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Robert Lowell: The Most Significant Poet of the mid-20th Century?

Updated on August 22, 2012

An Unexpected Childhood

Robert Traill Spence Lowell was born in Boston in the turbulent year of 1917--the very moment when The United States entered World War I. His last name gave him much gravity as a citizen as he was part of a long line of Puritans that were considered "The Boston Brahmins" who excelled in class and trade in the infancy of our country. Yet he was in truth a partially distant relation to this great clan which actually gave his mother--a Winslow--more respect in the community, if these names could still be considered "titles" at the time. Whatever the circumstances may have been, Robert had a charmed and elitist childhood.

Robert attended the St. Mark's boarding school and began a vigilant study of literature when he came of age, and excelled in sports as well as a young man of tall and muscular frame. He soon came to be known as "Cal" for Caligula--the ruthless Roman Caesar; or for "Caliban"--the messy Shakespearean character--for which one he really encapsulated no one knew, but the knick-name stuck for most of his life. He could be a very cruel hazer and he was constantly disheveled in appearance.

In the summers he would vacation in Nantucket the further and very chic island off of Cape Cod (The other being Martha's Vineyard), but Robert preferred to live a more sparse and strict lifestyle. He and a couple of friend would stay in a small cottage and Robert would assign the course of study for each summer. Since a young age he was a very directed and determined soul that was headed for a very prominent career in his parents eyes, but they soon became surprised.

Robert migrated to the South after graduating valedictorian from Kenyon College and camped out on Allen Tate's lawn, a prominent poet at the time who had written Ode to the Confederate Dead. There with help he worked tirelessly at the art of poetry which he had chosen long ago. He soon after changed from the Protestant to Roman Catholic faith and married yet another writer, Jean Stafford. This change caused irreperable damage between him and his parents. But this never stopped his forward progress.

At The Library of Congress


His Early Rise to Fame

After rumours of a tumultuous marriage when the two lived in Maine for a time, Jean and Robert divorced, and this affected his art tremendously. He had written his first volume of poetry called Land of Unlikeness. In short, it had little success and it was full of gnarled and unpolished ambiguous language. In 1945 however, his poet friend Randall Jarrell had said Robert had made the most remarkable progress in his form of writing--"The School of the New Criticism"--he had ever seen.

Sure enough, Robert's second volume called Lord Weary's Castle won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947 after he had served a brief stint in prison for being a Conscientious Objector during World War II for reasons pertaining to the bombing of innocent civilians abroad. Robert then worked for a year at the Library of Congress before heading to a writing colony in New York State to write his third book. He had to taken to drinking tons of wine, playing ping-pong, and writing through the nights for days straight. This led to his first nervous breakdown which was then diagnosed as manic-depression. His fellow colleagues felt he was just pushed too far too fast. He was only 31 years old.

This is probably his best poem:

Robert Lowell in his Study


A Bumpy But Exceptional Career

Robert's received shock treatments and injections of Thorazine (horse tranquilizer) to keep him from serious harm to himself and others. He even dangled his mentor Allen Tate out a window and made him recite Ode to the Confederate Dead. Robert became extremely sexually promiscuous and thought he could stop car traffic (and other things) with a flick of a wrist. These kinds of hospitalizations he received at McLean's Hospital in Massachusetts took a serious toll on his will to live, his finances, and his memory--he could barely remember accusing random people of being communists, or the time he had spent with his second wife Elizabeth Hardwick.

He then moved to a brownstone on Marlborough Street in Boston with some help from family inheritance and was told by his psychiatrist that he may be able to work through some of his issues if he tried to recall his life's past experiences and how he felt about them. This was the seed to his development of Life Studies, probably Robert Lowell's most influential and famous book of poems. It is said that this began the "Confessional" style of poetry. However, W.D. Snodgrass' Heart's Needle came months before and arguably deserves the "title" of the new school. But Robert was able to share his knowledge of this school at Boston University while he taught the likes of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton--both soon to become very popular poets themselves who established a new and strong female initiative.

A Mighty Force in Literature

As Robert grew into his fifties he became more politically involved and even marched in Washington against the "green helmets" of the military while he supported Eugene McCarthy in his presidential campaign. To have a person like Robert Lowell on your side was a great advantage in those days. Many of the youth looked up to him, and he taught at Harvard regularly wearing his psychedelic ties. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry again in 1974 for his publication of The Dolphin--a pet name for his next wife.

He married Caroline Blackwood of the U.K. and had his second son, Sheridan, after leaving Elizabeth Hardwick. Harriet was his first daughter and he wrote many great poems about her in his many rewrites of Notebook; Robert never ceased to revise--it was his mantra. In 1977 in a cab coming back from England to see his second wife, Elizabeth--probably the truest love of his life (if he had one because many considered him a regular egotistical bastard)--he died of a heart attack clutching a portrait of Caroline Blackwood. He was sixty years old and remained as many felt to be a force to be reckoned with in the literary world. Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry still upholds the notion that no one surpassed his title as a supreme American poet for the mid-20th century. One of his last poems was this--very pertinent one would think:

Robert Lowell (1917-1977)



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