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Robert Traill Spence Lowell, IV

Robert Traill Spence Lowell, IV

Male 1917 - 1977  (60 years)

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  • Name Robert Traill Spence Lowell 
    Suffix IV 
    Born 1 Mar 1917  Boston, Suffolk Co., MA Find all individuals with events at this location 
    Gender Male 
    Died 12 Sep 1977  New York, New York Co., NY Find all individuals with events at this location 
    Buried Aft 12 Sep 1977  Stark Cemetery - Dunbarton, Merrimack Co., NH Find all individuals with events at this location 
    • Poet

      Robert Lowell (1917-1977)

      American poet, noted for his complex, oratorical poetry, and turbulent life. Lowell was called the father of the confessional poets, a term used to describe among others Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and John Berryman. Lowell's work grew from his own unhappiness and the social, political, and ideological movements in the U.S. during the Post World War II decades. He was a heavy drinker, and was married three times. From 1949 the manic-depressive Lowell spent periods in mental hospitals.

      I cowered in terror.
      I wasn't a child at all -
      unseen and all-seeing, I was Agrippina
      in the Golden House of Nero...
      Near me was the white measuring-door
      My Grandfather had penciled with my Uncle's heights.
      In 1911, he had stopped growing at just six feet.
      (from 'My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow', 1959)

      Robert Lowell was born in Boston as the son of Robert Traill Spence Lowell, a naval officer, and Charlotte (Winslow) Lowell, the dominating figure in the family. Other members of the distinguished, intellectual family included the poet and critic James Russell Lowell and the poet Amy Lowell. Robert was nicknamed Cal, partly after the the Roman emperor Caligula, known for his cruelty, and Caliban, familiar from Shakespeare's play The Tempest.

      Lowell began writing at St. Mark's School, where his teacher was the poet Richard Eberhart. He studied English literature at Harvard. When his parents rejected the woman he proposed to marry, he broke from his family. On the advice of a psychiatrist, he transferred to Kenyon College (Ohio). There he studied poetry and criticism, graduating in 1940. His teachers included John Crowe Ransom (1888-1974), who was a member of the Agrarian Movement. In 1940 Lowell converted Roman Catholicism and married against his parents' will the writer Jean Stafford - they divorced eight years later. In 1949 Lowell married the novelist and critic Elisabeth Hardwick. However, two years earlier Lowell had met the poet Elizabet Bishop, who influenced deeply his work. Lowell fantasized marrying her and dedicated to Bishop his poem 'Skunk Hour' in LIFE STUDIES (1959): "Thirsting for / the hierarchic privacy / of Queen Victoria's century, / she buys up all / the eyesores facing her shore, / and lets them fall."

      At Kenyon College Lowell met his lifelong friends Peter Taylor and Randall Jarrell. After graduating, Lowell moved on a fellowship to Louisiana State University, where he worked with Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks. Although Lowell tried to enlist in the armed forces during WW II, he declared himself a conscientious objector by the time he was called for service. In 1943 he served five months of a prison sentence. It is possible that the experiences of imprisonment played some role when his mental health later collapsed. In 1944 appeared Lowell's first collection of poetry, the autobiographical LAND OF UNLIKENESS. In it Lowell used Christian symbolism and juxtaposed the world of grace to the urban life. His second book, LORD WEARY'S CASTLE (1946), which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, marked a return to the New England milieu. It included the famous 'The Quaker Graveyeard in Nantucket.' "This is the end of running on the waves; / We are poured out like water. Who will dance / The mast-lashed master of Leviathans / Up from this field of Quakers in their graves?" Some poems had religious themes, such as 'The Holy Innocents' and 'Christmas in Black Rock'.

      These two early books are among Lowell's confessional works, others were LIFE STUDIES (1959), which won the National Book Award in 1960, and THE DOLPHIN (1973). In THE MILLS OF THE KAVANAUGHS (1949) Lowell blended classical myths with New England landscape. The work contained a narrative poem of some 600 lines and five other poems. 'The Quaker Graveyeard in Nantucket' referred to such sources as Henry David Thoreau's Cape Cod, Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, and the Bible. Captain Ahab and his pursuit of the great whale is a central image in the poem.

      Lowell received the Harriet Monroe Poetry award in 1952 and the Guinness Poetry Award (shared with W.H. Auden, Edith Sitwell, and Edwin Muir) in 1959. In the 1950s, Lowell spent a few years abroad. He settled in 1954 in Boston, where he worked as a teacher at the University of Boston (1955-60). During this decade he was a visiting lecturer at the University of Cincinnati and Harvard University. The 1950s saw also the emergence of the Beat Generation, but in the tradition- conscious Boston, the influence of the movement was not earth-shattering.

      Lowell's interest in the history led him to translate such writers as Racine, Sappho, Rilke, and Baudelaire. He also produced versions of poems by such Russian writers as Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam. The trio of plays entitled THE OLD GLORY - adapted for the stage from the stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville - reflected Lowell's preoccupation with dilemmas of the American past. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Lowell wrote a number of unrhymed sonnets, in which he explored his own literary career. These works he published in NOTEBOOK 1967-68 (1969) and in revised form in NOTEBOOK (1970).

      In the 1960s Lowell was active in the civil-rights and antiwar campaigns. He made a number of widely published political gestures, refusing among others to attend the White House Festival of the Arts because of opposition to the Vietnam war. "Every serious artist knows that he cannot enjoy public celebration without making public commitments," he once said. From 1963 to 1970 he was a teacher at Harvard.

      In 1972 Lowell divorced from his second wife. During the 1970s Lowell lived in England, where he was a visiting fellow at All Souls College, Oxford (1970), visiting lecturer at the University of Essex (1970-72) and at the University of Kent (1970-1975). In 1973 Lowell published three collections of poetry. HISTORY recreated a host of historical figures from biblical times to the present. In FOR LIZZIE AND HARRIET he talked about his second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, and his daughter. In the poem 'Harriet', Lowell kills a fly, whamming back and forth across the nursery bed, "... and another instant's added / to the horrifying mortmain of / ephemera: keys, drift, sea-urchin shells, / you packrat off with joy... a dead fly swept / under the carpet, wrinkling to fulfillment." THE DOLPHIN dealt with the poet's move to England as he left one wife for another. The third collection brought him another Pulitzer Prize. Lowell used in it excerpts from his wife letters, for which he was much criticized. The title poem celebrated the poet's feelings of love - the person behind the poems were Lowell's third wife, the writer Caroline Blackwood, of England's Guinness family. Lowell died of heart failure in a taxi on September 12, 1977, in New York. At the time of his death, he was returning to Elizabeth and his daughter, after breaking with Caroline. His last collection was DAY BY DAY, in which he used free verse like he had done in his early works. Lowell's record of his domestic history received posthumously in 1978 the National Book Critics Circle Award.

      For further reading: The Achievement of Robert Lowell by J. Mazzaro (1960); The Poetic Themes of Robert Lowell by J. Mazzaro (1965); Robert Lowell: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. by T. Parkinson (1968); Robert Lowell, ed. by R. Boyers and M. London (1970); Pity of the Monsters by A. Williamson (1972); Circle to Circle: The Poetry of Robert Lowell by S. Yenser (1974); Robert Lowell: Life and Art by S.G. Axelrod (1978); Robert Lowell by R.J. Fein (1979); Robert Lowell by Ian Hamilton (1982); Robert Lowell: Interviews and Memoirs by J. Meuers (1988); Lost Puritan: A Life of Robert Lowell by P. Mariani (1994); Robert Lowell and the Sublime by H. Hart (1995); My First Cousin Once Removed by Sarah Payne Stuart (1998) - See also: Wole Soyinka

      Selected works:

      LORD WEARY'S CASTLE, 1946 - Pulitzer Prize
      POEMS: 1938-1949, 1950
      LIFE STUDIES, 1959 - National Book Award
      translations: IMITATIONS, 1961
      translation: PHAEDRA, 1963 (by Racine)
      FOR THE UNION DEAD, 1964
      NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE, 1804-1864, 1964
      SELECTED POEMS, 1964
      THE OLD GLORY, 1965
      NEAR THE OCEAN, 1967
      ed. RANDALL JARRELL, 1914-1965, 1967 (with P. Taylor and R.P. Warren)
      translation: THE VOYAGE, 1968 (by Baudelaire)
      translation: PROMETHEUS BOUND, 1969 (by Aeschylus)
      NOTEBOOK 1967-68, 1969
      R.F.K., 1925-1968, 1969
      THE DOLPHIN, 1973 - Pulitzer Prize
      HISTORY, 1973
      SELECTED POEMS, 1976
      DAY BY DAY, 1977
      translation: THE ORESTEIA, 1978 (Agamemnon, Orestes, The Furies, by Aeschylus)
      COLLECTED POEMS, 2003 (ed. by Frank Bidart and David Gewanter)

      Robert Lowell: Biographical Note

      Robert Traill Spence Lowell was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on 1 March 1917. His father, also Robert Traill Spence Lowell, was an officer in the United States Navy. Lowell's mother, Charlotte Winslow Lowell, descended from an old New England family. Lowell was educated at private schools in Boston and, for two years, at St. Mark's preparatory school. Even during his youth, and certainly by the time he studied at St. Mark's, Lowell had decided upon a career as a poet. He spent summers reading and studying the English literary tradition, imposing his reading lists on friends from school. Upon graduation from St. Mark's, he attended Harvard (as men in his family had done for generations). After two years at Harvard, however, Lowell left. His departure was precipitated by his meeting, in 1937, with Allen Tate, a poet of the Fugitive group and a practitioner of the not-yet-institutionalized "New Criticism." Lowell and Tate immediately took to one another and Lowell traveled to Tate's Tennessee home during the summer of 1937; he camped out in Tate's yard, writing poetry and studying at the feet of the older poet. Instead of returning to Harvard that fall, Lowell transferred to Kenyon College, in Ohio, to study with John Crowe Ransom, Tate's mentor. At Kenyon, Lowell befriended Randall Jarrell and Peter Taylor, both of whom went on to their own successful careers as writers.

      Lowell graduated summa cum laude in Classics from Kenyon in 1940. He spent the next year studying with Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren at Louisiana State University. Before departing for Louisiana, Lowell married Jean Stafford, a writer of short stories and novels. 1940 also saw Lowell's conversion to Roman Catholicism, a repudiation of his ancestors' New England Protestantism as well as a dedication to what seemed to him the more authentic faith of the Roman Church. After a year at Louisiana State, Lowell and Stafford moved to Monteagle, Tennessee, where they shared a house with Allen Tate and his wife, the writer Caroline Gordon.

      When the Second World War began in 1941, Lowell had volunteered for military service. His poor eyesight led to his initial rejection from armed service. In 1943, however, Lowell received a conscription notice from the United States military. Shocked and dismayed by the Allied firebombing of civilians in German cities like Dresden, he declared himself at this time a conscientious objector. He served for several months in jail (his experiences form the basis of "Memories of West Street and Lepke"), and finished his sentence performing community service in Connecticut. During these months, he finished and published his first book, Land of Unlikeness. During the next year he revised the book and published the new version as Lord Weary's Castle in 1946. This book found a warm critical reception, sparked in part by Jarrell's appreciative review in The Nation, and it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1947. Lowell's reputation as a leading poet of the new generation was consolidated.

      In 1948, Lowell and Stafford divorced and in 1949 Lowell married Elizabeth Hardwick, a young writer from Kentucky who was already moving with ease among the New York community of writers and intellectuals. In 1950, Lowell's father died after a long illness. Lowell published his next book, The Mills of the Kavanaughs, in 1951. The book was roundly criticized as inferior to Lord Weary's Castle, and even Lowell recognized the stiffness of the new book's dramatic monologues. He and Hardwick spent the next several years living largely in Europe, especially in Italy. These years saw Lowell suffering from a number of mental breakdowns, episodes of the manic-depressive disease that plagued him throughout his life. After his mother's death in 1954, Lowell was hospitalized at McLean's, a mental hospital in Massachusetts. During the years of suffering and sickness and despair of the middle 1950s, years also characterized by a political atmosphere Lowell depressing (the election of Dwight D. Eisenhower, a key moment for this political culture, is the subject of "Inauguration Day: January, 1953"). One source of poetic rejuvenation, though, was William Carlos Williams, whose work Lowell reviewed positively and whose example of looser poetic forms influenced Lowell to write himself out of the strictness of structure that characterizes the poems of Lord Weary's Castle. At the same time, Lowell was urged by his psychiatrists to write about his childhood; these writings led finally to "91 Revere Street," the prose memoir at the heart of Lowell's 1959 book, Life Studies, as well as to the autobiographical poems of that book's "Life Studies" section. Beginning with "Skunk Hour," a poem Lowell wrote in 1957 in answer to Elizabeth Bishop's "The Armadillo," Lowell brought something of Williams' prosodic relaxation (a very controlled relaxation,though, nothing like the formlessness of some subsequent free verse) to consideration of himself, his psyche, and his surroundings. The publication of Life Studies in 1959 renewed Lowell's reputation; the book received the National Book Award in 1960. Though some readers, like Allen Tate, intensely disliked the new poems and found them both formally slack and personally embarrassing, many readers saw in the book nothing less than a shift in the American poetic landscape. Along with W.D. Snodgrass' Heart's Needle, published just before Life Studies, Lowell's new book inaugurated the poetry that came to be called, in M.L. Rosenthal's coinage, "Confessional."

      During the early 1960s, Lowell was energetically involved not only in poetic but also in political efforts. He befriended Robert Kennedy and Jaqueline Kennedy, as well as Senator Eugene McCarthy. He addressed, in such poems as "For the Union Dead," the dreadful possibility of humanity's nuclear annihilation and the miserable culture that endured and endorsed that possibility. "For the Union Dead," commissioned for and first read at the Boston Arts Festival in 1960, became the title poem of Lowell's next collection of his own poems (For the Union Dead, 1964). The early sixties, though, found Lowell also publishing his collection of Imitations, loose translations of poems by Rilke, Rimbaud, and others (the book won the Bollingen Poetry Translation Prize in 1962), and working on the plays that would, in 1965, be published and performed as The Old Glory, a trilogy based on works by Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

      The historical interest evident in Lowell's poetry and plays alike during the middle 1960s translated into a political activism of sorts. Invited to a White House Arts Festival in 1965, Lowell publicly refused Lyndon Johnson's invitation as a statement of his disagreement with American escalation of the war in Vietnam. In October, 1967, Lowell went further still, participating along with thousands of others in the March on the Pentagon (this March is the subject of "The March I" and "The March II"). In 1967, Lowell published Near the Ocean, a collection of lyrics more formal than the work he had produced since Life Studies, and he saw his translation of Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound produced at Yale (the play was published two years later). But the work in which Lowell was most deeply immersed during that year was the verse journal published the next year as Notebook, 1967-68. In poems whose form is loosely based on the sonnet (each is fourteen lines, roughly iambic pentameter, though most are unrhymed), Lowell recorded his reactions to contemporary events in the world as well as his thoughts on American history and his family. The book clearly aspires to something like Ezra Pound's "poem including history," and has moments of stunning success, though some of the poems seem overly constrained by the form Lowell has chosen and by the pressure to keep producing poems quickly. 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 break-up of his marriage with Hardwick, and The Dolphin, which includes a number of poems about his marriage with Caroline Blackwood (they married in 1972). The Dolphin won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974.

      Lowell spent much of his last years in England with Caroline Blackwood and the couple's son. He was, however, on his way to see Hardwick in New York when he died of a heart attack on 12 September 1977. His last book, Day By Day, appeared in the year of his death.

      Michael Thurston
    Person ID I53149  Stedman/Steadman/Steedman Families of the New World
    Last Modified 2 Sep 2009 

    Father Commander Robert Traill Spence Lowell, III,   b. 15 Jul 1887, ____, ____, NY Find all individuals with events at this location,   d. 1950  (Age 62 years) 
    Mother Charlotte V. Winslow,   b. Abt Jul 1888, ____, ____, NC Find all individuals with events at this location,   d. 1954  (Age ~ 65 years) 
    Married Abt 1915 
    Family ID F19596  Group Sheet  |  Family Chart

    Family 1 Jean Stafford,   b. 1 Jul 1915, Covina, Los Angeles Co., CA Find all individuals with events at this location,   d. 26 Mar 1979, White Plains, Westchester Co., NY Find all individuals with events at this location  (Age 63 years) 
    Married 1940 
    Divorced Yes, date unknown 
    Divorced 1948 
    Last Modified 2 Sep 2009 
    Family ID F19599  Group Sheet  |  Family Chart

    Family 2 Elizabeth Hardwick,   b. 27 Jul 1916, Lexington, Fayette Co., KY Find all individuals with events at this location,   d. Unknown 
    Married 28 Jul 1949 
    Divorced Yes, date unknown 
    Divorced 1972 
    Last Modified 2 Sep 2009 
    Family ID F19600  Group Sheet  |  Family Chart

    Family 3 Caroline Blackwood,   b. 16 Jul 1931, ____, ____, Northern Ireland, UK Find all individuals with events at this location,   d. 14 Feb 1996, New York, New York Co., NY Find all individuals with events at this location  (Age 64 years) 
    Married 1972 
    Last Modified 7 Jan 2006 
    Family ID F19598  Group Sheet  |  Family Chart

  • Event Map
    Link to Google MapsBorn - 1 Mar 1917 - Boston, Suffolk Co., MA Link to Google Earth
    Link to Google MapsDied - 12 Sep 1977 - New York, New York Co., NY Link to Google Earth
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