back and forth between strict formalism and free verse. His collection, Notebook (1970), mainly consisted of sonnets, such as “The Charles River.”

    Take a look at "Skunk Hour." What aspects of the poem strike you as particularly 'confessional?' Do you think confessional poetry is an appropriate label for this kind of poetry?

    Robert Lowell’s Writing Style

    Lowell’s writing style underwent massive changes throughout his career. His earlier poetry is characterized by its formalistic qualities. His relationship with poet Allen Tate led to much of his first few poetry collections being influenced by the New Criticism school of poetry. This meant that his poetry was aimed to be self-referential, in that all one needs to understand the meaning of the poem is the poem itself.

    The publication of Life Studies (1960) marks a divergence in Lowell’s poetry and would become one of the most important publications in the history of American poetry. The subject matter was deeply personal about Lowell’s life, relationships, and struggle with mental illness. Rather than using the extremely formalistic structures of his previous poetry, Lowell employed free verse in addition to instances of metered verse. It is considered one of the first examples of confessional poetry. Lowell’s time as a professor would also lead to him mentoring many poets who would go on to lead the American confessional poetry movement, such as Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath.

    Confessional poetry was a poetic movement that began in the mid-20th-century. Confessional poetry is characterized by its extremely personal, individual subject matter. Rather than write about grand ideas that are applicable to many different people, confessional poets drew from their own specific experiences.

    Here is an excerpt from Lowell's poem "Home After Three Months Away" (1976).

    Though I am forty-one,

    not forty now, the time I put away

    was child's play.

    ....

    I keep no rank nor station.

    Cured, I am frizzled, stale and small." (17-19, 39-40).

    These lines from the poem illustrate the intensely personal nature of the events and feelings that Lowell recalls. The poem covers the time that he returned home after spending time in a mental hospital, and the changes that both he, his family, and the world outside underwent.

    Robert Lowell, Robert Gould Shaw Memorial, StudySmarterFig. 3- The Robert Gould Shaw Memorial in Boston Commons inspired Lowell's poem "For the Union Dead."

    For the Union Dead expanded upon Life Studies. Many of the poems were still personal in nature while also addressing themes regarding history, Civil Rights, and the changes that modern Americans underwent. In the late 1960s, Lowell returned to the formal structures and metered verse that he had written extensively in his earlier collections. In the 70s, he began publishing many sonnets, some of which had been written many years prior to their publication.

    Robert Lowell - Key Takeaways

    • Robert Lowell (1917-1977) was an American poet who was incredibly influential in the 20th-century.
    • Lowell is credited with beginning what would become the confessional poetry movement; confessional poetry that focuses on the poet's own personal experiences.
    • Lowell wrote extensively about his personal relationships with his wives, his struggles with mental illness, and modern history.
    • He was awarded numerous accolades throughout his lifetime, including multiple Pulitzer Prize awards for his work in poetry.
    • Lowell's poetry underwent significant changes throughout his career as he went back and forth between extremely formalist poetry and very free verse, structureless poetry.
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Robert Lowell

    What was Robert Lowell known for?

    Robert Lowell (1917-1977) was an American poet known for his incredibly influential poetry, in particular his collection entitled Life Studies (1960). With its publication, Lowell began what would become the confessional movement in poetry in the United States.

    Is Amy Lowell related to Robert Lowell?

    Amy Lowell and Robert Lowell were cousins. They came from a prominent New England Bostonian family, and Robert Lowell was able to trace his ancestry back to a passenger aboard the Mayflower.

    What is the setting of Robert Lowell's poem "For the Union Dead?"

    He was in Boston Common, a park in the center of Boston when he wrote and set the poem. There is a memorial for Robert Gould Shaw, who led an all-black regiment during the Civil War. The poem takes place within this setting.

    What kind of poet was Robert Lowell?

    Lowell wrote many different kinds of poems throughout his lifetime. He went from writing poems with extreme formal structure to personal, confessional poetry in free verse. His later poetry returned to these formalist characteristics and he published many sonnets in his later years.

    What are Robert Lowell's famous quotes?

    Lowell has many famous quotations and poems. One of his most frequently-quoted poems is "For the Union Dead," particularly the last stanza. It reads: "The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,/giant finned cars nose forward like fish;/a savage servility/slides by on grease" (61-64).

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Robert Lowell's poetry is credited with having started what poetic movement in America?

    Robert Lowell spent time living on the lawn of which fellow poet and mentor?

    True or False: All of Robert Lowell's poetry was written as free verse.

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