Robert Lowell (March 1, 1917–September 12, 1977), born Robert Traill Spence Lowell, Jr., was an American poet whose works brought about the Confessionalist movement in American poetry. Lowell had studied under rigorously formalist poets and exhibited a mastery of traditional poetic forms, winning a Pulitzer Prize for his early volume Lord Weary's Castle, often seen as the pinnacle of the dense, symbolic poetry of the Formalists. As he matured, however, he moved away from symbols and allegories, towards a style that could more directly address the concerns of everyday life. Inaugarating the Confessionalist movement with his 1959 publication Life Studies, Lowell established a style of poetry that loosened the constraints of rhyme and meter, focusing on autobiographical, personal themes rather than on grandiose ideas. The Confessionalist movement would include such notable poets as W.D. Snodgrass, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and (much to his chagrin) John Berryman. Lowell's impact on contemporary American poetry is enormous, and he is often cited by critics and poets alike as the greatest American poet of the latter half of the twentieth century. Yet can these acolades fully obtain when the art, as magnificent as it is, effects so little impact in the way of improving the plight of people in society and the world?
Lowell was born into the Boston Brahmin Lowell family, and was raised in an extremely wealthy, and extremely strict, household. He attended Harvard University but transferred to Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, to study under the great American critic and poet, John Crowe Ransom. While at Kenyon College Lowell also met and befriended the poet and critic Randall Jarrell, another ardent student of Ransom who was to be a lifelong influence on Lowell's poetry. After graduating from Kenyon in 1940, Lowell married the novelist Jean Stafford and converted to Catholicism. Though Lowell would later abandon his Catholic beliefs, his Catholicism influenced his first two books, Land of Unlikeness (1944) and Lord Weary's Castle (1946). Lord Weary's Castle would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize. Both books display Lowell's early style, characterized by extreme complexity and dense symbolism, as well as a masterful use of rhyme and meter. Among the most memorable poems of these early works is "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket," which was written as an elegy for Warren Winslow, Lowell's cousin, who had drowned at sea during the course of the Second World War. "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket" is notable for its extensive references to Herman Melville (Lowell was a great admirer of Melville's poetry, and he helped to bring Melville's talents as a poet to critical light):
"The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket"
Let man have dominion over the fishes of the sea and the fowls of the air and the beasts and the whole earth, and every creeping creature that moveth upon the earth.
I. A brackish reach of shoal off Madaket,-
The sea was still breaking violently and night
Had steamed into our north Atlantic Fleet,
When the drowned sailor clutched the drag-net...
During World War II Lowell chose to be a conscientous objector; he was appalled by the Allied bombings of civilians, refusing to take any part in the war effort. Because of this he was convicted of conscientious objection and sentenced to serve a year in prison; on good behavior he was released in five months, and his experiences in prison would later be depicted in the poems In the Cage and Memories of West Street and Lepke. In 1948, Lowell's marriage with Jean Stafford disintegrated, and the couple divorced. A year later, in 1949, he married the writer Elizabeth Hardwick, and the new couple left the United States to spend several years abroad in Europe.
The Lowells returned to the United States and settled in Boston in 1954. Lowell had spent his years abroad working ceaselessly on his poetry, and his style had begun to radically change. In 1951. he had published a series of monologues entitled Mills of the Kavanaughs; but it would be the publication of Life Studies in 1959 that would mark the beginning of a new phase in Lowell's career, as well as the genesis of what would become the Confessionalist School of poetry. Life Studies was the first work of Lowell's to use his new, Confessional style, characterized by a loosening of rhyme and meter, a much more colloquial tone and—most importantly—a radical change in subject-matter. While Lowell's early poems had been concerned with complex symbols and ideas, his later works, beginning with Life Studies, would be almost exclusively autobiographical. Autobiographical poetry was not previously unheard of, but Lowell broke the boundaries, confessing to a number of aspects of his life that had been previously thought unseemly subject-matter for poetry. The most striking example of this radical change in Lowell's style, and one of the most oft-cited examples of Confessionalist poetry in general, is "Skunk Hour," perhaps the most famous poem in Life Studies.
The poems begins with a leisurely description of the Massachusetts countryside of Lowell's childhood, commenting on the private lives of a local bishop, farmer, and "summer millionaire," among others. Although the poem unwinds casually, it is marked with dark foreboding — "The season's ill—" writes Lowell, and the very poem itself seems under the weather. Suddenly the poem shifts into the autobiographical register: Lowell speaks of how, one dark night, he drove his car up on a hill to look over the city; and then abruptly confesses, "my mind's not right." The poem closes with an immensely ambiguous scene, where Lowell watches a swarm of skunks haunt the night streets of the town.
The line "my mind's not right," in particular, is considered to be a major turning point for Lowell, as well as for American poetry in general. Lowell struggled with mental illness all his life—he was hospitalized over twenty times, undergoing electroshock therapy. As he matured as a poet he would become increasingly candid about his psychological condition, earning him great respect among poets and critics alike for his unflinching honesty.
In the 1960s, Lowell became something of a media personality. He befriended such celebrities as Jacqueline, Robert Kennedy, Mary McCarthy, Daniel Berrigan, and Eugene McCarthy. He also participated actively in the Civil Rights movement and protested against the Vietnam War. During this time he continued to write poems touching on political topics in the Confessional mode, publishing For The Union Dead in 1964, Near the Ocean in 1967, and Notebook 1967-1968 in 1969. During these years Lowell also taught a number of workshops on poetry at Boston University, influencing such poets as W.D. Snodgrass and Anne Sexton.
In 1970 Lowell left Elizabeth Hardwick for the British author, Lady Caroline Blackwood. As he grew older his mental state worsened, and his poetic output lessened. Nonetheless, in 1973 he published The Dolphin, one of his most acclaimed books which would win him a second Pulitzer Prize. He spent much of his last years in England. Lowell died in 1977, suffering a heart attack in a taxicab in New York City. He is buried in Stark Cemetery, Dunbarton, New Hampshire.
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