The Farrar, Straus and Giroux Poetry Blog

March 19, 2007

Robert Lowell

Lowell1Robert Lowell (1917–1977) was born on March 1, 1917 into a prominent Boston family whose members included the poet and critic James Russell Lowell and the poet Amy Lowell. He studied English Literature at Harvard before transferring to Kenyon College where he studied poetry under John Crowe Ransom and received an undergraduate degree in 1940. He spent the next year studying with Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren at Louisiana State University. In 1940, before departing for Louisiana, he converted to Roman Catholicism and married Jean Stafford, a writer of short stories and novels. Although Lowell tried to enlist in the armed forced during World War II (he was initially rejected because of poor eyesight), by the time he was called for service, he had declared himself a conscientious objector and in 1943 served five months in jail. He finished his first book, Land of Unlikeness (1944), while under sentence. This first book and his second, Lord Weary’s Castle (for which he received a Pulitzer Prize in 1946, at the age of thirty), were influenced by his conversion from Episcopalianism to Catholicism.

Lowell2Lowell’s personal life was tumultuous. He divorced Stafford in 1948 and in 1949 married Elizabeth Hardwick, a young writer from Kentucky who he would later divorce. He suffered from severe episodes of manic depression, for which he was repeatedly hospitalized. In the mid-fifties, Lowell began to write more directly from personal experience and to loosen his adherence to traditional meter and form. The result, Life Studies, which won the National Book Award, was a watershed collection that changed the shape of modern poetry.

Lowell3In 1961, Lowell published Imitations, loose translations of poems by Rilke, Rimbaud, and others; this book won the Bollingen Poetry Translation Prize in 1962. In the late sixties, he was at work on Notebook 1967–68, a verse journal in which he recorded his reactions to contemporary events as well as his thoughts on American history and his family. 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 breakup of his marriage with Hardwick, and The Dolphin, which includes a number of poems about his marriage with Caroline Blackwood (they married in 1972). In 1974 Lowell won his second Pulitzer Prize for The Dolphin.

LowellAirLowell spent much of his last years in England with Caroline Blackwood and their son. He died of a heart attack on September 12, 1977. His last book, Day by Day, appeared in the year of his death.

You can read more about Robert Lowell here, or view all blog posts about him here.