Biography of Robert Lowell

Robert Lowell was born in Boston, Massachusetts on March 1, 1917, a descendant of two prominent New England families. In his lifetime he produced a stunning, varied body of writing and became a prominent and influential poetic figure, known in particular for his mark on the world of confessional poetry and his political activism. Upon graduating from preparatory school, he attended Harvard, as was tradition in his family. In 1937, however, Lowell met the poet and essayist Allen Tate, a propagator of New Criticism. After spending two summer months living in a tent on Tate's lawn, Lowell transferred to Kenyon College, where Tate taught. There Lowell majored in classics. In 1940 he graduated, married the writer Jean Stafford, and converted to Roman Catholicism, the tenets of which he found more authentic than those of Protestantism.

In 1943 Lowell became a conscientious objector against World War II and spent several months in federal prison. At about the same time he finished and published his first book, Land of Unlikeliness. He spent the next year revising it and republished it in 1946 as Lord Weary's Castle. This version of the book was received favorably for its intensity and depth, and it won 30-year-old Lowell the Pulitzer Prize.

The following years led to many changes for the young poet. Lowell and Stafford divorced in 1948; he married the writer Elizabeth Hardwick 1949; his father passed away in 1950; and in 1951 he published his a book of dramatic monologues called The Mills of the Kavanaughs, to reviews far less favorable than those for Lord Weary's Castle.

In the years after 1951, before the publication of his next collection, Life Studies, he suffered from bouts of mania and depression, and found he could not write in the same strict meter as before. During this time he also taught at Boston University, spent time in Europe, and had his first child, Harriet, in 1957. Inspired in particular by William Carlos Williams and Gustave Flaubert, he loosened the formality in his writing and focused more on his life and struggles. Life Studies, published in 1959, renewed his reputation as a leading American poet. Indeed, the book shifted the landscape of American poetry, opening the door for Confessional poets, like his students Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, who followed in his wake.

The 1960s saw Lowell move to New York. In 1961 he published Imitations, a collection of loose translations of poems by Baudelaire, Rilke, and Homer, among others. In 1964 he published his collection For the Union Dead, where he found he was once again inspired to write in meter. In 1965 he published a collection of four plays, three of which were adapted from short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne and one from a novella by Herman Melville. These plays, as well as many of the poems from For the Union Dead, deal with struggles and power structures; this fits with Lowell's political involvement at the time. In 1965, he famously and publicly declined Lyndon Johnson's invitation to the White House Arts Festival, in protest against the war in Vietnam. In 1967, he published a book called Near the Ocean, which was a collection of formal sequences, and a translation of Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound.

In 1969 Lowell published a volume of sonnets called Notebook 1967-1968, in which he hoped to link the political, the personal, the historical, and the spiritual. Lowell considered the book one continuous poem.

In 1970 Lowell moved to England, where he taught at Essex University. In the following years he divorced Hardwick, married the British writer Caroline Blackwood, and with her had his second child, a son. In 1973 he published three books, two of which consisted of poems from Notebook, though revised, rearranged, and with new additions. The third volume was also a series of sonnets, but they were previously unpublished. This book dealt with guilt, desire, passion, and freedom, and despite mixed reviews, The Dolphin became Lowell's second book to receive a Pulitzer Prize. Lowell's final and highly personal collection, Day by Day, was published shortly before his death in 1977 and was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award in the following year.

Lowell suffered a heart attack on September 12th, 1977 in New York and passed away at the age of sixty.

Study Guides on Works by Robert Lowell

“For the Union Dead” is the titular poem of Robert Lowell’s sixth book of poetry. This poem was commissioned by the Boston Arts Festival in 1960 and ended up in some paperback editions of Life Studies. It builds a shaky bridge between the present...

“The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” was published in Robert Lowell’s second collection of poetry, Lord Weary’s Castle. This collection was published in 1946 and won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1947.

This poem deals with personal loss and applies it...

Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour” appears as the last poem in his career-altering book Life Studies, published in 1959, but as Lowell described to Al Alvarez, a fellow writer and critic, the poem was the first in the book to be completed. The final...